My name is Simon Olavarria, and I am the founder of the Two Decades Academy.
In my first three decades, I was privileged to be able to live between Venezuela and the United States, absorb politics into my life with the help of my father Jorge Olavarria, and begin my unlikely journey into the world of education.
My legal training began by intertwining politics and service work in 1998. Through my father, I was able to be an inside witness to the campaign and victory of Hugo Chavez for the presidency of Venezuela. In parallel, the Universidad Católica Andres Bello, where I studied Law, offered me the view that our responsibility is to help those to whom injustice and need has affected the most, and the opportunity to assist them through service work.
After the Chavez victory, my father passed into the opposition, and I was able to witness and play the intern role in his successful campaign to run as a Constituent Assembly Member for the creation of the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution. Both a personal and academic privilege, I was able to discuss every constitutional change with my father and my classmates, as we entered our first courses on Constitutional Law. But I also found out that a beautiful constitution does not make people follow the law. Alongside the lofty discussions on fundamental rights, my service work made me a witness to the misery spawned by poverty, the generational shackles created by disempowerment and oblivion, and the immense gap between the promise of a constitution and the reality of want.
After the Constituent Assembly dissolved, I continued my legal training through a long apprenticeship in Baker & Mckenzie (Caracas). I remained deeply involved in student politics, organizing domestic and international conferences and publications with COLADIC (Latin American Student Council for International and Comparative Law), and raising as much awareness as my voice could muster. I was also an organizer and participant in many protests, including the one that culminated in the momentary overthrow of Hugo Chavez on April 11, 2002- a day that my friends and I will never forget.
Around this time, a debate discipline that changed my life made its entry: Model United Nations. I was very privileged to be able to be part of three stellar student-led University level MUN teams, which not only trained assiduously and tirelessly, but also raised funds for every participant. The experiences lived and lessons learned during those years still reverberate in my mind, as well as the life-long connections made with those who lived them.
I graduated in 2003 and took a turn toward a long-held interest and curiosity: cattle ranching. A family business on both sides, I was brought in after tragedy struck my maternal grandfather. For 3 years, I dedicated my time to improving a family ranch. This opportunity took me out of the city and showed me the realities of rural poverty, as well as providing me with valuable business experience.
I emigrated to the United States in 2007 and eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Soon after, I began volunteering with Stephen Lessard at the Nueva School in the creation of a Model UN team, to pass the time during my adjustment of status. We had a very successful conference experience in the Netherlands, and once culminated, I began working as a Senior Legal Clerk in the San Francisco Public Defenders Office under Jeff Adachi. These parallel viewpoints made evident an interesting dichotomy of the Bay Area: immense privilege and progress, in tandem with the misery of those left behind or forgotten.
But my students would be the ones who would bring me back to education. After the first trip, four of those students (Nishad, Baylor, Clark, and Nick) came to me with a proposal: let’s take this outside of the school. They formed the backbone of a group that would grow exponentially, and soon enough a co-founder and I created an organization dedicated to them: the League of Creative Minds. For almost 10 years, I was the Education Director and all-around teacher for LCM.
My teaching with LCM morphed and adapted along with my education philosophy. We began as a highly competitive MUN team, racking up awards and helping students become great public speakers and negotiators. But eventually, I realized that this was insufficient and sometimes dangerous. As I constantly say, the ability to persuade and change people’s minds is true power- and it must be used responsibly. Making students effective persuaders without addressing the underlying values that inform our actions is a volatile recipe likely to end up in tragedy and extremism. Alongside the skills to persuade, we must also hold the tools to discern, decant and discover our true values.
Concurrently, other issues became evident areas to tackle. I realized that students were hungry to learn about current events. I also realized that we can place ourselves in a historical context by following the most influential events of our time- and that in the process, history came alive. Students also discovered that once they understood the issues with greater depth, their political opinions evolved from those they had inherited. Eventually, the “current events” section became a staple part of my class and has remained there ever since.
Additionally, I knew that we had to take the issues outside of the classroom and see them for ourselves. In that pursuit, I traveled with students to China to study issues concerning the Uighur people; to Turkey to understand relations between Muslim and Western mindsets; to Italy and Malta to study the effect of the European Migrant issue; to Cyprus, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories to understand the difficulty of creating peace in lengthy, ongoing conflicts; to Cuba, to experience the momentary thawing of relations after the embargo; to Serbia, Kosovo, and Bosnia Herzegovina to study how to rebuild after the war, and to Washington DC and Virginia, to understand rural and urban domestic poverty. I realized that high school and middle school students could break free from second-hand information, and be able to go anywhere and obtain it on their own.
In 2018, I separated from LCM and created the Two Decades Academy. The purpose of this Academy is to refine and improve the successful teaching modalities that I have developed, and to make them available to as many people as I can. I believe that service to others is a responsibility and a privilege, and I intend to contribute to knowledge, peace, and understanding to the best of my abilities.