Carmela Alvarez is twenty-five years old and was elected into public office as the Mayor of a town called San Vicente in the Palawan province in the Philippines. I met ‘Pie’ as we call her as one of my fellow global shapers at the January 2012 World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos. Along with education advocate Lyn Pinugu and environmentalist Anna Oposa, she is part of the trio that came to form my Filipina sisters.
Mayor Alvarez is one of those individuals who encourages individuals to go into the system in order to change it, rather than indulge in the typical couch commentary that has become regular culture for some of us. Speaking with Pie, you realise that she is always honest enough to admit that she doesn’t have all the answers and but is consistently open to learning about better models of leadership and sustainable ideas for the progress of her community.
With a background in fashion, which seems a little atypical of the starting point for a woman in public office, Pie shares some of her motivations, visions and dreams for leadership and change.
You moved from fashion to politics, what prompted that move
I interned for the luxury brand Chanel Inc. during my Junior Year of College (August 2008). While still being a student in business school, I worked for the Director of the Boston Boutique for almost 2 years. I would do everything and anything you could imagine a fashion marketing intern would do. From Fetching Starbuck’s coffee for all the senior managers to opening parcels and boxes fresh from the Runways of Paris Fashion Week. I helped put together fashion shows, private trunk shows, special events and private viewing parties for the Boston clientele. I also would work on the supply side, making sure that the inventory was correct and the stocks of merchandise would not run out. Other times I would be assisting the sales associates on the floor on merchandising and retail.
By the end of my Junior Year I started to contemplate if this was the kind of industry I wanted to work in or be part of. I initially thought working for this successful fashion brand would make me happy and keep me on my toes…but to my disbelief, it was just alright. At the end of the day I felt the need to do something more with my life. Although I was only 20 years old at that time, I knew that I had to do something else.
I was back home in the Philippines during the Christmas holiday of 2008 and my father had asked me about joining local politics in my hometown. He asked me if I wanted to run in the next coming election of May 2010 as Vice Mayor of San Vicente and I said, No at first, then followed with saying I wanted to run for Mayor.
I didn’t know what I was going to do if I were to win the position but I knew that I wanted to help my fellow residents in San Vicente that were struggling with their daily lives. I really didn’t have the chance to transition from being student to a Mayor. The change was pretty quick. I campaigned my senior year of college, spending 2 weeks at a time in Boston and in The Philippines. I did my midterms and finals on top of a mountain in the San Vicente Jungle while under a mosquito net and the worst internet connection from a small wifi device.
I won as Mayor May 10, 2010. I graduated college May 14, 2010. I moved back to the Philippines mid June and I started being the Mayor of San Vicente on July 1, 2010. I haven’t gotten the chance to look back since.
Going back to your question, “what prompted that move?”, it really was my own desire to help. Again, I didn’t know how I was going to do it exactly, nor did I have the solutions at hand. All I knew was that I had fellow Filipinos in my hometown, struggling with their lives, and I had to do something to help them.
You beat out a fifty-something year old during the elections. Did that mean the community was ready for change?
I was up against a 55 year old lawyer during the 2010 Philippine elections. His whole campaign was geared towards bashing my personal status and political agenda. He said I was inexperienced, too young and had no knowledge in government. This was absolutely true. I even addressed this during my campaign in each village and gathering I would go to. I explained to everyone that I was still in college, I was still only 21 years old at that time and I truly had no experience in public service. I think the honesty and determination I showed proved to have helped me win the campaign. Instead of lying to people, I told them the truth. I also asked a lot of questions. Often, when candidates campaign, they discuss their platforms, explain their agendas, etc., but I decided to ask the audience what their needs were and what they hoped to see in the next few years.
Listening to people, as I went around from area to area, truly made a difference in my campaign. We got to share ideas, exchange individual thoughts and hear each and everyone’s needs. That was crucial. To know where one needed clean water was just as important as knowing which villages needed health centers.
Tell us about your journey and reasons to go into politics
If you asked me 5 years ago, I still would not have been able to foresee this as my life. I would have said business or fashion but no where near would I have guessed that public service would be where I am today.
I just knew I wanted to help people and I didn’t want to wait till i was older to do it. In the Philippines, corruption goes hand in hand with politics and everyone knows about it, everyone complains about it. I was tired of hearing my friends and family say that it was only going to get worse. I wanted to start fixing the problem versus not doing anything about it.
Now that I have been Mayor for 2 years, I still don’t even call myself a politician. I like using the term Public Servant. I am here to serve the public the best way that I can.
I can only assume that the Philippines is a fairly traditional society just as Nigeria is. Has your leadership abilities ever been in question as a result of your being a woman and being young?
Being a young, female Mayor definitely has its pros and cons. I am often mistaken for the secretary of someone important but never the “Mayor”. It doesn’t help that the Philippines is a very traditional country. But that’s alright. I like challenging the norms and I also like how my current position is able to set a good example to the youth that its about time to break some rules, be bold and adventurous.
I dont doubt that when I am in a room surrounded mostly be older, male officials, they are probably looking at me and wondering what I am doing sitting at the head of the table. Thats the point I am trying to get across, that governments need a face lift, and that the youth should be in more leadership positions. We need more young, energetic people to take the lead. Its been too long that all our leaders are much, much older than our generation.
Tell us about the community you lead and your vision for it
San Vicente is one of the most beautiful island provinces found in the Philippines. I govern a land area of 165,000 hectares (330,000 football fields) with 30,000 residents. 80% of those residents live below poverty and are landless, hungry and unemployed. Before we become a top tourism destination in Asia, we need to make sure that infrastructure and development is properly established. Last thing I want is for hotel developers to come in and the community just gets left behind.
The great thing about San Vicente and our residents is that everyone wants to work. ITs just the lack of job opportunities that hinder that. It is then my mission to be able to provide for them in the short term when it comes to health care, access and education. I have developed programs and projects that revolve around alternative and sustainable livelihood. It is very important for me to be able to teach each of my residents how to be business minded and entrepreneurial. I want them to think long-term vs. short term. I want to influence my residents to become responsible, tax paying and efficient members of the town. So even when I am no longer in position, their well being and the well being of the town is looked after.
A lot of people in leadership positions say that they go in as idealists hoping they can make an impact and when they get there, the job is like a never ending pit of challenges where whatever changes you make might never seem visible. What’s your take on this?
It’s true. Government work is very difficult. But needless to say, if it was easy, then I wouldn’t even find the need to fix it. It all goes back to tradition and how much am I willing to sacrifice to be able to break the bad in order to make room for the good. I think its important to be realistic with my ideals. I know what I have ventured into, and I am prepared for the worst, but I always hope for the best. There are times when some of the things I want to do, don’t happen and I have to live with that. Doesn’t mean I’m going to give up. As long as my intentions are clear and my objective is on the right path, then I see no reasons why hindrances should stop me from reaching my overall goal.
What has your experience on the job been like?
Everyday is never the same. I have learned to adapt to anything at any given time as long as duty calls, I need to serve. Whether it be officiating a marriage to dealing with illegal fisherman and crocodile encounters I have to be the chief executive and oversee all given situations.
I have learned so much about myself with this job. I have become more disciplined and transparent. I used to live a very private life and with this job, nothing is private. 24/7 i am on call, therefore I have to make sure my persona life doesn’t interfere with work. I have grown emotionally and spiritually and I know I will grow even more as I progress with this career.
I have made new friends and met different people from all walks of life that have truly helped me with the work that I do. Its been an insanely magical journey, I cant even imagine where the next chapter will lead to.
Around the world, the issues of gender equality are still evident and mostly the issue of women in leadership is a cause for great concern. For a woman in her twenties in not just a leadership role but a political position, how vital is it that women are involved in policy development and decision making?
It’s very important to have women as part of policy and decision making. All around the world we have witnessed epic failures brought by mostly male decision making. I am not being biased, but we truly need more women who can lead. It has to be a fair mix not only of ideas, experiences, and culture but as well as gender. Some issues are gender sensitive and some problems could be looked at differently by each sex…having a woman on board will help any situation and make a fundamental contribution.
I also think the problem lies with not having enough women leaders in the past. We need to be able to prove ourselves to the world, that we can make a contribution and an important voice for that matter.
What do you see yourself doing when you finish your term as Mayor of San Vicente?
I have another 2 terms to be Mayor of San Vicente. As long as the residents select me to be their leader then I will continue on this path. After that, I still wish to serve those who need my help. Whether it be in government or other sectors, it doesn’t matter. I will continue to help people regardless.
What is your vision for your world?
I wish the world becomes a better place to live. Although that might be too idealistic, I think its a good benchmark to set. Keeping my goals high and aiming to reach them as close as I can.
Inspiring. I wonder how soon before we get there. We’ll keep trying.