[Editor's note: The United Nations has declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) to highlight the importance of family and smallholder farmers. Food Tank is partnering with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) to commemorate IYFF and will feature weekly posts and other media highlighting the innovations that family farmers are using to alleviate hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation along with the campaigns and policies that support them.]
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports that a quarter of the world’s hungry live in sub-Saharan Africa. Supporting small-scale farmers will be critical to reducing hunger and poverty in the region. Kenya’s International Center of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe) has developed an intercropping strategy, called Push-Pull, that helps farmers increase productivity, strengthen soils, and protect staple foods from pests – all without expensive chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
Push-Pull was originally designed to help farmers deal with crop loss from two especially destructive pests: stemborers and striga weeds. Family farmers in sub-Saharan Africa often lose up to 80 percent of their crop to stemborers, a type of moth that lays its eggs inside the stems of corn, sorghum, and other staple crops.
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Perhaps more insidious is striga, a parasitic plant, also known as witchweed, which stunts crop growth and regularly causes farmers to lose 30 to 100 percent of their crop. The combination of these pests often destroys entire harvests and costs an estimated $7 billion every year. Typical pesticides and herbicides that might solve the problem are expensive, environmentally damaging, and largely ineffective once the pests are established.
Push-Pull offers a different solution, introducing plants that naturally repel and attract stemborers to keep them away from crops. The system adds a repellent crop to farmers’ fields, such desmodium, and then surrounds the field with a border of attractive plants, such as Napier grass.
Stemborers are then simultaneously pushed away from the maize field and pulled toward the border. In addition to protecting fields from stemborers, the intercropped desmodium plants control striga, producing a substance that causes suicidal germination—promoting striga’s initial growth and then stopping it.This eliminates striga plants from these fields, and because desmodium is a perennial plant, it keeps them free of striga between harvest seasons as well.
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Desmodium also functions as a cover crop, which can be plowed back into the soil to increase soil health and nutrient content. Napier grass is also useful as a feed crop for animals, and its root system helps prevent erosion.
So far, more than 55,600 farmers in East Africa have implemented icipe’s Push-Pull system, resulting in more than triple the average maize yields achieved under previous practices. Icipe is working to expanding the practice across sub-Saharan Africa, connecting with farmers through radio, print materials, and hands-on training programs.
• Food Tank (www.foodtank.org) is a think tank focused on a feeding the world better. We research and highlight environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable ways of alleviating hunger, obesity, and poverty and create networks of people, organizations, and content to push for food system change.
Nashville, Tenn., boasts seven different farmers markets citywide, proving that urban residents have a strong appetite for locally sourced food.
But the mainstream food markets—like grocery stores, hospitals, schools, and restaurants—find it much easier to order from national distributors like Sysco, which trucks in produce from an average of 2,000 miles away.
Without access to larger food buyers, Nashville growers are struggling to succeed—a trend that has resulted in the decline of local food production. Today in Davidson County, only 0.36 percent of the farmland is being used to grow fruits and vegetables.
The good news is that one organization is working to change all that. Nashville Grown is a new food hub that enables large food purchasers to source produce from farms just outside the city—and even from backyard micro-farms within the city itself.
Farmers can become more profitable and focus more time on growing more food when they don’t have to worry about the legwork and infrastructure required to get their products to market.
Why have small farms been excluded from the supply chain?
The problem has to do with scale. Farms in and around urban areas tend to be small and usually can’t produce at the sustained volumes that institutions like schools or grocery chains require.
And without economies of scale, small farms aren’t able to shoulder the cost of delivery, storage, and marketing. On the market side, larger food purchasers require one-stop sourcing and don’t have the capacity to coordinate with multiple local farms.
“We have farms that are right next to the people they’d like to be serving,” says Sarah Johnson, founder and director of Nashville Grown. “But if there isn’t a food system set up to get the produce from small farms to the end consumer, it’s never going to work.”
Nashville Grown aggregates produce from many small farms, making it possible to fulfill the larger volume orders required by bigger food buyers like restaurants.
Aggregation also means that a small grower can still turn a profit if she specializes in producing a particular crop.
As a food hub, Nashville Grown provides storage, distribution, and marketing. Its online purchasing system posts what farmers have for sale, and buyers can go online and order produce for delivery the next day.
Ms. Johnson launched Nashville Grown last August and began “bootstrapping it,” with just an empty warehouse space and her personal vehicle, equipped with picnic coolers. The organization now helps 15 local farms and market gardens sell to restaurants and catering companies.
However, getting large grocery chains and institutions like schools to carry local produce is proving to be more challenging.
“Right now, our selling platform skews our buyers to higher-end restaurants that can create menu items and specials around what’s available from local farms during a given week,” Johnson says. “They’re flexible if something’s not available. But our current system isn’t as attractive to buyers like schools or other restaurants that may not have that flexibility in their menu planning. We’re trying to work on that.”
Another challenge involved in selling to chain grocery stores and institutions is that they tend to require Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification, and adherence to other food safety protocols that are costly and potentially impossible for small, diversified farms to comply with. GAP processes are designed for large, commodity farms, and enabling investigators to track sources of food-borne illness—for example, E-coli bacteria in spinach that has arrived from many large farms and has been mingled at a central processing facility.
“GAP isn’t required by the government,” Johnson says, “but it’s what these larger institutions are used to working with. One solution would be to have an external
party establish specific safety standards for small, local farms, because they have an entirely different set of risks compared to large farms.”
Many large buyers had established processes that simply couldn’t accommodate local food, Johnson also discovered. For example, Nashville Grown approached the Kroger supermarket chain, which expressed an interest in carrying local food.
“But nothing could go directly to the store, because their rules require that everything has to be shipped to their warehouse in Kentucky first,” Johnson says. “But the farm was just a couple miles away! So much of the food system was created without the desire to source food as locally and as freshly as possible. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Nashville Grown also helps farmers with marketing and promotion by sharing photographs and stories about farmers and their land. The stories appear on the Nashville Grown website, as well as on food packages and labels.
“A lot of the farmland here has an amazing history,” Johnson says. “People really want to know where their food comes from, and any city could have a powerful local brand that inspires consumer loyalty. There’s a huge amount of value that hasn’t yet been realized by restaurants and grocery stores.”
Despite the barriers to reaching larger institutions, the demand from restaurants alone is greater than Nashville Grown is currently able to fill. “My hope is that creating the means for existing farms to become more profitable and competitive will also enable new farmers to start,” Johnson says. “There is so much potential for food to be grown in cities, and so many small vacant plots available for farming in and around urban areas.”
Nashville Grown can serve as a model for other food systems confronting the challenges of making local food accessible beyond the farmers market. This organization was recently selected as an early entry prize winner in the Nutrients for All, an Ashoka Changemakers competition that is seeking solutions that will ensure the availability of nutrients for healthy, natural ecosystems, farms, food, and people.
Check out the Nutrients for All campaign page page for podcasts and commentary from global experts that are working to create vitality for people and the planet.
• Ashoka Changemakers® provides the tools and resources to empower everyone to contribute to a better world. Our community's mission is to grow new ideas through transparency and collaboration, a process of Open Growth.
Except this is no ordinary school. This is breakdancing school.
Tiny Toones, a breakdancing outreach program for Cambodian children, was established in 2007, and its founder, breakdancer Tuy Sobil, is something of a success story himself. At the time Sobil, or KK, was born – in a Thai refugee camp in 1977 – Cambodia had folded into itself as the Khmer Rouge rolled the country back to “Year Zero” in a genocidal campaign that would kill about one-fifth of its population.
KK moved with his family to the Long Beach, Calif., when he was less than a year old, and he grew up performing in California’s breakdancing or "b-boy" groups. But he also joined the Crips gang there, and in 2004 he was convicted of armed robbery and deported to Cambodia under a law that mandates deportation for non-US citizens convicted of felonies. He had never seen Cambodia before.
In unfamiliar Phnom Penh, KK, a lithe and tattooed man, accidently accumulated around him a group of kids who wanted to be like him, to dance like an American b-boy could. He gave them free breakdancing lessons in his apartment and called them “Tiny Toones,” for the baggy clothes that hung off their little bodies and made them look like cartoon imitations of an American street dancer. He soon had some 70 Cambodian children in his home each afternoon. It was time to create a formal school.
And so with funding from aid groups like Bridges across Borders, KK opened a Phnom Penh school that would teach breakdancing as an alternative to gang-life and drug use, problems that plauge this corridor of the city’s capital, where gangs are appealing options for children who feel that they have no options.
“Tiny Toones means everything to me,” KK says. “It's my life, and I want the kids to succeed.”
Most of the 200 or so children enrolled in Tiny Toones are from southeast Phnom Penh’s Chba Ampov neighborhood, a troubled corridor of the city where children collect recyclables to sell for pocket change. Sometimes they are enrolled in public school, other times not. When they become teenagers, little gets better. Drugs in Cambodia are cheap and often billed not as addictive and destructive but as potent energy supplements. Gangs beckon poor kids into their ranks. And so this becomes a place that no one ever leaves.
That’s where Tiny Toones comes in: as a safe, drug-free environment that its founders hope will introduce its students to all their options.
Tiny Toones, housed in a one-story building decorated with sprawling graffiti, is largely a creative program. Students there, aged 5-24, take breakdancing dance classes, as well as workshops in voice and music video production. But the founders have also incorporated a formal education sector into the program to both supplement the public school program and serve students who have left school. Classes in Khmer, English, and computer skills are now among those that all students take.
Some of the program’s participants go on to become dancers, even local Cambodian stars; nine of the school’s 12 teachers are its former students. In rare cases, students go on to higher education. Five former Tiny Toones dancers are now enrolled in universities in Phnom Penh, funded with Tiny Toones scholarships that rely on some corporate or NGO backing but largely on private donations.
“When you consider their backgrounds, that’s just really incredible,” says David Hewitt, Tiny Toones’ press coordinator.
Mostly, though, the program’s successes are subtler.
“The main success for me is not necessarily what they do afterward, but that they’ve built their capacity, their confidence,” says Reuth Chhoeung, or Shhort, the general manager of the program. “We want to let them know that there are other options out there for them.”
That knowledge is particularly important for the girls in the program. At first, girls there were few in number; parents were reluctant to send their daughters too far away from home, let alone to a program that taught not traditional, gentle Apsara dance but an imported, aggressive style.
“For girls, it lets them know that they can do what boys can do,” says Shhort. “They can be more than just housewives.”
This year, about half of the program’s participants are young women, in part due to the founder’s efforts to consult with parents, as well as the program’s growing fame. Local media production companies have stepped in to produce music videos for the kids, and last year a group of students traveled as a dance troupe to Australia and New Zealand to perform several nights of shows – in addition to the shows they put on in Cambodia. Tiny Toones is also currently short-listed for a UNICEF Beyond Sport award.
“This is a place where they can just express themselves,” Shhort says. “Otherwise they could just be wasting their lives.”
David Cameron, the host of the G8 summit in Northern Ireland [June 17-18], is trapped between a rock and a hard place, when it comes to fighting corruption. He was expected to meet the significant expectations of the public while facing the considerable challenge of ensuring that all his fellow G8 leaders agreed on specific, concrete steps.
The summit’s agenda was ambitious. Cameron pledged to tackle tax evasion in overseas territories under British jurisdiction, strengthen government accountability, and boost trade by breaking down hurdles to the free flow of goods and services. He took the lead initially during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013, and all three items made it on the agenda of the G8 summit.
Governments and the publics they represent may disagree on whether these objectives were fully met, but I believe this is in itself no small achievement by the host to have inserted transparency into the debate among G8 leaders. First and foremost, people need to see that their desire for transparency is acknowledged at the highest level. It is the first step to more public sector accountability.
Increasing transparency as a way to fight corruption in the public sector, specifically in public procurement processes, is central to what we do at the Forum’s Partnership Against Corruption Initiative (PACI). In fact, with nearly 100 active companies, PACI is one of the strongest cross-industry collaborations in the field of anti-corruption and globally the leading business voice on the issue.
For example, one area that requires urgent action but also looks promising for successful collaboration, is the construction sector. It is no secret that large construction projects are prone to various forms of corruption, bribery, or facilitation payments. Large amounts of money are invested over a relatively long period of time and distributed among numerous contractors and subcontractors.
It is no secret, in part because the private sector itself has long acknowledged it and openly engaged in a conversation about fixing the problem. The British construction sector has just called on David Cameron to continue his support for the “Construction Sector Transparency Initiative”, which aims to eradicate corruption in publicly funded construction projects. Companies like ABB, Fluor Corporation, or Siemens are driving that conversation inside the PACI community.
In recent months, the Forum has hosted regional meetings in Peru, South Africa, Jordan, and Myanmar. While at first glance these countries do not have much in common, they all share two things: first, a need for sizable investment in infrastructure, such as ports, bridges, roads, or energy grids; and secondly, the will not only to step up pressure on existing corruption but also to design corruption out of the system.
PACI is engaging the private sector in emerging markets like India, Malaysia, and Mongolia. By sharing best practices, putting business leaders, civil servants, and civil society representatives in the same room and forcefully making the business case for corruption-free operations based on the Forum’s extensive data and experience in competitiveness research, we are helping to create a level playing field.
The message sent out at the G8 summit about their commitment to create a corruption-free system is a positive one. To build on this progress, actions must now support these political imperatives.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
Katrell Christie stands behind the counter of her tea and coffee shop in Atlanta. Threadbare oriental carpets cover the marred concrete floor. Bookshelves line the walls, and secondhand tables with ancient lamps are scattered around. Sumptuous cakes and thick cookies are displayed under glass.
In this shop, known as Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party, Ms. Christie launched her dream of making college possible for a group of young women in India. Four years after starting, her project now supports the university education of 11 women, gradually adding students each year. In October, she will double that number.
It's not that hard to help people, she says. "I sell cupcakes for $3."
It all began in 2009, two years after Ms. Christie opened Dr. Bombay’s. A student from the nearby Georgia Institute of Technology came into the shop and began pestering her to go to India and help with a handicraft project.
At first Ms. Christie said she was too busy running her business, but eventually agreed. Once there, she took a side trip to Darjeeling, India, to look at tea plantations, thinking she’d find a new source of tea for the shop.
There she met three girls from an orphanage. They told her they would be forced to leave their orphanage within a year, since it only serves children up to age 16. Their futures seemed grim. Having no parents and nowhere to go, they could end up living on the street, where sex trafficking is one of the few avenues to making money, and where AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) are a big risk.
“I made a bunch of promises,” Christie says. She told them she’d come back in six months and help. Then she had to figure out a way to make it happen. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Back in Atlanta, she put a jar on the counter, asking for money to help. Her shop was filled with used books solicited from customers and others in the surrounding Candler Park neighborhood. Sold for $1 apiece, the books raised money for the local Mary Lin Elementary School. Ms. Christie redirected the book funds toward India.
In six months, she had several thousand dollars – enough to fly to India, rent an apartment for the girls, pay for their tuition at a college prep high school, and get them school uniforms and immunizations.
“They knew what an amazing opportunity it was,” she says.
Since the landlord in Darjeeling would not rent solely to a young woman, Ms. Christie persuaded her father to co-sign the lease.
To keep the project afloat, Ms. Christie began selling packets of tea from Darjeeling, with a notice that the profit went for tuition. She called it The Learning Tea. Her shop also began sponsoring a four-course Indian dinner once a month to raise money.
Every six months, she went back to India. Her plane ticket was one of the biggest expenses. She was struck by how she was able to “do something for someone with so little.”
Each trip she would hear about another girl who needed shelter and wanted to go to college. She added students and the group moved into a larger space – eventually into a free-standing building that has dormitory-style bedrooms with bunk beds. A housemother now lives with them and the accommodations include a kitchen with a refrigerator. The house also has a computer.
Among the girls who live there is one who had medical problems because of malnutrition. Another lost both her parents to TB. Two were sex-trafficked to Nepal, rescued, and brought back.
Ms. Christie knows that big organizations help a larger number of people. But her project is a specialized one. She focuses on college educations for women.
She believes vocational training helps only one generation, she says. A college education allows a woman to pursue a career and, in turn, provide higher education her own children.
“It is the only way I see that you can stop the vicious cycle of intensive poverty in India,” Christie says.
The project has grown steadily. This fall, she will open a residence in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and provide scholarships and a home for 12 more young women.
• To learn more visit http://thelearningtea.com and http://www.drbombays.com.
Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates are not your average backyard gardeners. They call themselves plant geeks, and they’re not kidding.
Toensmeier sustained a serious head injury in 1994, and to heal, he memorized thousands of Latin plant names, families, orders, and superorders. He also cross-indexed a tome of edible plants with references listing cold-hardy varieties and perennials. Bates studied biology and ecology and spends a lot of time poring over Plants for a Future, an online database of useful plants. Not surprisingly, when the two friends bought a duplex together in 2004, they didn’t build your average garden.
They set out with a list of ambitious goals. They wanted to transform their yard into a permaculture oasis by planting “a mega-diverse living ark of useful and multifunctional plants” from their bioregion and around the world. They hoped to harvest “two handfuls of fresh fruit every day for everybody in the house, including guests, for as long a season as possible,” and also to attract birds, beneficial insects, and a couple of bachelorettes.
Toensmeier, the main author of "Paradise Lot," who also wrote "Perennial Vegetables" and co-wrote "Edible Forest Gardens," doesn’t skimp on details about how he and Bates turned a “dead and blighted” one-tenth of an acre of compacted soil in a “biologically impoverished neighborhood” of Holyoke, Mass., into Food Forest Farm, an Eden for edibles. Although it is more memoir than how-to, "Paradise Lot" outlines the basics of sheet mulching, raising silkworms, keeping chickens, and growing mushrooms. Readers will gain an understanding of the principles and objectives of permaculture, a movement that began in Australia in the 1970s. It combines indigenous land management practices, ecological design, and sustainable methods to create low-maintenance gardens that function like natural ecosystems.
It’s inspiring and a little daunting to read about what Toensmeier and Bates achieved on their small plot in eight years. They managed to transform their Massachusetts front yard into a tropical garden. In their backyard, they installed a pond, shed, and greenhouse, and they grow about 160 edible perennials, many of which you’ve likely never heard of before. Here’s an inventory of the berries they harvest each season: honeyberries, strawberries, goumi cherries, Gerardi dwarf mulberries, four kinds of currants, gooseberries, jostas, blueberries, wild raspberries, golden Anne raspberries, ground-cherries, wintergreen berries, juneberries, and lingonberries.
Toensmeier hopes the complexity and diversity of Food Forest Farm won’t dissuade beginners from experimenting with permaculture in their backyards, since part of the reason they undertook the project in an urban area with typical inner-city problems was to make it a relevant example for amateurs to emulate.
“Our desire to try many new things—new models of production, hundreds of new and interesting species—meant that we put a lot more time into a garden of this size than any reasonable person would ever do,” he writes. It’s helpful that the book shares the friends’ ample mistakes, setbacks, and revisions, making it clear that the most important thing a gardener needs if embarking on a similar project is a dedication to experimentation.
"Paradise Lot" offers gardeners more than inspiration and instruction. Toensmeier and Bates present an unconventional alternative to the American dream: two single men committed to a friendship and to making their backyard and neighborhood better.
“Trusting each other with such a responsibility felt especially rare in this world,” Bates writes in one of the short essays he contributes to Toensmeier’s text. The friends’ dedication to each other and to a patch of land paid off. “We made our little paradise here,” Toensmeier writes.
Moreover, "Paradise Lot" is permeated by an incredibly hopeful and compelling vision of humans’ place in nature. Toensmeier is critical of the environmental movement’s emphasis on minimizing footprints, because he thinks that permaculture and indigenous land management practices offer us ways to affect ecosystems for the better. After all, he and Bates turned a barren lot into a habitat for fish, snails, frogs, salamanders, raccoons, opossums, woodchucks, bugs, and worms.
And the wildlife actually helps them manage the garden. The birds eat insects. The opossums eat rotten fruit when it drops. The squirrels eat unwanted Norway maple seedlings. Some permaculture farmers even employ squirrels as labor by setting out buckets near their nut trees, letting the squirrels fill them, and swapping the nuts for corn.
Toensmeier is convinced it’s time for us to re-evaluate our ideas of “nature,” “agriculture,” and “wilderness” and embrace the potential to transform our communities into beautiful, healthy ecosystems like Food Forest Farm.
“Imagine what would happen,” he writes, “if we as a species paid similar attention to all the degraded and abandoned lands of the world.”
A group of three impassioned friends, all under the age of 30, started Boulder Food Rescue in August of 2011 with the goal of introducing the problems of waste and want to one another, and with the help of a little logistical muddling on our part, letting them solve each other.
It’s a shocking fact that 40% of all food produced in the US goes to waste at some point in production. The EPA estimates that every grocery store in the country generates about 1 ton of waste per day, which doesn’t even touch waste in the field or in transport. This (almost inconceivably) occurs at the same time at 1 in 6 Americans are considered “food insecure” and do not have access to adequate and reliable nutrition.
We set about addressing this lunacy in our own community of Boulder, Colo., by starting an organization that picks up food, primarily fresh fruits and veggies, from local grocers and transports it by bike to 50 agencies that serve hungry, homeless, and low-income folks in Boulder. We use 90% bicycle transportation because our food system is incredibly energy intensive, and it makes no sense to put more fossil fuels into trying to rescue food that slips though the cracks.
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Over the past 20 months, Boulder Food Rescue has amassed a volunteer base of 150, saved nearly 325,000 lbs. of fresh, healthy food, and is in the process of becoming a national nonprofit. This last point has been our focus over the past several months as we began to export our bike-powered food rescue model to 5 different cities. Due to some national press coverage, we had people from 25 different cities around the globe from Dublin to San Francisco contact us to ask for support in rescuing food.
In March, with the help of a Shareable seed grant, we decided to focus our work to replicate the program on an inspiring group of people in Fort Collins, Colo. An already close-knit group of friends and community members came to us and asked for some help establishing a food rescue organization with bikes in Fort Collins, which is just an hour and a half by car from Boulder. This initial ask was followed by meetings and long email chains and countless hours of community-based research. We became a primary resource for them, and in our weekly correspondence answered questions about how to best approach community partners, access nonprofit status, and recruit volunteers.
We also wrote and produced bound copies of the “BFR Package Deal,” a step-by-step guide to starting a food rescue, which proved to be invaluable to them as they could refer to it for local and national resources, and feel a greater degree of independence. We encouraged lots of inquiry and communication with organizations that were already working with food in Fort Collins. This led to many conversations with the local food bank, gleaning project, food coop, and network of community gardens about the role a potential food rescue would fill in their operations.
Once the organizers were confident that a bike-powered food rescue was timely and appropriate for Fort Collins, we together set about creating the beginnings of an organization: bylaws, a board of directors, and a mission statement. One Fort Collins organizer said of this initial stage, “It is a genuinely beautiful act of strength to get something like this going, and I can’t wait to be a part of this beginning.”
The Fort Collins Food Rescue crew was filled with enthusiasm and energy, but had the same problem we did at our inception: the issue of how to become a nonprofit, since the project relies on tax deductible donations. We at Boulder Food Rescue were working hard to become nationally tax exempt so that we might extend out 501c3 status to Fort Collins and several other cities, but had run into frustrating road blocks internally and with the IRS.
In a display of resourcefulness, one of the Fort Collins organizers, Dana Guber, suggested that food rescue in Fort Collins be housed under the nonprofit status of the Growing Project, a local organization that promotes the value of a strong, diverse, and just local food system for all residents of northern Colorado through direct agricultural experiences, education, and advocacy.
The group carefully weighed their options, and decided that the best way to serve their community and rescue food was to become a project of the Growing Project. They adopted the name Food Finders and completed their first pickup by bicycle last week, which was a whole bunch of fresh, healthy greens!
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The past few months have been an intense learning process for both Boulder Food Rescue and the newly christened Food Finders. We learned to be an incubator for a fledgling organization and help it create a vision for the future. We have gained a greater understanding that federal paperwork doesn’t happen on our schedule and learned how we can balance sharing our model and providing support with granting full autonomy to the people who use it.
The folks in Fort Collins have learned a great deal about patience and persistence in starting a new project, and have experienced sweet success as a result of their work. A Fort Collins organizer reflected: “We are capable of preventing food waste and, more universally, spreading knowledge to strengthen the community. Being a part of Fort Collins Food Rescue has given me an empowerment that I don’t feel is leaving any time soon.”
As the Millennial Trains Project (MTP) enters the two-week countdown for applications, the nation is responding to its provocative idea: Let’s use 150-year-old railways to inspire 21st century change.
Over the span of 10 days, 40 Millennials will cross the country by train, each rider with a specific, crowdfunded project to help build a better nation. Riders won’t be alone: They will count on the dialogue and involvement of onboard mentors and station-side cities.
We Millennials [Editor's note: Millennials, roughly speaking, are teens and adults under 30 years of age] don’t have an easy future up ahead of us, and it seems that we’ve been dubbed with some tough-to-swallow labels, like narcissism and laziness. 25-year-old Patrick Dowd, MTP’s founder and CEO, insists that the jury is still out on our generation – and that maybe Millennials are ready to step up to the plate.
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In our conversation, Dowd shares the challenges that Millennials face, the inspiration behind the project, and the stories MTP is uncovering through its applicants and stakeholders.
I thought that the TIME article was, like many others, not that impressive or accurate. It takes a slice of data and makes sweeping generalizations about what this generation is or isn’t.
I’m not saying that Millennials are one thing or another. I’m just creating a platform that will help people to explore their passions. Applications are proving that there’s a lot of talent in our generation. That’s a big asset.
MTP says that Millennials are living in a United States that is more divided that at any time since the Civil War.
It’s true. Just look at the exit maps from the last election – look at the red and blue states. There are a lot of disagreements, and a lot of polarizations. With the way the media has evolved, people can now build silos around themselves, surrounding themselves with information sources that reaffirm only their beliefs.
But there is no political litmus test to get on this train, and we are bringing really diverse people together. This is building new relationships based on shared aspirations for a better future – that aren’t constrained by existing political fault lines.
Yes. I studied Hindi and read and learned about India for three years, and I lived in India for five months – but traveling across the breadth of the country gave me so much more than what I could gleam from academic study or living in one place.
It also helped me to imagine what it’s like to do something on a big scale; to think of what the opportunities could be. You feel the diversity – the geographical diversity, the human diversity, and even the spiritual diversity as well. There’s something about feeling the bumps of the country as you go across it – highways and airplanes can’t offer that.
When I came back from India, I was working with JP Morgan when the Occupy Wall Street movement began to gain traction. I thought there was a better way to channel the frustration that my generation has with the challenges we face.
How does MTP’s compare to Jagriti Yatra?
They are both built on the concept that journeys build leaders, and they share the mission of building trans-regional perspectives and experiential learning.
The biggest difference is that MTP is very user-generated. Riders are designing their own projects, and doing their own crowdfunding. In India, we didn’t have the opportunity to develop our own projects.
An India-inspired idea, taking root in the United States. Any hopes it will continue to spread?
Expansion could happen. Maybe people will want to copy it – and that’s fine! We can help with capacity building if other people wanted to do this somewhere else. I think the most important component is that the location needs to have a geographically diverse innovation ecosystem.
You’re making a big bet on Millennials. Have you seen any adversity from that?
We had some surprising responses to my piece in GOOD. Some people from older generations were complaining about the project being only for Millennials, saying that older people shouldn’t be left out of the project. I certainly understand, but I think we need to create a safe space for our generation to create ideas of our own.
I was joking with my team that for every seat in Congress – which is making decisions that will affect our future – that’s occupied by a Millennial, we’ll offer a seat for older people on the train!
Ha! I bet the comment wouldn’t sit well with a lot of non-Millennials.
I don’t know about that. For every one snide comment I’ve gotten, there have been 100 people saying, “This is great,” “I want my daughter or son to get involved,” or “How can I support you….”
Older people are generally very supportive of MTP. People want to rebuild a sense of America, and that’s cross-generational.
What other stakeholders have been in dialog with MTP?
On the one hand, we’re working with the entrepreneurial, design-thinking community – but it’s been fascinating to connect with the old-school train community. The train guys are like land sailors. They have this amazing oral history about seeing cities being built across the country, but it’s not very well-documented or accessible online – you have to talk to them to discover their stories.
We also hosted a delegation of native Americans that had gone on a walk from Kansas to DC. We both connected with the idea that journeys build leaders. We had a very long discussion about the history of their people, their beliefs, and what it’s like to be a native American. The meeting was three hours long, and for the first 90 minutes, I just listened to the storytelling of their history and culture.
They reminded us that in popular culture, the idea of trains represents adventure and the pioneering spirit that we want to revive. But for them, it represents an instrument of extreme terror that was used as a vessel to desolate their populations. It was good to be made aware of that. They also recognized that we are using the train for a different purpose, and both sides hoped to see participation from their tribes.
Are you learning anything new about Millennials through this process?
Very diverse groups of people are gravitating toward the opportunity. It’s just this kaleidoscopic look at where the generation might be headed. There are projects about alternative education, wearable technologies, music, poetry, computer science, health, local governance….
I’m learning about things I didn’t even know existed. There is one project about citizen science. They are using technology to connect outdoor athletes, conservation scientists, and policymakers. For example, a rock climber sees an eagle’s nest, takes a picture with her cell phone, tags it, and sends the data to an eagle conservatory.
Another project works with community wireless networks. They use free open-source software to build community mesh intranets. One applicant, Stephanie, is using Google Glass to identify opportunities for wearable technology.
So are you seeing a tech-heavy balance of projects?
There are a lot of projects that are only possible because of new technologies – but it’s not really about technology. It’s about passion, principles, and ideas.
Cameron wants to digitally share her street installations of poetry, but for her, [MTP] is about the magic and beauty of poetry. Stephanie is working with “techy” Google Glass, but it’s also about honoring and connecting with her immigrant parent’s pioneering journey to the United States. Lindsea from Hawaii is integrating technologies into local governance, but I think it’s also about being part of a country even when you’re from an outlying part of it. I imagine her connecting with inspiring friends from the mainland as a result of this.
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At a time when we have so much ability to connect through technological innovations, we have physical connections that can be much more powerful. It’s worth the time and effort of people to unplug and connect in that way.
This will be MTP’s first trip. What are MTP’s expectations?
This first journey is an experiment, and we’ll learn from it. Some stops and forms of engagement will be more successful than others, and everybody getting onboard knows that. It’s the start of something great and a learning experience for everybody involved. We’ll reinvest that knowledge.
Does that mean we can count on more trips in the future?
(Laughs) Let’s just see how this goes. I think it’ll be great – and if that’s the case, there are more places to go.
Salma's fate wasn’t meant to be any different to that of millions of girls in rural India: You’re born to the huge disappointment of your parents who were desperate for a boy; you're sent to school for a few years; you're married off in your teens and have children of your own. Eventually, you die.
The prospect of such a life haunted Salma when she was a young girl growing up in an ultra-conservative Muslim village in southern India. The thought of puberty filled her with dread, for that was when young girls got locked up inside their homes, forbidden to study, play, or do any of the things children do.
This was and still is the destiny of so many girls in her community – until they get married, sometimes only to be imprisoned inside four walls again, but this time in their husband’s home.
Salma's life, however, took another turn and quite an extraordinary one. So extraordinary that it was a story that had to be told, says British director Kim Longinotto.
Ms. Longinotto turned Salma’s life story into a film that was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, at the Berlin International Film Festival, and at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest. [Editor's note: Click here for the "Salma" film's website.]
Salma is now the most famous female poet in southern India. She is also a politician.
After she was born, Salma’s family gave her away.
"I guess I was too young to care," her mother says in the film, recounting how her husband had told her she must give birth to a boy or she would be sterilized.
When she was returned to her parents years later, Salma attended school until she reached puberty, when she was locked in a small room in the basement of her family home. She was 13.
In the documentary, she recalls how she and her sister would fight over who was going to sit at the tiny barred window, the only point of contact with the outside world.
"I had no dreams anymore, no desires," Salma says in the film. "All you have is time but no life. It's crazy."
She used to write poems as a way of letting her thoughts out into a world where she couldn't go.
When she was finally allowed outside her basement, it was to be forced into marriage as a teenager to a much older man.
In Muslim communities in southern India, so-called minority laws make it impossible for authorities to intervene and stop child marriages, Salma told Thomson Reuters Foundation in Sheffield.
"I have stopped many [child] marriages – Hindu's only," she said. "I couldn't intervene in Muslim communities' child marriages."
Salma's husband beat her up and once again she was forbidden to leave home.
He didn't want her to write and he threw her notebooks away so Salma began to scribble her poems on tiny pieces of paper she ripped off a calendar, while hiding inside a filthy toilet.
Eventually, her mother started smuggling out her poems under piles of laundry and her father mailed them.
Despite previous disagreements and hard feelings, her mother wanted to help her. "Secretly I wanted her to write poetry," she says in the film.
After 20 years inside her husband's house, Salma's poems were published, to the outrage of fellow villagers. She had exposed their life and their sacred traditions to the world. Her poetry candidly speaks of sex, fierce fights with her husband, and it gives a voice to women who are expected to remain silent.
"Her writing calls for social awakening in the Muslim world. Woman deserves a better treatment, she says, but says it without offending the religion and establishment," a local reporter wrote about her poetry.
Salma now lives in Chennai – the capital of Tamil Nadu state – with her two sons. She moved there after she was elected chairperson of the Tamil Nadu Social Welfare Board.
Her husband and their sons, who were raised in a deeply Muslim conservative environment, still disapprove of her writing, of the fact that she doesn't wear a burqa, and of her fiercely egalitarian spirit that trumped culture and tradition.
"Children, mother-in-law, father: It's all ties and knots, you can't undo them or everything will unravel," reads one of her poems.
• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. The foundation provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.
But when New Jersey native Scott Zabelski saw it for his own eyes, the destruction became more real, and more personal.
He "looked around and saw things I would never have expected to see,” he says. “That’s when it was the most heartbreaking and devastating.”
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Mr. Zabelski is a resident of Toms River, N.J., just a short drive from a portion of the coast that received significant damage in the October 2012 hurricane. During his visit to a nearby barrier island, where he had spent time growing up and visiting friends, he couldn’t help but think that most of the places he remembers would be forever changed.
In the hours following the storm, Zabelski wanted to find a way to help.
The owner of Blue Wave Printing, a screen-printing company, Zabelski was tossing around ideas when his father suggested creating a T-shirt. Scott dreamed up the motto “Restore the Shore,” and quickly printed a handful to share with friends and family.
“Once I saw people’s reactions, then it kind of hit me,” he says.
Zabelski decided to create and sell T-shirts and hooded sweatshirts with "Restore the Shore" and donate part of the proceeds to hurricane recovery and relief.
The first day of sales was a much greater success than he had ever imagined. By the end of the day, he was able to spend $1,200 in donations to buy gift cards for those impacted by the storm.
He printed more shirts through the night, and sales boomed the next day as well – allowing him to raise $5,000 in donations.
“The biggest thing that we did differently from anyone else,” he says, “is that we really gave a significant portion of the [money away].” Zabelski set his prices so that they would cover his expenses, with the rest going to charity.
The idea rapidly blossomed and demand grew, he says, enough so that he decided to shut down his screen-printing business for six months to handle the T-shirt orders and continue to raise as much for hurricane recovery as possible.
His business went from a staff of three to 21 – a number that included family members and friends, as well as some victims of the storm who had lost their homes.
“I hired my mom, I hired my brother, I hired friends from my beach area,” he says. “These are all, like, my buddies.
As the sales piled up, Zabelski researched what help was needed where and then helped fill that need – whether it was for chopped wood, portable restroom facilities, equipment for first responders and law enforcement officials, or gift cards for displaced families.
The recovery process was personal for Zabelski, whose parents’ home sustained a great deal of damage. While his own home was relatively untouched, he saw the rigors of the recovery process through his parents' eyes – and turned that knowledge into finding ways to help.
“I could see all the challenges the people on the island and in Toms River were going to face through what my parents were facing,” he says.
Whether it was selling shirts and hoodies from his storefront, or at makeshift stands in parking lots that he announced on Facebook, Zabelski spent months producing more T-shirts and selling them throughout the region.
And the donations continued to climb – in the end surpassing $517,000.
“It was totally overwhelming,” he says. “It took over my whole life.”
Zabelski has since returned to his normal printing business, but the adventure is one he will never forget.
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“It was just totally mind-blowing,” he says. “I feel lucky that I was able to make a little bit of a difference, the way I knew was needed. I feel lucky that I could be the one to see what was missing and provide that need.”
Zabelski attributes some of the movement’s success to his fundraising and distribution model, which took into consideration the skepticism some people have about donating to causes. He wanted to make sure people knew exactly how much of the sale price would be donated and where that donation would go – and that the funds would be put to use immediately.
“We showed people where the money was going,” he says. “We used Facebook to post every time we purchased something and gave it away. People could literally see, that moment, where the money went and who it was given to.”