A cannon that shoots cotton candy. An opera written, directed, and performed by grade-school children. A public hammock that can hold 15 people.
That’s not the usual portfolio of projects that America’s big foundations support. But they all got off the ground with money from a footloose group of grant makers called the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences.
The three-year-old Awesome Foundation is neither an official foundation nor a registered charity. Rather, it is a loosely affiliated collection of some three-dozen autonomous groups in the United States, Canada, and abroad (including Australia, Great Britain, and Switzerland).
Each Awesome chapter is essentially a giving circle, usually made up of 10 volunteer trustees who each offer $100 a month toward a no-strings-attached grant, or Awesome Fellowship. The grants are $1,000 each, awarded monthly after all the trustees vote. Individuals or groups can apply through an online application that asks just three questions.
“It really started as joke,” says Tim Hwang, who created the concept in Boston in 2009 not long after graduating from Harvard University. “I wondered what would happen if there was a group with the mandate to fund projects that 'forwarded the interest of awesomeness in the universe’ and people could just pitch ideas.”
He may not have been serious, but the idea of making small grants with little hassle has become so powerful that traditional philanthropy is now interested. Last year the idea attracted a nearly quarter-million-dollar grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Mr. Hwang likes to think of “awesomeness” as having “the capacity to surprise and delight.”
But trustees are free to interpret the word as they like, and grants have gone to quirky, creative projects – such as erecting impromptu swing sets all around Los Angeles – and to solve serious human needs, such as a toilet outside a grade school in Sierra Leone that an Australian chapter helped pay for.
The Boston chapter recently doubled the size of its board so it could award two fellowships a month, usually one whimsical and one more purposeful, from the more than 50 (and growing) applications it receives each month.
“Traditional foundations face huge costs as a matter of their legal structures and overheads, and it does not really work for them to offer many grants below a certain amount,” Mr. Hwang says. “We saw this empty space in the grant market where all sorts of innovations were happening on a small scale but had difficulty materializing.”
“The whole idea is to help make cool things happen in our communities without the need for formal structures or tax deductions,” says Tony Macklin, a trustee at the Pittsburgh chapter and also executive director of the Roy A. Hunt Foundation, a family fund. “I really admire the do-it-yourself aspect and that they are tapping people’s skills and passions without a lot of process.”
What began as a lark has blossomed into something of an international charitable movement, and last year the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies was formed in Boston to further the concept. The institute has also applied to the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status, a move that the institute’s leader, Christina Xu, says doesn’t mean that the group is going mainstream or turning its back on its unstructured roots.
“For a variety of reasons, we needed a legal entity,” Ms. Xu says. “As the concept has spread, bigger organizations have wanted to connect with us, and there was no reasonable way for them to talk to this disembodied group of people. The institute, in one sense, will be a doorway into the Awesome universe for more traditional entities.”
The institute can also be a grant-seeking charity and last year was awarded a $244,000 News Challenge grant from the Knight Foundation to establish new chapters in Detroit and two yet-undetermined locations, each with an emphasis on creating innovative journalism projects.
“We are never going to be able to replace large philanthropic institutions,” Ms. Xu says. “What we can do is try to encourage them to think about our approach and ideas and see if we can meet in the middle.”
Spreading to poorer cities could be a challenge, since Awesome trustees must annually bring $1,200 to the table, Ms. Xu acknowledged. The trustees the institute helped assemble to lead the Detroit chapter will be using the Knight Foundation money for the $1,000 fellowships. The chapter’s first grant was awarded in February to the Detroit Journal, a project started by a pair of filmmakers that creates short documentaries about the lives of ordinary Detroiters.
“The Awesome Foundation’s approach makes it easy and fun for people to contribute to their communities by bringing together a smart, networked group of people and giving away money,” says John Bracken, the Knight Foundation’s director of journalism and media innovation. “It seemed a natural place for our support. A main concern was not wanting to kill something that’s cool by coming in with foundation rules and culture. I think we’ve avoided that, though it’s something we are still conscious of.”
While the Awesome Foundation’s fast-and-loose approach could invite abuse, Mr. Hwang says he has not heard about any chapters getting conned out of money. “A thousand dollars is enough money to get something done but not enough to squabble over,” Ms. Xu adds. “If someone did take the money and run, we wouldn’t be that upset. We’d just do it again next month.”
In fact, organizers say the loose approach helps bring money and attention to those who aren’t part of traditional philanthropy.
“For most artists, preparing grant applications is a very demanding process,” says Felipe Castelblanco, part of a group of Pittsburgh artists awarded a $1,000 Awesome Fellowship in January to help develop a floating arts venue called Art Barge. “For me, it feels very refreshing to engage in a dialogue with people that relate more directly to the community from the very beginning of the project.”
Last year, Awesome Food became the first Awesome Foundation chapter organized around a topic – the growing and cooking of food – rather than a geographic location. Its trustees use conference calls and the Internet to discuss and evaluate food-related fellowship proposals from around the world. One of its most recent grants was awarded to a new international food-aid effort based in Paris and Melbourne called Hatch, which converts shipping containers into mini-farms for use in refugee camps.
“It’s not just the money that’s important but the imprimatur and accreditation that the awesome process can provide,” says Jennifer 8. Lee, a journalist and author who helped start Awesome Food. “It makes it easier to go out and get more backing and validation.”
Indeed, the Awesome Foundation model has been developing concurrently with the growth of Web sites, such as Kickstarter, that allow people to bypass traditional grant-seeking avenues in favor of direct appeals for money from their online social networks and beyond. Mr. Hwang says many Awesome grantees are also using Kickstarter, sometimes using the higher profile and new networking connections that come from a fellowship.
“We can end up being a kick start for Kickstarter,” Mr. Hwang says. “The personalized element of the Awesome Foundation is very powerful. The trustees are 10 people that you can meet and connect with in the community. Sometimes this can be more valuable than the $1,000 grant they give out.”
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For Connecticut’s threatened alewives, cooperation between state government and private organizations means one more rung on the fish ladder to success.
Mr. Dancho recently stood on the banks of the Pequonnock River with a large net in hand. The river, which runs near the zoo, was low because of a dry spell. He and a team of volunteers scooped up nearly 2,000 of the fish, helped them over the fish ladder, and sent them on their way upstream.
The zoo is just one of several groups working with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to build fish ladders and count fish. Of the 56 fish ladders across the state, only 12 of them have electric counters.
This fall Dancho hopes to add a $15,000 electric counter and video camera to the ladder near the zoo. A grant from another private group, the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, would help defray the cost, he says.
If visual counts, like the one at Beardsley Zoo, or electric counts, like the one at the Mianus Dam fishway, are any indication, Connecticut’s alewives are running stronger than they have in years.
For example, one fish way in East Lyme, Conn., reported more than 3,600 fish so far. Normally it averages around 2,500 fish a season. However, it’s too soon to know whether this signifies a comeback for the threatened fish, says Stephen Gephard, a biologist with DEEP.
“This year is the first encouraging sign that things might be getting better. Generally we scientists need at least three years to see that this is not just a flash in the pan,” Mr. Gephard says.
What isn’t a flash in the pan is the public-private cooperation, Gephard says. That’s necessary since there has “never been a line in the budget that allows us to go out and build fish ways,” he says.
Alewives, also known as river herring, spend most of their lives in saltwater. However, dams, temperature changes, and possible overharvesting of Atlantic herring mean the once abundant fish can’t reach their freshwater spawning grounds. In 2002 Connecticut became the first of four states to close its alewife fisheries.
The alewife population has waxed and waned for centuries.
The first significant drop-off happened during the Industrial Revolution. Sometime in the mid-1980s the numbers surged only to dramatically decline in the 1990s. The reasons for this drop-off are murky, Gephard says.
“We know it’s marine in origin because states from Maine to the Carolinas are seeing a problem. The problem may be inadvertent scooping up of alewives in the Atlantic herring fisheries,” Gephard says.
The alewife is delicious smoked, say some fishmongers. But they are also the preferred meal for many predators, including ospreys, cormorants, striped bass, and bluefish. These animals have only recently returned to Connecticut’s rivers.
“People come from all over to watch this nature. People are coming to Bridgeport – a city! – to watch the fish and see ospreys and cormorants,” Dancho says.
More fish ladders and better fish runs help connect people to the environment. People are more likely to support local land trusts or conservation groups when they see the effects of returning ponds to their natural state, says Gephard.
Across Connecticut numerous Alewife Streets and Alewives Lanes honor the shiny, silver fish. Long ago taverns and pubs here regularly served river herring. And while one might be hard pressed to find alewives on a menu today, a strong alewife population benefits other fish stocks.
Another consequence of the public-private partnerships is increased awareness of the role alewives played in Connecticut history.
“A lot of people don’t realize how critically important these fish runs were to the colonization of our area. A lot of these coastal towns developed because of alewives,” Gephard says. “They are part and parcel of the history of many towns. So by bringing them back we are restoring a little bit of the history of these towns.”
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Five years into their recession, with 21 percent unemployment, some Volos residents who were short on Euros but long on other resources created a local currency (called TEMs in Greek) that is traded based on nonmonetary contributions into the online system.
People sign up for a TEMs network account, see what services they might offer to other folks in their area who are in need, and start amassing credits that can be cashed in for things they themselves need. TEMs can be used for everything from bakers to babysitters, teachers to technicians. In theory, the value of one TEM is equal to the value of one Euro.
One participant, acupuncturist Bernhardt Koppold, explained, "It's an easier, more direct way of exchanging goods and services. It's also a way of showing practical solidarity – of building relationships."
Maria Choupis, co-founder of the TEMs network, echoed that sentiment regarding the local alternative currency systems: “They are as much social structures as economic ones. They foster intimacy and mutual support.”
Speaking to NPR, Volos Mayor Panos Skotiniotis encouraged municipal governments around the world to consider similar programs of their own to fill in where government and the traditional market are failing to adequately serve citizens: "This is a substitution for the welfare state, and that is why this municipality is encouraging it and wants it to grow." For its part, though, the Greek Parliament is also very supportive, passing legislation to encourage various non-traditional forms of “entrepreneurship and local development.”
Thankfully, other governments are listening. Many more Germans have jumped into alternative currency systems since the Euro was launched. More than two-dozen systems now exist there. Christian Gelleri, managing director of one regional currency, enthused, “We want people to think about this more.… participants of the alternative currencies want to change the money system. We want to promote local charities and connect local businesses – that’s our objective.”
The United States, too, has a number of toes in the alternative currency water, including Cheers in Detroit, BerkShares in Western Massachusetts, the Bay Area Community Exchange timebank in northern California, Ithaca Hours in upstate New York, and more. San Francisco has set up a working group to explore how the sharing economy can benefit citizens and the Creative Currency is being held there later this month. More widely focused is Bitcoin digital currency. Some states, like Utah, have designated gold and silver coins as official legal tender.
Back in Greece, the TEMs system is but one of more than a dozen like it around the country. And, as the new thinking and new currencies take root, more opportunities grow. In Volos, daily markets allow people to barter and trade to their heart's content. Choupis noted. “They’re quite joyous occasions. It’s very liberating, not using money.”
By not being limited by price tags, almost anything is possible. Choupis relayed the story of a woman who arrived at a market with three trays of cakes she had made. The woman's asking price was only one unit per cake, which Choupis questioned: “I asked her: ‘Do you think that’s enough? After all, you had the cost of the ingredients, the electricity to cook …’
“She replied: ‘Wait until the market is over’, and at the end she had three different kinds of fruit, two one-litre bottles of olive oil, soaps, beans, a dozen eggs, and a whole lot of yogurt. ‘If I had bought all this at the supermarket,’ she said, ‘it would have cost me a great deal more than what it cost to make these cakes.’ ”
No matter the city, keeping resources and economic systems close to home has both a trickle-down and a ripple-out effect. As more and more local governments open their minds and laws to what alternative currencies and sharing economies have to offer, the more resilient, self-sufficient, and sustainable their populations will become.
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It isn’t always easy finding fresh, high-quality food in this country. Supermarkets with their long, complex supply chains usually offer unripe or subpar produce that leaves a lot to be desired.
But the usual alternative methods of provision have distinct limitations. Luckily, technology provides one great answer to this dilemma, opening up an important new avenue for small-scale producers to connect to customers.
Only local farms can deliver the very freshest produce. But while the common methods of providing this bounty to consumers – community supported agriculture (CSA) plans and farmers’ markets – are essential components of a revitalizing fresh-food sector, they don’t always provide a sufficiently flexible or robust shopping experience.
CSAs require a large up-front cash layout and lock you into eating whatever happens to be delivered. Farmers’ markets vary vastly in size and quality, from those that enforce requirements on farm size and distance to those that don’t seem to hold vendors to any standards at all. It’s dismaying to discover resellers at “farmers’” markets; for all you know, they bought their wares at Safeway that morning.
For quality-minded consumers who would like to support local agriculture, it can be a struggle to obtain the freshest food on a consistent basis. And small farmers may struggle to find enough convenient markets for their goods.
But as I discovered in researching my new book on good news in sustainable food, small producers have one magical ace up their sleeve, a tool that could provide a far greater advantage to locally oriented growers than to big nationally focused ones: the Internet. Smart use of the Web can shift the focus of food retail away from industrial suppliers and toward those in the position to offer on-demand delivery of the freshest food around.
I was only able to cover a few choice examples in the pages of my book Change Comes to Dinner, but there are thousands of other innovative efforts where those came from. One example I found particularly inspiring was the Farmers Fresh Market program run by the Foothills Connect Business and Technology Center in Rutherfordton, N.C.
The organization created a proprietary online system to allow individuals and businesses in nearby cities to order fresh produce from growers local to Rutherfordton. In many cases, the growers pick the food the same day the buyers receive it.
In a town where the economy has largely collapsed, the project of connecting local small food-producers with consumers in nearby cities is motivated more by the possibility of job creation than it is by pursuit of culinary nirvana.
“We’re not foodies,” Tim Will, executive director of Foothills Connect and the brains behind the project, told me. “It has very little to do with food and everything to do with jobs.”
This was consistent with another discovery I made while researching the book: The prospect of restoring local economies that have been crippled by changing times or damaging recession is as valid and powerful a reason to invest in local food as many of the arguments one hears about food miles, freshness, and saving the family farm.
In Rutherfordton, Foothills Connect has not only designed a way for city dwellers to support the established farmers of the surrounding rural landscape, but is also helping local non-farmers gain income by becoming growers too.
The organization offers a horticultural training program that teaches would-be small farmers to do raised-bed French intensive organic gardening. Local people with no or little income who are sitting on a wealth of family land can put their inheritance to good use, with the market for their wares provided by Foothills Connect’s Web-based ordering system.
Mr. Will has provided literacy and computer training to those who don’t have the skills to interact with the online system. And the organization has been working hard to ensure that the entire surrounding countryside has the capability for Internet access so no one is shut out.
This great example is but one in a burgeoning universe of efforts that use Web connections to boost the fortunes of small and local producers and help consumers obtain the freshest food. One important trend is the establishment of businesses that distribute the fruits of local farms to individual customers via online ordering systems, like Arganica Farm Club in the mid-Atlantic, Green Bean Delivery in the Midwest, and SPUD in the Northwest. Other services, like Ecotrust’s FoodHub, currently covering the Western US, is specifically geared toward providing food to businesses, restaurants, and other institutions.
And there are scores of others using various different models, each extending a vital lifeline to local growers and helping satisfy the needs of food shoppers who care about the quality and values of their food.
• Katherine Gustafson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Katherine is a freelance writer and editor based in the Washington, DC, area. Her first book, "Change Comes to Dinner," about sustainable food, will be published in May 2012 by St. Martin's Press.
The idea that change starts small isn’t new. But in an age when large corporations seem increasingly ubiquitous and powerful, small businesses have become an important locus of sustainable economic movements.
From May 3-10, hundreds of New Yorkers will participate in the first Shop Your Values Week, a project of the New York City-based startup Ethikus. The aim of Ethikus is to generate more business for small enterprises whose practices embody certain principles of sustainability in the realms of product-sourcing, employee relations, community engagement, and environmental impact or mitigation efforts. By looking at those four criteria, Ethikus identifies businesses they want to invite into their network, which functions as a sort of ethics-focused Groupon by providing consumers with vouchers to use in those businesses.
“We look to see that they are engaging in decent business practices. It doesn’t need to be all four of the criteria. And it’s a somewhat subjective judgment,” an intern at Ethikus, recent college grad Justin Jahng, told Dowser. “We’re focused on inclusion, not exclusion, as a means toward creating change.”
But Ethikus is more than just a “green Groupon.” The organization also helps companies improve their sustainability practices if they don’t meet enough of the aforementioned criteria. The energy auditing company Sage, one of Ethikus’ partner organizations, works with willing enterprises that don’t quite make the cut for Ethikus’ network by offering free energy audits and recommendations that will make businesses more energy efficient.
Additionally, Ethikus exists to help consumers find small businesses that match their interests in environmental and social sustainability.
“We want to build more ethical consumption in New York City by linking businesses that do good with consumers. We do this by giving consumers the information they need to choose where they spend their money,” explained Jahng.
Jeff Hittner founded Ethikus in mid-2011 after six years of leading IBM’s corporate social responsibility department. He was looking for a more intimate work environment, and a more direct way to effect change.
“I was tired of the bureaucracy, of working through many layers in a big corporation,” he told Dowser. “With Ethikus, the amazing thing is that you can create change just by walking into a small business. It’s incredible how receptive they have all been.”
Since last fall, Ethikus has been able to sign up around 200 businesses throughout New York City. At the time of writing, nearly 1,000 people were signed up for the Shop Your Values Week pledge, where people state that they will only shop “locally, ethically, and sustainably.” During that week, Ethikus is hosting a series of events in conjunction with their partner organizations, including an outdoor dance party with food trucks on May 4th , and a bicycle tour of restaurants in Ethikus’ network on May 5th . Additionally, Ethikus has paired up with Bard College’s MBA in sustainability program to offer a scholarship competition.
Partnerships are an important element of Ethikus’ mission and approach to social change. They work with numerous community organizations, like the aforementioned Sage, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the environmental crowdfunding site ioby, and more.
“This is about succeeding through collaboration,” Hittner said. “We need to get nonprofits sharing in this vision.” And even within Ethikus, collaboration is the work ethos. Hittner admitted that, despite founding the organization, “around 85 percent” of the ideas it runs on had come from his co-workers during meetings at their makeshift office in his apartment in the East Village.
So far, Ethikus has yet to generate a profit, and it has plans to expand its revenue sources in the near future beyond its voucher offerings. The main vision for that expansion is to create what Hittner calls “experiential events with ethical themes” that will make it fun and easy for New Yorkers to enjoy themselves while spending their dollars in small, ethical enterprises.
“Shop Your Values Week is an easy way for people to say, ‘yeah, that makes sense, I’m signing up,’ ” said Hittner. “With Ethikus, I can feel change at this level that I couldn’t feel at IBM.”
Among the most challenging long-term barriers to agricultural production and sustainability in Africa is poor and degrading soil quality.
According to “Agricultural success from Africa: the case of fertilizer tree systems in southern Africa (Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe),” a report from the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, simple “Fertilizer Tree Systems” (FTS) can double maize (corn) production in soil that is low in nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient.
A type of agroforestry, FTS incorporate nitrogen-fixing trees and shrubs into agricultural fields, usually inter-planted with food crops. These trees take in atmospheric nitrogen and return it to the soil, where it serves as a nutrient for plants.
Soil analyses by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and others in the 1980s revealed nitrogen to be a limiting factor in many African soils. In response, on-farm studies in the 1990s showed that FTS, with the right species, could increase crop yields with or without mineral fertilizers.
FTS are much cheaper for farmers to implement than buying fertilizer and represent a more holistic approach to soil management. FTS scaling-up programs were broadly implemented about 10 years ago, and in that time the number of small farmers using these techniques has ballooned from a few hundred to more than 250,000 in Malawi, Tanzania, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
FTS have proven most effective for small farmers who are able to devote the necessary labor and land more easily than raise the money needed for commercial fertilizer. By relying on naturally occurring systems rather than imports, agroforestry improves food security, bolsters biodiversity, and reinforces local economies.
The introduction of a wider variety of plants to fields, for example, has been shown to increase diversity of the local ecosystem, which further augments the soil.
According to the report, FTS have generally been successful, but they are subject to regional variation. Some areas have found more suitable native nitrogen-fixers than others, and many regions have had little or no research to identify the best plants to use.
The report also stresses that FTS do not provide all nutrients required by crops, so external inputs are frequently necessary to boost phosphorus and potassium. However, as nitrogen has been shown to be a limiting nutrient in much of southern Africa, sustainable production can be improved through the use of FTS, even without other fertilizers.
Farmers in southern Africa have shown themselves keen to embrace new innovations, like the FTS programs. As research and training continue, more small farmers will be able to produce more food in sustainable ways.
Nyla Rodgers is one charity official who is fed up with the way nonprofits represent Africa. Too often she sees depictions of AIDS, warfare, famine, hopelessness, desperation, and dependence on a Western hero.
That kind of concern came to the surface when she saw the “Kony 2012” campaign by the advocacy group Invisible Children.
“When I saw the Kony campaign, it made me so mad,” says Ms. Rodgers, founding director of Mama Hope, a San Francisco charity that works in Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to start farms and build schools, health centers, and other facilities that strengthen communities.
But long before that campaign, her charity started working to create new perceptions of Africa and to show that it is full of capable people with the potential to support themselves. Her nonprofit has released three videos over the past year as part of its “Stop the Pity” campaign, using humor to create a new conversation about the continent and humanize the people who live there.
In the first, published in February 2011, a 9-year-old African boy explains in detail the plot of his favorite movie, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Commando.” In another, Americans and Africans sing along to Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.”
The video, released on Wednesday, received more than 250,000 views on YouTube in its first day online. Ms. Rodgers takes that as a sign people are ready for a new image of Africa.
“Using images that people can relate to, showing people not at their worst but at their full potential, with creativity, is just as effective,” Ms. Rodgers said.
Donors so expect to see a tragic story from Africa that many people who watched the “Commando” video assumed at first that the boy was a child soldier, Ms. Rodgers said. But as the video continues, it becomes clear that the piece is merely about a 9-year-old boy’s love for his favorite movie.
Ms. Rodgers has faced criticism for showing only relatively wealthy, happy African people in the charity’s videos. But Bernard, a man featured in the “Hollywood Stereotypes” video, was an orphan originally sponsored by Ms. Rodgers’s late mother, who inspired the founding of Mama Hope. His story shows the power of what people can do when they get an education, Ms. Rodgers says.
Ultimately, Ms. Rodgers said she believes the perceptions Americans have about Africa will be shaped by what nonprofits say. Too often, she says, charities figure images of desperation will attract more gifts. But that’s not helping anyone, she says.
It wasn’t until two years after construction began on the controversial Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia that Ikal Angelei learned about the project. She soon realized, however, what the massive project would mean for hundreds of thousands of indigenous Ethiopians and Kenyans who rely on the waters of Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake, which is located downstream.
While the Ethiopian government claims the Gibe III will provide badly needed electricity to one of Africa’s poorest regions, Angelei, a 31-year-old Kenyan who grew up in the Lake Turkana Basin, says it would come at a steep price. The dam – which would be the world’s fourth-largest – is expected to cause the lake’s water level to drop by as much as 33 feet, a shift that would not only devastate fish stocks but trigger increased conflict in a region already troubled by violence over dwindling water resources.
Outraged that the massive dam project was being planned without any input from local communities – and without a comprehensive study into the long-term ecological and social costs – Angelei founded the Friends of Lake Turkana in 2009. In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina M. Russo, Angelei describes why the Gibe III project threatens the very survival of the region’s indigenous tribes, what it will take it to stop it, and how she has used public pressure and social media to galvanize local and international opposition to the dam.
“If we let go and say, ‘Build the dam,’ it means we are saying that accountability doesn’t account for anything in this world, and [that] governments can destroy environments and destroy ecosystems in the name of development,” said Angelei, who this month received a 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize.
Yale Environment 360: I wanted to ask you first about Lake Turkana. As the largest desert lake in the world, the area around it is quite harsh – and yet the lake appears to be very soft and beckoning.
Ikal Angelei: The region itself is very harsh. But when you go to the lake and you hear the waves, and you just see the moving of the water.... it is unimaginable. In this very harsh area, you get this cold, nice water. It is just amazing. As you are driving – from the eastern shores or from the western shores – the lake is almost like a mirage. And as you come nearer and nearer, you just see a mass of water. For me, years later, despite being brought up there, that moment is still a magical feeling.
e360: You’ve written that “more than a quarter-million residents from at least 10 tribes have become masters at wresting sustenance from the harsh landscape.” What communities live in the Lake Turkana area?
Angelei: The indigenous communities around the lake include Samburu, El Molo, Turkana, Rendille, Gabra, and Dassanach – they are in Kenya. When you go into Ethiopia you have the Dassanach of Ethiopia, the Mursi, Nyangatom, Bodi, Hamar...
e360: Before the founding of Friends of Lake Turkana did the communities interact?
Angelei: Actually before the project they were isolated, but it was seasonally based. If you understand the conflicts around the region, we are in conflict about resources.... The identity of the people is the lake. Even if you are trying to look geographically at where they are located, one will say “western shores” or “eastern shores” of the lake.
Economically, because of the changes in climate coupled with the harsh, extreme nature of the climate, people are looking at fishing – not to substitute but to complement pastoralism. So communities who are naturally not fishermen are now going into fishing.
In terms of the water table in the region – it is a dry area. So we really depend on groundwater, because we can’t depend on the rainfall.... With the lake receding, the water table of the lake goes down. It dramatically affects the groundwater across the basin. So even people who are not naturally fishermen or directly depend on the lake, they depend on the groundwater for survival.
The very basic [threat] is that the ecosystem of the lake will change because of the dam project. If you have a reduced inflow from the river you will change the chemical balance of the lake. One, it is going to make the water more saline, so you cannot use it for human or animal consumption. The fish may not be able to sustain themselves in that water, because it becomes too acidic for them. And with the flow downstream of the Omo River, that’s what determines the spawning and the breeding of fish.
e360: Why will the absence of the natural flooding process have such devastating affects on the communities?
Angelei: People always say, “Oh, we are controlling the flooding.” But you cannot alter nature; you cannot fight nature... Lake Turkana doesn’t have an outlet; it is a closed lake. So it depends on that balance of inflow versus evaporation. If you reduce that inflow, the level of evaporation increases. Once you have altered the balance of the lake, you have damaged the ecosystem completely.
They want to let the water flow in the minimum amount downstream. But that totally destroys the way people are living. When we leave the natural flow of the river, it spreads across into areas that are within the Turkana basin. That allows for pasture to grow where various communities are grazing. When you alter that, and water doesn’t flood the region, then communities start to move to where these resources are available, which puts more pressure not only on the environment, it creates more conflict over the scarce resources that are available.
The same [threat] exists in Ethiopia — we cannot ignore that this is an area where communities are also struggling for resources. The communities live a way of life that is like a typical African three-legged stool. They depend on subsistence farming; they depend on fishing; and they depend on pastoralism. If you reduce the floods, it damages their subsistence farming, which is very key to their normal way of life... If you remove one leg, the stool really cannot balance.
e360: The dam construction began in 2006. But you didn’t hear about it immediately. How did you come to understand the project had begun?
Angelei: In late 2008, that is when I met [anthropologist] Richard Leakey. And while interacting with him and starting to work with him at the Turkana Basin Institute, he came up to me one time and gave me a document that he had just received. The document indicated there was a dam being constructed, and a group of scientists and researchers had looked at what was said to be an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) that had just been released — and those scientists and researchers were questioning the facts [about the report].
e360: You had no idea about it until then?
Angelei: No idea about it. And Leakey said, “Yes, even I have just been informed about it.” So I quickly started to talk to my members of parliament to find out if they knew about it. That is when we realized that neither the parliamentarians that represent the region nor the local communities knew about the project.
e360: Did you think this was intentional?
Angelei: We believed it was intentional. Later on, we read in the newspapers that some government officials knew about it. And that’s when we knew that, for them, it was a matter of energy versus the life of people.
e360: How is Kenya supposed to benefit from this dam?
e360: After your discovery about the dam, you launched Friends of Lake Turkana.
Angelei: We officially formed the Friends of Lake Turkana in 2009 because we realized we needed to have a legal body. At first, the other citizens of Kenya — who had very little information about Lake Turkana — just thought we were making noise. Most of them were looking at it as, “We need energy; we are tired of blackouts.” Which was reasonable. And we recognize the efforts of both the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments to source for energy development. But for us, it has always been: At what expense? And what alternatives do we have?
It seemed that originally more people did not know about the project than did. In Kenya, when there is a lot of hiding, we start to suspect something. So people started to question: Why is the government hiding something?
e360: So now what is Kenya’s position on the project?
Angelei: It is quite divided. Half the ministers believe that this project should be stopped. The parliament has passed a motion asking the government to ask for a halt in the project unless a comprehensive and independent Environmental Impact Assessment is done — and an environmental social impact is undertaken. Not only on the dam but also the greater Omo basin.
But our president, our prime minister, and the minister of energy keep insisting that the project should go on. So, then we started to wonder what politics is being played here.
e360: If Kenya decided to halt support for it, would the project stop altogether?
Angelei: I don’t think it could go on without Kenya’s support because the viability of this project is based on Kenya’s purchase [of electricity]. Ethiopia has already enough domestic energy — it has the Gibe I and Gibe II dams, which are sufficient for Ethiopia.
e360: Now the project has been criticized by your organization for not abiding by appropriate international and domestic protocol, including criticisms of the bidding process What has transpired that has made some major organizations back away from supporting the project?
Angelei: For a project this big that seeks international funding — which is basically taxpayer money from all these countries — you have to go through an open, public bidding process. This project did not go through that.
Salini [the Italy-based contractor] approached Ethiopia — and the company was given a direct bid. So the fact is that one company was given a contract of such large magnitude, without advertising and without letting others bid for the project.
e360: You think of this project as a human rights abuse as well as an environmental abuse?
Angelei: Yes, I think it is a human rights abuse and an environmental abuse. You cannot say “development” is telling people that your way of life doesn’t work anymore. People have to develop in the way they see fit. If I don’t want to drive, it doesn’t mean I’m not developed. It means I am living my life in the way I see fit, as long as I am able to achieve my spiritual and basic needs.
e360: Do you think all of Kenya wants to fight to protect Lake Turkana, or do you feel this battle is very isolated?
Angelei: A greater part of Kenya appreciates the importance of environments, and how people live. But there are always the ignorant few who you meet along with way — who for them, having the electricity to play their music, and having lights and not having blackouts is more of a priority than communities and the way of life.
e360: Are you getting more support since your campaign began?
Angelei: Yes. Most people just didn’t understand what the issue was. But with a lot of media coverage and a lot of open discussions and with a lot of information on the website and using social media, there is a lot more interest. And especially after a couple of raids in the region, where we lost about 124 people, Turkana especially... it brought a clear picture of conflict over resources and conflict over water.
e360: Who is mainly in conflict with each other in the area?
Angelei: There’s conflict between the Turkana and Dassanach in Kenya, and the Turkana and the Dassanach across the border... People used to talk about traditional raids. It’s no longer that. People are now well armed and it depends on who has more bullets than the other.
e360: Are the communities in the Lower Omo Valley facing similar issues as you are at Lake Turkana?
Angelei: More or less, they have similar issues. But I think they are more pressured now. They have more pressure on their resources because land is being grabbed for sugarcane plantations and cotton plantations.
e360: I read a report by Survival International that says Ethiopia plans to resettle tribes which “stand in the way” of development plans related to the Gibe III dam. Is this really happening?
Angelei: Yes it is happening. Communities are being forced out of their lands... The government of Ethiopia is coming into the region and forcing communities out, because they have vast land — that’s what allows them to have these lives, to be pastoralists, fish, subsistence farming. So they are being pushed into something like concentration camps — where they are told they will be given education, schools, health care. And then their land is being taken and in turn given to international companies from India, Malaysia, and more developing countries to produce sugar cane, cotton, etc.
e360: What is the Friends of Lake Turkana’s ultimate goal?
Angelei: For us, this campaign will set a precedent. If we let go and say, “Build the dam,” it means we are saying that accountability doesn’t account for anything in this world, and [that] governments can destroy environments and destroy ecosystems in the name of development. So our big goal is to push for a comprehensive, independent environmental and social impact assessments of the entire basin, which would allow us to understand what opportunities we have; what challenges we have, how fragile this ecosystem is; and what sort of development can be done there. And it would allow the communities to be part of this discussion.
e360: To be clear: If this dam project continues, you feel very strongly that people are going to die.
Angelei: Definitely. It’s water. The other day, in Turkana, they discovered oil. The only thing that the local people were saying is: Why can’t you ever discover water?
There’s absolutely no way that dam can go on and the people in Turkana will survive. If it’s not directly, then they’ll kill each other, one by one. People will be fighting every day because it is the only way of survival now. We have very scarce resources. We have very little water. So who will control the water? It will be the strongest person.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christina M. Russo, who conducted this interview for Yale Environment 360, is a freelance public radio producer who has worked at WBUR in Boston and KQED in San Francisco. In 2009, she reported and co-produced a nationally syndicated public radio documentary examining the state of American zoos, called “From Cages to Conservation.”
Local charities and nonprofits are looking for a few good baby boomers – well, lots of them, actually – to roll up their sleeves to help local schools, soup kitchens, and others in need.
Boomers are attractive volunteers, and it's not just the sheer strength of their numbers – 77 million. They are living longer. They are more educated than previous generations. And, especially appealing: They bring well-honed skills and years of real-world work and life experience.
"This generation, this cohort of Americans, is the healthiest, best-educated generation of Americans across this traditional age of retirement," says Dr. Erwin Tan, who heads the Senior Corps program at the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), a federal agency in Washington. "The question for us is how can we as a country not afford to mobilize this huge source of human capital to meet the vital needs of our communities."
Dr. Tan says nonprofits are retooling to attract more boomers by offering a variety of skills-based opportunities as well as more flexibility, such as nontraditional hours or projects that don't require a trip to the office and can be completed at home.
Mr. Carr retired about a year ago as an accountant for Verizon Communications. Instead of golfing or parking himself on the couch, he volunteers with low-income people and military families, helping them prepare and file their tax returns.
Carr also volunteers as treasurer for a church group and helps people with paperwork for food stamps and unemployment.
"There's so much in the news today that's very negative, and a lot of it I can't do a whole lot about," Carr says. "But at least here in the community that I live in, there are some things that I can do to help others."
About a third of boomers, ages 48 to 66 years, tend to gravitate toward opportunities with a religious underpinning, according to CNCS figures. That was followed by volunteer opportunities in education, 22 percent; social service, 14 percent; and hospitals, 8 percent.
The percentage of boomers volunteering these days, however, is on the decline.
Nearly 22 million baby boomers gave their time in communities across the country in 2010. That's about 28.8 percent of boomers, down slightly from 29.9 percent in 2007 and from 33.5 percent in 2003, according to the community service corporation.
"What I think we're seeing is baby boomers coming out of the period of peak volunteering," says Nathan Dietz, former associate director of research at CNCS and now a senior program manager with the Partnership for Public Service. "They are getting older, and people as they get older volunteer a little less often."
Peak age for volunteering tends to be in the mid-30s and 40s, Mr. Dietz says, when married couples and those with children are more likely to be exposed to situations in which people need volunteers – say, coaching for a child's soccer team or giving time to local scouts or schoolchildren as a mentor or group leader.
Many boomers are also delaying retirement and working into their golden years because their nest eggs have taken a hit in the last few years, giving them less time to volunteer.
An August 2011 Associated Press-National Constitution Center Poll found that 65 percent of baby boomers had done some type of volunteer activities through or for an organization over the past year. That is significantly less than adults younger than boomers. The top reasons baby boomers did not volunteer in the past year were not having the time, 69 percent, and health issues or physical limitations, 19 percent.
"We all have to give back," says Ms. Herrala, who retired four years ago from her longtime job recruiting volunteers for Marquette County. "A part of paying for our spot on Earth is to help those who need help."
Herrala is volunteering as part of an American Red Cross team dispatched to disasters. She also now has time to turn to a great passion of hers: health care.
Herrala says she's seen too many people in desperate need of health care, so she began volunteering with a program called the Medical Care Access Coalition. It provides medical care to low-income people without insurance.
One experience Herrala says she'll never forget was the day a woman without dental care came to her with dentures that didn't fit properly. Every time the woman needed to talk, she had to take out her teeth so she could speak. Herrala tried to help her find a dentist.
"It gives me a sense of satisfaction knowing you can do something to help someone else," Herrala says.
• Associated Press News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.
Do you love your neighborhood? Or do you dream about moving away?
When I was younger, my neighborhood was my life. My family didn't have much money, so it wasn't a white-picket-fence, manicured-lawn type of neighborhood, but to me, it was home. I knew every tree and crack in the pavement. The other kids who lived there were my built-in community, and we spent every possible minute playing outside together.
Fast forward 20 years, and I can't tell you the last time I had a conversation with a neighbor. In fact, I don't know a single one of them by their first name.
I use my busy life as an excuse, but the truth is, we're just not as invested in our neighborhoods as we used to be. We may complain about things like potholes, vacant lots, and a lack of bike lanes, but do we take action? Rarely. Often, we wait for the local government to solve these problems for us, and when they don't, we complain some more. All the while, we're drifting farther away from those neighborly connections that used to be so important.
Neighborland, a New Orleans-based start up focused on citizen participation and city planning, hopes that its unique twist on social networking will help bring people back together.
By signing up for an Neighborland account, people can share ideas and insights for their city, support ideas suggested by their neighbors, and connect with people who share similar interests. It all starts by answering a simple question: "I want ____ in my neighborhood."
Once an idea has gathered some steam, the Neighborland community identifies achievable goals and fuels a discussion about how to accomplish them. "We are providing residents, neighborhood organizations, economic development groups, and municipalities with a powerfully simple platform to connect and make good things happen," writes the team. "A healthy neighborhood is a connected neighborhood."
Since Neighborland was born in New Orleans, it got to test its concept in the parishes of the Big Easy. Community groups already working on important neighborhood improvement projects found it a useful tool for collecting support and making public leaders aware of the community's desires. In the last few months, Neighborland has helped New Orleans citizens demonstrate broad public support for Open Data, extending the streetcar, and the reform of Food Truck laws.
Neighborland also has huge potential for opening lines of communication between city planners and the people who actually live in the neighborhoods they're working on. Instead leaving each party to wonder what the other is thinking, Neighborland provides an easy-to-use online platform that encourages citizen participation and an open exchange of ideas.
"We want to bring more people into the development process, help them understand it, and work with community and municipal leaders to make better places," said co-founders Dan Parham, Tee Parham, and Candy Chang. "Our job is to connect residents with the resources they need to make their ideas happen."
The young company is currently operational in three cities: Boulder, Colo.; Houston; and New Orleans, with plans to add at least 17 more over the next year. Currently, the company is funded by an Urban Innovation Challenge from Tulane University and the Rockefeller Foundation, but it is actively seeking community partners, from passionate nonprofit and economic development groups to redevelopment projects, or city governments. Those interested in bringing Neighborland to their city should contact the company directly.