Remember the days when your father helped paint a neighbor's house and that neighbor returned the favor by helping him with his tax return?
A group based in the Clintonville neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, has brought back that concept of being neighborly, but with a more universal twist.
The Care and Share Time Bank allows members to call on neighbors for help with anything from a drive to the airport to a Spanish lesson, from eye care to car repairs. The helpers earn "time credits" that they can use to recruit other time-bank members to fulfill their needs.
Building community is at the project's core, says co-founder Michael Greenman of Westerville, Ohio, a Columbus suburb. But other benefits to members include saving money, especially during tough economic times; reducing energy use; and placing equal value on the abilities of all participants.
"Everybody has skills and value, and that's one of the principles we go on," said Mr. Greenman, a retired international-marketing executive. "Every service that is provided is valued equally. There's no hierarchy."
Since its founding about two years ago, the project has grown to 160 members who have exchanged about 1,200 hours.
A steadily growing national movement has resulted in the formation of at least 300 banks across the country and inspires interest from five new groups each week, says Edgar Cahn, founder of the Washington-based TimeBanks USA.
Time banking has largely been a grass-roots movement of people "discovering we need each other," Mr. Cahn says, but it is expanding as nonprofits learn to enlist the networks as partners. For example, some time banks partner with hospital systems on research, offer visiting-nurse services, and work with new immigrants, he says.
"It creates a new extended family that bridges race, class, gender, ethnicity, and national origin in a very exciting way," he says. "This is really about what equality means. This is what it means to be a human being."
Partners in the Care and Share network include the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, the Interfaith Association of Central Ohio, and Simply Living. Members can donate some of their accrued time to the nonprofit groups, which can then engage the time bank for needed tasks, such as helping to plan an activity or driving a disabled client to a medical appointment.
Tina Thonnings, who lives in Columbus's Clintonville neigborhood, has drawn on the time bank for various services, including having her house painted, organizing a room, and moving a refrigerator. She has helped others with child care, reflexology, filing, and other tasks.
Examples of other offerings in the bank are lawn and garden care, tailoring, cooking, photo restoration, computer help, music lessons, and pet care.
"Everyone has something to give, and each of us is valued for what we have to offer," says Ms. Thonnings, who works as a business director at a preschool and as a massage therapist. "A lot of people don't think they have a lot to give, but most of the tasks people want are things that anyone can give."
Recently, Thonnings helped out local resident Joe Del Medico, who needed to get some paperwork in order. He says he's been described as a "poster child" for the group, having given about 47 hours of time and cashing in about 16.
The computer programmer asked for help plastering, painting, and performing plumbing work on a rental property. He's offered computer help, online-file organization, and electrical work.
He says the main benefits to time banking are being able to get to know and trust the people doing the work (members meet for monthly potluck meals) and being able to obtain services that otherwise would have been unaffordable.
The framework also helps people who have needs retain self-confidence and dignity by allowing them to offer their time to others, says co-founder Steve Bosserman, a business-management consultant.
"It assigns a value that each person of the community can provide by simply doing something that they know how to do for someone who, for whatever reason, is not able to do it for themselves," Mr. Bosserman says. "It provides an even playing field."
Detroit is partnering with a new nonprofit group to step up the city's efforts to tear down blighted buildings and clean up neighborhoods.
Mayor Dave Bing announced the city's new partnership with the Detroit Blight Authority during his State of the City address Feb. 13. He said the group already has begun tearing down buildings and clearing away debris as part of a pilot project in a 10-block area across from a school near the city's Eastern Market area.
"They are recycling over 80 percent of the debris collected and re-seeding the site to prevent the growth of weeds," Mayor Bing said in his remarks. "The elimination of blight gives ... students a safer route to school. And it means a cleaner and safer neighborhood."
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Bing's office didn't disclose many details of the agreement with the nonprofit, which paid for demolitions in the pilot project. He and the group's chairman, Bill Pulte, visited the site across from Detroit Edison Public School Academy on Feb. 14.
"For many years, children from this neighborhood have had to walk by blocks of boarded-up homes and piles of brush and dangerous debris," Bing said in a statement.
Mr. Pulte is a grandson of the founder of homebuilder PulteGroup Inc., based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., which isn't connected to the nonprofit group. The Kresge Foundation and DTE Energy Co. are among the Detroit Blight Authority's partners.
In creating the plan to clean up areas with the work of the Detroit Blight Authority, Pulte worked with his grandfather, and the two devised a demolition plan based on Pulte Homes' process for large-scale land clearing.
"Our goal is revitalizing communities block-by-block," Pulte said.
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The group also wants to cut the price of demolitions, which Bing's office said can cost $9,500 per home, and they said the pilot project cleared homes at a cost of about $5,000 each. The pilot project's total cost wasn't released.
The city faces a $327 million budget deficit, cash flow shortages, and the specter that Republican Gov. Rick Snyder may soon appoint an emergency manager to oversee Detroit's finances. Amid the city's ongoing financial troubles, however, Bing has made tearing down dangerous and abandoned structures a priority.
On Feb. 13, Bing said his administration is well on its way to making good on his promise to demolish 10,000 of the city's more than 30,000 vacant and abandoned houses by the end of his term. So far, about 6,700 houses have been torn down.
Stick to what’s written on your shopping list. Check food expiration dates. Cook just enough but no more.
These and a few other simple practices can help curb global food waste, which amounts to 1.3 billion tons of food every year, experts say.
This is vital at a time when climate change and population growth are reducing the availability of food for millions of vulnerable people around the world, they add.
“With the World Bank warning of the possibility of a four-degrees-centigrade [7 degrees F.] temperature rise by the end of the decade and an expected world population of 9 billion by 2050, global food production and supply is going to be highly affected,” Dennis Garrity, United Nations drylands ambassador and senior fellow at the World Agroforestry Center told AlertNet in Nairobi. “The time to act is now.”
There are 870 million hungry people in the world today, experts estimate, but droughts, floods, storms, and climate-related plant diseases, among many other factors, continually reduce access to food.
Now experts say that cutting the amount of food that goes to waste, both in the developed and developing world, is key to addressing this.
One of Africa’s food waste hotspots is the Dandora rubbish dump on the outskirts of Nairobi.
The 30-acre piece of land receives 2,000 tons of solid waste every day, an uncertain share of it food waste. The presence of pigs, marabou storks, dogs, and other animals – as well as human scavengers – indicates there is plenty to eat, however.
“I have worked on this site for the past six years,” said Eunice Khasandi, a 36-year-old mother of four who scavenges waste food at the dump.
“We collect food and sell it to pig farmers on the outskirts of the city,” said Khasandi, who is one of an estimated 6,000 scavengers who visit the dump, according to the City Council of Nairobi.
The scavengers sell a 50-kilogram (110 lb.) sack of waste food for Sh200 ($2.50). If the sack contained an equivalent amount of maize meal, Kenya’s staple food, it would be enough to feed between 250 and 350 people if served with stew for lunch, nutrition experts say.
“Under normal circumstances, one kilogram (2.2 lbs.) of maize meal can feed between five and seven people,” explained Avraj Marwa, executive chef at the Sarova Panafric, a 4-star hotel in Nairobi.
Food ends up on rubbish dumps for a variety of reasons: because people buy on impulse, purchase items that are almost past their sell-by date, cook more than they can eat, or simply buy food that just never gets eaten.
The hospitality industry produces a great deal of food waste, Marwa said, trying to cater to different tastes among its clients. But many people also waste food through lack of education, he said, urging better education to limit that waste.
“We need to introduce eating etiquette lessons in African schools, at the earliest level. This can be of great benefit for the pupils, for society, and the future environment,” the chef said.
To mitigate the growing problem of food waste, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) launched a global campaign in January. “Think. Eat. Save. Reduce Your Foodprint” aims to cut food waste worldwide.
This campaign comes two weeks after the launch of FoodTank, a food think tank initiative that aims to connect food producers, consumers, policymakers, activists, and farmers, with a view to reducing the amount of food that goes to waste.
“Wasting food makes no sense – economically, environmentally or ethically,” said Achim Steiner, UNEP’s executive director in a statement at the launch of the UNEP and FAO food waste campaign.
Kenya, like many other developing countries, also loses large amounts of food during post-harvesting handling, either to pests, poor storage, or contamination.
In 2011, for instance, 180 bags of maize weighing 90 kilograms (198 lbs.) each that were earmarked for relief were destroyed in Kituyi, eastern Kenya, in front of starving residents of Mutomo district, who had lost their crops to drought. The reason? The maize had been contaminated with aflatoxins.
Aflatoxins are naturally occurring toxic organisms that are produced by many species of fungus. They grow on grains, particularly maize and groundnuts, which have been stored with high moisture content. If eaten by humans, aflatoxins affect the liver and can cause death.
Paddy Likhayo, a grain storage expert from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, said grain losses to insects and other pests are also enormous in Kenya.
“We have also recorded huge grain losses due to pests,” Likhayo said in an interview with AlertNet. “Every season, pests destroy no less than 30 percent of the total grain harvested in the country.”
Millions of tons of food, particularly perishable fresh produce, also go to waste in the developing world as a result of poor transport networks or lack of markets, storage facilities, and processing equipment.
“I have witnessed people throwing away tomatoes, vegetables, and fruits, among other produce, simply because they did not find a market for it, and they have nowhere to keep it,” Jane Kathure Biashara, a Kenyan community development expert told AlertNet in a phone interview.
“If we can help food producers to reduce losses through better harvesting, processing, storage, transport, and marketing methods, and combine this with profound and lasting changes in the way people consume food, then we can have a healthier and hunger-free world,” said Graziano da Silva, the FAO director general, in a press statement.
• Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.
The children's program is closing in on the kind of rarified digital milestone usually reserved for the likes of pop stars and cat videos. "Sesame Street" will soon pass 1 billion views on YouTube, and it's celebrating the mark with a campaign to put itself over the hump.
"Sesame Street" on Feb. 15 will post a video featuring the character Telly Monster, urging viewers to click the show past the final 20 million views and unlock a "top secret video." Naturally, for the nonprofit children's series, it's a teaching moment, too. Don't be surprised if Count von Count shows up to ponder such a big number.
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For "Sesame Street," the milestone — a first on YouTube for a nonprofit or US children's media outlet — reflects the increasingly multimedia nature of kid entertainment. Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch are now about as likely to be watched on an iPad, phone, or laptop as they are on PBS.
"We have this theory that if we get content on multiple platforms and devices, it gives kids and families a chance to reinforce and experience the curriculum multiple times," says Terry Fitzpatrick, executive vice president of content and distribution for Sesame Workshop, who emphasizes videos are best co-viewed with child and parent. "It blows me away to think about how popular and strong a platform [YouTube] has become for us."
"Sesame Street," a mainstay on PBS since 1970, launched its YouTube channel in 2006, but has continually expanded its mindfulness of online and mobile viewers.
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Sesame Workshop last year integrated its digital media group into its TV production, so that digital and interactive elements are considered from the start of an idea. Its most popular video is "Elmo's Song," which has been watched nearly 86 million times since being uploaded in 2009. More recently, another PBS hit, "Downton Abbey," was parodied in "Upside Downton Abbey," a video where British muppets have trouble drinking tea and eating crumpets because, well, they're upside down.
Caitlin Hendrickson, strategic partner manager for YouTube's educational realm, YouTube EDU, says that education is one of the fastest-growing content categories on the Google Inc.-owned site.
"Sesame Street" reaching 1 billion views, she said in a statement, "is proof of their outstanding leadership in this space and their creative use of YouTube."
Mounir, a Syrian surgeon working in central England, avoids heart-wrenching TV reports about his native land if he can, worried they may affect his work.
Ever since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, Mounir has split his time between practicing orthopedic surgery in Manchester, one of England’s biggest cities, and mobilizing emergency relief for fellow Syrians struggling to survive amid war and destruction.
"I never thought there would be such a need in Syria for the profession I'm practicing. I never thought that one day there would be such demand for medical doctors and for basic life-saving procedures," said the 37-year-old, who declined to give his full name.
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"As a doctor, I get phone calls from colleagues there -- 'please help us, we are running out of insulin, please help us, we are running out of blood bags, please help us, we need a CT scan' -- which one are you going to help?"
Nearly two years of civil war have left an estimated 60,000 Syrians dead, millions homeless, and a once enviable health system in tatters. More than half the 88 hospitals have been damaged and nearly one third are out of service, according to Syrian health ministry data released by the World Health Organisation.
As a trustee of Syria Relief, a UK-registered charity, Mounir has helped to raise more than 2 million pounds ($3.1 million), mainly from the Syrian diaspora, to send desperately needed supplies, from blood bags and vaccines to flour, clothing, and even ambulances.
Syria Relief's efforts are part of a much wider response to the crisis at home from the diaspora – in Canada, the United States, Europe, and the Gulf region – many of whom met in London in January to discuss their work and call for support before a UN donor pledging conference to secure $1.5 billion for Syria.
Not only have hospitals and clinics in Syria been attacked. Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), one of the few foreign organizations working inside Syria, says the Syrian army has been waging war against health workers and services in rebel-held territory.
Doctors describe being targeted in bombing campaigns and risking death, detention, and torture to treat the wounded, whether civilians or fighters.
Many have left or been killed. One Syrian doctor, now a refugee in Turkey, told the International Rescue Committee he believed there were now only 36 doctors practicing in and around the city of Aleppo, compared with an estimated 5,000 before the uprising began.
Doing their best to fill the gap are expatriate doctors like Mounir, who have been able to work in Syria at a time when much of the country remains out of bounds to UN and international aid agencies.
"As a Syrian, it's quite painful to see my own people being hurt," he told AlertNet in an interview. "I lost a few friends who used to be my classmates and people I used to play with in my childhood. But that motivates me to help more, to put more effort into responding to all the requests we get from Syria."
Mounir’s Syria Relief has provided medical training and even paid hospital staff to stay in Syria rather than head for the safety of neighboring countries.
Like other expat doctors, Mounir has taken time off from his day job to sneak back into Syria to work in secret field hospitals – typically, makeshift clinics set up in private homes.
"…if you go to work in a field hospital and you put a sign up saying ‘this is a field hospital’, you will find it flattened the next day," he explained. "So it has to be in a secret place, even the families of casualties don’t know where the individual is being treated."
On a few occasions, Mounir heard army helicopters whirring overhead as he operated on a patient. "We knew that at any time, we might get hit, and we might lose our lives," he said. "But the priority for us was to finish our work. It is quite stressful because at the end of the day we are human beings as well."
At the meeting of the expatriate medical fraternity, Mounir met for the first time colleagues he had only spoken to via Skype.
As part of the 14-member Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), they asked for international support while voicing concern that UN aid would only bankroll Assad's supporters.
Of the $1.5 billion sought by the United Nations – and pledged by donors in Kuwait – $1 billion is earmarked to help Syrian refugees in neighboring states and $500 million to help millions of Syrians displaced inside the country. It is the second sum that worries the doctors because the Syrian government has a high level of control over how the aid is delivered.
"We are Syrians. We are doctors. It's our country. We are taking the risk to go inside Syria to take the needed help to our people," said UOSSM spokesman Tawfik Chamaa. "We hope the international community will trust us. There is no other medical organization taking such risks or with so much involvement on the ground."
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Chamaa, a general practitioner in Switzerland, told AlertNet that although the government considered anyone operating in opposition areas terrorists, "we are doctors, we don't have weapons," and the organization’s doctors were "ready to treat anybody anywhere, all over Syria."
Chamaa, a tall, elegant man who could easily pass as a banker or diplomat, fled Syria in 1979, aged 19, after taking part in student protests.
In the early months of the uprising, he found it hard to concentrate on his work, so he reduced his hours to devote more time to the Syria relief effort. When it became clear the conflict would be a long one, he returned full-time to his patients. He now holds a weekly meeting to inform them of the latest developments, "to stop them discussing the situation during my surgery” and distracting him from his work.
If citing troubling statistics won't work, try humor. And social media, of course.
That's the approach being taken by actor Matt Damon in support of the Water.org charity he has co-founded.
In a YouTube video that the organization hopes will go viral Damon announced Feb. 12 at a fake "news conference" that he is beginning a "toilet strike," saying: "In protest of this global tragedy, until this issue is resolved, until everyone has access to clean water and sanitation ... I will not go to the bathroom."
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The reporters, played by actors, are confused and stunned, with one only able to ask "Whaaa?"
Then Damon slips in a quick, serious message about the worldwide water and sanitation crisis.
"Anybody have any idea what invention has saved more lives than any other in the history of humankind?" he asks the "reporters." "The toilet.... What's even more shocking is the catastrophic worldwide lack of clean water and sanitation. 780 million people – that's twice the population the United States – lack access to clean water. 2.5 billion people lack access to a toilet or basic sanitation. I mean more people have cell phones that have toilets."
Nonprofits groups are trying humor rather than pathos to get their message out, Jessica Mason, a YouTube spokesperson, told the Los Angeles Times. "We're seeing a lot of upcoming PSA [public service announcement] campaigns that take a more humorous approach," she says, "because, let's be honest, it's so much better than watching ... really sad little puppies being beaten on TV."
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"People just aren't shocked by statistics anymore," adds Mike McCamon, who heads Water.org's community outreach efforts. To be effective, however, the Damon video needed to be more than just humorous, says Jennifer Tisdel Schorsch, Water.org's chief marketing officer. "But if it's funny, and it makes you think, that's very powerful."
The "Strike With Me" campaign will lead up to World Water Day on March 22, an annual event that spotlights the need to bring clean water and sanitation to millions of people around the world.
According to the Guardian newspaper, Water.org spent less than $100,000 on producing the ad, "enough, perhaps, for half a second of advertising during the Super Bowl, where a 30-second spot costs $4 [million]." The Damon video was shot at YouTube's studio in southern California in January, using actors working for little or no salary who wrote, produced, and directed the sketch.
Goldman Sachs it’s not.
Qin Yufei, 27, graduated from Yale University in 2010 with a double major in political science and economics. For the past year and a half, he’s served as an official in a remote village in Hunan Province in China, according to a report in the People’s Daily, a state-owned newspaper. Instead of a cushy bachelor’s pad in New York or Beijing, Qin lives in an old house in Hejiashan village, putting up with rain from a leaky roof and noisy rats at night. His monthly salary is 1,450 yuan, about $233. The villagers respectfully call him “Brother Yale.”
As the first and the only Ivy League village official in China, Qin has lately found himself under a media spotlight – but Qin doesn’t want that kind of attention. He recently posted a message on Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter, saying that he was “very grateful for the [Chinese] media’s attention . . . But my job is to provide a good service to the villagers, not to tell my stories. I have a lot of work to do, so I don’t have enough time and energy to accept interviews, please understand.”
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Qin’s behavior is a sharp contrast from leadership in some other villages, and state-run media is lauding the Yale grad as an antidote to widespread local corruption.
In 2005, Qin graduated from Chongqing Nankai Secondary School, passed the SAT with high scores, and got full marks on his TOEFL exam, a widely used English-language exam. Then he received a scholarship offer from Yale University, according to a report from the Yangcheng Evening News, a newspaper based in Guangzhou, in southern China.
During his four years at Yale, Qin decided to pursue public service as his future career. Inspired by news stories of Chinese college graduates working as village chiefs, Qin thought that being a village official would be a good opportunity to understand and serve the rural areas. In 2011, he became an assistant to the director of the village committee in Hejiashan village.
“Among so many officials that came to our village in the past years, I admire Qin most,” says the village head, Hu Chuanjia, who has worked for the village for more than 20 years. “He solved many difficult problems after he came here,” Hu adds in an interview with Yangcheng Evening News.
Qin’s work covers different aspects of the daily lives of his villagers – agriculture, economy, education, health care, and public infrastructure, including a playground for local kids. Since he is the only village official with a higher education in the area, his work usually extends to other villages when help is needed.
Using the fund-raising experience he gained at Yale, Qin has successfully raised about 800,000 yuan (about $129,000) for the village. The money has been used to build water conservation projects, expand a nursing home, and improve local schools. With the help of other Yale alumni, Qin received the blueprint of the nursing home from a design company for free. He also procured about 700 tablet computers for the students in the area.
“I have a son and a daughter,” Wenmei Kuan, who lives in Hejiashan, tells China Network Television. ”I told them that Qin is a model that you should learn from.”
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“I do have a lot of classmates that have chosen more profitable careers, and their wages are indeed much higher than mine. But we are just in different industries,” Qin explains in an interview with Yancheng Evening News. “We are serving society in different ways. I think my choice is also very meaningful.”
It does seem, however, that Qin has his sights set on a higher-profile political career. Last August, he was elected deputy to the Local People’s Congress. He won 85 percent of the votes among 3,547 voters, according to Yangcheng Evening News.
“Every villager wants to seek a better life so that they can afford their children’s education, enjoy better social security, and have access to better medical services,” Qin tells the People’s Daily. “I am one of the common [people]. I agree with those pursuits. So I want to do something to help.”
• This article originally appeared at Latitude News, an online news site that covers stories showing the links between American communities and the rest of the world. Latitude News is undertaking a Kickstarter fund-raising campaign. To learn more about it, visit the Latitude News Kickstarter page here.
Perhaps borrowing Shakespeare’s expression of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, Jessica Mindich wears her passion on her wrist.
The former lawyer and mother of two, founder of Jewelry for a Cause, has most recently begun to tackle the issue of gun violence – and she set Newark, N.J. in her sights.
The jewelry designer partnered with Mayor Cory Booker and the city’s police director, Samuel DeMaio, to launch the Caliber Collection – made up of the metal from 250 revolvers, pistols, semi-automatic assault weapons, and bullet casings seized by city police that have been transformed into cuffs and bangles.
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And each piece is as traceable as the weapon it came from – with both “Newark” and the serial number of the original weapon etched into the jewelry.
“The Caliber bracelet is a real gun … an illegal gun that no longer exists on the street,” Ms. Mindich says. “By wearing this bracelet, the buyer is responsible for this gun coming off the street and never going back on the street … they can proudly say, ‘I am wearing a gun that will never kill someone’s loved one.’ ”
But customers of the Caliber Collection can do more than just make a statement – a portion of each sale goes directly to the Newark Police Department to help it expand and continue its gun buyback amnesty program and get more guns off city streets.
Earlier this month, Mindich presented a check in the amount of $40,000 to Mr. Booker – the result of just nine weeks of sales dating back to the collection’s debut in late November.
The response has been overwhelming for Mindich, who first met Booker at a conference in December 2011 and drew a connection to her work designing jewelry as a fund-raising tool. From there, the partnership between the city, the police department, and Jewelry for a Cause began.
And she hopes that the recent donation and the benefits experienced in Newark are not the end of the line.
“My long-term hope is to bring Caliber to cities across America and remove illegal guns from the streets, and have people around the world recognize Caliber as a symbol of strength and hope,” Mindich says. “We have also established the Caliber Foundation to bring random acts of kindness to the families of victims of senseless gun violence.”
Gun violence has taken center stage in political discussions and legislative debates in recent months, particularly after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot 20 children and six staff members to death at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14, before killing himself.
Mindich, who launched the collection weeks before the incident, said that the national discussion helped to raise awareness of the perils of gun violence.
“It is clear that gun violence is something that touches many people. It is incredibly rewarding for me to see this jewelry touch so many people around the world,” she says. “Caliber is so much more than a fashion statement – it is a symbol of solidarity around the need to eliminate senseless illegal gun violence.”
While Mindich has received comments from family members of victims, she also received a message from an individual who moved to Newark just before becoming a teacher there. It was two weeks before that job started that one of the individual’s soon-to-be students was killed in his sleep when a man in the apartment below him was “checking out” his new, loaded assault rifle. The weapon fired into the boy’s bed above.
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“Though I never got to teach him, let alone meet him, I will never forget his name...,” the individual wrote to Mindich. “Your bracelets are a voice to all of the victims.”
For Mindich, the initiative is about using jewelry to have a real impact in the face of such a challenge.
“Caliber bracelets are real,” she says, “… real guns ... real human lives saved.”
• To learn more or shop the Caliber Collection, visit http://calibercollection.com.
Even on the farm, it pays to be young.
But every year, young people are "escaping" their hometown rural communities to seek the "greener pastures" of city life. Meanwhile, global buyers of commodities such as coffee and cocoa beans worry about the aging farming workforce.
In some areas, such as the Ashanti, western, southern, and eastern regions of Ghana, the average age of farmers now exceeds 50 years. Research has shown that in this day and age, it pays to be young: Sticking to outdated methods, older farmers produce significantly lower yields per acre than younger farmers, who are more likely to use modern farming techniques and introduce innovative production methods.
So the question is: How do we make farming appealing to this generation and save a fading agricultural system? Convince youth that the "greener pasture" is back on the farm.
Historically, farming has been considered a peasant occupation. It was about subsistence, not profit. However, as Ronald Weening points out in the Financial Times, people ultimately are driven by "pride, being respected, and feeling they’re leading a satisfying and worthy life." Weening is the vice president of marketing and sustainability for the coffee business of Mondelez International, the global snacks group formerly known as Kraft Foods.
“Through education and training we can, in many cases, double or triple their yields,” he explained.
Multiple efforts are now afoot to promote ease, profitability, and overall incentives for young people to access the agricultural sector and remain in rural areas.
In November, Mondelez International announced an investment of $400 million over the next decade to improve livelihoods for more than 200,000 cocoa farmers and about 1 million people in farming communities, focusing on the younger generation and helping turn farming villages into desirable places to live.
In addition to pouring money into this sector, Mondelez is also modernizing the field by encouraging young farmers to move beyond being laborers to becoming agricultural entrepreneurs. Weening believes that everything from effective pruning to water management to additional cash-yielding activities, such as bee-keeping, will make the agricultural sector much more attractive.
"It's more interesting when you’re not just a picker but an agronomist,” says Weening.
In a similar vein, MasterCard is investing $11.5 million in a four-year program Strengthening Rural Youth Development through Enterprise (STRYDE) run by TechnoServe, an organization that helps entrepreneurs in the developing world establish businesses.
The STRYDE program aims to provide 15,000 young people living in rural areas across Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda with training to develop life, entrepreneurship, and career skills; practical business exposure; and mentorship and counseling from a youth trainer to help them take up employment and income-generating opportunities.
TechnoServe's president Bruce McNamer believes STRYDE can make life in a rural areas more attractive by extending beyond farming to enterprise creation.
Only time will tell if this new-era farming will indeed be attractive to young people seeking to make a future for themselves. These types of financial investments and support are necessary to make the grass and the wallets greener back on the farm.
Parshottambhai Shanabhai Patel, 65, says the biggest favor the people of his village did for him “was saying they would no longer put up with the stink from my cowshed at the entrance of the village.”
Reluctantly in 1994, Patel shifted his eight animals to his three-hectare (7.4 acre) farm 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) away from his village in Gujarat State’s Anand district. The district is where the Indian dairy cooperative AMUL started the country's "white revolution," a hugely successful grass-roots movement that has helped turn India into the world’s largest milk producer, with 2.5 million liters (660,000 gallons) of milk collected daily from more than 1,176 village cooperatives.
Now Patel's contentious cow dung could spark a revolution of a different kind.
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After a decade of practicing organic farming, thanks to training provided by the Gujarat government-run Navsari Agricultural University, Patel decided in 2009 to push his farm even further into the green by building his own biogas plant.
With technical guidance from the university, he constructed a six cubic-meter (212 cubic foot) brick-and-mortar underground plant near his cowshed and connected it to his existing 12 horsepower irrigation pump. By turning the gases emitted by cow dung slurry into a clean, renewable fuel that Patel uses to run his irrigation system, the plant saves him money, increases his productivity, and boosts his profits.
Experts say biogas plants like Patel's are easy to build, operate, and maintain. And in a country dealing with changing rainfall patterns, and where only 35 percent of agricultural land is irrigated, they could transform the lives of India's small farmers.
Biogas plants, or digesters, work by encouraging the breakdown of organic matter (cow dung, in Patel's case) by bacteria in the absence of oxygen. The resulting methane gas can then be stored and burned as fuel. Each day, Patel's plant converts the 200 kg (440 pounds) of dung his livestock produce into 8 to 10 hours of power. It takes 30 kgs of dung to generate one cubic meter of gas. "But, yes, collecting all that dung from the cowshed unfailingly every day is highly labor intensive," he admits.
Before turning to biogas, Patel would struggle to come up with enough power to run his home and his farm. "The eight hours of power that the government grid supplies daily to a single tube used by 10 neighboring farms would always be usurped by large-holding farmers," says Patel. "Every day I would have to buy 1.7 liters of diesel to run my pump." For irrigation alone, Patel was spending 22,000 rupees ($400) annually and had to limit his farmed area in the summer to keep down costs.
Today, Patel's diesel bill is a fraction of what it was. His biogas plant produces more power than he can use, so after his farm and home requirements are met he sells the remaining power to area farmers, charging 60 rupees ($1) an hour.
He is forced to keep his rates competitive with the government-subsidized power supply to farmers in the area, which caps his profits. But he still has an edge when it comes to timing: The government supply is available for limited and often inconvenient night-time hours; Patel can give his clients power whenever they need it.
The affordability and reliability of biogas means Patel finally has the freedom to make the most of his land. In 2011 he took out a bank loan of 180,000 rupees ($3,330) to install a drip irrigation system, for which the government paid 50 percent. Now the half of his farm that is on the drip system – using a network of narrow pipes to deliver water directly to the base of individual plants – takes just an hour to water.
With water at his beck and call, Patel has ventured into high-value cash crops like tomatoes, watermelon, onions, and flowers. Today he can earn 200,000 rupees ($3,700) from the same three hectares that five years ago, without the biogas plant, fetched him just a quarter of that.
“I can repay the bank loan in 18 months, where earlier it would have taken me five long years to do so,” he says.
It used to be that his main concern was to grow enough grain to feed his family of six and his two farm hands. Now he has plenty to spare and enough cash to buy other food he needs.
And the biogas isn't the only money producer. The fermentation process that produces the gas also leaves behind a fertilizer that Patel can use and sell. He goes through 20 tractor loads of organic compost each season. For most farmers, that compost would cost 1,000 rupees ($19) per load. For Patel, it's free.
While Patel enjoys the higher income and savings his biogas plant generates, it's the environmental benefits that have activists and policymakers encouraging the use of biogas as an energy source in the developing world. Not only does it dispense with the need for fossil fuels and petroleum-based chemical fertilizers, it also uses up methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.
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Biomass such as firewood, charcoal, animal dung, and agricultural residue are the main energy resource for the poor in the developing world, making up 17 percent of total energy used, compared to 3 percent in the developed world, according to 2007 figures from the International Energy Agency. But biomass is mostly used for cooking, with few farmers harnessing its power for irrigation.
“Parshottambhai Patel shows the way to save on irrigation costs and be environmentally benign too,” says Tushaar Shah, who leads the IWMI-TATA Water Policy Research Program, a partnership between the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Colombo, Sir Lanka, and the grant foundation the Sir Ratan Tata Trust.
Patel says farmers from faraway districts have come to see his biogas plant, with the aim of replicating it back home. He hopes more of his fellow villagers will follow him in his move to biogas – and take their farms’ futures into their own hands.
• Manipadma Jena is an environmental journalist based in India. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.