We were happy to see Mano a Mano Co-Founder Joan Velásquez included in her alma mater’s Macalester College feature “Highlighting Notable Women in Mac Herstory!”

“In celebration of the current Women’s History Month, The Mac Weekly interviewed six of Macalester’s notable female alumni about their studies and careers. From the lab to social justice, these women have lived impressive lives that inspire the current generation of Macalester women. We hope that this article will become the first in a series spotlighting impressive alumni during their respective history months.”

“Highlighting notable women in Mac herstory”

Here’s the link to the full story from The Mac Weekly, which also includes Lois Quam ’83, Gaby Strong ’86, Lisa Peterson ’81, Kate Ryan Reiling ’00, and Christy Haynes ’98, in addition to Joan Velásquez ’63 which is copied below:

For Joan Velásquez ’63, Macalester College opened her eyes to the world. Velásquez grew up on a farm in the homogeneous Protestant town of Hills, Minnesota, which lacked racial diversity and an assortment of worldviews. 

While it was initially intimidating to move from a small town to the Twin Cities, Mac’s international student population allowed Velásquez to meet people she would never have met had she stayed in her hometown. The more she began to know students from other countries, the more her perspectives broadened and her interests shifted. 

Velásquez was a sociology major. She knew she wanted to be a social worker when she arrived at Mac, but she also highlighted the importance of building a solid foundation in college that gives students the flexibility to go down many different paths in the future. 

“People see a sociology degree and say, what is that worth?” she said. “But there are so many things you can do … it doesn’t close off possibilities when you start as a generalist.” 

Velásquez was also passionate about student activism and was involved in the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).

Velásquez graduated around the height of the Vietnam War. In 1967, inspired by John F. Kennedy’s mission, she decided to join the newly formed Peace Corps and was stationed in Bolivia for two years.

“Joining the Peace Corps [was] doing something very different from military service, something positive,” Velásquez said. “And that was a very exciting kind of alternative. You can go some other place in the world and hopefully make a positive difference.”

Upon returning from Bolivia, Velásquez earned both her master’s and doctorate degrees, working as a clinical social worker. She received a grant for a social work program that aimed to train social workers to work effectively with communities of color. Along with another Mac graduate, Velásquez ran various Latino learning centers and taught students. She was the only social worker in the program who spoke Spanish, staying connected with the Latino community even after returning home.

Eventually, she was hired by Ramsey County as a research director. She did program evaluations for social service mental health programs and other types of research.

In 1994, all her hard work culminated in her biggest project yet, the result of an unexpected setback. When Velásquez was just two years old, she contracted polio and was placed in an iron lung. With frequent hospitalizations, she was able to live a relatively normal life. But late effects reappeared, and Velásquez became too sick to work outside the home.

“There’s a whole lot you can do while lying in bed,” she told me. “In this day and age, when you have a cellphone and computer, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

She and her husband Segundo co-founded the Mano a Mano International organization to address critical health issues in rural Bolivia. By collecting medical surplus in Minnesota and shipping it to Bolivia for distribution, Mano a Mano has since shipped over four million pounds of medical, school and construction supplies to Bolivia, with 700,000 Bolivians now having access to healthcare for the first time.

Macalester College helped Velásquez discover the values that most mattered to her. For us, as current college students, she gives some advice.

“I can’t overemphasize [this]: listen, observe, pay attention, come in trying to clear your mind of the sense that you already know something,” Velásquez said. “Try to understand as much as possible about different views of the world.” “What are your core values as a person? Passions? What interests and excites you?” she said. “Trust that … Something will emerge.” 

Highlighting notable women in Mac herstory

Learn More About Joan and Mano a Mano

Mano a Mano Co-Founders Joan and Segundo Velásquez were on the 2022 Pollen 50 Over 50 List