Alice Walker is a poet, essayist, and commentator, but she’s best known for her prodigious accomplishments as a writer of literary fiction.
Her novel The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in 1983 and quickly became a classic of world literature. Set in an African-American community in the rural South during the decades before World War II, the novel is told in letters written by Celie, a woman who survives oppression and abuse with her spirit not only intact, but transcendent.
Walker’s writing is characterized by an ever-present awareness of injustice and inequality. But whether describing political struggle—as in Meridian, which deals with the civil rights movement—or meditating on the human relationship to nature and animals, as in her latest book, The Chicken Chronicles, her work conveys the possibility of change. In Walker’s vision, grace is available through love and a deep connection to the beauty of the world.
Walker was born in the segregated South, the eighth child in a family who made their living as sharecroppers in Georgia. She came of age during the civil rights movement, and emerged early in her career as a defining voice in feminism and an advocate for African-American women writers. She is a prominent activist who has worked, marched, traveled, and spoken out to support the causes of justice, peace, and the welfare of the earth.
Alice Walker spoke to YES! about the challenges of working for change, and the possibility of living with awareness—and joy.
Valerie Schloredt: Over the past few days I’ve been immersed in your work, and I’ve been wondering how you do it. Being able to move someone to tears with a few words on a page is extraordinary to me.
Alice Walker: I want very much for you to feel for whoever I’m talking about, or whatever I’m talking about. Because it is only by empathy being aroused that we change. That is the power of writing. I’ve experienced exactly what you’re saying, reading other writers. I remember the book I first had that experience with was Jane Eyre, being right there with Jane, and understanding, yes, we have to change these horrible institutions where they abuse children. Today, I’m the supporter of an orphanage in Kenya. And one of the reasons comes from having been so moved by reading about Jane at Lowood.
Schloredt: It’s interesting to hear about what you read as a child, because some of your best-known work, like "The Color Purple," draws on the stories of your ancestors and your family and aspects of the world you knew as a child.
Walker: I think the foundation of everything in my life is wonder. We were way out in the country, and why wouldn’t you just absolutely wonder at the splendor of nature? It’s true I had various sufferings, but nothing really compares to understanding that you live in a place that, moment by moment, is incredible. That your mother could say, “I think we’ll have tea tonight,” pull up a sassafras root, take it home, boil it, and you have sassafras tea. I mean, it’s such a miraculous universe. For a child, this magic is something that supports us, even through the hard times.
Schloredt: Do you go back to your childhood home?
Walker: It doesn’t exist.
Walker: No. And there were many of them. We lived in shacks. Each year the people who owned the land (that they had stolen from the Indians), after they had taken the labor for the year, forced us to another shack. How could people do that, to people that they recognized as people? They did this to babies, they did this to small children, they could look at the people they were exploiting and actually see that they were working them into ill health and early death. It didn’t stop them.
The most beautiful parts of the area that I lived in are now an enclave of upper-class white housing tracts with a huge golf course. They built a road that went right through the front yard of our church. Most of the people moved to cities, they moved to projects. So, it doesn’t exist.
Schloredt: Something I wanted to ask after listening to you talk last night [at the YES! celebration in Seattle], is the idea that some people don’t experience empathy and don’t have a conscience that bothers them when they’re treating people extremely badly. Where can progressives go with that idea? How do we relate to knowing that?
Walker: You relate to it by being honest. We’re sitting back thinking that every single person has a conscience, if you could just reach it. Why should we believe that? I mean, what would make you actually believe that? Certainly not the history of the world as we know it. So it’s about trying to understand the history of the world, how it’s been shaped, and by whom, and for what purposes.
Understanding trumps compassion at this point. When people are forcing you out of your home, starving your children, destroying your planet—you should bring understanding of them to bear. Not everybody is loving of children, not everybody cares about the ocean. I think if we collectively decide that we are going to confront this, we have a chance. Because humanity is very smart, and we’d like to survive. And we’re not going to survive the way we’re going. I think we know that.
Schloredt: Your novels are among those books that cause people to say, “This book changed my life,” or “This book changed my way of thinking.” For me the book of yours that really did something to my way of thinking was Meridian. That is a very powerful book. One thing that really affected me was the description of the cost of racism to the psyche, what a struggle it is to fight such embedded injustice. I think I saw you as the character Meridian. Are you—have you got some Meridian in you?
Walker: I think all people who struggle at the risk of their lives have some Meridian in them. It’s an acceptance of a kind of suffering. You hope that something will come of it, but there’s no way of knowing. What I didn’t realize was so close to me was how Meridian gets really sick as she encounters various struggles. She’s using every ounce of her will, her intelligence, her heart, her soul. It often leaves her debilitated. And that has certainly been true in my life. And it’s something that I have to accept.
In Jackson, Miss., during the civil rights movement, the mayor had a tank that the town bought just to use against us. So there’s the possibility of the tank running over you, and you have to stand there. So I understood that, well, this is probably going to mean a few weeks of just being immobilized. And then you figure out ways to recuperate.
It’s learning to accept that the cost is great. It would have to be, because we’re talking about emotional intelligence and growth and stretching yourself, reaching for the sun, kind of as if you were a plant. It’s a difficult thing to change the world, your neighborhood, your family, your self.
Schloredt: Not only is Meridian risking her life, like the other civil rights activists in the South, but there’s also internal oppression, an inner struggle the characters deal with.
Walker: The inner struggle is extremely difficult for all of us, because we all have faults, severe ones, that we will struggle with forever. One of the things that I like about Meridian is that it is about how we like to have almost a stereotype about leaders and revolutionaries and world-changers, that they are always whole. It’s wise to accept that [human faults] are inevitable. Factor that in and keep going.
Schloredt: I love the passage where Meridian visits a black church after the assassination of Martin Luther King and finds that they’ve incorporated his rhetoric into the sermon.
Walker: This is the segment where B.B. King is in the stained-glass window with a sword—where the people needed to incorporate, as far as I was concerned at the time, a bit more militancy. More awareness of what you’re up against, and confronting that with real clarity. In some ways it’s the same issue that we’re talking about. You have to go to the places that scare you so that you can see: What do you really believe? Who are you really? Are you prepared to take this all the way to wherever the truth leads you and accept that you have to figure out different ways of confronting reality?
Schloredt: I wanted to ask you about Occupy and uprisings in the Middle East. You’ve been politically active over your lifetime. Is there advice that you would give to people who are organizing now in the United States?
Walker: If you want to have a life that is worth living, a life that expresses your deepest feelings and emotions, and cares and dreams, you have to fight for it. You have to go wherever you need to go, and you have to be wherever you need to be, and place yourself there against the forces that would distort you and destroy you.
I love the uprisings, I love the Occupy movement, and I think the young people especially are doing something that is very natural. It is natural to want to have a future. It is very natural to want to live in peace and joy. What is lovely about this time is the awareness that is sweeping the planet. People are just waking up, every moment.
Schloredt: One thing that I worry about for progressives is that we are often distracted from effective direct action by the project of improving ourselves, of being good.
Walker: And also, “good” in that sense can sometimes be very facile. And a good cover, you know, “I’m doing good, so I don’t have to change very much.” But I think for most Americans, the change that’s required is huge.
Schloredt: How do we make that change happen?
Walker: Well, you know, you’re doing it. I think YES! Magazine is part of what’s changing people’s consciousness. And I think the spread of Buddhism—the retreat centers, the meditation practice—has had a huge impact on people’s consciousness. Americans learning Buddhist tradition has helped a lot of people understand that they actually have a power that is theirs. They have their own mind. It’s not somebody else’s mind, and it’s not controllable, unless you permit it. That’s a foundation for huge change.
Schloredt: Your writing has, I’m sure, also changed consciousnesses. How does it feel to know that your work has in some way changed the world?
Walker: Well, it’s a gift the universe has permitted you to achieve—but it’s not just dropped in your lap, you have to really work for it. For instance, years ago when I wrote Possessing the Secret of Joy, the campaign against female genital mutilation [FGM] was a dangerous subject. There was a great deal of flak about my wanting to address it.
I wrote the book, and then Pratibha Parmar and I made the film [Warrior Marks, a documentary about FGM], and lugged it around Africa, and London, New York, all over. It allowed women who had no voice about FGM to speak. Progress is slow, and sometimes it’s discouraging. It’s like knocking on doors in the South asking people to vote, and they’re terrified of voting. And then seeing over the course of years that people started understanding that they had a right to reject the practice of FGM, that they had a voice. I feel grateful that I could be an instrument to stop any kind of suffering. I mean, what a joy.
Schloredt: In your novels you describe profound suffering and pain, but there is also often the potential for reconciliation and healing. If you could create healing and reconciliation for something that’s happening in our country today, what would it be?
Walker: I think the War on Terror is really absurd, especially coming from a country that is founded on terrorism. The hypocrisy of that is corrosive, and we should not accept it. There is no way to stop terrorism if you insist on making enemies of most of the people on the planet. Why should they care about you? All they feel is fear. So I would stop the War on Terror, and I would start making peace with the peoples of the planet by trying to understand them. I would like us to be able to say, “If that happened to me, I would feel exactly the way you do. And what can we do from here, from this understanding? What can we do together?”
• Valerie Schloredt interviewed Alice Walker for It's Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Valerie is associate editor of YES! Magazine.
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When environmental engineer John Feighery got an internship at NASA in the 1990s, he wanted to be an astronaut. Instead, he was given a job working with a team designing the US bathroom for the International Space Station.
The small, closet-like space needed a toilet, a place for hand washing, a place for bathing, and a place to keep toiletries. Feighery also worked on a project to fix equipment designed for monitoring crew health, which included testing water and air quality.
Feighery turned his focus from managing water, sanitation, and health problems in space to those on Earth.
“I'd been working on supplying clean water to three or four people in space, and meanwhile there are a billion here on earth that don't have it,” Feighery told AlertNet. “The world that my kids are going to grow up in has this huge problem that I felt like I could work on.”
After he left the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Feighery got a job testing well water in Bangladesh funded by the National Institutes of Health, part of the US Health and Human Services department.
He felt the work, which involved using heavy equipment, charting notes and locations by hand, and transporting samples in incubators to a distant laboratory, could be simplified and made less expensive.
The application allows people to track water-quality tests at any given water source over time, providing instant results to the user and putting their results in context with other tests.
The app, which is available from Google Play Store, also allows users to leave notes for other users about the appearance of the water, its scent, and how the water is flowing from the source, building up an archive of information over time.
A photograph of the water source can be uploaded and location details are registered automatically using a GPS reading from the mobile device.
“It's a very novel approach to water-quality monitoring,” said Lars Onsager Stordal, who works for UN Habitat's water, sanitation and infrastructure department. “It makes it possible, affordable, and manageable at the local level.”
Health workers can use the data or go with a sick patient and easily test the water where they live.
“Anybody can look at it and see what's going on to see if anyone else might get infected,” Feighery said. “When fecal contamination occurs somewhere it is the first precursor of disease in water systems. Before cholera spreads, there's usually some failure in the sanitation system.”
Giving poor people proper access to safe water and sanitation would save 2.5 million people a year from dying from diarrhea and other diseases spread by a lack of hygiene, according to the charity WaterAid.
Next, Feighery will be working with UN Habitat and Rwanda's ministry of health to help equip health workers to use mWater.
Feighery was speaking with AlertNet at the annual Stockholm International Water Institute World Water Week conference where more than 2,500 aid workers, water researchers, and policymakers met to discuss water and food security issues.
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The education reform film "Won't Back Down" opened last Friday to terrible reviews – and high hopes from activists who expect the movie to inspire parents everywhere to demand big changes in public schools.
The drama stars Maggie Gyllenhaal as a spirited mother who teams up with a passionate teacher to seize control of their failing neighborhood school, over the opposition of a self-serving teachers union.
Reviewers called it trite and dull, but education reformers on both the left and right have hailed the film as a potential game-changer that could aid their fight to weaken teachers' unions and inject more competition into public education.
Private foundations, nonprofit advocacy groups and the US Chamber of Commerce have pumped more than $2 million into advocacy efforts tied to "Won't Back Down," including 30-second ads, promotional bookmarks, websites, private screenings, and a six-month, cross-country discussion tour that will keep the film in circulation long after it leaves theaters.
Their goal: Attract new foot soldiers who will help them fight for legislation that allows parents to seize control of local schools, as dramatized in the film; eliminates tenure protections for veteran teachers; and opens the door for more competition to neighborhood schools in the form of charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.
"This movie has the potential to be one of the most transformative vehicles in the history of education reform," said Ben Austin, a longtime Democratic activist.
Mr. Austin now runs Parent Revolution, which promotes "parent trigger" laws allowing parents unhappy with struggling schools to take control, fire teachers, and bring in private management.
His organization is holding 35 private screenings of "Won't Back Down" in states from Georgia to Utah to New York over the next month to rally more parents to the cause. "This movie is telling a story that's relevant to hundreds of thousands of parents across America," Austin said.
Union leaders, for their part, have slammed the movie as a propaganda film that bears little resemblance to reality.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has called it "egregiously misleading" and complained that several scenes seemed designed for "the sole purpose of undermining people's confidence in public education, public school teachers, and teacher unions."
So far, the reform coalition has ignored the bad reviews and pushed ahead with their marketing efforts.
The drive to capitalize on the movie grows out of lingering disappointment within the education reform community over the last major film to carry their message, the documentary "Waiting for 'Superman.'"
Produced by Walden Media, which is also behind "Won't Back Down," the documentary chronicled dysfunction in urban schools and the desperation of parents trying to find alternatives for their children.
"Waiting for 'Superman'" was well-received and widely viewed, thanks to backing by the Gates Foundation. But activists hoping for a big boost from the film were disappointed.
"We didn't feel we captured anyone," said Matt David, a consultant to Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools and a major figure in the reform movement. Many viewers walked out angry at the public school system, he said, but had no way to channel that emotion into action.
This time, Ms. Rhee is moving quickly to provide a channel. Her advocacy group, StudentsFirst, has bought 30-second ads to run before showings of "Won't Back Down" in 1,500 theaters and sponsored marketing efforts to drive viewers to her website.
That website has been revamped to feature an "action center" where people moved by the film can sign up to join StudentsFirst, view short videos about its agenda (including one from comedian and newly appointed board member Bill Cosby), and share their own experiences with public schools.
The Center for Education Reform's website urges viewers to launch their own charter schools to compete with public schools. "You don't need a PhD or a teaching degree to start a school," the center's website advises. "Remember, you can do it now."
The most enduring campaign linked to the film may be the six-month "Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity" tour arranged by the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, an affiliate of the US Chamber of Commerce.
Drawing on a $1.2 million grant from the Daniels Fund, the group plans to stage private screenings and discussion forums for business and civic leaders in cities from Memphis, Tenn., to El Paso, Texas, to Trenton, N.J.
The American Federation of Teachers is countering with its own series of town hall meetings and workshops across the country designed to present teachers – and unions – as natural allies of parents seeking to better their schools.
• (Reporting By Stephanie Simon; editing by Todd Eastham)
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In the West Bank’s languishing economy, where harsh restrictions on the movement of goods constantly impair local industry, the emerging (and wireless) IT sector is invaluable.
The technology sector, which simply requires the Internet and a working telephone line, is free of the restraints that most other Palestinian industries experience. Businesses from hospitals to grocers are impacted by the intense border controls Israel implements. Goods coming into the West Bank are subjected to extensive checks that can make their arrival unpredictable at best, deeply affecting the stability of various industries.
However the IT sector is relatively immune to such impediments. And despite ongoing conflict in the region, it is garnering investors.
Since 2009, an estimated $78 million has been pumped into the Palestinian IT sector, resulting in a 64 percent increase in foreign business. Cisco Systems alone invested $10 million in the industry to support training programs and attract future investors. The net result has been continuing growth in the sector from 0.8 percent of GDP in 2008 to 5 percent in 2010 and employment for more than 2,500 Palestinians.
The industry is being driven by young repatriated entrepreneurs who have faith that the virtual nature of the industry makes it resilient to border controls. Companies like ASAL, Exalt, and Lionheart form the pillars of the growing IT industry stimulating jobs in software outsourcing, telecommunication development, and manufacturing equipment.
However, the industry is still in an infantile stage, with the largest of Palestinian IT companies only employing about 250 people. Amid the public sector's fiscal crisis, the industry has proved to be more resilient than most of other industries in the private sector.
The public sector’s decline, however, exerts a huge pressure on the private sector to perform. And dwindling foreign aid over the last two years has left the territory in an increasingly chaotic financial position. Countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar have substantially cut back their financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority. As of 2011, the UAE had cut aid from an annual $174 million to $42.5 million.
However, the technology sector has downsides as well. Despite massive growth rates, it cannot accommodate the more than 2,000 graduates in technical subjects annually. The industry's total revenue is only about $6 million a year; Israel’s technology industry rakes in about $1.6 billion annually.
World Bank reports concluded that the Palestinian Authority is currently too dependent on foreign aid to meet the economic requirements of statehood. The statement raises the question of whether more "borderless" jobs could boost the private sector in helping to alleviate the economic crisis.
Currently more than half of the world’s 7 billion people live in urban areas, and according to the United Nations (UN) that number is expected to reach 65 percent by 2050. Dramatic population growth strains food resources and raises the challenge of feeding urban dwellers, particularly the poor. According to the UN, poverty is now growing faster in urban areas than in rural areas—there are currently 1 billion people living in urban slums.
Today, Nourishing the Planet highlights five cities and the organizations that are helping these cities become food-sufficient:
1. Dar es Salaam: More than 45 percent of Tanzania’s 2.3 million unemployed people live in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. Studies by the Tanzanian Department of Rural Development and Regional Planning have found that there is significant reduction in poverty among residents who practice urban gardening in Dar es Salaam. In 2011, 68 percent of residents are growing food and raising livestock in the city. According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, 90 percent of vegetables and 60 percent of the milk supply are produced locally.
Dar es Salaam in action: The Mikocheni Post Primary Vocational School is training students how to make a sustainable living and grow food in the city. The vocational school has become a learning center for waste separation, composting, and urban farming. The composting chambers are built by the masonry students, the cooking and carpentry students contribute organic waste to the compost, and all students take turns attending the gardens. The school also offers free training seminars on composting to the local community.
2. Detroit: The population of Detroit has shrunk by more than 50 percent since 1950 and the current population is just over 900,000. It is a city that has largely been abandoned by grocery stores and more than 550,000 residents live in food deserts, areas with limited access to affordable and nutritious food. But the city of Detroit, led by creative entrepreneurs, has the potential to rediscover its roots in urban farming.
Detroit in action: Detroit Black Community Food Security Network (DBCFSN) is a nonprofit working for food security and food justice. D-Town farm, DBCFSN’s seven-acre organic farm, is also a Regional Outreach Training Center for Growing Power Inc.
3. Cape Town: More than 30 percent of the 3.5 million inhabitants of Cape Town, South Africa, live below the poverty line. Philippi Horticulture Area in Cape Town is a large agricultural area that easily produces half of Cape Town’s fresh produce. Much of the 3,300-hectare area of farmland is left vacant by the owners and as a result hundreds of families have illegally settled the land.
Cape Town in action: Nazeer Ahmed Sonday has a small farm in the Philippi Horticulture Area. He is concerned both for the marginalized poor who are living there as well as the environment. Nazeer founded the Schaapkraal Developing Farmers Association, which in partnership with the Program in Urban Food Security at Cape Town University is helping struggling farmers. Nazeer hopes to protect the biodiversity of the area from developers, help farmers get access to markets, and help youths see agriculture as a respectable and desirable way to make a living.
4. St. Petersburg: Time is of the essence in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the growing season is only four months. Despite the harsh climate, more than 2.5 million of the city’s inhabitants are cultivating 560,000 hectares, an area roughly the size of Prince Edward Island, every year. Hardworking urban farmers produce an impressive amount of food annually, including 15,800 tons of potatoes; 47,400 tons of apples, pears, and plums; 38,500 tons of vegetables; 7,900 tons of strawberries; and 23 million cut flowers.
St. Petersburg in action: In 1993 the St. Petersburg Downtown Gardening Club established its first rooftop garden. In 1999, it began collecting kitchen scraps each week from the residents of the building for a vermiculture project (composting with worms). Every month they recycle over 500 kilograms of waste and every year they save 30,000 rubles (almost $1,000). The club has also started gardens at the city prison, therapy gardening at a prosthesis institute, and participated in school gardening projects across the city.
5. Havana: With the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1989 and the US embargo on fuel exports to Cuba, the country had a serious food shortage. But in Havana, residents became creative. The government formed the Urban Agriculture Department to secure land-use rights for urban gardeners as people began planting organic gardens in backyards, empty city lots, and balconies. Today, Havana is a world leader in urban agriculture, growing more than half of its produce within city limits.
Havana in action: The National Urban Agriculture Group (GNAU) has been important to the success of urban agriculture in Havana. Because of successful research and sustainable techniques, yield on urban farms jumped from 1.5 kilograms per square meter in 1994 to 25.8 kilograms per square meter in 2001. Especially productive units may receive various honors (“with excellence” is the highest honor and there are only 82 of these gardens in the country) giving farmers social as well as monetary incentive to be productive. These farmers also serve as facilitators when new technologies are developed, helping educate other people in the community. By giving prestige to urban farmers, effectively disseminating organic technology and information, the government of Cuba has done a great deal to help Havana feed itself.
• Jenny Beth Dyess is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet. To purchase "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet" please click HERE.
Late last month, the California State Assembly passed new legislation that would assure legal status for small-scale cottage industries that sell baked goods and other "non-potentially hazardous" food items produced in home kitchens.
We're talking homemade cookies and brownies, jams, jellies, fruit pies, mixed nuts, flavored vinegars, dried teas, roasted coffee, and other yummy stuff that's already legal in more than 30 other states including Oregon, Washington, Texas, and Michigan, which have similar legislation in place.
Freshly signed by the governor last Friday, the California Homemade Food Act (AB1616) clears the way for home cooks in the world's eighth-largest economy to make and sell a wide range of products without the need to invest in commercial kitchen space or comply with the zoning and regulatory measures that govern larger producers and producers of meat and dairy products, specifically omitted from this law.
The stated goal of the legislation is to stimulate micro-enterprise development at the neighborhood level and "to connect food to local communities, small businesses, and environmental sustainability" while protecting consumers from artisan foods that contain potentially hazardous ingredients like primarily oils, meat, and dairy.
Elected officials are beginning to grasp the potential economic benefits of products and business practices that sharing economy leaders have been promoting for years. The Sustainable Economies Law Center, which worked on the bill with a coalition of local food advocates, provides regular updates on cottage food laws and other policies supporting micro-entrepreneurship and addressing the gray area that sharing-based services and current community needs have on our existing policies.
Proponents of the legislation claim that existing zoning and food safety rules place an unnecessary burden on entry-level food industry entrepreneurs. To circumvent these barriers, forward-thinking foodies in one of the nation's most food-obsessed states have established shared community commercial kitchens and culinary incubators where small-scale producers can get a foothold in properly zoned and inspected workspaces. For example:
- La Cocina, a San Francisco nonprofit established in 2005 "to cultivate low-income food entrepreneurs as they formalize and grow their businesses by providing affordable commercial kitchen space, industry-specific technical assistance, and access to market and capital opportunities."
- Three Stone Hearth, a worker-owned cooperative that operates a community food production facility and teaching kitchen in Berkeley, Calif.
- In the Kitchen, another community kitchen and culinary education center in the small town of Nevada City, Calif.
The sharing economy also has supported small-scale food producers by enabling alternative forms of capital investment. Commercial loans are out of reach for most cottage food businesses, but crowdfunding platforms like Three Revolutions (focused specifically on food ventures), Lucky Ant, Indiegogo, SmallKnot, Kickstarter, and Spacehive have enabled neighborhood culinary entrepreneurs by allowing them to bypass the banking system and seek direct funding from individual supporters.
The California Homemade Food Act, which takes effect in January, allows these types of grass-roots culinary initiatives to divert some of their attention away from grappling with an old economy regulatory environment so they can focus more on putting people to work, strengthening communities, and putting good, local food on the table. Who can argue with that?
Their aim is to create a toilet that will process wastewater in family homes and convert it into gas or electricity, saving families money and protecting them from deadly diseases caused by poor sanitation.
The Bangkok-based Asian Institute for Technology (AIT) is receiving a $5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the project, part of an estimated $380 million effort by the foundation to tackle sanitation problems in Asia and Africa.
“The [flush] technology that we’ve been using so far is 200 years old already … It hasn’t really been improved at all [since],” Thammarat Koottatep, an environmental engineer and associate professor at AIT, said at the AIT project’s launch Sept. 24.
The current flush toilet requires a substantial amount of sewage infrastructure, which is expensive to build and run. The technology for re-using and recycling the byproducts of animal waste is already available and used in industry but has not yet been applied to toilets, Thammarat said.
Severe diarrhea caused by poor sanitation kills 1.5 million children worldwide each year, according to the Gates Foundation.
According to the East Meets West Foundation, a US nongovernmental organization and another recipient of Gates Foundation’s sanitation funds, 50 percent of households in Vietnam and around 80 percent of households in Cambodia do not have sanitation facilities.
Almost 99 percent of people in Thailand have access to toilets, said Thammarat, yet the issue is not just about access but also of efficient disposal of waste afterward.
“Safe sanitation means you should be able to reduce the contaminants or the pollutants after flushing the toilet,” and Thailand has not reached that stage, he said.
Thailand produces 20 million cubic meters (5.3 billion gallons) - the equivalent of 8,000 Olympic swimming pools - of domestic wastewater per day, according to AIT. But only 1.6 million cubic meters are collected in sewer networks and sent to treatment plants, many of which do not function.
Less than 10 percent of the 60,000 tons of fecal sludge collected per day is treated correctly.
“We have a problem of contamination, very highly polluted rivers and canals,” leading to foul-smelling waterways especially in the dry season, said Thammarat.
The key to providing extensive and safe sanitation coverage in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam is to focus on decentralized systems, he said, often called septic or onsite systems, that focus at the household level.
Here, wastewater is treated close to the source, typically on the property of individual homes or businesses and saves owners the cost of connecting to a sewage system and eliminates the environmental burden of transporting large quantities of wastewater to a treatment plant.
In August, East Meets West received $10.9 million from the Gates Foundation, also to improve sanitation and hygiene practices, but this time among the rural poor in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Open defecation and the unsafe disposal of human waste in these two countries result in an estimated 17,000 deaths annually, 90 percent of which occur in children under age five, East Meets West said.
East Meets West’s program includes access to credible sources of financing for families to install latrines and hand-washing devices in their homes and conditional cash transfers to communes that achieve at least a 30 percent increase in sanitation coverage.
“The system we have [the flush toilet] only reaches one-third of the world’s population,” Doulaye Koné, a water and sanitation expert and senior program officer with the Gates Foundation said Sept. 24.
“It’s very expensive to buy this type of toilet, link it to kilometers and kilometers of sewer line, and build the kind of infrastructure that is needed to process it,” he added.
Yet he believes the problems can be fixed and he’s hoping to have more partners in Asia who will work with the organization on re-inventing the flush toilet.
Halfway across the country at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, a “showcase suite” shows how a child's hospital room can be made less intimidating and more comfortable.
The "1 percent" built the bike-repair workshop. The "1 percent" also built the hospital room.
No, not the 1 percent that’s been the object of Occupy Wall Street protests. This is "The 1%" program of Public Architecture. Based in San Francisco, the
organization connects nonprofit groups in need of design assistance with architecture or design firms. The name for the group comes from the idea that if firms across the country donate just 1 percent of their time each year to charitable work it would equal 5 million hours.
“In a moment of ambitious insanity, I decided to start a nonprofit,” says John Peterson, the founder and president of The 1%.
Mr. Peterson previously ran a small private architecture firm that specialized primarily in residential projects. But as his firm began taking on projects that forced him to think about its role in various kinds of neighborhoods, he saw an opportunity to help underserved communities.
Most architecture and design firms, he found, were unfamiliar with the idea of doing pro bono work. Initially, holding design competitions was the only way to get firms to participate.
“But competition [projects] rarely get built,” says Amy Ress, project manager for The 1% program. “We wanted to do projects that would get built.”
Mr. Peterson launched The 1% in 2001. More than 10 years later, more than 1,000 architecture and design firms (between 3 percent and 5 percent of all American architectural firms) and 600 nonprofit organizations are participating. About 18 new firms join each month, he says.
One of the earliest design ideas was The Station, which would serve as a gathering point for day laborers. Day laborers normally must hang out at spaces meant for other uses, such as gas stations and parking lots. Today a handful of official Day Labor centers exist across the country.
The Station, a flexible, pavilion-like structure could also serve as an employment center and classroom. While it’s not yet in use, the project is an example of how design can push discussion about social issues, according to the Program for Public Architecture website.
More outreach to architectural firms is needed to increase the number of pro bono participants , Ms. Ress says.
“If they [architectural firms] can’t keep the lights on and pay their staffs, they can’t do it,” Ress says. So The 1% needs to educate architect and design firms on how pro bono work can be a healthy part of doing business.
Firms should think of donating their time as an investment, Ress says. Nonprofits often have influential people on their boards. The chance to present work to a group of influential people is an opportunity, she says. One pro bono project can lead to 10 paying projects because of the connections made. And, in turn, new paying projects mean the firm will be able to afford to do yet more pro bono work, she says.
Donating time also permits firms to reach markets outside their usual business circle. And it allows younger firms to test new designs and technologies as well.
Only nonprofit groups based in the United States can participate in The 1%, though their projects can be anywhere. For example, San Francisco-based Room to Read builds libraries and school in Africa. It came to The 1% to find a design firm to help it become more energy and resource efficient.
A few firms in Canada and other nations use The 1% to share their pro bono work ideas though they haven’t yet joined in and matched up with nonprofit groups.
Financial support for The 1% comes from a mix of corporate and private foundations, according to The 1%. These groups include the National Endowment for the Arts, Shaw Contract Group, Teknion, and Formica. Contributions also come from firms such as Gensler, Cannon, and McCall Design Group.
From its start, The 1% has always asked the questions "How do we participate in the community? What is our responsibility in the community?” Peterson says.
They’re getting mentors.
Veterans Helping Veterans — modeled after a successful program in Palm Beach County, Fla. — pairs seasoned former military service men and women with veterans, of all ages and from all wars, who have ended up on the wrong side of the law.
Though created in 2010 through Broward’s Retired and Senior Volunteer Program, known as RSVP, the program didn’t start thriving until being connected to the county’s Veterans’ Treatment Court, which opened in May.
Now, it’s receiving three to four court referrals weekly (although any veteran can apply for assistance) and has 18 mentors, who under RSVP guidelines must be age 55 or older. Impact Broward CEO and president John Gargotta, whose nonprofit agency manages the RSVP program, is recruiting more.
“The court has created a lot of momentum,” RSVP director Edward Gray said. “But we know there are a lot of veterans who aren’t aware of the program, who aren’t going to their American Legion or VFW for support.”
The veterans’ court is designed to channel people who suffer from behavior, mental health, or substance abuse issues connected to their service into counseling or treatment programs. Department of Veterans Affairs psychologists first evaluate all candidates.
Palm Beach County was one of the first judicial circuits in the state to have a veterans court, holding its first session in 2010. The county’s court-mandated mentorship program, run by the nonprofit Faith, Hope, Love, Charity, Inc. in West Palm Beach, now is assisting 55 veterans, and has 25 more who have “graduated.”
Mentors can “keep veterans who are arrested out of the revolving door [of the justice system],” said program coordinator Michael Coleman, who served 21 years in the Air Force. “We want to bring them back and give them a second chance at being good citizens.”
Coleman said veteran-to-veteran mentorship has been so effective at getting offenders back on track that several other counties are asking his agency for guidance on setting up their programs.
“We see a veteran who came into court looking like he was down on his last bit of luck come back in 12 or 15 months with a smile on his face and ready to go back into society,” he said.
Census figures show that south Florida has one of the largest veterans’ populations in the state, with more than 118,000 living in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Defendants in veterans’ courts — many charged with addiction-related misdemeanors such as drug possession or resisting arrest — still are sentenced and penalized for their crimes. But Broward County Judge Edward Merrigan, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, knows the AA meetings and counseling he orders can be more helpful than jail time.
“A veteran mentor is an extension of that,” said Merrigan, who makes the referrals to Veterans Helping Veterans. “I want someone who will check on them and encourage them. Their lawyers can’t do that.”
Veterans Helping Veterans is funded by the federal Corporation for National & Community Service, through RSVP.
Mentors are people who understand why a young man who just returned from Afghanistan can’t sleep or flies into a rage over nothing. Mentors are a ride to a nearby Veterans Affairs clinic, a phone call after a bad day, help with a resume, a guide back into civilian life.
Jeremy Bortz, of Lauderhill, Fla., came back to a construction job in 2006 after multiple Army combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he struggled to control his anger, with inexplicable fits of weeping when he talked to co-workers about what he had seen and done.
“I’ve been out six years, and I can still smell the dead people,” Bortz said he told them.
Sometimes, Bortz said, he would leave the house and forget how to find his way back home.
The VA eventually certified Bortz as disabled due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Unable to work, he ended up in veterans’ court last month after being charged with a misdemeanor — and was paired with Gargotta, who served with a medivac unit in Vietnam.
The two agree that while their wars were different, their experiences were similar. Gargotta is familiar with VA disability claims, and Bortz said he feels more comfortable accepting help from a fellow combat veteran.
“Any guy in the service will respect a guy who fought in Vietnam,” he said.
Battle scars often aren’t on the surface, and some veterans who stand before Merrigan were discharged long ago. Edwin Stafford, who has been homeless and in and out of jail for years, served in the Coast Guard almost 30 years ago.
At 51, he found himself before Merrigan on drug charges, and the judge suggested Stafford might benefit from a mentor. Now, after a few meetings with Gargotta, Stafford has signed up for vocational culinary training and is searching for a permanent place to live.
“I’m learning life skills now,” he said.
• For more information on the Veterans Helping Veterans mentorship program or to become a mentor, call 954-484-7117 or go to seniorvolunteerservices.org. For information on Palm Beach County’s volunteer mentor program, call 561-968-1612 or go to standown.org.
Money is whizzing through the airwaves and cell towers of Zimbabwe, as a mobile cash-transfer system is on track to become the country’s biggest bank.
EcoCash, a mobile money-transfer service operated by telecommunications company EcoNet Wireless Zimbabwe, has reached a million subscribers in under six months since its launch, according to Mobile Money Africa. EcoCash enables money transfers across all networks between mobile users, a rapidly expanding sector of the Zimbabwean population.
And in a country where 80 percent of residents do not have access to mainstream bank accounts, a service that requires nothing but a mobile phone is a popular and more convenient alternative. Mobile phone users now make up 77 percent of the population, compared to just 6 percent in 2006, reports Mobile Money for the Unbanked. And EcoNet Wireless, EcoCash’s parent company, has that market cornered in Zimbabwe, with 6.5 million customers, which represents 70 percent of the market share of cell phone users, according to Mobile Money Africa.
EcoCash, a mobile money-transfer service, has reached a million subscribers. “There is a lot of money to be made by investing in the poor,” says Deputy Prime Minister Arthur Mutambara.
Within that segment, EcoCash has seen success by targeting the low-end market. Customers don’t need to have bank accounts, and 1,400 street agents throughout the country help make subscribing a quick and easy process. Agents receive a commission when customers total transactions reach $50, encouraging agents to target those likely to be actively using the service.
While the legalization of foreign currency in 2009 has pulled Zimbabwe’s previously plummeting economy out of a nose-dive, it’s also created challenges, including a shortage of change. The "coin problem" can make small transactions difficult to complete accurately, reported the New York Times, and small transactions tend to be the kind low-income users make. But now mobile cash services like EcoCash allow precise payment, regardless of the size of a transaction.
The ease of transactions is just one factor contributing to the skyrocketing popularity of EcoCash. Actual banks are more difficult to access than mobile phones, and the dark history of the Zimbabwean dollar contributed to widespread distrust of traditional banking services, reports the Zimbabwe Daily Mail.
Visibility aids EcoCash in its market domination. EcoCash markets its services through advertisements on public mini-buses, known as kombis, in urban areas, and over radio talk shows in rural areas. Widespread marketing helps keep EcoCash ahead of other, smaller competitor. And while some competitors require users to have bank accounts, EcoCash allows customers to bank with just their phone.
EcoCash modeled much of its strategy off of the success of Kenyan mobile money service M-Pesa, also under the umbrella of a telecommunications company, Safaricom. M-Pesa’s popularity has exploded in Kenya, with a customer base of close to 15 million subscribers, up from 2 million over five years.
Like EcoNet, M-Pesa’s parent company, Safaricom, dominates the telecommunications market in Kenya with a 67 percent market share, according to The Zimbabwe Independent. Like EcoCash, M-Pesa grew rapidly in its first year, although EcoCash’s first-year growth outpaced that of M-Pesa. And while Microfinance Africa reports that other countries have had difficulty replicating the long-term success of M-Pesa, similar marketing and business strategies and market domination make EcoCash a potential candidate to exhibit similar growth.
Most current EcoCash transactions are small, but the service is looking to increase its reach “into business services, such as bulk payments, salaries, and merchant transactions,” according to Mobile Money for the Unbanked (MMU). Customers currently pay a fee between 2 percent and 7 percent for transfers, but EcoNet hopes that as business volume continues to increase, those fees will be lowered further.
EcoNet sees the mobile money service “as a strategic business, rather than simply another product in its portfolio,” Francis Matseketsa, the head of EcoCash, told MMU:
"EcoCash believes that its primary economic driver will be cost savings on airtime distribution, as transaction revenue alone has not yet pushed the service to break even ... [and] offers a 5 percent discount on airtime purchased with EcoCash, a promotion that has proved very popular with customers."
Yet whether or not EcoCash proves to successfully bring Zimbabwe towards a thriving cashless economy, it has already demonstrated its ability to create jobs and keep cash changing hands – or phones – in what was long known as one of the world’s worst economic climates.