Ana Moraga, a second-​​year stu­dent in the North­eastern Uni­ver­sity School of Law, can often be found — of all places — in a Guatemala City red-​​light dis­trict, where she has built an empow­er­ment center to help women improve their own lives and those of their families.

Ana Moraga

[media-​​credit id=19 align=“alignleft” width=“220”][/media-credit]Moraga, who was born in Guatemala and lived there until she was 13, when her family moved to San Fran­cisco, was in a far dif­ferent place on Friday: the White House, where she was one of nine people rec­og­nized by the Obama admin­is­tra­tion and the State Depart­ment as a “Cham­pion of Change” who has made a marked dif­fer­ence in con­necting the Americas.

The Cham­pions that we rec­og­nize today have helped their coun­tries and com­mu­ni­ties of origin, and in doing so have bet­tered our region as a whole,” said Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of State for Western Hemi­sphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson. “These excep­tional indi­vid­uals, with their work in sports and com­mu­nity devel­op­ment, in edu­ca­tion and finan­cial inclu­sion, inspire others by their example. In a region with such pro­found human links between our soci­eties, ideas and inspi­ra­tion spread quickly to the ben­efit of people all over the Amer­icas and the Caribbean.”

It’s been quite a ride,” Moraga said. “It’s a real honor to be rec­og­nized for my work in this way.”

After grad­u­ating from Loyola Mary­mount Uni­ver­sity in Los Angeles, Moraga decided to commit a year to giving back to her native country. She had planned to do work to pro­mote lit­eracy among sex workers, who face great risk and are dis­en­fran­chised them from a legal system that could pre­vent or pros­e­cute abuse.

But once I got there, I real­ized that lit­eracy was not at the fore­front of these women’s needs,” Moraga said.

More impor­tant, she quickly real­ized, was training in new careers for women who wanted to move out of dan­gerous work in the red-​​light dis­trict, but not take jobs in the country’s equally per­ilous sweat­shops. So Moraga worked to send two women to beauty school, then arranged for those women to train others in the craft.

Soon Moraga formed MuJER, an orga­ni­za­tion whose acronym trans­lates to Women for Jus­tice, Edu­ca­tion and Aware­ness, which offered job training and other classes to women right in the red-​​light dis­trict. She part­nered with a French orga­ni­za­tion to create a safe space for the women and worked with judges and pros­e­cu­tors to help shift a legal focus from the pros­ti­tutes, who often had few or no other options, to the men who hired them.

The women do make a choice to do this work, but that choice is very lim­ited,” Moraga said. “So we want to pro­vide empow­er­ment so the women can have other choices.”

Since MuJER was founded, it has become almost entirely run by the women who par­tic­i­pated. Moraga stepped back to a posi­tion on the organization’s Board of Direc­tors when she enrolled at North­eastern. She hopes her legal training will empower her to con­tinue to work on behalf of pop­u­la­tions like the one she focused on in Guatemala.