In rural villages in East and West Africa, electrical connections are humming and light bulbs are shining for the first time in homes that only knew candlelight before.
Although no power lines yet reach these villages, multifunction platforms (MFPs) are filling the energy void, powering not just lights but machines that lessen the drudgery of farmers' work.
What is a multifunction platform? Though the name sounds a bit daunting, the MFP is basically a stationary diesel engine that can be attached to about anything that rotates: grain-milling and husking machines, water pumps, and power tools. The MFPs are quiet, 6 to 8 horsepower, 750-lb Listeroid engines. Their basic construction and features have not changed significantly since their debut in the 1930s.
The engines have more than proved their durability, efficiency, and hassle-free maintenance over the years. Their efficiency and raw power make them perfectly suited for continuous electrical generation and work.
With MFPs farmers can mill their own corn and wheat for food and sale, while earning income by processing the crops of neighboring farmers. Members of cooperatives can run mechanical tools, power rural electrical grids, and soon, it is hoped, irrigate crops with the machines.
Organizations working with the platform have paid special attention to women users, hoping to free up several hours per day that can be devoted to other priority tasks.
The first MFPs were installed in Mali and Burkina Faso in 1994 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) began to install MFPs in 1996, and the project is still ongoing, having expanded to include other countries in West Africa.
To acquire an MFP, a group of men and women from a village usually create a formal organization to request and purchase a generator. The cost is usually subsidized between 40 to 50 percent by the UNDP. Residents are given training and then placed in charge of installation, maintenance, and repair of the platforms.
In 2009, student engineers from Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, and Columbia University in New York City installed two of these engines in the Teso region of northern Uganda, one of the first in East Africa. The students worked with a local NGO, Pilgrim, which had established several cooperatives in the area. The machines cost nearly $9,000, plus $3,350 to train people to use them.
With fuel prices varying greatly, access to diesel fuel to power the MFPs can be a challenge. In response, Columbia University students modified the platform to run on vegetable oil, which could decrease operating costs and ensure continued MFP use. In order to avoid using food crops for the oil, the engineers have recommended that users plant Jatropha, an inedible plant whose seeds have high oil content. With the right attachment, the MFPs themselves can extract the oil from the seeds. It is hoped that excess Jatropha plant oil can be sold to biodiesel distributors and soapmakers for additional income.
• To read more about appropriate technologies for smallholder farmers, see What is an Appropriate Technology? and Using Appropriate Technologies to “Feed the Future”.
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Collida Harawa has spent a lot of her life gathering firewood. Like most villagers in the hilly district of Rumphi in northern Malawi, the 39-year-old peasant farmer relies on it as the only freely available fuel for cooking.
But collecting fuel is time-consuming and tiring. Harawa must walk up to seven kilometers (more than four miles) to the forest to fetch firewood, which she ties into a big bundle and carries the same distance home on her head.
And over time, the environmental consequences of fuel wood consumption have become clear, as Malawi’s forest cover dwindles and carbon emissions rise.
But now Harawa and villagers like her are taking advantage of a new kind of cooking stove, made from locally available materials, that requires much smaller volumes of fuel than traditional stoves.
By doing so, they are not just saving themselves time and effort but are also helping to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, which scientists say contributes to climate change.
The new brick and ceramic stove cuts use of wood fuel by up to 65 percent, according to John Bwati Gondwe, coordinator of the Esperanza stove project at the Eva Demaya Center, a local nongovernmental organization.
“That means a lot as far as protecting forests and reducing carbon emissions are concerned,” he said.
Trees use and store carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, and cutting them can not only increase carbon emissions but also disrupt the rainmaking process, called evapo-transpiration.
That leads to drier and more extreme weather conditions, which is harmful for agriculture and can increase the risk of weather-related disasters.
The Esperanza stove is a chamber made from materials such as bricks which are locally made from dried soil. The chamber contains six to eight ceramic rings, depending on the size of the stove. The rings are also made locally.
When a fire is set in the stove chamber, the rings quickly absorb and retain heat.
“They are heated even with fire made with very little amounts of wood,” Gondwe said.
“Once the ceramic rings are fired up, the chamber starts absorbing some of the heat from them and stores it as the small amounts of wood burn,” he explained.
When the fire goes out, the chamber will remain sufficiently hot to cook food, as the ceramic rings transmit sustained heat to the cooking vessel above them.
The ceramic ring technology was developed in Canada, but the Esperanza stove is a local invention. The Eva Demaya Center began distributing the stoves in Rumphi in late 2011 and has so far given out 750 of them. In total, Gondwe said, the project is targeting up to 10,000 households.
Each stove costs 2,500 Malawian kwachas (about $10), a subsidized price that mainly covers the cost of installation.
“With sufficient funding, the project can be replicated anywhere in the country. We have those plans to extend to other areas of the country but we are restricted by insufficient funding,” Gondwe added.
According to a World Bank report released in 2011, about a third of Malawi is forested with either indigenous of exotic trees. But the country is fast losing its remaining native primary forest, with losses between 2000 and 2005 estimated at about 35 percent by forestry organizations.
Domestic cooking is the primary use for wood, but trees are also felled to clear land for agriculture, and wood is also used to fuel kilns that make bricks for building.
Villagers mainly target native trees for fuel. Benita Mbewe, of Rumphi North, says the high quality of wood from natural trees yields a more efficient fire than exotic species.
But since adopting the Esperanza stove, Mbewe has been using less wood, and finding other advantages too.
“I now have more time to perform other chores like gardening and attending to some income-generating activities such as taking part in some public works projects,” she said.
• Karen Sanje is a Malawi-based freelance writer with an interest in climate issues.
Tony Elumelu, a Nigerian businessman, joined with five other colleagues to put up $5 million in 1997 to acquire a struggling Nigerian bank. Five years later, the bank merged with another to become the largest in West Africa, employing about 25,000 people.
Mr. Elumelu, who has become one of Africa’s most prominent philanthropists, likes to contrast the results of that $5 million investment – the jobs it helped create and the tax revenue it generated for governments – with what he sees as the disappointing track record of foreign-aid money showered on Africa each year.
The Nigerian businessman thinks it’s time for a new approach to Africa’s problems, and he has been pitching the idea in speeches to donors and businessmen, and to the news media.
He calls his idea “Africacapitalism,” a business-led, African-run approach to fighting poverty.
In 2010, he started the Tony Elumelu Foundation to finance nonprofit work that supports economic growth.
Led by a former Rockefeller Foundation official, Wiebe Boer, the Lagos, Nigeria, foundation seeks to groom business leaders, change government policies that discourage the creation of new enterprises, spread research on entrepreneurship in Africa, and provide capital to businesses that have a social purpose.
Jane Wales, founder of the Global Philanthropy Forum, says Mr. Elumelu stands out as a philanthropist because he doesn’t just rely on grantmaking. He also ties his investments to businesses that bring about social change and uses his own voice and influence to sway policymakers.
“He employs all the tools of strategic philanthropy, and he does so deftly,” she says.
Mr. Elumelu also wants to improve philanthropy in Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent. His organization is pushing legislation in his home country that would seek to organize nonprofits by requiring them to disclose more information about their work.
But Mr. Elumelu is tight-lipped about his own giving, declining to say how much he’s donated to the foundation. Mr. Boer says the foundation will start providing that information soon, most likely in the next year.
Mr. Elumelu is part of a small but growing cadre of philanthropists in Africa, say experts. Some of the most prominent African donors, like Sudanese-born Mo Ibrahim, run their philanthropic foundations from outside of the continent. (Mr. Ibrahim’s fund, which focuses on good governance in Africa, is based in London.)
“In Africa, you’re seeing the same thing: Folks who were very successful in business and who are very quickly moving into philanthropy and doing so in a very generous way,” she says.
Cargo bikes, which can be thought of as smaller and versatile counterparts of the pedicab, are bicycles designed to carry everything from bags of groceries to pots of plants. These utilitarian bikes have been in vogue in Denmark for years, and in its capital city Copenhagen, this nature-friendly mode of transportation is rapidly replacing cars.
Cargo bikes are especially alluring to parents seeking to shuttle their children around the city with ease. Some of the city’s small business entrepreneurs are also innovating designs and adding features to transform their cargo bikes into portable businesses to sell newspapers, crepes, drinks, and more.
Across Denmark’s borders, in Germany, a new website called Velogistics is offering an intuitive platform to enable peer-to-peer sharing of cargo bikes internationally. The website is maintained by Tom Hansing. Since the launch of the Velogistics website, people from the United Kingdom, Austria, and the United States have offered to rent out their cargo bikes.
The premise of this cargo bike-sharing project is simple: People interested in lending their cargo bikes post photos and short descriptions of the features of their bikes to the Velogistics website. The lenders can offer their bikes for free or set rates for daily use, and those looking to rent a cargo bike can send messages to the lenders directly via a form on the site. The location of all the cargo bikes that are available for rent are plotted on a world map on Velogistics’ homepage for users to quickly ascertain where the bikes are available for rent.
Hansing, who calls sharing “the new property,” said in an email that he hopes the website will spread to many parts around the world and will be translated in many languages. He added that providing an online space for people to share their cargo bikes and offering them an incentive to earn a little money will hopefully lead to an increase in the use of cargo bikes.
“The most important thing: Muscle power rather than fossil fuel. We need to save our natural resources and use it for really important things … not cars,” he said, adding that he would like to include additional features to the website like profile pages for lenders and a mobile application if he is able get funding for the site through donations.
Christophe Vaillant, who is also involved with Velogistics, organizes workshops to build cargo bikes out of old used bikes that are often left in backyards or basements of buildings in Berlin. He said he organizes teams of three people who are skilled in building bikes to modify these old bikes, so they can be used as cargo bikes. He posts information about the repurposed bikes on the Velogistics site so they can be shared locally.
Vaillant said that he is also developing an open-source wiki with do-it-yourself instructions on building cargo bikes.
“The idea is that globally the knowledge commons of making cargo bikes will grow and be refined step by step, and that locally groups can rebuild and copy successfully implemented workshop formats,” he said in an email.
Though San Francisco has a thriving biking community, the popularity of cargo bikes has yet to migrate over to this side of the pond.
Josh Boisclair, a mechanic at My Dutch Bike in San Francisco, a company specializing in the import and sales of city and cargo bicycles, is one of the few cargo bike enthusiasts in the city.
“It’s getting more popular, but it’s still in its infancy,” said Boisclair, adding that the city’s parking woes is one of the reasons people are turning to bikes. He said My Dutch Bike is working to popularize cargo bikes.
“I promote the bike by just riding it around. We promote our business just by living by example – riding the bikes that we sell,” he said.
Tom D’Eri needed some help. In September of last year, he co-founded a small social enterprise that helps people with autism find employment. He quickly realized that he needed some outside assistance with things like branding and website development, topics that he didn’t have much experience with himself.
Mr. D’Eri could have hired some expensive consultants to do the work for him, but he was eager to find a better value for his money. So he tried something new: He got in touch with the folks at Catchafire.
Founded in 2009, Catchafire is a “social mission business” that aims to connect skilled professionals with meaningful volunteer projects. To date, the organization, which is based in New York, has built up a database of about 10,000 volunteer professionals and 2,500 organizations that are looking for pro bono services.
And the Catchafire team says that it's just getting started; 10 years from now, Catchafire wants to be a household name.
“Our vision is a more effective and efficient social good sector, and – on the other side – a world where it’s commonplace to serve for the greater good,” says Rachael Chong, Catchafire’s CEO and founder.
Too many pro bono projects leave volunteers feeling disillusioned, Ms. Chong says, and too many nonprofits are struggling with some fairly straightforward technical tasks. Catchafire offers a solution to both of those problems by matching skilled professionals with specific, time-limited projects.
Here’s how it works: Accountants, photographers, lawyers, PR gurus, marketing strategists, and the like log onto the Catchafire website, upload their resumes, and fill out an application. That information is crunched by an algorithm, which figures out which projects in the database will be a good fit for each potential volunteer.
The process has worked beautifully for D’Eri’s organization, which is called CanDo Business Ventures and which has its main office in New York. Their first volunteer, who advised the organization on brand messaging, was “fantastic,” D’Eri says. “He really took the time to understand what our business was, and then how to communicate that really succinctly…. Now, he’s actually one of our advisers, so we’ve continued a relationship.”
CanDo Business Ventures is now working with a second Catchafire volunteer, who’s doing web development, and D’Eri has put in a request for a third.
Working with Catchafire is ideal for organizations that are short-staffed, says D’Eri, whose own enterprise has just one long-term employee other than himself. Taking on the volunteers has allowed him to focus on what he does best, instead of getting bogged down in technical subjects that he doesn’t have much experience with.
Catchafire volunteers aren’t paid for their work, but that doesn’t mean that D’Eri gets to enjoy their services for free. Like the other organizations that list pro bono projects in the Catchafire database, CanDo Business Ventures pays Catchafire a membership fee, set on a sliding scale. That’s a critical part of the Catchafire model, Chong says: “We need to make sure that both parties are serious before they engage.”
If both the volunteer and the nonprofit are committed to the process – and in most cases, Chong says, that’s been the case – then both sides will come out happy at the end of the project.
It’s all part of Catchafire’s goal to create a more “meaningful, impactful, and delightful volunteer experience,” Chong says. “We know that if somebody has a great experience, they will very likely give again.”
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In 2002, two neighbors armed with spades and seeds changed everything for crime-addled Quesada Avenue in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area.
The street had been ground zero for the area’s drug trade and its attendant violence. But when Annette Smith and Karl Paige began planting flowers on a small section of the trash-filled median strip, Quesada Gardens Initiative was born. Over the course of the next decade, the community-enrichment project profoundly altered the face of this once-blighted neighborhood.
Jeffrey Betcher is the initiative’s unlikely spokesperson. A gay white man driven to the majority-black area by the high cost of housing elsewhere, he moved into a house on Quesada Avenue in 1998 to find drug dealers selling from his front stoop and addicts sleeping beneath his stairs. He told me about the day that he returned home from work to discover that his neighbor Annette had planted a little corner of his yard.
“Even though there was a throng of people – drug dealers who were carrying guns, pretty scary folks – she had planted flowers on this little strip of dirt by my driveway,” he told me. “I was so moved by that ... I thought, that’s what life is about. That’s what community development is about. That’s what’s going to change this block faster than any public investment or outside strategy. And in fact it did.”
We too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act.
A group of neighbors got together for a barbeque, and Jeffrey – who has a background in community organizing – started a conversation about the positive aspects of living in the neighborhood. What followed was a long-term, consensus-based process that resulted in the creation of a series of gardens on vacant land in the surrounding blocks. On Quesada Avenue, the median strip was transformed into a wonderland of Canary Island date palms, bright flowers, and leafy vegetation. Any neighbor who wants to can organize a new gardening effort, take responsibility for the existing gardens, or put together a public art project.
While Quesada Gardens Initiative is not specifically focused around growing food, it does incorporate a food garden used to teach local children about crops, as well as free-form community garden plots. And the way the project uses gardening as a powerful locus of community engagement and empowerment demonstrates an important truth about the social value of food that we seem to have largely forgotten in this country.
A major reason our food system is so damaged – so dominated by corporate interests, rife with unhealthy products, and unbalanced by unequal access – is that we too often fail to consider food a social good or to understand that growing, selling, and eating food is by its nature a meaningful social act. What we eat is far more than a pile of commodities. Not only is food’s essential job to nourish our bodies, but it can also serve as a creator of quality livelihoods, a locus of community engagement and cohesion, and an engine of citizen empowerment and education.
To improve our system, we must realize and act on this fundamental truth. Most of the industrial food corporations do not. Their central motivation is profit, and the highest profit apparently comes from treating food as a product like any other – a plate full of widgets that can be engineered, created, priced, marketed, and exploited.
Luckily, a growing number of people concerned with the origins and impacts of their food are rejecting this materialistic and one-dimensional view of what we eat. Projects and organizations all over the country are putting food back into the social context it has traditionally inhabited.
"The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners.”
For example, companies and cooperatives that supply local food to an area’s population strongly demonstrate that food is central to community cohesion and to local economies. In school garden programs, students learn the complex processes and intense collaboration that go into making what they eat. Projects that help underserved populations like refugees and inner-city residents grow produce help make food once again a central concern of family and community life.
Quesada Gardens Initiative reflects the power of growing things to bring a local community together in a powerful way. Jeffrey made this point as he took me on a tour of the garden plots dotted amongst the houses and stores of the surrounding neighborhood.
Quesada Avenue, the block once known as the most dangerous in the area, has been transformed completely and now serves as a hub of community life. At the top of its hill, Jeffrey showed me the beautifully designed food garden for educating kids. Behind the chain-link fence, stalks of corn stood at attention beside a glowing patch of leafy greens.
At another garden a few blocks away – a patchwork of small plots that had previously been an improvised trash dump – a sandbox and rope swing indicated that the garden was for more than growing food. Kids, in fact, had painted the signs that ringed the garden’s perimeter with such slogans and quotes as “Don’t dump on my garden” and “If you want to change the world, start in your own neighborhood – Harvey Milk.”
Quesada Initiative’s success arises from the project’s appreciation of gardening as the means to an end more profound than a harvest of lettuce and peas. While the plants produced are of course a key motivation for any gardening enterprise, growing food can also – should also – serve other important social purposes, like cultivating a culture of civic engagement and an ethos of community participation.
“The change that we’ve created is not about the garden, it’s about the gardeners,” Jeffrey told me. He stopped to greet a neighbor as we rounded the corner back onto Quesada Avenue. As we continued on our way, he smiled at me with satisfaction.
“We realize we have done something right here,” he said.
• 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, was published this month by St. Martin's Press.
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One of the best ways to encourage economic growth in poor areas is to provide affordable small loans to farmers and small-business owners. Called microcredit or microloans, these programs can inject capital into communities that lack the collateral required by conventional banks.
Today, Nourishing the Planet introduces five innovative microcredit programs that are encouraging economic growth in poor communities.
1. Farmer-to-farmer programs: Microcredit programs tend to be most sustainable when they promote cooperation between residents of a community. Encouraging farmer-to-farmer support can be an effective technique because it allows participants to be less reliant on outside financing and guidance.
Farmer-to-farmer programs in action: When Africa’s Sustainable Development Council (ASUDEC) connects farmers with microcredit loans, the recipients have several expectations placed upon them. ASUDEC requires farmers to not only pay back the loans, but also to offer equally affordable loans to their neighbors. This policy generates a ripple effect, helping communities increase their incomes and fund their own progress, rather than relying on ASUDEC. As the trust and cooperation between farmers builds, it “helps the poor transition from subsistence to entrepreneurship,” says ASUDEC’S Director, Dr. Salibo Some.
2. Integrated economic support: While gaining access to affordable lines of credit is an important step for poor farmers, it isn’t always enough to provide real financial stability. Some microcredit programs go beyond small loans and offer many services, such as connections to markets, supply regulation, and savings accounts.
Integrated economic support in action: BRAC, formerly Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee, started its microfinance program in 1974 in Bangladesh, and now provides asset- and referral-free microloans to impoverished people in 16 countries. The largest development organization in the world, BRAC’s aim is to “use microfinance groups as a social platform to deliver scaled-up services in health, education, business development, and livelihood support.” They provide specialized loans ($50 to $700) and training for young women, and larger loans ($700 to 7,000) to existing small enterprises. All of these loans come with access to a range of services, including savings, technical assistance, and marketing. Over 99 percent of BRAC’s 7 million borrowers pay back their loans on time.
3. Training centers: Without the necessary knowledge and training, many farmers who receive microloans would struggle to increase their production and pay back loans. Most microcredit programs, therefore, link their loans with training and education on up-to-date techniques and practices.
Training centers in action: Ecova Mali was started in 2007 in order to provide grass-roots development in Mali. The two main thrusts of its program are providing farmers with training in sustainable agriculture and offering microfinancing (loans and grants) to help farmers start environmentally and socially responsible enterprises. It has a permanent training facility in Mali, where local experts teach fellow Malians new techniques, such as using natural fertilizers, aquaculture, and biogas, and explain why they are preferable to traditional methods. Once they receive the education, the farmers may be offered loans or grants to get started on their own eco-friendly, profitable farms.
4. Health information programs: The history of microcredit programs is not spotless. Financiers have occasionally preyed upon the poor, profiting substantially from microloans. And sometimes loans have proven to be ineffective at delivering immediate relief and aid. One tactic employed by some programs is to link loans directly with health information and care.
Health information programs in action: The Microcredit Summit Campaign was originally launched in 1997 in Washington, DC, as an international effort to bring access to credit to millions of the world’s poorest people, especially women. One important facet of its mission is to work with a network of trainers to reach “over half-a-million microfinance clients in 18 countries with life-saving health education lessons.” This is crucial to combat insufficient knowledge of nutrition, sanitation, HIV/AIDS, and many other health-related issues. The campaign is specifically trying to establish self-sustaining education systems through microloans, which are independent of donor support.
5. Individual investors: Sometimes NGOs and governments fail to provide services where and when they are needed. Dedicated individuals, however, can contribute immeasurably to their communities by utilizing and encouraging microfinancing and partnerships that build trust and cooperation.
Individual investors in action: Dinnah Kapiza, an agrodealer in Malawi, lost her husband in 1999, and she responded by taking a training course in business that came with a microloan. She used that money to start a new agro-dealership, Tisaiwale Trading, which sells agricultural supplies, such as seeds and tools, to roughly 3,000 nearby farmers in Malawi. Her business is flourishing, providing affordable supplies and technical training on how to best use them, and she is working to connect women’s groups to their own microcredit.
Science writer Willy Ley once said: “Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.” The same can be said for the Connecticut River Watershed, the first National Blueway in the United States, as designated May 24 by the US Interior Department.
It took the cooperation of between 40 and 50 local and state, public and private, organizations from four states to make the designation possible. While it doesn't mean more federal funding, it does mean better coordination between these groups to promote best practices, information sharing, and stewardship.
National Blueway is more than a label, says Andy Fisk, executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council.
“There are no turf wars here, but there are a lot of folks on the dance floor,” Mr. Fisk says. “It’s important to recognize that this is a new way in how you get things done. It’s not one entity that will get things done, it’s diversity.”
The idea for a National Blueways System comes from President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative, which highlights grass-roots efforts in land and water conservation. National Blueways will coordinate federal, state, and local efforts by promoting best practices, sharing information and resources, and encouraging collaboration. Existing federal designations for rivers generally cover only a segment of a river and its corridor: A National Blueway will comprise the entire river, as well as its watershed.
Among the groups involved in the Connecticut River National Blueway are the Friends of the Silvio O. Conte Refuge, the Connecticut Watershed Council, the Connecticut River Museum, and the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.
It is also one of the only major rivers in the world that remains largely undeveloped, says Jerry Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Conn. A sand bar at the river’s mouth prevented a large seaport city from developing there.
“I’m looking out my window and see nothing but trees; that’s unusual for a river this size,” Mr. Roberts says.
The National Blueway designation will encourage people to regard the Connecticut River as a source of recreation, as well as something to be conserved, Roberts says. That’s no easy task considering the 7.2 million acre watershed reaches into four states.
People can get involved in protecting the river in many ways, large and small, Fisk says. They can take water-quality samples or plant trees on the banks of the river. They can help maintain one of several paddling trails on the river or campgrounds on its banks.
American rivers can also provide a source for economic opportunity, so long as they are carefully managed, say both the US Department of the Interior and the US Department of Agriculture. The Connecticut River is an important economic source. About 1.4 million people enjoy the watershed yearly, and it contributes about $1 billion to local economies, according to the Trust for Public Land, a national, nonprofit land-conservation organization.
“Rivers are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to global warming,” Roberts says. “As sea levels rise, rivers rise, and property gets lost. The tidal area will start to extend further up. By monitoring these things now we can establish a baseline and see where we are in 20 years. The designation will help people realize the battle is not over.”
The National Blueway designation also offers a chance to better preserve the river’s history, Roberts says.
Historic covered bridges, known as kissing bridges or courting bridges, span the waterway in Vermont and New Hampshire. In Charleston, N.H., Fort No. 4 is the site of one of the first European settlements in the upper Connecticut River Valley. It wasn’t, however, the site of the first human settlement on the river. That dates back about 11,000 years when Paleo-Indians settled on its banks. Europeans arrived in 1614.
Over time the river valley has played an enormous role in the development of New England and the nation. It’s abundant wood and stone, and fertile valleys, made it an ideal place to settle. About 2.4 million people now live in the watershed area.
The river’s name comes from a French corruption of the Algonquian word “quinetucket,” which means “long tidal river.” That's an apt name considering the river stays tidal all the way to Windsor Locks, Conn., some 60 miles inland from its mouth.
Machine-tool factories have dotted the waterway from the Robbins and Lawrence Armory and Machine Shop in Windsor, Vt., to the Colt Factory in Hartford. The river rebounded starting in 1965 with passage of the federal Water Quality Act. The river's water quality has risen from Class D to Class B.
Kirsten Guarini, a junior in high school, spent spring break traveling from her hometown of San Francisco to Los Angeles, visiting seven colleges on the way. If she enrolls in 2013, she will become the first person in her family to attend college in America, the goal of First Graduate, the group that organized the road trip for Ms. Guarini and 20 other students in the program.
“My parents would not have known how to schedule a tour,” says Ms. Guarini, whose parents immigrated from Denmark and Guatemala. “First Graduate planned it all out for us and said, 'Show up here ready to learn, with your walking shoes.’ ”
Founded in 2002, First Graduate prepares students academically for college and helps their families navigate the admissions and financial-aid process. The program currently works with 230 students, from the end of sixth grade to high school and into college.
Four in five of the students who started in First Graduate have stuck with it through high school, and all those who completed senior year have gone on to college. As of this spring, 14 students in the program will have finished college.
The First Graduate program is intense. Students must participate in 300 annual hours of academic instruction and tutoring.
“Being first in your family to attend college is a huge challenge and a huge accomplishment,” says Thomas Ahn, head of the San Francisco group. “We look for kids who need our services but also have the capacity to take advantage of it and do the extra work.”
The extra academic work, along with family support and an early start, leads to success. Mr. Ahn, who, like half of the organization’s employees, was also the first in his family to attend college.
First Graduate links each student with a staff member whose role is to be a college and career coach. The staff member helps the student choose classes, plan summer enrichment activities, and craft personal essays for applications. After the student has entered college, the coach remains involved by checking in each month. The group also gives each student an annual scholarship of $1,000.
While the only prerequisite is that students in the program would become the first in their families to attend college, 63 percent of participants are from immigrant families, and the average family income of participants is $26,000, says Mr. Ahn.
Foundations and individuals each provide 40 percent of the group’s $1.6-million budget; the rest comes from corporations and the city government.
The group hopes to expand to 1,000 students in San Francisco in the next five years. Interest is already high: Last year 150 middle-school students applied for 40 slots in next year’s program.
Ms. Guarini’s younger sister is among the applicants.
“I really hope she gets in,” Ms. Guarini says. “They have opened up so many opportunities for me.”
Here, she and Cesar Zamora, a fellow participant, signal what they hope will be their academic future.
Inshah Malik may have a plan to share with the conflict-weary women of the Arab Spring. For most of her 27 years, she has lived through a brutal clash that ripped apart her homeland in Kashmir, on the border between India and Pakistan.
Now Ms. Malik, like a growing number of other young Kashmiris, is trying to rebuild her community with a different weapon – her pen.
For communities to heal and women to gain a greater role, she says, it’s crucial that her people never forget the collective memories of women searching for their loved ones and being brutalized by conflict. Though she’s just starting out, her work might offer examples for the women of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen. How can they start rebuilding their communities and making a space for themselves when the protests die down and the world stops paying attention?
Malik has written a collection of stories of women from villages in a recently published book, based on her graduate thesis “Muslim Women Under the Impact of Ongoing Conflict in Kashmir.” She writes of women such as Dilfroz, who was raped in front of her family during an army search, thus bringing attention to stories that usually go unheard. She hopes to have the book reprinted in Kashmir at a reduced cost so that it can be used in the course curriculum in universities.
“In Kashmir, for the entire conflict, women have always been out there fighting,” Malik says, looking out the window of her home in Srinagar, the summer capital.
In 2010 she frantically posted Facebook updates as Indian security forces smashed these windows during massive protests. “The conflict has actually proven to be more brutal for women because ... [that] violence [was] intended to demean the community, to demean the enemy, to demean the people who are fighting the authorities,” she says.
Kashmir is one of the most militarized place in the world, with some 600,000 Indian soldiers policing the region near the Himalayas where India, Pakistan, and China converge. The military presence picked up in 1989 when Pakistani-trained militants began crossing the border into Indian-controlled Kashmir, leading to an armed movement for independence from India.
In the years that followed, Amnesty International reports, more than 70,000 people were killed, thousands of women were widowed, and thousands more were raped. By the late 1990s, the armed movement was quashed by Indian forces.
The conflict goes back to 1947, when most of Muslim-majority Kashmir was grabbed by India during the partition of India and Pakistan. Kashmiris were promised a plebiscite on their political future by the United Nations, but that vote was never allowed to happen.
In the last two decades, the movement has shifted from an armed struggle to stone-throwing protests. Now, young Kashmiris, like Malik, are turning to social media and other nonviolent tools.
Growing up in the midst of the strife in the 1990s, Malik remembers her father, uncles, brother, and other men in the neighborhood being dragged out of their houses at gunpoint during crackdowns by Indian soldiers. She recalls that the women left in their homes were terrified of being raped or molested.
Having lived through these horrifying moments, she wanted to reach out to the women in her community. She spent weeks listening to the stories of dozens of women who were raped in a single night in 1991 in Kunan Poshpora, a remote village in Kashmir.
Caught in the middle, women were raped by both soldiers and militants. But the abuse did not stop with the original attack. They were then often blamed by their families and shunned by society for what had happened to them.
Even in those bleak times, Malik writes, it was women like Raja, who was brutalized in Kunan Poshpora but spoke out against the army while helping the women raped in her village, who held society together.
Though protests are still important, she says it’s time that Kashmiris find other ways to advance their cause.
The women of Syria, Libya, and Egypt, who are now facing similar challenges, should pen narratives too, Malik suggests. She hopes to draw attention to crimes of sexual violence and to lobby for greater acceptance of rape victims within their communities.
While her stories are only a beginning, she’s already pushing for increased understanding of subjects long thought taboo.
Kashmiri activist Anjum Zamarud Habib, the only Kashmiri woman to be jailed under a draconian terrorist law know as the 2003 Prevention of Terrorism Act, spent five disconsolate years behind bars on terrorism charges that were later overturned. She wrote about the injustices she faced in her book “Prisoner No. 100.”
Malik has given a voice to young women – and men – who grew up during the conflict, Ms. Habib says.
“The children of conflict are more educated and more experienced” than her previous generation, she says. “My wish is that more women come forward. The movement has already been transferred to the next generation, whether they like it or not.”
But rebuilding a society fractured by war, especially for women, will not be easy. Malik, along with the young women of the Arab Spring, are now reaching for a role in society beyond what has ever existed for them before.