Finding My Place in Bogotá — A Journey of Work, Culture, and Connection

March 21, 2024

Chaka Tellem is a class of 2023 UC Berkeley graduate who studied political economy with minors in public policy and race & law. Tellem will attend law school in the fall of 2024. His passion for advocacy and law grew from his formative years in Dallas and Los Angeles. Tellem was the ASUC (Associated Students of the University of California) student body president for two years, from 2021 to 2023. He is currently working and studying in Bogotá, Colombia, supported by the Political Economy Student Experience Fund and the Social Sciences Career Readiness Internship Program. Tellem shares his reflections on the program's impact in this first entry in a three-part series.

As I reflect on the initial phase of my adventure in Bogotá, Colombia, I'm filled with gratitude for the unique opportunity that the Social Sciences Career Readiness Internship Program has provided me. This journey, under the auspices of the UC Berkeley Political Economy Program, was designed to immerse me in Latin American life for seven months, with my arrival in Bogotá on September 8 and departure back to the United States on April 1. Now, as I pen down my experiences, I aim to convey not just the vibrancy of Bogotá but also the profound personal and professional growth I've encountered here.

The Internship at Redepaz

My journey began during the first week of September when I embarked on a 12-week internship with Redepaz, an NGO (non-governmental organization) based in Bogotá that has been working on the Colombian peace process for over three decades. Working at Redepaz has been an eye-opening experience, offering me a front-row seat to the complexities and challenges of fostering peace in a region with a tumultuous history. My tasks, though often performed independently, have allowed me to carve out a niche within the organization.

One of my last projects with Redepaz was to develop a conceptual map with recommendations for the organization. My background in political economy, a rarity here, intrigued my colleagues. They encouraged me to integrate this unique perspective into our projects, reinforcing my belief in the value of my major and the diverse insights it brings to international peacebuilding efforts.

One of my most cherished experiences with Redepaz was our initiative in Marmato, Caldas. Accompanied by several Redepaz representatives, including the president and a team of environmental lawyers, we journeyed to this small mining town to advocate for the community's rights. Situated more than nine hours away by car from Bogotá, Marmato hosts a significant gold mine that serves as one of the economic powerhouses of the entire Caldas region.

As stated in a publication by Redepaz, “traditional mining in Marmato has resisted the pressure of excessive industrialization, thus preserving not only the economic stability but also the cultural integrity of the community.” However, recent attempts by multinational mining companies have put the people of Marmato at risk of displacement. Thus, Redepaz and I, alongside a team of environmental attorneys, ventured to Marmato, joining forces with community leaders for a pivotal meeting with officials from the Colombian Ministry of Energy and Mining. Our goal? To secure agreements that would safeguard the community's rights amidst the looming mining developments. The journey itself — marked by strategic dialogues with legal experts, local advocates, and government officials and even a descent into the gold mines to witness the mining process firsthand — was an enriching experience. But the crowning achievement was successfully negotiating an agreement with the ministry that prioritized the community's rights in the face of future developments. This experience has not only been a pivotal chapter in my journey with Redepaz but also a testament to the strength found in unity and the enduring impact of grassroots mobilization in the face of global pressures.

Scenes from Colombia

A bearded Chaka Tellem standing in a soccer stadium at night with fans in the background

Tellem attending a soccer game

The ornate interior of a church features columns, arches, and chandeliers

The ornate interior of a church

A large slab of meat with a plantain, fries, guacamole, and other items

A typical lunch in Bogotá

An individual in a polo shirt addresses meeting attendees sitting around tables on a patio

A community meeting in the mining town of Marmato

A university building with brick arches and a curved tile roof, lit up in the early evening

The university where Tellem attended a talk on armed conflict

Tellem (center) standing with two friends at a round table with drinks and food in Bogotá

Tellem (center) with two friends in Bogotá

Chaka Tellem's Colombian travels

Watch footage from Tellem's time in Colombia

A Routine that Bridges Work and Culture

Settling into life in Bogotá, I established a routine that balanced my professional commitments with cultural immersion. My weekdays are structured yet fulfilling: working at Redepaz from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Thursday, followed by Spanish classes from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. This rigorous schedule not only enhances my language proficiency but also deepens my understanding of Colombian culture and societal nuances.

However, my time in Bogotá hasn't been all work and no play. Embracing the city's rich cultural tapestry, I've explored its museums, cheered at exhilarating soccer matches, and participated in various cultural events. These experiences have not only broadened my cultural horizons but also provided a much-needed balance to my work-focused routine.

Forging Connections

This experience is shaping me into a more adaptable, insightful, and culturally aware individual.
Chaka Tellem

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my stay has been the friendships I've forged with local university students and other travelers. These connections have offered me a window into the everyday lives of Rolos (the people of Bogotá), enriching my understanding of Colombian society beyond the confines of my internship. Through these friendships, I've experienced the warmth and openness of the Colombian people, making my transition to life here smoother and more enjoyable.


As I look back on the first part of my Colombian journey, I am struck by the profound impact of this experience. Not only has it allowed me to apply my academic knowledge in a real-world context, but it has also challenged me to grow in ways I hadn't anticipated. From navigating a new work environment to immersing myself in a different culture and language, each day has been a learning experience.

The journey so far has been a testament to the resilience, diversity, and vibrancy of Bogotá and its people. As I navigate this beautiful city and its complexities, I remain grateful for the opportunity to contribute to meaningful work at Redepaz and beyond. This experience is shaping me into a more adaptable, insightful, and culturally aware individual, and I look forward to sharing more of my journey in the next installment of this blog series.

A tall, dramatically lit church at night

A dramatically lit church Tellem passed on the way to Marmato

To be continued...

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