Cooke Scholar Emily Hedin Transforms Communities Half a World Away


One of the remarkable qualities many Jack Kent Cooke Scholars share is the courage to venture on their own and seize opportunity whenever—and wherever—it presents itself.
2009 Graduate Scholar Emily Hedin is an excellent example. Emily earned a master’s degree in international development at the University of Oxford, and the dividends from that investment have transformed the lives of many.
Originally from suburban Minneapolis, Emily first travelled to Lima, Peru, in 2007, shortly after her graduation from Macalester College. As part of a human rights fellowship, Emily planned to spend 11 weeks collaborating with human rights activists in the southern district of Villa el Salvador. Speaking very little Spanish, she took an incredible leap of faith and immersed herself fully in the experience.
She hardly could have imagined that this 11-week trip would turn into an eight-year journey that has forever changed her life.
“When I got here, I encountered such an intense sense of community solidarity,” Emily explained, “such a genuine desire to partner with others to move the community forward… I felt an authentic invitation to be a part of this movement.”


One of the first to reach out to her was Jesús Valencia, a well-respected local community leader. Emily shadowed him for several months and gradually become more involved with his work. She helped with research projects, human rights campaigns, and local development initiatives. After numerous meetings with community members and leaders, the two of them were inspired to develop a community center.
What started as a community center has today become so much more. Emily, Jesús, and two others co-founded a non-profit community organization, Building Dignity, with the vision of supporting neighborhood development by empowering local leaders. It now has four full-time staff members and a network of more than 90 volunteers. Emily now lives and works in Lomo de Corvina, the Lima community where it all began. Today, she considers herself not just an ally, but also a member of the neighborhood. This enables her to focus on finding local solutions for local problems. She has always cared deeply about the issues marginalized populations face, but she also cares on a more personal level now because Lima is her home.
Although that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
“Trying to balance the interests and priorities of different groups trying to find the middle ground has been an immensely difficult, difficult journey. It’s something that we struggle with day to day,” she said.
Despite the daily challenges, they are determined to continue the work they’ve started. Building Dignity launched a second site in the Oasis community in 2013, and has additional plans for future expansion into other areas of South Lima. Emily and the rest of the team are committed to seek out these new communities, and work with the residents there to help them overcome barriers and build a brighter future for them and future generations.
It’s that kind of enterprising and indefatigable spirit that sets Cooke Scholars apart. Like Emily, they are the next generation of leaders and innovators who truly have an impact in communities near and far.
For more information about Building Dignity’s work, please visit their website ( and their Facebook page (