Saplings from the chestnut tree that stood as a symbol of hope for Anne Frank as she hid from the Nazis for two years in Amsterdam are being distributed to 11 locations in the United States as part of a project that aims to preserve her legacy and promote tolerance.
The tree, one of the Jewish teenager's only connections to nature while she hid with her family in a Secret Annex in her father's company building, was diseased and rotted through the trunk when wind and heavy rain toppled it in August 2010. But saplings grown from its seeds will be planted starting in April, when the Children's Museum of Indianapolis will put the first one in the ground.
The 11 US locations, which also include a park memorializing victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City, an Arkansas high school that was the heart of the desegregation battle, and Holocaust centers in Michigan and Washington state, were chosen by The Anne Frank Center USA from 34 applicants.
Winners were selected based on their commitment to equality, demonstration of the consequences of intolerance, or historical significance to civil rights and social justice in the US, according to a news release from the center.
"The heart of our mission is tolerance. ... Tolerance is really essential for being able to bring better welfare to everybody," said center spokesman Mike Clary.
The tree is referenced several times in the diary that Anne Frank kept during the 25 months she remained indoors until her family was arrested in August 1944.
"Nearly every morning I go to the attic to blow the stuffy air out of my lungs," she wrote on Feb. 23, 1944. "From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind."
Her father, Otto Frank, was the only member of the family to survive the concentration camps, and upon his return to Amsterdam, he was presented the diary, which had been saved by a family friend who had helped hide the Franks. The diary was first published in 1947 and would be translated into many languages and adapted for the stage and screen.
A global campaign to save the chestnut was launched in 2007 after city officials deemed it a safety hazard and ordered it taken down. The tree was granted a last-minute reprieve after a battle in court, but age and nature ultimately brought it down.
Jeffrey Patchen, president and chief executive officer of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, said the sapling planted in the museum's Peace Park will stand next to a limestone carving of a podium with Anne's diary on it. A mock chestnut tree looms over the entrance to the museum's permanent Anne Frank exhibit, which features live performances in a space that teaches visitors about life in the Secret Annex where the Franks hid.
"We're taking the lead in producing the educational materials that will go along with the tree," Mr. Patchen said. "We're producing this unit of study ... that focuses heavily on the humanities and presents the tree through selections of her diary and ... as a symbol of renewal."
Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., plans to plant its sapling in September, on the 56th anniversary of the previously segregated high school's integration. A group of black students called the Little Rock Nine, who braved angry mobs in the fall of 1957 to integrate the school, became a symbol of the civil rights movement.
"Both [Anne Frank and the Little Rock Nine] dealt with hatred from ignorant people," said Nancy Rousseau, the school's principal. "All of them displayed great bravery and courage, which wasn't necessarily seen then or now, also, in adults. They were all children."
Other states that have sites receiving saplings are Massachusetts, Idaho, and California.
The Anne Frank Center wants the sapling project to go beyond the initial planting of the trees. The center is launching an education initiative called Confronting Intolerance Today that will encompass a "teaching and discovery" website to create dialogue and show how the sites are using the sapling project to advance tolerance, a distinguished speaker series, and temporary exhibits from the center that will show the history of Anne Frank.
"We know that the tree was a sign of hope for Anne Frank, who was unable to leave her living quarters," said Yvonne Simons, executive director of The Anne Frank Center USA. "She wrote about it in a diary. For us, the tree portrays a symbolism of hope and growth and renewal."
A network of black men in Philadelphia, Detroit, and Baltimore is steadily growing. These men are mentors, fathers, brothers, and entrepreneurs. They are connected because they care. They are connected because they dedicated to positive change in their communities. They are Black Male Engagement (BMe). And it all started with the idea of sharing.
In 2011 BMe (pronounce “Be Me”) was launched by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. The foundations wanted to empower black men who were actively engaged and making a difference in their communities.
Aware of the stories that are often shared interpersonally and in the media, the foundations sought to develop another narrative. The people behind BMe wanted to look at the positive actions of black men in urban environments instead of approaching them as a group that needed to be fixed.
Members of the BMe team asked the question: What do you do to make your community stronger? In eight weeks they received and posted more than 2,000 answers from men in Philadelphia and Detroit.
“So many brothers are doing more than their fair share to make our communities stronger,” says Trabian Shorters, vice president of communities for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “By providing funding, BMe hopes to both give them the boost they need to go further with their work, and bring more people into the growing ranks of engaged black men.”
The 2012 grant cycle awarded funding to 10 men in Detroit and 10 men in Philadelphia. Awards ranged from $5,000 to $40,000 for community projects including literacy programs, book clubs, and mentoring programs.
Andre Dandridge, founder of New Young Fathers, received money to design and facilitate workshops in Detroit to help ensure that young men were more equipped for fatherhood. Alex Peay, who now serves as a member of BMe’s community engagement team, was granted funds to strengthen his organization, Rising Sons. The after school program arranges for college students and recent graduates to mentor high school students and then trains the high schoolers to mentor elementary school students in the area. Curtis Lipscomb’s grant enabled him to train 22 Detroit youths to become advocates of social issues facing the LGBT community in their city.
While previous grantees are hard at work utilizing their resources, BMe has started a new grant cycle with the theme, “Call for Community Impact.” Each chapter has up to $200,000 to give to programs and projects its city. If you are a black man living in Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Detroit, are over the age of 18, and have uploaded a video to BMe’s site, then you’ve already met most of the criteria.
While last year’s funding went to individuals, this year there is a particular emphasis on partnerships and collaboration. Hoping that BMe members will share ideas and build upon them together, as the founders of Philly’s Live & Let Live Coalition did, grants and future programming are being geared more toward collaborative efforts.
This year BMe will expand to Pittsburgh, and they are looking to establish chapters around the country, each operating with a “simple truth” at their core: “That black men are assets to our nation. That there are thousands of black males who – by example – inspire others to get involved, to persevere and to lead on issues and opportunities facing the community.”
• This article originally appeared at Shareable, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good. The original article includes a video of one member of BMe in Philadelphia who shares his story about what he does for his community.
The majority of women in developing countries rely on agriculture, and it is widely acknowledged that gender should be a major consideration in agricultural development for the rural poor.
When we think of how to improve the situation for women farmers, we often focus on farming issues such as land rights, training, and access to better seeds and markets. But for many women, post-harvest chores entail a heavy work burden that needs to be relieved to improve their lives. Doing so could also improve their communities’ resilience to drier climates.
The pestle and mortar are still the main tools used to grind staple cereals such as millet and sorghum in most sub-Saharan countries. But manually grinding grains is painful and time-consuming for rural women with relentless daily workloads in West Africa.
The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and its partners have been working with women to try progressive technologies to ease their work burden. As part of the HOPE Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, women farmers like Zénabou Halilou from Niger are replacing manual pestle and mortars with grinding machines that save time and labor.
"Before the mill was installed in our village, we manually processed all our grain,” says Halilou. “Threshing, husking, and milling used to take about 16 hours of my daily time. Thanks to the mill I save nearly eight hours a day. This has made a big difference.
“I can now spend more time on food processing and have just started a poultry farm. I also have more time for my children. Instead of meals served very late or not at all, they now eat every night before going to bed,” she explains.
The time needed to prepare and process grain is a key criterion for smallholder farmers in choosing their crop. Saving several hours a day in millet preparation encourages farmers to grow this drought-tolerant crop. So introducing this post-harvest technology helps farmers become more resilient to drier climates.
Under the CODEWA project funded by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, ICRISAT explored crop diversification strategies to help farmers in the Sahel region boost their resilience to drought. This includes encouraging them to grow highly drought-resistant traditional crops, such as fonio, the smallest millet and a major staple cereal crop in dryland regions of West Africa.
Very nutritious and fast growing – it just needs six to eight weeks from sowing to harvest – the grain is used to prepare porridge, couscous, bread, and beverages. But its tiny size (2,000 grains per gram) means women commonly spent hours threshing the grain.
Over the past decades, farmers have adopted other cereal crops that are easier to process, such as maize. But maize yields suffer in dry weather, leaving drought-affected farmers at risk of losing their harvest when water is scarce.
The dissemination of an award-winning fonio threshing machine that can prepare 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of grain in six minutes instead of two hours of hand pounding has been a driver to reintroduce the cultivation of this hardy cereal.
The World Bank, through its West Africa Agricultural Productivity Program Project, has recently funded the distribution and assessment of fonio-husking machines in Senegal. This is good news as fonio is often the only crop farmers succeed in harvesting in very dry climates.
Technologies that free women from manual threshing are also appreciated for other reasons. Halilou proudly shows off her hands.
“Threshing and husking used to make my hands very rough,” she says. “Now that I use the mill, they are much smoother, and I am not ashamed to greet people with my hands.”
For young girls in rural parts of Cambodia, the road to school is often not only long but also perilous.
Because girls risk rape or abduction by sex traffickers, many parents prefer to keep their daughters at home rather than exposing them to danger on the daily journey to school. Attendance figures bear out the result: Only 11 percent of girls in Cambodia reach secondary school.
But the number of girls making it to school is slowly increasing because of Lotus Pedals, a program to give bicycles to young Cambodian girls.
It’s hard to attack a girl on a bike, says Erika Keaveney, executive director of Lotus Outreach International, the San Francisco charity that runs the program.
“Lotus Pedals is a simple intervention but a terrifically effective one,” she says, adding, “And donors like it because a one-time gift can make such an enormous, direct difference in one girl’s life.”
The charity spends $80 to provide each bike, counting the costs for transport and delivery, a repair kit, and a pump, along with project management and follow-up.
Lotus Pedals distributed 500 bikes in Cambodia last year, and Ms. Keaveney says the goal is 2,000 in 2013. Lotus Outreach International was founded in India in 1993 by Khyentse Norbu, a Buddhist teacher who sought to serve the world’s most dispossessed people through education.
A decade later, the charity opened a U.S. office that serves as headquarters, coordinating affiliate operations in seven countries. The charity now serves 30,000 women and children, mainly in India and Cambodia, with a 2013 operating budget of $925,000.
Contributions from individuals account for two-thirds of the budget, with most of the rest coming from foundations. This year the charity hopes to increase donations through marketing deals with bicycle manufacturers and retailers.
“We have seen how one bicycle is so much more than two wheels,” says Ms. Keaveney. “It is amazing how many Cambodians can fit onto a bike. Our girls often give their siblings or neighbors a ride to school on the handlebars and anywhere else they can hold on, so one bike actually enables multiple kids to get to school.”
It's easy to tell a powerful and heart-rending story about the lack of clean water that afflicts millions of people.
Paint a picture: A young girl must walk miles down a dusty road to collect water from a contaminated well or stream and then haul it home on her back. The journey takes so long that she can't take time to attend school. The water itself is so polluted that it causes illnesses in her family, perhaps keeping other family members from working or attending school.
It's a tragic picture that rightfully elicits funds from well-meaning donors. But it's only part of the story.
For decades aid organizations have been drilling wells and installing taps and hand pumps all over the developing world. But while some progress in improving access to clean water has been achieved, it hasn't been as dramatic as the number of these projects would suggest.
Why? Because a large percentage of wells and hand pumps fall into disrepair and are abandoned only a few years after they are installed. Pipes break, spare parts are unavailable, or people with the technical expertise to make repairs are nowhere to be found.
"People are walking past broken taps and going back to polluted water sources," says Ned Breslin, CEO of the nonprofit group Water for People. Up to 60 percent of water projects fail within 18 months to two years, Water for People says. "[The problem goes] way beyond just banging in infrastructure."
What's needed is the harder, less glamorous work of monitoring and maintaining water systems, Mr. Breslin says. That's why his organization pledges to monitor all of its water projects for 10 years after installation to make sure they are still in operation. The idea is that a project built to last – and properly maintained – costs less in the long run.
Breslin was speaking just prior to World Water Day, founded by the United Nations in 1993. This year the 20th World Water Day is being marked tomorrow, March 22.
Despite a concerted effort by governments and nongovernment groups, the problems of water scarcity and quality remain enormous. Some 783 million people don't have access to safe drinking water, 2.5 billion don't have adequate sanitation facilities, and nearly 6,000 people – mostly children – die from water-based illnesses each year, Water for People estimates.
Breslin's nonprofit, which is funded in part by donations from North America's water companies, applies another key tenet: Local people should be viewed as partners – not victims.
"Treating people as active agents in the solution, as opposed to just saying, you know, they're really poor and they can't afford it, is a very different approach," says Breslin, who received the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship for his work with Water For People in 2011. "And, frankly, communities around the world respond to that. They respond to … challenging the story that they are poor and helpless."
Water for People now is looking to work with multinational corporations that share its concerns about the availability of clean water.
"We're partners with Coca-Cola," he says. "Coca-Cola has some of the greatest water-resources scientists around: How do we unleash them as part of the solution to sustaining water resources over time?"
More and more, climate change is exacerbating the water problem, Breslin says. "We see all around the world water resources under great threat. We have great concerns. We're seeing massive rainfall pattern changes.
"To me climate change is an absolute threat, and every corporation around the world that has some footprint in water is worried about it, and so are we," he says.
Water for People doesn't advocate for any one solution to the world's water crisis.
"We can be creative and begin to address this problem with everything from aquifer recharging to better storage of water and a whole range of things … if we acknowledge it's a challenge," Breslin says. "We believe that there's a wide range of technical solutions that exist. There are new things constantly coming on line. The challenge is to get the best solutions for each particular locale."
Not long ago, I was in Kigali, Rwanda, watching a small boy in an Annie T-shirt playing with a marble. The child was surrounded by sweet potatoes, fruit, sugar, cooking oil, and dozens of sundries—gum, candy, pens, razors—much as you might find in any small convenience store.
This was his mother Yvonne’s place of business.* It was also the front room of the family’s modest two-room home. And it was a sign of great hope.
Yvonne was a client of Urwego Opportunity Bank, a local microfinance institution. The bank’s loans are partly financed through Kiva, a nonprofit organization that enables people like you and me to invest as little as $25 in mom-and-pop businesses in more than 65 countries.
Through Kiva, I’d sent $25 chunks of my own cash toward hundreds of clients like Yvonne all over the world. Curious to see the results, I was now traveling through five continents—from Peru to Bosnia to Kenya to Lebanon to Nepal to Cambodia and beyond—to hear the stories of as many clients as I could. (The ensuing book, The International Bank of Bob, was just published by Bloomsbury.)
Yvonne spent most of her days tending to her kids in this front room convenience store; the back was where they all slept. It was a humble but stable arrangement, the store providing a small but steady income.
A year and a half earlier, however, Yvonne and her kids didn’t have a giant stack of produce to sell and a home with a solid roof. They were sleeping on a mat in an unpowered shack that she rented for the equivalent of five U.S. dollars per month. Yvonne’s husband had been in and out of jail, met another woman, and then fled to Uganda, leaving Yvonne as a single mom in a country still recovering from the 1994 genocide and war, with no advanced skills beyond sheer persistence.
But persistent she was. She learned from friends how to buy sweet potatoes, sorghum, and other staples in bulk, transport them home, and sell portions at a profit. (Think of the 7-Eleven business model.) Yvonne’s first loan to buy bulk goods was for 70,000 Rwandan francs—the equivalent of about $140.
Prior to the arrival of microfinance, Rwandan banks required five times as much just to open an account. Yvonne’s loan would have been inconceivable. Her kids might still be sleeping in the unpowered shack, instead of curling up in a real bed under a good roof.Yvonne’s face brightened most when she told me that her children would soon begin school. With stability in their lives, the boy in the Annie shirt could learn to read the word Annie. Since literacy breeds knowledge, communication, and greater opportunity, these kids may very well have a wholly better life, simply because their mom had access to a tiny amount of capital.
If I put $25 into the best savings account where I bank, in a year, I’d have $25 and a few pennies. If I put that same $25 into a Kiva loan, which pays back about 99 percent of the time, next year I’ll have a small pile of pennies less.
Yvonne’s $140 is less than six $25 Kiva loans. Six small piles of pennies, then—that’s the ultimate cost to help a kid in an Annie shirt possibly have an entirely different and better life.
This is why I Kiva.
*Yvonne is a pseudonym. Independent journalism scarcely exists in Rwanda, and the language barrier was formidable. On the small chance that the purpose of our interview was not utterly clear, I will err toward her privacy.
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• Bob Harris has had a diverse career as an author, TV writer, and AP award-winning radio humorist. Often known for his 13 "Jeopardy!" appearances, Bob has also contributed numerous travel pieces to ForbesTraveler.com. He holds an honors degree in electrical engineering and applied physics from Case Western Reserve University. As a Kiva lender, Bob has made more than 5,200 loans. Bob Harris Online | @bobharrisdotcom
Post offices in Nigeria are becoming surrogate bank branches for the unbanked rural poor, under a government project launched last month.
Opening new bank branches in remote areas to reach the financially excluded is often prohibitively expensive, because the rural poor wouldn't use a branch enough to cover its costs.
That's why India and Nigeria have banks that are collaborating with post offices to turn them into banking outlets. This transformation will not be too far of a stretch considering just how many financial services many public post offices already provide in these regions: small savings accounts, life insurance, mutual funds, e-money orders, and foreign exchange.
Collaborating directly with banks would let post offices add small credit, remittances, and various insurance policies, too. Very small-scale lending, for instance, does not require extensive knowledge and could be learned by the existing post office staff.
Small savings deposits that already exist can be a useful start-up resource for lending. And India Post, for example, already has more than a century of experience operating Postal Life Insurance, which could be extended to include an array of valuable insurance policies for the rural poor.
The post office-to-bank transformation is one variation of "agent banking," the supply of financial services to customers by a third party in support of a bank or other licensed provider. Already, supermarkets, convenience stores, pharmaceutical retailers, and lottery outlets have been turned into banking outlets.
90 percent of India's post offices are located in rural areas, compared to just 37 percent of its commercial banks. Because of this, discussions about an India Post Bank have been carrying on for a long time now, though plans have yet to materialize.
For Borno State in Nigeria, utilizing post offices to bring financing to the 87 percent of the population that lives in rural areas seems to banking industry leaders like a no-brainer. “In 2010, the average distance for a Nigerian to a bank was more than 10 kilometers [6.2 miles]," the Center for Financial Inclusion's Jeffrey Riecke wrote last month. "In addition to extending financial services to those without access, agent banking would help financial institutions regain customers that they might have lost over the year through the closings of unprofitable bank branches."
It is clear that post offices in remote locations provide a physical advantage over commercial banks, but will the money it takes to train postal workers, secure necessary licenses, implement technology, and raise salaries to match those of bank staff make this option any more sustainable than extending traditional banks into rural areas?
Those working on the Borno project seem to think so.
“If we succeed with the project in Borno, it will be extended to other states of the federation," Enterprise Bank CEO Ahmed Kuru said last month. "And we are convinced that we will succeed.”
A 'demographic window' of opportunity: Why youth need bank access nowResources: Post Offices Fill Financial Inclusion Gaps (via the Center for Financial Inclusion))A case for converting India Post into a bank (via The Hindu Business Line)Post offices to drive financial inclusion pilot scheme (via The National Mirror)
Massachusetts Avenue Park was not a place you'd want to take your kids. Before, the small neighborhood park in the heart of Buffalo's West Side was little more than vacant land with a small playground and a crumbling basketball court.
“It was a real mess,” says Terry Richard, a neighborhood resident who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and later moved to Buffalo, N.Y., by way of Brooklyn. “So we figured … why don’t we just take this on as a task to really force the city’s hand to take care of their problem,” she adds, standing next to the park’s new playground with a bright smile.
Buffalo is located where the waters of Lake Erie feed into the swift currents of the Niagara River. It was established as a major grain shipping and storage center in the late 19th century, but as shipping routes changed and heavy industry packed up and left the Great Lakes region, Buffalo's population rapidly declined. In 1950, Buffalo's population was about 580,000, but by the 2010 census it had fallen to about 260,000.
It isn't just the population that's been shrinking though: Employment numbers are down, and like other Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has struggled to support its infrastructure with a shrinking tax base. The rebirth of Massachusetts Avenue Park echoes many other stories taking shape throughout the city. Instead of waiting for the city to make things better, residents like Ms. Richard are taking matters into their own hands.
Richard is a board member for People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), a grass-roots organization based in Buffalo that seeks to provide affordable, environmentally friendly housing and job training.
In early June PUSH celebrated the opening of Phase 1 of the small but pleasant new Massachusetts Avenue Park, which resulted from about two years of petitioning City Hall to fund the project. The park is just one piece of PUSH's broader plan to create a Green Development Zone within the West Side—a 25-block area where the group is developing sustainable, affordable housing and creating new career pathways for neighborhood residents.
Like many Buffalo neighborhoods, the West Side is full of vacant properties, and PUSH co-founders Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker wanted to know why. When they launched the organization in 2005, their first order of business was to conduct a survey of Buffalo's West Side, which meant going door-to-door in the community for about six months.
With a bit of digging, they discovered that a sub-agency of the New York State Housing Finance Agency was in control of nearly 1,500 tax-delinquent properties in the city—about 200 of which were on the West Side—that were being left to rot. In 2003, the state of New York's Municipal Bond Bank Agency bought the delinquent tax liens for those homes, which were then bundled and sold as bonds to investment bank Bear Stearns.
But there was one major problem: According to a report published in Artvoice, Buffalo's main alternative weekly, the assessed value of the properties was much higher than they were actually worth. In effect, the state was using vacant houses in Buffalo to speculate on Wall Street.
Meanwhile, nothing was happening with the houses; the state was neither maintaining them nor selling them.
"There just was absolutely no due diligence done as part of the transaction," Mr. Bartley said. "If there had been, they would've seen that bond was fraudulent."
The value of bonds was based on revenue that was supposed to have been generated by the houses, through either selling them or collecting unpaid taxes. But the state made little effort to sell or collect taxes on the properties. Why? Because doing so would reveal the true value of the properties, according to Bartley, and the house of cards would come crumbling down.
"The reason they didn't do that is that would've shown the lie to the deal, because they would have sold for $0, and it would have indicated that it was worthless," Bartley explained.
When Bartley and Walker made the discovery, they tried to bring it to the attention of state officials through standard channels, but when that failed they launched a direct action campaign. Using a big stencil, they painted an image of then-Gov. George Pataki's face on more than 200 houses across the city. Eliot Spitzer was campaigning for governor at the time, and he took an interest in the issue. When Spitzer took office, his administration unwound the bond, gave the houses back to the city of Buffalo, and created a small housing rehab fund. The houses were turned back into the city's inventory, and when PUSH or one of its partner organizations wants to redevelop one, they ask to have it transferred.
Two years later, PUSH invited hundreds of residents to a neighborhood planning congress to draft a development plan for the largely blighted 25-block area on the West Side that would later become the Green Development Zone (GDZ). The plan went far beyond energy-efficient affordable housing to include the creation of employment pathways and promoting economic stability within the zone.
On the surface, the GDZ still looks similar to other Buffalo neighborhoods: The streets are lined with 100-year-old two- and three-story houses, and in the summer they teem with people. Old ladies sit and talk on first-floor balconies, while kids weave in and out of slow-moving traffic on bicycles. But this small neighborhood is in the midst of a pretty radical transformation.
"Sustainability" in the context of PUSH's agenda means reducing the neighborhood's environmental impact, but also strengthening the local economy and creating green jobs in the building rehabilitation and weatherization industries. PUSH was instrumental in getting the Green Jobs - Green New York (GJGNY) legislation passed, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing green upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state.
PUSH recently established PUSH Green to implement the GJGNY program in the Buffalo area, functioning as an independent outreach contractor in the region. For the work, PUSH has established what it calls a "Community Jobs Pipeline," a network of contractors who agree to provide job training, pay living wages, and hire local workers from target populations.
In September, PUSH held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for three gut-rehab buildings with a total of 11 affordable housing units, bringing the total number of residential units PUSH completed in the GDZ to 19.
But the organization has much bigger ambitions. In December, PUSH announced plans to build nine new-construction buildings and to renovate seven existing properties, adding a total of 46 more energy-efficient, affordable units to the neighborhood.
"We're very strategic in our development work, so we've taken a small section of the West Side, and we're really trying to concentrate our development," explained PUSH Development Director Britney McClain. "We don't want to contribute to the scattershot development work that is also common in the city of Buffalo."
Ensuring that the homes it produces are energy-efficient is an important component of PUSH's work, because heating and energy costs account for a large percentage of living expenses in Buffalo.
"A lot of the houses in this city are over 100 years old and poorly insulated, so to have an apartment at an affordable rate but also that is totally energy-efficient, through the new windows and insulation, the utilities bills will be drastically reduced," McClain told me.
Green buildings enjoy lower operating costs, but they're more common in luxury real estate portfolios than in the inner city. That's a perception that PUSH is looking to change.
In 2011, PUSH completed a net-zero energy house—a home that produces as much energy as it uses. The project was launched to showcase renewable energy technologies and to help give low-income residents paid job training.
In the process, the builders found another innovative use for vacant lots: They dug a deep trench in the adjacent lot to provide geothermal heating and cooling for the house. On all of the buildings, PUSH reuses existing materials where possible, upgrades the windows and insulation, and installs Energy Star-rated metal roofs that help to passively cool the buildings.
Back at the PUSH headquarters I met co-founder Eric Walker, who I instantly recognized even though we had never met. Walker guest-starred on an episode of ABC's reality TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired in 2010. In a typical episode of the show, a handful of hyperactive celebrities and local volunteers target a distressed home that is owned by a family undergoing illness, disaster, or some other hardship, and they quickly fix it up for the family in need.
Instead of just fixing up one house, though, PUSH and some 4,500 volunteers teamed up with the show's producers to fix up several surrounding properties in the neighborhood as well.
Why go back to the way things were when we can create housing that embraces the best of tradition and the best of new thinking?
Extreme Makeover brought the West Side some positive national exposure, but Walker still has mixed feelings about the show. Neighborhood improvement can either come from external forces or it can come from within, and the forces of change portrayed in the show weren't entirely homegrown.
"In organizing, we talk about three kinds of power: power over, power for, and power with," explains Walker. The TV show gave PUSH an opportunity to inspire, but the tools of change were in the hands of the ABC producers and the celebrity hosts—not members of the community. "It was one step removed from the power we're trying to build," Walker says.
The TV cameras packed up and left, but the transformational power remains in the neighborhood. It is evident in the carefully restored Victorians that line Massachusetts Avenue; in the raised beds the community has acquired through PUSH; and in the fact that parents now take their children to the once-dangerous park they fought for and won themselves.
• Mark Andrew Boyer wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Mark is a photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in GOOD, Inhabitat, and Mindful Metropolis.
Living in an isolated Himalayan hamlet, 2,500 meters (5,600 feet) above sea level, Govind Singh Rana seems an unlikely candidate for wealth. But by the standards of other villagers in northern India’s Uttarakhand state, he earns a fortune by harnessing the power of the mountain stream that runs across his land.
Rana uses a water-powered turbine to run a saw mill, press apricot oil in season, and generate electricity, at little cost to himself and without the need for environmentally unfriendly power sources like diesel generators.
He is one of 28,000 people in Uttaranchal who have discovered the advantages of a modern incarnation of the traditional wooden water wheel, or gharat. The turbines, which harness hydro power for small-scale industry by day and for generating electricity by night, have brought an ecologically sustainable economic revolution to the Himalayan states of Uttaranchal, Jammu & Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh, as well as the so-called Seven Sister states in India’s northeastern Himalayas.
During the day, the turbines grind wheat flour and spices, thresh rice, press apricot oil, and comb cotton. At night, the turbines in the first three states alone generate a total of 264 megawatts of electricity per hour, all without burning any of the fossil fuels that could exacerbate the effects of climate change on the Himalayan environment.
Spearheading the sustainable exploitation of mountain resources is Anil Joshi, a former professor of botany. Inspired by the Gandhian philosophy of rural self-sustainability, Joshi launched a grass-roots movement to help Himalayan villagers stop using coal-intensive power and instead turn the region’s thousands of fast-flowing streams into personal mini hydro-electric power stations.
Water wheels are a centuries-old technology in the Himalayas, but one that was becoming obsolete until Joshi and the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organization (HESCO), which he founded 29 years ago, taught villagers to develop alternative livelihoods by modernizing the wheels and using them for traditional industry during the day and to provide electric power to as many as 60 village homes per wheel at night.
Improving the technology was key to HESCO’s strategy. The old water wheels were inefficient, taking a day to crush around 10 kilos (22 pounds) of wheat. Making a single wheel was a laborious process that required the wood from an entire pine or deodar (Himalayan cedar) tree. And environmental considerations had led to restrictions on tree-felling, which drove up the price of timber to as much as 500,000 rupees ($9,200) for a single tree.
“These factors made the gharats unviable,” Joshi explained. “And gradually, the system started dying out.”
From a high of around 187,000, the number of water wheels in Uttarkhand, Jammu & Kashmir, and Himachal Pradesh over time fell to around 98,000, said Joshi, who has undertaken surveys of mountain villages on foot and by bicycle in numerous states of India’s north and northeast.
HESCO’s solution was to improve the gharats by fitting them with modern gears and ball bearings.
“This doubled the output,” said Manmohan Singh Negi, a HESCO worker, as he helped three other employees upgrade an old gharat into a modern one at Ghontu Ka Shera, a remote village around 22 km (14 miles) from Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand state.
“Today a powerful gharat can turn out about two quintals (80 kilograms) of wheat flour a day, making it a very profitable option for villagers,” Negi added.
The modernization of the technology has continued with the introduction of wheels made of steel. Wooden wheels were liable to break when torrential monsoon rains washed rocks downstream, and repairing the blades was time-consuming and costly.
“In the olden days, when a blade of a wooden turbine would break ... we would need to take the entire turbine out and make a different one, costing time and money,” said Negi.
Using steel instead of wood has made it possible to repair a single broken blade – and most repairs can be done locally.
“With the new material used, one can simply take off the screws of the single turbine blade and get it welded and repaired locally, at very little cost and time,” he explained.
Originally, gharats were used simply to grind wheat for flour. But the improvements to the wheels gave HESCO an idea.
“It struck us that with this massive availability of water from the streams we can actually generate electricity, and this is what we started to do,” Negi said.
HESCO continues to introduce innovations. At Ghontu Ka Shera, for instance, it has recently constructed its first horizontal turbine, rather than the traditional vertical ones.
“Due to the tremendous force of the hill streams, roughly 15 to 20 percent of the generative capability is lost when the water crashes into the turbine vertically. But in a horizontal turbine, we save that [capacity],” Negi said.
The Ghontu Ka Shera water mill does not simply crush wheat and spices by day and produce electrical power at night. The single horizontal turbine has four conveyor belts attached to separate machines for milling wheat, threshing rice, grinding spices and generating power, though to ensure maximum efficiency only two of the machines will be operated simultaneously.
Each gharat is run by an individual family. The owner of the Ghontu Ka Shera gharat is 45-year-old Kamal Singh Panwar. He will charge villagers up to 1 rupee (around 2 cents) to grind a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of wheat. They would otherwise pay twice as much for the use of a diesel-powered mill in Raipur, the nearest town.
From the 80 to 100 kilograms of wheat Panwar expects to grind each day, he should receive around 12 kg of wheat flour, as well as cash, in remuneration. Under an agreement, he will give HESCO around 1 kg of flour per day, which the organization will then sell to gradually earn back its 200,000 rupee (about $3,700) investment in the turbine.
Panwar points out that that there are further economic benefits to having his own mill, since he no longer has to pay 80 rupees to take a taxi to and from Raipur to have his wheat ground. And he will earn additional income by handling spices and rice.
For HESCO, the reduction in the carbon footprint from milling wheat is an important aspect of the program. But it is above all a sustainable, environmentally friendly way to revive rural economies.
Panditji, a priest and another gharat owner from Ganeshpur, near the holy town of Uttarkashi, recounted how his son left the village to earn a living working in a town elsewhere in the state. By reviving his gharat for grinding wheat and spices and threshing rice, Panditji now earns an average of 25,000 rupees ($460) every month, making him wealthy by local standards. But for him, the best part is that by improving his economic status he has been able to recall his son back to the village.
• Sujit Chakraborty and Archita Bhatta are science and environmental journalists based in New Delhi.
Maria Leon grew up in northern California as the child of a single mother who worked long hours and spoke little English. Back then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, her hometown of Lincoln in Placer County had only a small Latino population, a demographic that has grown over the decades. She was often left alone, struggling with her anger. She got in fights, was defiant to authority figures, and regularly missed school.
“I got away with it because of the language barriers with my school and family,” says Leon, now 35 years old. “I would have appreciated a mentor at that time.”
Today, Leon herself is a mentor, or "promotora," and one of many in her community. These women, who now number 10 in Placer County, form a new and crucial link between the Latino community and the broader society, which they had previously been separated from by barriers of language as well as by a lack of knowledge about how to interact with schools, hospitals, and other key institutions in the United States.
Because of the traditional role of women as caretakers in Latino communities, these mentors are primarily female. But there are three male mentors in the county who work specifically with boys and men.
Leon helps parents learn how to better engage with their children. A year ago, she began working with Latino girls 13 to 17 years old in Placer County. The problems she saw included lying, truancy, drug use, and early sexual activity. The parents knew about these behaviors, but said they felt unprepared to handle them. Some had difficulty communicating with law enforcement or school administrators because of language barriers. For others, fear over their citizenship status inhibited them from speaking up. As a promotora, Leon can help parents leap these hurdles and get more involved, both with society at large and with their own children.
She nudges the parents along. She urges them, for instance, to contact schools repeatedly until they reach a translator. She connects them to free county resources. She teaches them how to push for the well-being of their families.
“It’s hard,” she says. “Hopefully, one at a time, we can make it work out.”
About 18 years ago, a school psychologist in Placer County named Maria Cordova began noticing a trend in the local Spanish-speaking population: an increase in cases of domestic violence, feelings of isolation and depression, and mothers who lacked power. So, Cordova started a number of groups in which women provided emotional support to one another.
“Her intent was, how do we get these women—many of them immigrants—to learn about each other, support each other, because when they move here they become isolated,” says Elisa Herrera, coordinator of the Latino Leadership Council, an organization formed in 2007 to assist underserved Spanish-speaking populations in Placer County. About 13 percent of the county’s 350,000 residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin.
“We [later] asked the women, when they had a problem or a challenge, who did they call?” Herrera says. And they said that they called Maria Cordova.
The council labeled Cordova a promotora.
“She said, ‘What the heck is a promotora?’” recalls Herrera. A promotora, Spanish for “promoter,” acts as a trained paraprofessional to help families navigate complicated social systems and access resources.
Promotoras aren’t unique to Placer County. Various social agencies throughout the United States use them, including the Migrant Clinicians Network based in Austin, Texas, and Planned Parenthood chapters. They typically focus on health issues.
Placer County’s promotoras are managed by the Latino Leadership Council. Cordova helped develop the program and now serves as its manager, overseeing 13 trained participants. They are paid on a contract basis and earn between $12 and $20 an hour, depending on skill level.
The first and most important factor in selecting someone to train as a promotora is that she must be trusted in the community.
“We hire for attitude and trust, and train for aptitude,” Herrera says.
The promotoras undergo training on a regular basis, learning about topics such as health education, youth violence prevention, and how to deal with trauma. They learn when to refer a client to a licensed professional or other organization. The promotoras who work for the Latino Leadership Council recently received training from a clinical psychologist on setting boundaries.
Herrera says that promotoras sometimes want to do too much for families, and take full responsibility for their lives.
“This training helped promotoras understand that they cannot work harder than their client does,” she says. “They can help the client access medical help, for instance, but they must then teach the client how to go to a pharmacy to get a prescription filled, or learn how to call to make their medical appointments. They should not do those things for the client because [that] creates dependence.”
Promotoras provide language translation, arrange transportation, act as liaisons, and work with youths and parents. They share vital information about health issues—Latinos are affected by diabetes and high blood pressure at a higher rate than whites—and connect people to primary care services so they no longer go the emergency room for nonemergency situations. They also host classes in Zumba, a Colombian workout style, where women go to dance and exercise, while learning about nutrition.
Using grants from Kaiser Permanente and the Sierra Health Foundation, promotoras in Placer County have collaborated with nursing students to conduct health screenings for Latino clients. Based on those results, the mentors set up the initial appointment, accompany the patient, help them understand doctor recommendations, and make sure they follow up on the advice. Herrera says this effort has been successful in improving the overall wellness of local Latinos.
On a sunny January morning in the historic district of Roseville, a woman escorts her young children into a building where more than a dozen women sit around two large tables. Over the course of the next hour, the women will discuss their struggles with issues including domestic violence, their husbands’ alcoholism, and argumentative teenaged children.
Cordova stands at the head of the table as she facilitates the weekly meetings.
“Sometimes, when they come here, they don’t even know what they need,” she says, as the women assemble. “They just know something is lacking.” The women range in age from early 20s to late 50s. Once a week, they come together to form a sisterhood.
Blanca Arciniega, 47, has been attending these meetings for 13 years.
“I came here with a lot of fear, desperate and anxious for a way to escape,” she says in Spanish. “Thank god I was invited here to this personal power group and thank god I’ve learned to value myself. … I’m learning to heal. My life has changed 100 percent.”
As three of her kids sit giggling and snacking on cereal, Pastora Gonzalez, 33, talks about learning to release her stress, which has improved her relationship with her five young children. But she needs information on tenants’ rights and how to access inexpensive legal services. Her husband was unfairly fired from his job, she believes.
As she describes what happened, many of the women nod. They attend the weekly meetings partly for an escape from domestic life—all of them raise their hands when asked if they become depressed when at home too much—but also for the friendships that form within the group.
“Helping each other is extremely important,” says Marta Miramontes, who lost her young daughter to leukemia in October. Through her family’s struggles, she became an advocate. When she learns something new, she shares the knowledge. When other mothers ask questions, she gives them advice. Despite not being formally trained as a promotora, she’s one in spirit, and has become a leader among her peers.
“Marta not only found her voice,” Cordova says with pride, “but she’s a voice for the community.”
• Sena Christian wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Sena is a newspaper reporter in Roseville, Calif., with a passion for social justice and indoor soccer.