Being patrolled by armed military guards at a conference gala in Latin America. Getting driven through the dark of night in Kampala, Uganda, unable to see anything through the tinted windows of a beat-up Toyota Corolla except for fire pits burning in remote villages. It’s all in a day’s work for Midy Aponte.
A senior vice president at Spitfire, Midy’s work takes her all over the world. But no matter where she is, she’s happy to be in the thick of championing progressive issues.
“I’m very passionate about being in the trenches with people to help them improve their lives,” she says. “I love being in the game, and I’m the kind of person who, if there’s a storm coming, I run toward it and not away from it.”
One of Midy’s biggest global endeavors right now focuses on coalition building. For example, she’s been working for the last couple of years to guide civil society organizations in Latin America and Africa that are joining forces to protect online freedom of expression. These non-governmental organizations are dedicated to protecting the rights of citizens and are working on issues such as governments silencing dissenting voices or controlling how they can communicate with each other via the internet, or even trying to criminalize free speech by labeling opposing statements as hate speech.
Grantees of a global foundation, these organizations were already working independently. Now they are coming together to strengthen their efforts to make sure international governments protect the right to free speech on the internet.
“These organizations have created a movement to put laws in place where they’re needed,” Midy explains. “Then they’re working with the media to bring this issue to the surface in an environment that is incredibly hostile to their efforts.”
The challenge in building a coalition, Midy says, is how to facilitate the development of plans and processes that empower organizations to collaborate on a shared agenda and common goal. That’s not always easy, considering that each of these civil society groups is an established, independent entity with its own objectives.
“The secret sauce is always understanding the personalities involved,” Midy says. “When I’m designing and facilitating a meeting, I have to understand what’s important to the people in the room and what’s driving them in order to establish the right chemistry. That requires respect for each individual organization and person at the table, and impressing on them that they can be stronger when they unite.”
Because these organizations are used to working independently, bringing them together can foster a spirit of what Midy calls “co-opetition” — cooperation that’s born of and bolstered by friendly competition.
“It’s about building trust among the organizations so they don’t see each other as competitors in a space, but as collaborators,” Midy says. “The goal is to get them to come to consensus around the different projects and issues they want to tackle together, so we can eventually get them to work as a coalition.”
The process doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s ongoing. But the results are proving worth the effort, as both the civil society organizations and the coalitions are gaining traction in the shared objectives they’ve established — and beyond.
“You see the bond in their relationship become stronger over time as they break out of the constructs of the collaborative and end up working on individual projects together,” Midy says. “Seeing that kind of organic development and collaboration in areas apart from the agenda we have at hand is really satisfying.”
Similar dynamics are unfolding in Midy’s work in the U.S. Spitfire is helping the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition (CIRC) build their communication capacity and is guiding them in the development of a communication strategy to elevate the work they’re doing to protect immigrants’ rights and educate immigrants about issues that impact them, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. CIRC not only wants to shape state and federal policy, but also the narrative around the connection between human rights and access to due process in immigration discussions.
This work is incredibly important because Colorado has seen contentious conversations around the City of Denver becoming a sanctuary city, even as hate crimes against immigrants, refugees and others are on the rise nationally.
“We know that immigrants are human beings who deserve the same rights and privileges as all human beings on earth,” Midy says. “So the conversation doesn’t need to be about immigrants. It needs to be about the kind of place we want to be. We want Denver to be a welcoming and safe place for all to live.”
Midy feels grateful to be an active participant in helping groups address the challenges they’re facing in the current socio-political environment, whether abroad or in the United States.
“We know we’re at a difficult time in our world history, but it’s also kind of an exciting time,” she says. “What gives me energy is that I work at a place where we all kind of want to save the world in some way or another. We have big ambitions, but also big hearts. That’s what keeps me here.”