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

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.