Leslie Stewart –
Executive Director, FUNDAEC, Colombia

May 16, 2022

Leslie was born in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, in 1976, 2,850 feet above sea level. Her parents, born worlds apart–her father in Ontario, Canada, and her mother in Bogota, Colombia–had met at a Baha’i youth conference and, after they were married, had decided to live and serve as “pioneers” in the Baha’i community in Ecuador. From a very young age, Leslie’s life was shaped and guided by faith; as an infant, she met Dr. Rahmatu’llah Muhajir, a prominent figure in the Baha’i faith. He whispered a Baha’i prayer into her ear, setting into motion a legacy of ambition to serve others. 

Leslie’s parents valued education–both in and out of the classroom. She accompanied them on teaching campaigns around Ecuador, from the mountains to the coast to the jungle. “It was a nice experience for me to understand the different realities of my country’s people and have the opportunity to teach the faith to different people,” says Leslie, remembering her visits to indigenous communities throughout Ecuador. “As I grew older I think it helped me realize my reality was not the same reality as other people, helped me develop social consciousness about injustice and extremes of wealth and poverty.” This realization would later become the cornerstone of Leslie’s life purpose. 

Leslie’s parents were always strict with her behavior and academic performance. She was careful to stay out of trouble and set an example for her peers at school. Her classmates made fun of her because she was decidedly studious; she paid attention in class and “did not want to get into mischief.” As a Bahá’í Leslie also refrained from using foul language and consuming alcohol, even when everyone else was doing both. Always looking on the bright side, she held her faith close and saw her classroom adversities as opportunities to share the faith. Her classmates came to recognize and appreciate her dedication and intelligence and even began to ask her for help with academics. Then–as now–Leslie gave freely. 

Leslie’s capacity for generosity and her leadership potential did not go unrecognized. At thirteen, she was honored to be appointed to her local Bahá’í assembly’s newly established youth committee. She was appointed to the National Assembly’s National Youth Committee two years later. “That was a big thing for me, being fifteen years old,” says Leslie. “It was a great challenge, but I learned a lot.” As a committee member, Leslie had significant responsibilities, including organizing youth conferences–one of which hosted 400 Bahá’í youths from Ecuador, Venezuela, and Colombia. She did not know it then, but these experiences prepared her for her future accomplishments. 

In Ecuador, high school students are expected to choose an academic concentration. When the time came for Leslie to choose hers, she knew exactly what she wanted to do and be.

She was excited to dedicate her life to helping other people. She looked up to Dr. Muhajir, who had devoted his life to serving humanity. She says of the man she had met shortly after being born, “He was my reference, example, and hero.” Convinced that becoming a doctor would allow her to fulfill her dream of helping other people, she decided to make chemistry and biology her concentration. She began to look forward to a career in medicine. 

The year she turned eighteen, Leslie graduated from high school and decided to give a year of service to the Faith. She went to Guyana by herself, where she stayed with a Bahá’í family. “It was a significant experience,” says Leslie, “because I was all by myself for the first time–without family, without the support of friends.” During this time, she learned the importance of building community–a lesson that she would carry with her. “I had to build a community around myself and to take an active role in it.” 

The trip also made her think more seriously about her career. As she spent so much time teaching others, she considered education as another avenue of service to humanity. She wondered if medicine was indeed the best way to be of assistance to those who needed it. Still, her fascination with “biology, anatomy, and the human body and how it works” assured her that she was headed in the right direction. 

At the end of her year of service, Leslie began to study medicine at a public university in Quito. Though she was enthusiastic about her studies, she found the university’s environment challenging. The university boasted a low graduation rate, and competition was fierce. The pressure was intense, and Leslie learned just how difficult it would be to succeed as a woman in a “very male profession.” All of the teachers were men. She heard stories from other female students–listened to their experiences, and was discouraged. She learned that one teacher had even told the women in his class that they should be at home rather than in the classroom. Leslie was shocked. She had hoped to pursue this career because she wanted to serve humanity. Yet, as she studied, she found only teachers and doctors who were less interested in human beings than in prestige, competition, and social status. After one year, she told her parents that she did not wish to continue studying at the university. She transferred to another university, but she did not feel any happier, much to her disappointment. 

Halfway through her second year at the private university, Leslie traveled to Colombia to visit a close friend studying at The Foundation for the Application and Teaching of Science (FUNDAEC)’s University Center for Rural Well-Being. She accompanied her friend to classes, where she witnessed Bahá’í principles being put into practice. “It was so refreshing,”

says Leslie. “It was a source of joy.” She told her parents that she wanted to remain in Colombia and study at FUNDAEC’s University. 

Suddenly she felt called to make a life-changing decision. She abandoned her plans to study medicine in order to study education instead. She had read that 70% of diseases could be prevented through education, and she felt that this knowledge confirmed the inkling she’d had while teaching in Guyana. Her parents were surprised that she had changed her mind after many years of being sure of her path. “I had to give up the life I had thought I would have,” Leslie says of her decision, though she was confident that she would be able to serve humanity as an educator as profoundly as she would have as a doctor. 

Immediately Leslie took on a full plate of responsibilities. She began an internship that involved teaching and developing educational materials. As a student, she was already assisting in University classrooms. “It was enriching for me… … For the first time, I was feeling so much joy for learning, so much joy for really understanding the world better. It was a point of inflection in my life.” 

Leslie’s life was set into dizzying motion through accomplishments and milestones. She served as a teacher and program coordinator for the University from 2000-2004. She graduated from the undergraduate Rural Education program in 2002. That year, she also married her husband, Karim, her “best friend”, whom she met while a university student. She graduated from the specialization program in Education for Development in 2003. A year later, she was asked to help strengthen FUNDAEC’s expanding SAT (The Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial [Tutorial Learning System]* and PSA (Preparation for social Action**) programs as a training coordinator based in Cali, Colombia. The role involved a great deal of travel to different regions. Leslie also continued to support the Rural Education program along the Pacific coast, training teachers. In 2005 she and Karim welcomed their first daughter, Amelia, but Leslie did not slow down. In 2006, she was named FUNDAEC’s sub-Director. 

A second daughter, Emma, was born in 2014, as Leslie pursued her Master’s degree in Sociology at Valle University in Cali. Having two children underfoot presented a powerful challenge. Having been made FUNDAEC’s executive director that same year, she was now juggling full-time mothering, full-time school, and full-time work. Looking back on this hectic but full period in her life, Leslie laughs, “I don’t really know how, but I did it.” She accomplished all of it, despite getting very little sleep for a very long time. She graduated from the Master’s program with a concentration in Social Research in 2015. 

She remains FUNDAEC’s Executive Director. She knows she has accomplished her childhood desire to heal people and advance society–despite not becoming a doctor. She remembers the day she became assured of her path. She was on her way to study at the University in Colombia. The rain was heavy, turning the dirt path into thick mud. Her feet felt heavy; it was difficult to walk. “Suddenly I heard a powerful voice inside myself…” recalls Leslie, “saying, ‘This is the path I have to walk.’” The voice was not only referring to the literal dirt path she traversed. She understood then that her life path–the career she had chosen–would not be an easy one to follow. “I knew that there were things I needed to leave and detach from.” It has never been easy. But Leslie has persevered and has not doubted her decisions since. Leslie expounds wisdom when asked what advice she would impart to a younger version of herself. “That’s a good question,” she says thoughtfully. Then, “I think… understanding that our biggest strength is in our soul, that all challenges in life can be overcome when you strengthen your inner being. That your soul, when it is connected to God, will help you find the right path.” She continues, “Trust that when you are closer to God and that when you are connected to His teachings and the development of your inner being… that’s what will help you overcome the most difficult challenges… Never lose faith and hope.” 

Leslie also emphasizes the lesson she learned about the “cruciality” of community when she was in Guyana. As the mother of two daughters, the value of community constantly resonates with Leslie in new and more profound ways. She is proud to have built the community where she wanted her children to grow. When they were younger, she organized a children’s class for them and the neighboring children. Over time, that group has evolved into a junior youth group. Finally, both Amelia and Emma have had many opportunities to help their community–just like their mother from a young age.


The Sistema de Aprendizaje Tutorial [Tutorial Learning System]*

An entire educational system whose purpose is the promotion of the development of people in the most disadvantaged rural areas of Colombia

PSA Preparation for social Action**

The PSA program is organized around the concept of a capability, conceived as the “developed capacity to think and act effectively within a particular sphere of activity and according to an explicit purpose.” The 25 units that make up the program help participants acquire one or more capabilities in language, mathematics, science, and processes of community life, including education, agriculture, health, and environmental conservation.