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Change Agent

Charitable works, NGOs, nonprofits, social entrepreneurs, and ordinary people with great ideas on how to make a positive change in their communities and around the globe.

Students in Kolkata, India, check out their solar sunglasses as they prepare to watch the transit of Venus across the sun. The sun is being harnessed in India and Africa to power mobile solar classrooms for students. (Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/File)

Mobile, solar schools bring power to the powerless

By Erin ButlerGlobal Envision / 10.25.12

Beep beep! For some students, hopping on the school bus is hopping into the classroom. Four communities are using solar-powered mobile classrooms to overcome inaccessibility to the power grid.

Last week, we looked at a bus in Chitradurga, India, that brought modern computer technology to students in energy-poor rural schools through solar power. SELCO, a private energy company, engineered the bus with 400 watts of solar modules, 10 laptops, fans, and lights.

Circumventing the area's erratic power supply with its solar panels, this bus provides much-needed modern computer education and exposure to the advantages of solar energy. Motoring through rural villages in Chitradurga since January 2012, the bus has reached “60 schools and 2,081 children,” the New Indian Express reported in early September.

RELATED:Top 5 nations that use renewable energy

We found three more pretty exciting examples of solar-powered mobile schools that bring computer education to some of the world’s poorest:

Bangladeshi floating schools

Where there’s more water than land, boats replace buses, and with rising sea levels, low-income Bangladeshi students have difficulty getting to school altogether.

Pushed to inaccessible riverside settlements that lack basic infrastructure, students often can’t get to school due to monsoon flooding. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a nonprofit organization started by Mohammed Rezwan, rides the rising tides with his solar-powered floating schools.

Trained as an architect and personally experienced with soggy school disruptions in Bangladesh, Rezwan rode a brainwave that led him to floating schools. Combining the best of traditional boat design and modern sustainable practices, the organization's 54 boats have been operating since 2002 and have served over 90,000 families.

The boats have been outfitted with waterproof roofs, solar panels, computers, high-speed Internet, and solar lamps, which allow students and their families to study or work at night and save money on kerosene lamps, which are traditionally used but smoky and expensive. According to  IRIN, Rezwan gives the lamps as incentives for top students. This doubles as advertising—the sale of these lamps helps fund and sustain Rezwan’s NGO.

The floating schools were so popular, Rezwan added library and health clinic boats as well. As seen in this video, it's not just the school-aged who benefit from this armada of enlightenment.

Women and girls, who are often denied traditional education opportunities, can find out about sustainable farming techniques, health and sanitation tips that they can share with their community. With a little creative thinking, Rezwan has turned water—that once divided—into a channel for knowledge and communication.

Samsung solar-powered internet schools

In Africa, Samsung implements part of its corporate social responsibility initiative in the form of mobile solar-powered internet schools, which come in the guise of shipping containers.

While the containers are not as mobile as the SELCO bus or Bangladeshi boats, these energy-independent classrooms still overcome the energy barriers that keep students from being trained in modern computer technology. These 40-foot-long shipping containers can be transported via truck to various rural communities, and with the durable, rubber-based solar panels mounted on the roof, they can power 21 computers for up to nine hours a day.

As reported by Engineering News, Samsung launched a pilot project in Boksburg, South Africa, a year ago and the company now says that it provides a “technology-rich learning and teaching environment to K-12 classrooms across five countries in Africa—South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan" and aims to scale into more countries in the coming years.

Samsung has a keen interest in educating Africa’s youths and ensuring a technologically savvy workforce in the future. In fact, Samsung has a “Built for Africa” product range and has signed South Africa’s 39M Pledge, which is a “government-endorsed initiative that aims to encourage a national culture of energy saving for a sustainable future."

Moreover, in an article in the Engineering News RecordSamsung Electronics Africa president and CEO K.K. Park said:

"With the goal to grow our business on the continent, we also know that we have to sustain our level of innovation. This can only be achieved if we invest in education to facilitate African thought leadership and to ensure we have access to a large workforce of skilled engineers in the future.

"The solar-powered internet school is a great example of this strategy at play," he concluded.

Maendeleo Foundation mobile solar computer classroom project

Starting on a smaller platform, but with an equally big vision, two SUV’s bring laptops powered by solar panels to students in Uganda.

In a country where only 9 percent of the population has access to a power supply and only 3 percent can afford it, modern computer education seems like a pipe dream. With an SUV retrofitted with solar panels and five laptops, the Maendeleo Foundation sought to redress this problem. With the help of a grant from Intel in 2009, the foundation now operates two mobile solar computer classrooms, training 15 people at a time and 200 per day.

It also opened an advanced training center in early 2012, where students who show potential and interest can receive further training and education. Through a succession of grants and recognition, the Maendeleo Foundation furthers its mission of “nurturing progress in east Africa through technology training, job creation … and the power of the sun.”

RELATED:Top 5 nations that use renewable energy

These four initiatives—SELCO's bus, Rezwan's boats, Samsung's shipping containers, and Maendeleo's SUVs—all consist of simple, solar-powered solutions to a complex and insidious energy poverty problem. Many of these solutions are still in their nascent prototype phase, so it’s difficult to judge whether the intended outcome of trained, job-ready workers has been fulfilled. The sun shines on us all, but not all of us can get our fingers on the technology that will most likely drive our future. And from an article from Next Billion, this is indeed the crux of the matter:

"On one hand, Western universities and philanthropic organizations are encouraging inventors to create technologies for development by offering grants, hosting competitions, and showcasing the solutions in the media. On the other hand, very few people in low-income communities around the world are benefiting from these inventions, let alone know that they exist."

These innovative models can’t do much good until they’ve got a sustainable funding model like Rezwan's floating schools and solar lamp combo, or scaled up with the support of government and other local players. Then we'll start to see the sun shine its way into every classroom.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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Bill Gates, co-chairman and co-founder of the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks at the International AIDS 2012 Conference in Washington July 23. The foundation is undergoing a 'redesign' as it seeks to improve its effectiveness. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File)

Gates Foundation reboots

By Caroline PrestonThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 10.24.12

The country’s biggest foundation underwent a makeover this year—and its benefactors, Bill and Melinda Gates, took a little persuading that all the changes were for the better, says the fund’s chief executive.

In an interview, Jeff Raikes said the reorganization of the staff involved in grant making overseas, which employees dubbed a “global redesign,” will ensure greater collaboration among its employees and projects.

Staff members who make grants to groups that focus on advocacy and shaping public policies will now report to a single leader, as will employees in Africa, China, and India. The foundation’s global-health and global-development grant programs will work more closely together, he said.

Mr. Raikes, who has led the foundation since 2008, said the importance of this kind of “integration” registered during a trip two years ago to Ethiopia.

Standing in a clinic in the country’s highlands, he realized that health workers were focused not only on delivering babies and vaccinating children but on helping people gain access to clean water, improve sanitation, and grow nutritious food.

As part of the reorganization, some health grants—family health, vaccine delivery, and polio—will fall under the purview of Christopher Elias, who leads Gates’s global-development program, rather than with the global-health division.

It took the grant maker’s founders a little time to warm up to that idea, said Mr. Raikes.

“Bill and Melinda really viewed these as elements of global health,” he said. But Mr. Raikes said he explained that the changes could be a “catalyst” for making the foundation’s work more effective.

The Gates chief also said he’s listening to the foundation’s critics, particularly those who dislike its strategies designed to improve U.S. schools.

He said it’s “a little premature” to say how the critics’ perspectives might change his thinking. But, he added, the foundation must do a better job of clearing up misperceptions about its work.

“Some of the anti-reform movement has the perception that what we believe in is a complete focus on standardized-test-based accountability, and that couldn’t be further from the truth,” he said. “We need to dial up our message on that.”

In its efforts to improve U.S. schools, the foundation is focused on strengthening the skills and performance of teachers, he said.

“But that will be done by teachers, not to teachers,” he said. “Too often the education-reform movement positions things in a way that makes it seem like this is about doing things to teachers.”

While Mr. Raikes stressed the importance of encouraging honest feedback, he said he doesn’t think many people are afraid to criticize the foundation.

“We have a lot of critics,” he said. “I don’t know too many voices that are squelched.”

Some critics of Gates’s work overseas have argued that the foundation focuses too much on scientific and technological fixes—new contraceptives, toilets, vaccines—at the expense of other solutions.

Mr. Raikes disagreed, saying the foundation is also trying to spur innovations in the delivery of health care.

But he said the foundation’s “core competencies” lie in science and technology and that “we understand that a lot of our contributions will be through technological and scientific advances.”

While the Gates foundation’s assets fell last year—from $37.4-billion to $34.6-billion—Mr. Raikes said he expects the fund will give away $3.4-billion, compared with $3.2-billion in 2011. (The assets fell because of investment declines.)

During the conversation and in Gates’s new annual report, Mr. Raikes described the foundation’s priorities for the coming year.

Eradicating polio and expanding access to family planning top the list globally, he said. In November he plans to visit Nigeria, one of three nations where polio remains prevalent, to encourage local leaders to vaccinate children for the disease.

Another area of focus: supporting the spread of information. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave nearly $18.4 million in 2011 for news-media and communications work, according to its annual report. Mr. Raikes, who this month began a new blog for the foundation, said he was pleased with the results of those grants but did not anticipate the foundation spending a larger share of its money on journalism.

The Gates fund chief, who spent 27 years at Microsoft before he took the philanthropy job, also discussed how his family foundation influences his leadership at Gates.

The Raikes Foundation, which gave away about $5.5 million in 2010, aims to build confidence and develop positive attitudes among young people ages 10 to 14.

Because of that work, Mr. Raikes says he is more attuned to ensuring that the Gates foundation’s efforts to assess teachers consider not only their effectiveness in boosting student academic achievement but also in developing students' ability to succeed beyond the classroom as well.

“There’s a nice synergy there,” he said.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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A baby bat is fed milk at Wildlife in Crisis, a nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center in Weston, Conn. 'We are the front line of defense for animals,' says founder Dara Reid. (Courtesy of Wildlife in Crisis)

Wildlife in Crisis helps 5,000 animals return to the wild each year

By Cathryn J. PrinceCorrespondent / 10.23.12

Inside one of several aviaries a parliament of owls perches on a branch, watching and waiting until they are fit for release.

The Barred owls are recuperating here at Wildlife in Crisis (WIC), a nonprofit organization that helps heal more than 5,000 wounded, ill, and orphaned wild animals a year. While it specializes in songbirds and birds of prey, WIC also nurtures animals such as fox and skunks, fisher cats and bobcats. Eventually, nearly every animal under WIC’s care will be released.

“They are very wild when we release them. If they aren’t we are not doing our job,” says Dara Reid, WIC’s founder and director. To ensure success each animal has no more than two human caretakers at a time.

Ms. Reid, who has  a background in veterinary science and wildlife biology, started WIC in 1988. She had seen how suburban sprawl affected native animal populations.

The increased pace of development helps explain why so many birds of prey are recovering at this center deep within the woods of Weston, located about 45 miles northeast of New York City. In Connecticut roads often follow the tree line. So when a hawk swoops down for a kill it risks injury by car or truck.

“All the animals are brought to us by people who care,” Reid says. “We are the front line of defense for animals.”

The story of WIC also tells the story of Connecticut’s wildlife resurgence, says Dara’s husband, Peter Reid. The now-banned pesticide DDT had killed thousands of predatory birds.

“Thirty years ago you never saw a red-tailed hawk. Now the population is exploding, they are the dominant species in Connecticut,” he says, walking past an enormous outdoor cage holding recuperating red-tail hawks. Birds are released once they can feed, perch, and fly unassisted.

The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and the US Fish and Wildlife Service license WIC. It's the only organization of its kind in the state. Volunteers from around the United States and abroad tend to the animals, housed in wooden buildings on the property.

Inside the animal clinic a hawk with an injured wing perches on the cage of a blind blue jay. On one counter three bats in separate cages hang, wings curled over their tiny bodies. Woody a mallard duck who has imprinted on humans, quacks noisily. Woody and the hawk are WIC’s odd birds: They no longer possess the necessary skills to survive in the wild.

Actor and director James Naughton became involved with WIC several years ago after finding an injured fawn curled under a fern in his yard. The high level of care and dedication of its volunteer staff impressed Mr. Naughton.

“It’s been a mom and pop operation for so long. It’s been Dara and Peter and the interns who work all day and all night for nothing,” Naughton says. “Fortunately, there is an expanding group of people who recognize the worth of what they’re doing. There are a lot of people out there who get very moved about what happens to animals.”

Still, many nature centers are exiting the business of care and conservation because “it’s just too costly and labor intensive,” Mr. Reid says.
Many of the animals, particularly the orphaned babies, require feedings every 20 minutes to 30 minutes. Donations and fundraisers such as the one held Oct. 21 at the Greenwich Audubon Center are vital to WIC’s health.

Through its education efforts WIC busts myths. For example, raccoons seen during the day aren’t necessarily rabid. Mother raccoons are usually searching for extra food for their babies. Moreover, less than 1 percent of bats have rabies. And mother birds won’t reject their young if they are touched by a human hand.

WIC fields about 15,000 calls a year, often dispensing advice – such as don’t give milk to baby birds – on the phone. However, sometimes an animal needs intensive care.

“I was shocked by the terrible condition some of the animals are in when they come in,” says Anna Clark, who interned at WIC.

Now working at the Rainforest Alliance in New York City, Ms. Clark recounted the time a badly injured snake came in. It had gotten caught in a mousetrap. After three weeks of intensive care, the snake was sent slithering on its way.

“It’s always bittersweet to release the animals. You really fall in love with these creatures,” Clark says. “Dara puts an unending amount of love and care into any animal that comes in, regardless of whether it’s an endangered owl or a common sparrow.”

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John Marks founded Search for Common Ground in 1982. It's now the largest conflict-resolution and peace-building organization in the world, with offices in 30 countries and a staff of about 600. (Byron Buck)

Search for Common Ground uses TV soaps to promote peace

By Staff writer / 10.22.12

Peace building and conflict resolution conjure up images of persuading rival leaders to sit down at a table to talk.

They don't often bring to mind producing a TV soap opera.

But in 17 countries around the world, soap operas are one of the principle ways the nonprofit Search for Common Ground is breaking down barriers between religious, ethnic, and economic groups and building a basis for ending or averting violence.

RELATED: 8 ways to find common ground

Each of the soap operas concerns a soccer team, simply called called "The Team," and is adapted to fit the situation in each country.  In Kenya, the members of the team come from different tribes; in Morocco, they're both urban and rural, rich and poor. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the players on an all-girls team are all having problems related to sexual violence.

"The messages are interjected into the plots," says John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground. In much the way the US television program "All in the Family" dealt with the thorny social issues of the 1970s, these stories make for compelling viewing while making a point about choosing nonviolence, he says.

Now marking its 30th year, Washington D.C.-based Search for Common Ground has become the biggest conflict-resolution and peace-building organization in the world, with offices in 30 countries and a staff of about 600. It also works with about a thousand partner groups around the world.

"We have a very diverse toolbox [of approaches to problems], which includes having people sit around the table," Mr. Marks says. "But it also includes [making and broadcasting] a music video, participatory theater, TV soaps."  For example, in the DRC, he says, "We're retraining about 25 percent of the Congolese army in respecting the rights of women."

His organization's funding comes mainly from government sources, including the United States but mostly in Europe. "USAID and the [US] State Department both support us, as does the European Union, the British government, the Dutch government, the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians. We try to have a diversity of funding, which gives us a good degree of independence."

While the group can't safely operate in situations of open warfare, such as in Syria today, it does play a role in some pretty volatile countries, including Pakistan, Tunisia, and Yemen, as well as in Jerusalem, "places of danger with some violence," he says.

Common Ground is also in the process of setting up operations in Libya and Myanmar (Burma).

Marks founded Search for Common Ground in 1982 after a career in the foreign service and as an author. He had been a vocal critic of the Vietnam War.

"I got to the point in my life where I saw that what I was doing to a large extent was being defined by what I was against," Marks says, "and I decided I wanted to build a new system rather than tear down the old system."

At first Common Ground concentrated on reducing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. "That there might be common ground between America and the Soviets was not a very popular idea at the time of the Evil Empire," he recalls.

Today, with conflicts or the potential of conflicts around the world, Common Ground is busier than ever. "We're going to be growing 25 percent this year," Marks says. "I wish it were the opposite. I'd like to be unemployed."

On Nov. 8 the group's annual Common Ground Award will honor five peacemakers. Past recipients have included President Jimmy Carter, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and boxing legend Muhammad Ali.

The five honorees:
• Ingoma Nshya (“New Era”) is Rwanda’s only female Hutu and Tutsi drumming troupe and is the subject of a new documentary film "Sweet Dreams." ("Drumming was a man's thing in Rwanda," Marks says. "It's the national music form but it wasn't something women did.") The group provides a place where ethnic hatred can be replaced by a culture of hope, faith, love, respect, and tolerance.

• Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the TV, radio, and print journalist, helped integrated the University of Georgia as one of its first two African-American students. She has written about her experiences in a new book “To The Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement.”

Peace Child International, which also marks its 30th year this year, encourages youths to take action for peace.

• An interfaith award to three leaders from different faiths: Lord George Carey of Clifton, former archbishop of Canterbury; Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, founder of the American Society for Muslim Advancement; and Rabbi David Rosen, international director of inter-religious affairs, American Jewish Committee.

In addition, a posthumous award will be given to Christopher Stevens, the US ambassador to Libya who died in an assault on the US embassy there in September.

"His sister is coming to collect it," Marks says. "He was a friend of mine. I've known him for 15 years. We were in Libya at his house in July, my wife and I.... So we have a very close connection to him.... We felt he was exactly the kind of person we wanted to honor."

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A woman enters a portable toilet in Rio de Janeiro. Sanergy, a social enterprise founded by students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, offers desperately needed clean toilet facilities in the developing world and then sells the collected waste for fuel and fertilizer. (Sergio Moraes/Reuters/File)

An entrepreneurial approach to sanitation

By Jeffrey LamoureuxNourishing the Planet / 10.19.12

In most of the world’s slums, sanitation is a daily challenge. In the absence of sewage systems, people living in slums in Nairobi, Kolkata, and São Paulo rely on rows of pit latrines shared by hundreds of other people, while others use “flying toilets” to dispose of waste. Disease and infection spreads easily in such environments.

But some social entrepreneurs in Nairobi, Kenya, are picking up where the government has left off and attempting to provide sanitary options to the slums. Sanergy, for example, is a company launched by a group of students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Sloan School of Management. The group has designed low-profile sanitation centers that can be constructed anywhere to provide hot showers and clean toilets.

These facilities can be built quickly and easily with affordable materials. Waste from the centers is deposited into airtight containers that are collected daily. Then it’s brought to processing facilities that can convert it into biogas. The biogas generates electricity, while the leftover material is made into fertilizer.

RELATED: World Toilet Day: Top 10 nations lacking toilets

The company won a $100,000 grant from MIT and has been building its first units in Nairobi. It charges a low pay-per-use fee and hopes to grow by franchising the operation of its units, creating an income opportunity for enterprising residents.

As the number of toilets proliferates, so too will the amount of energy the company is able to generate from its processing facilities. It hopes to eventually generate enough energy that it can sell its power to the national grid.

The company’s unique and innovative approach is notable for the way it combines the decentralization of waste collection with the centralization of waste processing. Retrofitting the slums with proper sewage drains is a near impossibility and can be an expensive and potentially politically volatile effort in areas where landownership is at best ambiguous.

The self-contained units grant access to sanitary facilities to even those far off the grid. But by centralizing the processing of waste, Sanergy’s facilities will take advantage of the economies of scale present in the waste-conversion process.

By creating products of value out of the waste, the company creates an incentive for others to set up their own facilities in partnership with Sanergy. The company hopes that there may eventually be facilities on every neighborhood block, significantly increasing the number of people with access to clean sanitation.

The energy generated through the waste production will be a clean option to power a growing economy, and the fertilizer is a nutrient-rich alternative to expensive petroleum-based fertilizers.

• Jeffrey Lamoureux is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet. To purchase your own copy of "State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet," please click HERE.

This article originally appeared at Nourishing the Planet, a blog published by the Worldwatch Institute.

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Brass City Harvest in Waterbury, Conn., operates an urban garden. And in November it will add a year-round farmers market supplied by nearby Connecticut farms, says Susan Pronovost, executive director of Brass City Harvest. (Cathryn J. Prince)

Brass City Harvest brings fresh food to an urban 'desert'

By Cathryn J. PrinceContributor / 10.18.12

In a bricked up, boarded up part of Waterbury, Conn., where the main crop seem to be shattered glass, Brass City Harvest stands as an oasis.

Pots of colorful flowers line the steps to Brass City’s office, which is actually no more than an iPad on a conference table. Just behind the table two large pools await the arrival of trout. Outside stand raised-bed gardens. Some are filled with Asian eggplants, others with tomatoes hanging like Christmas ornaments from the vine.

Nonprofit Brass City Harvest operates the "Connecticut Grown" farmers markets in Waterbury, providing what its executive director, Susan Pronovost, calls “real food” for hungry people. And next month Brass City Harvest will open a year-round farmers market, selling produce and goods produced by about eight Connecticut farms.

IN PICTURES: Urban gardens

Chase Manhattan Bank once occupied the 3,000-square-foot space where the farmers market will stand. Grants from the University of Connecticut and  Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group dedicated to make fresh food more available, helped make the market possible.

The new market will be a food hub, Ms. Pronovost says. According to the US Department of Agriculture, one-third of Waterbury is a "food desert." That means that either at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the population, have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher and live more than one mile from a supermarket or grocery store.

“People are hungry. They knock at our door and ask if we have something,” Pronovost says. “The problem of food security and poverty in Waterbury is deeper than we can imagine. I think every year it’s getting worse.”

Pronovost was born and raised in Waterbury, known as the Brass City because it was once famous for its brass works. She worked for the city for years. She has seen too many hungry people and too many abandoned lots and buildings, particularly in the past several years. The state of the city gnawed at her.

Thinking there must be a better way to feed people Pronovost started Brass City Harvest in 2007. Today it’s a seven-day-a-week operation that sponsors two farmers markets. Brass City’s staff includes a nutritionist, nurse, and social worker. It also offers vocational training to homeless men.

Still, Pronovost thought more could be done to keep the supply of fresh food and produce flowing year round.

After visiting Halifax, Nova Scotia, and St. John, New Brunswick, this summer, she says the year-round indoor markets in those cities there inspired her.

“If people to the north can do it, we certainly can,” she says.

Brass City’s year-round market will offer fresh produce, poultry, beef, goat soap, flowers, and candles. It will also provide cooking and nutrition classes. It’s important that those who shop at the market know how to cook and prepare the food they buy, Pronovost says. One of the Connecticut farmers has a commercial kitchen and is considering making pre-cooked meals people could heat and serve.

Pronovost knows she will have to do a lot of outreach to make the market a success. Many of her clients rely on food-assistance programs.

“We hear you can’t buy real food with food stamps, that real food is macaroni and cheese or processed food," Pronovost says, citing two bits of misinformation.
 "There is a tremendous amount of education needed for what real food is,” she says.

That wholesome food is grown on this block is a testament to Pronovost’s grit. Across the street from Brass City Harvest stands the fire-scarred Nova Dye and Print building. Last spring flames engulfed the building, and the fire burned underground for a week. The inferno nearly destroyed Brass City's hoop house, its garden warmed and protected by a plastic covering.

Brass City itself sits on top of a brownfield. The soil is filled with lead and other hazardous materials, Pronovost says. The City of Waterbury inherited the lot and had three choices – leave it alone, dig 30 feet down and replace the soil, or pour a concrete cap over the toxic soil. The city chose to cover the area with concrete. Brass Harvest has built its raised bed gardens over the concrete.

Waterbury is not going to return to its past as a thriving industrial city, Pronovost says, adding that she has no patience for those who say they are just waiting for businesses to return.

“You reinvent yourself," she says. "You have to do what will be sustainable in the future.”

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Chelsea Clinton (l.), the daughter of former US President Bill Clinton and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, greets Princess Ameerah al-Taweel of Saudi Arabia during the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, September 25, 2012. (Jason Reed)

Saudi princess founds Opt4Unity to bridge cultural divides

By Caroline PrestonThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / 10.17.12

Saudi Princess Ameerah Al-Taweel says she wants to use philanthropy to bridge cultural divides and prevent violence like the recent attacks on US embassies sparked by an anti-Islam video.

In New York last month for former President Bill Clinton’s annual philanthropy summit, the princess spoke about her ambitions for the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundations, where she serves as secretary general. The philanthropies are financed by her husband, Prince Alwaleed, a multibillionaire and nephew of the Saudi king. They give away at least $70 million a year in 70 countries, she said.

With $2 million in initial financing, she is starting a project called Opt4Unity, which she describes as an “uncommon table” of nonprofit leaders, business executives, and philanthropists who can tackle big problems like youth unemployment in the Middle East, agricultural development in Africa, and religious and cultural divisions.

RELATED:10 voices for change in Saudi Arabia

She says she hopes to introduce courses at 20 universities aimed at bridging cultural divides; start the first “Food University” designed to improve agricultural production; and encourage young people to take to social media for the promotion of tolerance, not violence.

Sitting on a couch in the busy lobby of the Plaza Hotel, Princess Ameerah, 28, cited the example of a young Saudi man studying in the United States who, after the embassy attacks, uploaded a video designed to educate Westerners about the Prophet Muhammad.

“He’s a bridge builder whether he knows it or not,” she said. “If you want to change people’s ignorance about Prophet Muhammad, then teach about it. We want to have 10,000 young people uploading videos of them and how they can bridge build.”

Princess Ameerah has become an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, a bold step given that Saudi Arabia is one of the most restrictive countries in the world for women.

Her family’s philanthropies supports entrepreneurship programs for Saudi women. After the government began to enforce a law permitting women to work in lingerie shops – over opposition from conservative clerics – the philanthropies created a course to train women in retail work.

Princess Ameerah is also backing efforts to strengthen the role of women in politics. She says she is bringing together 200 women professionals for a dinner in November to organize their voices and encourage them to speak out collectively in the media and in public.

She disputes the idea that change can only happen from the top down. “The change comes bottom up, and this is what we’ve seen in the Arab revolutions,” she says. “Saudi women have been quiet for a long, long time, and it’s about time we spoke up.”

Princess Ameerah says that Saudi Arabia is hindered by its small number of nonprofits – roughly 600, she says, compared with 3,000 in Bahrain.

She’d like to see more young Saudis choose jobs with nonprofits, she says, but they often view those positions as unattractive and poorly paid. “We need to think about how we can make working in [nonprofits] appealing,” she said.

The Arab Spring, she says, has had the short-term effect of constraining the work of nonprofits across the Middle East. But she hopes that when the political situations stabilize, nonprofits and philanthropies will be able to step up their work.

“People want to do good, and that will continue whether you have a dictator or a democratic government,” she says.

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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Dewayne Hurling loves Detroit and is thrilled to have renovated a beautiful old home in the Boston-Edison neighborhood of the city. Young adults who have recently moved to Detroit or are lifelong residents are giving the city a new vitality. (Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor)

Natives join 'hipsters' in reviving Detroit

By Jay WalljasperShareable / 10.16.12

Stories of Detroit's emerging comeback often highlight the city’s attraction to young hipsters. According to plentiful media reports, well-educated twenty-somethings are streaming into the Motor City to test out new ideas, explore art and music projects, or launch D-I-Y revitalization initiatives.

You can spot a number of once-dormant corners of the city now pulsing with activity thanks to young entrepreneurs. Corktown now sports pubs and restaurants that would fit in Brooklyn or Portland. Midtown shows all the makings of a creative class hub, complete with hipsters hanging out at the Good Girls Go to Paris creperie, the Avalon International Breads bakery, and the N’Nmadi Center gallery, devoted to the rich tradition of African-American abstract art. Recent college grads can be seen all over town from the bountiful Eastern Market to bustling Campus Martius square to festive Mexicantown to the scenic Riverwalk to the yummy Good People Popcorn shop downtown, featuring flavors like cinnamon and chocolate drizzle.

This burst of youthful energy – even in the face of the city’s continuing economic and social woes – debunks widespread opinion that nothing can be done to jumpstart the Motor City. While a new, more positive narrative about Detroit is welcome, there are problems in focusing entirely on idealistic young adventurers swooping in to save the city – it reinforces the stereotype of native Detroiters as hapless, helpless, and hopeless. 

The truth is, locals have been working hard for years to uplift the common good in Detroit, which drew the interest of outsiders. And newcomers aren’t the only ones stirring up excitement around town. Good People Popcorn, for instance, was started by two sisters and a cousin, all of whom grew up here. Sarida Scott Montgomery, one of the founders who is also a lawyer and executive director of the Community Development Advocates of Detroit, says people are often surprised she grew up in the city. "Not in the suburbs," she says, "but in Detroit itself." 

Regina Ann Campbell, director of the Milwaukee Junction Small Business Center incubator in Detroit's North End, grew up on the Northwest side before earning a Masters in urban planning degree at the University of Michigan. "I welcome all the new people," she says. "But it’s important for them to understand they are building on some things that have been going on for years. I want to help them appreciate the city though the eyes of the people who have lived here."

Ms. Scott Montgomery and Ms. Campbell are both part of a new initiative that matches the talents of bright, young professionals with local organizations working at the frontlines of reviving Detroit. The Detroit Revitalization Fellows Program (DRFP) selected 29 fellows with backgrounds in urban planning, economic development, finance, real estate, and related fields. 

A lot of the buzz around the program highlights ambitious folks relocating from New York, Seattle, the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., Montreal, Chicago, and Los Angeles to further their careers in Detroit, but in reality 10 of the fellows were already living in Detroit and nine others had grown up in the metro area or previously lived in the city.

For many of them it was a long-awaited homecoming, which shows that continuing loyalty from the Detroit Diaspora is a hidden asset in the city’s favor. Jela Ellefson, who was working at a Los Angeles urban planning firm before moving with her husband, an architect, and two children back to Detroit, says, "We always followed what was happening in Detroit, and noticed that the urban planning world was paying a lot of attention.”  She now works to expand programs at the city's Eastern Market.

DRFP – a Wayne State project financially supported by the Kresge Foundation, Ford Foundation, Hudson-Webber Foundation, Skillman Foundation, and the university  – placed fellows at organizations identified as being "actively engaged in building the Detroit of tomorrow."  The breadth and impact of these nonprofit groups – everything from the Data Driven Detroit research firm to the Community Investment Support Fund, which directs investment capital to low-income neighborhoods – speaks to a strong sense of the commons that survives in Detroit even amid the economic setbacks.  

Fellow Matteo Passalacqua works at the Vanguard community development corporation to rehab historic structures as affordable housing in the city’s struggling North End, for instance, and Marcus Clarke at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation and David Barna at Midtown Detroit Inc. are collaborating to help city firms acquire a larger share of procurement contracts from large local institutions.

Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, who hired fellow Eric Anderson as the organization’s Director of Digital Media and Engagement, sees the DRFP as important in reversing Detroit’s brain drain. "We’ve been losing talented folks for a long time. Part of what we have to do to recover our potential is stop that drain. The fellows program represents that potential."

Allyson McLean, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs and has worked on brownfield redevelopment in Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority and on strategic planning for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington D.C, is back in town aiding real estate development in low-income communities with the Community Investment Support Fund.

“Now that I am back,” she says, “it’s frustrating to hear from friends I grew up with who have no plans to ever return. In many cases they aren’t necessarily staying in places like Chicago because they’ve landed great jobs, they simply think it’s a cooler place to be. They have no idea what they’re missing in their hometown.”

This article originally appeared at, a nonprofit online magazine that tells the story of how sharing can promote the common good.

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A young girl pumps water from a well in the village of Manugay in the Pech River Valley of Afghanistan's Kunar Province. Mobile technologies are allowing nonprofit groups to better monitor and serve the water needs of developing nations. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File)

Mobile technology boosts access to clean water for the poor

By Julie MollinsAlertNet / 10.15.12

Information technology is a powerful tool for experts working to provide secure access to water for personal use, food production, and business in developing nations.

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.

The widespread availability of mobile phones has enabled the development of low-cost solutions aimed at improving water security and reducing poverty.

Three quarters of the world's 7 billion people have access to a mobile phone, according to a World Bank report. There are 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide, of which almost 5 billion are in developing countries.

IN PICTURES: World Water Day 

This is where mobile networks come in – they have led to the development of communication services that aim to increase the transparency and reliability of water delivery.  For example, mobile technology has allowed service providers to monitor water supply to prevent theft and leakages, while offering more effective repairs and billing.

But these innovative efforts still face huge political and logistical challenges, complicated by the risks linked to climate change, experts say.

Here are five mobile strategies that are already helping people get better access to water and sanitation:

Supply mapping

Timely data on the state of water infrastructure is key to implementing a secure water supply. Akvo FLOW (Field Level Operations Watch) is a mobile application that uses Android-operated devices, the internet, and map-reporting tools in Google Maps and Google Earth to collect, analyze, and report data for monitoring water supplies.

The system, which has been used in 17 countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America since 2010, was developed by two nonprofit organizations: Water For People, which helps communities in developing countries access clean drinking water; and Akvo, which creates web and mobile software to improve the delivery of humanitarian aid.

In 2011, the Liberian government, assisted by the World Bank, used Akvo FLOW to map 10,000 water points in Liberia.

Smart-card tap system

Lifelink, developed by Denmark-based Grundfos AS, uses submersible borehole pumps powered by solar or wind power to deliver water to an elevated storage tank.

Gravity forces the water to flow into a tap unit in a small building, which also serves as a payment facility. Customers buy water credits that are stored on a "smart card," using mobile-phone banking. They insert the smart card into a slot at the tap unit to purchase water.

A percentage of the money goes towards service and maintenance. Lifelink staff can monitor water pressure, temperature, and the amount of water tapped from anywhere in the world via the internet.

The company, which provides the service in urban and rural communities, says it has implemented drinking-water supply systems for 100,000 people in Kenya and is expanding into other African countries and Asia.

Water management by SMS

A mobile-to-web platform designed to regulate water management is improving water delivery in West Africa.

The mWater service – used by 240 small public-private piped-water schemes in Senegal, Mali, Benin, and Niger – allows water-service operators to share information with national authorities and financial institutions via mobile phone.

Text messages provide data about water-production levels, account balances, and service disruptions. mWater generates real-time reports and also archives data to provide water-scheme managers with monthly reports, which can be emailed or downloaded.

Today, more than 25 percent of rural and small-town populations in western and central Africa are served by small piped-water schemes, a proportion that is expected to rise to 80 percent by 2015, according to the Manobi Development Foundation.

Smart hand pumps

Experts estimate that a third of handpumps supplying water to some of the world's poorest people are broken at any given time, according to Rob Hope, a researcher at Britain’s University of Oxford Mobile/Water for Development (MW4D) program.

Hope is part of a team developing a mobile system that coordinates access to, payment for, and upkeep of hand pumps, which are often installed and then left for the local community to manage with varying success.

The "smart hand pumps" automatically transmit water use and performance data over the mobile network, sending a text message to alert engineers of a breakdown.

Data provides water output estimates that show fluctuations in daily to seasonal demand levels. The mobile application is being tested in 70 villages in Kenya's drought-prone Kyuso district, as part of a year-long pilot project funded by Britain's Department for International Development (DFID).

Hand-pump service centers

More than half of India’s village hand pumps are not working and remain out of use for more than 30 days due to a shortage of mechanics, according to WaterAid.

In response, the charity has set up hand pump service centers, known locally as Public Panchayat Participatory (PPP) centers, operated by locally trained mechanics in two districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states.

The condition of village hand pumps is monitored by the centers and repairs coordinated by mobile phone.

Between January 2011 and March 2012, the centers oversaw the repair of more than 4,500 hand pumps serving almost 338,000 people, according to WaterAid.

Only 6 percent of the repairs took longer than two days to complete, and this was usually down to remote location, the need for major work, or a lack of spare parts, the charity says.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, a humanitarian news site operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

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Visitors play World of Warcraft during the Gamescom 2011 fair in Cologne, Germany. By the time average Americans turn 21, they have played 10,000 hours of video games. Games for Change advocates using some of that time on games that result in social good. (Ina Fassbender/Reuters/File)

Games for change: How digital fun is becoming a way to better the world

By Kallie SmithGlobal Envision / 10.12.12

From world hunger to peace to economic development, a new tool is making a difference: video games.

By the time average Americans turn 21, they have played 10,000 hours of video games. That is equal to the amount of time they will spend in school in the United States between 5th and 12th grade or it is equal to five years in a full time job. According to Malcolm Gladwell's book, Outliers, a person who spends 10,000 hours on any activity "masters" it.

Take World of Warcraft, a hugely popular interactive virtual reality game with 10.3 million players around the world. It's not your '90s Mario Brothers with 10 controls. Warcraft is so complex that the online wiki encyclopedia about the game – characters, history, events – -has 96,890 pages, making it one of the largest wikis in the world. Mastering Warcraft means internalizing vast amounts of the information in that wiki.

World of Warcraft is not saving the world. But focusing on the positive uses of video games could turn gamers into global heroes.

The education potential of games is huge, in part because so many people are already playing them. Globally, we spend 3 billion hours playing video games. There are few activities that over a fifth of the population do that can be used to create change. If we harnessed that time and energy for really tough global problems, we just might be able to solve them.

Using games for social benefit, or "games for change," is a fast-growing movement led by an organization founded in 2004 under the same name. Games for Change's mission is to "catalyze social impact through digital games."

Using games for positive social change has evolved just as gaming itself has evolved. As more people became aware of the popularity of games, they began to spread. First came simple educational games: The Oregon Trail and Reader Rabbit were popular in the United States in the '90s.

The United Nations saw the value of games and was an early pioneer in figuring out how to use them to create positive social change--and putting funding behind it.

  • Food Force, launched by the World Food Program in 2005, puts players in the shoes of an aid worker. They start off with a fairly simple plot of wheat. If their wheat survives, the aid worker has to figure out how to get the food to a processing plant, showing the player the complexities of the global food supply chain. But drought and pests--devastating issues that real-life farmers face every year--often hit the player's fields, forcing them to manage a hunger crisis. The game is played by 10 million on Facebook, and raises money for the World Food Program by letting players donate through the game.
  • Evoke , a real-time game published online in 2010, was funded by the World Bank as a tool to inspire and create real innovations that would help solve global issues. The game was set in Africa, but the solutions could have impact around the world. For a 10-week period, players followed a virtual storyline while earning points from fellow competitors for blogging about real-world social change activities they did as part of the game, such as developing a bike that creates enough electricity when pedaled to charge personal electronics.

Jane McGonigal, a key proponent of the movement, gave a popular TED talk in 2010, further pushing the concept of gaming for change forward.

"Games are really good for exploring complex issues in society," continued Games for Change spokesperson Suzanne Seggerman in an interview on ABC News in 2011.

Social change games have been branching to all fields and all styles. Foldit is a game designed to discover protein structures that will solve genetic problems and diseases. Each player gets to fold proteins and the game determines if that protein solves a medical problem. Busy-work that would take someone a lifetime to do alone is spread among thousands of players in order to help teach human puzzle-solving strategies to computers. Researchers had been working for over a decade on discovering an AIDS protein that may lead to a cure. Earlier this year, the gamers solved the protein puzzle within 10 days.

  • Peacemakers is helping establish understanding between Israelis and Palestinians. As a player, you are the leader of both nations and have to use real facts reported on in the news to determine the actions you would take to successfully lead that nation peacefully. Players see not only their political views but also the other side's, too.

The number of these games has been growing, and as these games become more established, the success of their objectives is becoming more apparent.

For organizations with messages or agendas, games are a fun way for people to get involved. Technology is spreading from laptops to tablets to mobile phones. Seventy-five percent of the world's population has access to mobile phones, making the possibility of scaling games for change incredible.

Games that create positive change is a way for companies that produce games to reach an entirely new market segment. At the same time, gaming audiences welcome the chance to reverse the stereotype of "gamers."

For game developers, it's also a new market: helping nonprofits with social missions reach a new, engaged audiences. For the first time next year, the Games for Change organization will get an entire day at the annual Game Developers Conference to help more developers get involved.

The opportunities for charitable organizations are increasing every day, and as groups like Games for Change have conferences of their own, recruiting developers to create the games is getting easier.

Soon, a favorite pastime may actually do a lot of good.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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