Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Photo: Natalie Alcoba.
Gerardo Romero and Flor Yciz donate the gift of time to the nonprofit Parque Lezama Olla Popular, preparing
a meal they serve each week to those in need in Buenos Aires, Feb. 6, 2023.

One thing that struck my husband when he returned from over a year of working in China was that Americans do a lot of volunteering. His perception of China at that time was that the government did everything and that citizens didn’t often take it on themselves to help others less fortunate.

Christian Science Monitor reporter Erika Page notes that Argentinians, too, aren’t known for helping strangers, but that young people are leading the way in tough inflationary times.

“Every Tuesday evening,” she writes, “as streetlights flicker on in downtown Buenos Aires, a man named Charlie tidies a section of sidewalk, preparing for his visitors.

“Charlie lives on the street. The volunteers who regularly check in on him as part of their recorrida nocturna, or night route, are an emotional lifeline.

“The team of six sit with Charlie in a semi-circle on the pavement, offering juice, yerba mate, and conversation. They chat about the weather, current events, the neighbors, and when the laughter lulls, they ask Charlie about more immediate concerns, like his health, upcoming medical appointments, and how the police have been treating him.

“There are thousands of people like Charlie living on the streets across the capital, and 43% of the country’s population lives in poverty. It’s a reflection of the unrelenting economic crisis and sky-high inflation that’s enveloping this South American nation. Some 600 volunteers take part in these nightly visits organized by the nonprofit Fundación Sí, underscoring a growing movement of volunteers, fueled by young people, who are working to fill the void where government services and the labor market are falling short. 

“These volunteers may not be well off – or even interested in staying in Argentina long-term – but they offer whatever they can to lift their neighbors up: a hand, an ear, a meal, or simply some of their time. Argentina isn’t known for high rates of volunteerism, but recent data shows that’s changing.

A study published by Voices! Consultancy found that a record 36% of Argentines volunteered last year, including nearly 60% of people between 18 and 24 years old.

“Generosity of time and affection is generally reserved for family and close friends in Argentina, says Constanza Cilley, executive director of Voices! Consultancy. But, ‘there are significant increases [in volunteering] in times of greatest crisis,’ she says. …

“Last year, annual inflation reached 94.8%, sending food prices soaring, and making saving nearly impossible. Most young people no longer expect a higher standard of living than their parents in a country whose social mobility was once a point of national pride. That can cause internal conflict for those who want to do good here. …

“Emilia Maguire, a therapist, has considered emigrating for years, tired of the poverty she can no longer ignore – and which she sees as a reflection of distorted political and economic priorities. She recently joined Fundación Sí’s night routes.

“ ‘Sometimes I get home tired and distressed,’ says Ms. Maguire. ‘But when you connect with things like this that are gratifying, it’s easier to get by, because your focus shifts.’ …

“The Voices! study found a correlation between volunteering and general satisfaction. Some 23% of respondents who said they volunteered last year indicated Argentina as the best place for them to live, compared to only 14% of non-volunteers.

“The group got their start in 2018 with close to nothing, as the value of the Argentine peso began to plummet once again. They’ve since acquired a gas stove and donations from businesses and farmer’s collectives. They invite those who come to eat to help cook as part of the team. …

“ ‘The crisis itself pushes people together, uniting in empathy,’ says Carmela Pavesi, an organizer in her mid-20s. ‘You don’t need a lot of money or a lot of things,’ she says. ‘With the people you have nearby, wherever you are, you can do something with what you have.’ …

“ ‘Today there are more people living on the streets, more people in need, more people begging for money or help,’ says Eduardo Donza, a researcher with the Social Debt Observatory at the Universidad Católica de Argentina.

“The country’s poverty is structural and historic, says Mr. Donza, in large part due to a precarious labor market. Only 35% of the population works in the formal private sector, another 15% in the public sector, leaving half the population doing informal work. …

“ ‘If we don’t generate more wealth, if we can’t create more good jobs, we’re never going to come out of this,’ he says. Volunteering can’t solve these wider issues on its own. ‘But it seems to me like solidarity has increased. That willingness to help matters.’ “

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Charukesi Ramadurai.
A juggler welcomes visitors as they start arriving for the evening show at Phare Circus. Like other performers, he is a student of the Phare Ponleu Selpak school in Battambang, Cambodia.

I don’t belong to the religion, but I’ve always liked Christian Science Monitor articles, and now I know why. The other day, one of the editors wrote that finding positive angles on painful realities is intentional.

The story today acknowledges the horror of the Khmer Rouge genocide and its impoverished aftermath but focuses on one of the ways people are healing.

Charukesi Ramadurai writes, “A short drive away from the famed Angkor Wat temple ruins in Siem Reap, Cambodia, another spectacle has been quietly attracting visitors for years. Every evening, under the big top at the Phare Circus, audiences watch mesmerized as acrobats and artists jump and somersault, dance and paint, execute midair flips and twist into pretzels. …

“Watching them smile under the spotlight, it is difficult to imagine that these confident young men and women come from impoverished or troubled families. Celebrating its 10th anniversary on Feb. 8, Phare Circus simultaneously provides young Cambodians with a livelihood and showcases the talents of students at Phare Ponleu Selpak, a not-for-profit arts school located in Battambang, Cambodia.

“Phare Ponleu Selpak – meaning ‘The Brightness of the Arts’ – was set up in 1994 by French art teacher Véronique Decrop, who practiced art therapy at refugee camps, and a small group of refugees who returned home from Thailand after the brutal Khmer Rouge regime ended in 1979. Apart from giving children a safe space away from crowded homes and dangerous streets, the school aims to revive arts that were decimated during the Cambodian genocide. …

“ ‘The Khmer Rouge left us with zero – 1,000 years of history of the Cambodian empire reduced to ash. More than 90% of the masters were killed or just disappeared,’ says musician and genocide survivor Arn Chorn-Pond, who founded Cambodian Living Arts, an organization that provides arts education scholarships.

“Preserving the arts ‘gives young Cambodians something to hold on to from their past,’ he says. ‘It also gives them an identity; it gives them confidence; it gives them the voice to tell their own stories to the world.’

“Tor Vutha, one of the co-founders, says the school was their way of paying it forward, or as he puts it, ‘transfer the knowledge from our heart to the community.’ He says that the organization started small and evolved along with the needs of locals. 

“ ‘Many children were suffering from war trauma and needed help,’ he recalls. ‘We had received art in the refugee camp and embodied its benefits, so we wanted to share the same with the children and youth to help them overcome their traumas and help the community rebuild.’ …

“Today, the school offers training in graphic design, animation, music, and other arts, and students are free to explore their interests. It takes in more than 1,000 children annually, many of whom have gone on to perform at Phare Circus.  …

“[Craig Dodge, director of sales and marketing at Phare Circus], who has been with Phare Circus from the beginning, remembers it starting back in 2013 with an ‘outdoor stage, plastic chairs, rain.’ It has since come a long way.

“In addition to the main circus tent, the Phare campus in Siem Reap hosts local musicians, food stalls, and a small crafts shop. Families are welcomed at the main gate by jugglers and acrobats, who give them a taste of what awaits inside. Phare Circus has produced 23 different shows over the past decade, with more than 5,000 performances in front of over a million spectators, including foreign tours in countries such as the United States, Australia, Japan, France, Italy, and Singapore.

“All shows are strongly rooted in Cambodian culture, from dances depicting rural life, to a juggling act that pokes fun at tourists, to acrobatic routines inspired by Cambodian mythology and folklore. …

“Wendell Johnson, an American retiree in Siem Reap, has been a regular visitor to Phare Circus since its first year of production. He says what keeps him coming back are ‘the smiles, the incredible athletic abilities, and the storylines’ that vividly connect Cambodia’s past to the present. He also praises the artists’ grit and determination, noting that he’s seen performers immediately redo failed stunts and succeed. 

“The Phare Circus performers train for several years at the school, building both their skills and self-esteem, before they’re eligible to work at the circus. Almost all come from large families with limited resources, and being at school keeps them away from hunger, drugs, abuse, and trafficking. The circus is also an opportunity to travel the world, and pays well. 

“The steady work has been particularly transformative for the handful of female performers, whom young girls back in Battambang look up to as inspirations. 

“Srey Chanrachana started training at Phare Ponleu Selpak in 2007 at the age of 11. Back then, her family of five depended on the irregular income of her taxi driver father.

“ ‘We used to live in a very small house where we would all sleep together, and our roof would always leak whenever there was rain,’ she recalls. Now they live in a larger, more comfortable home. 

“With her earnings, she has also enrolled in English and computer classes to further her education, and she says working at the circus has made her more confident.”

More at the Monitor, here. No firewall.

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Photo: Pebbles.
India’s entry for the Oscars,
Pebbles, focuses on the inequalities that life inflicts on women in Tamil Nadu.

This year’s Oscars are scheduled March 27, and although I haven’t stayed up to watch the whole awards ceremony for years, I like reading about the winners later. I especially like getting ideas for foreign films my husband and I might eventually be able to order from our retro Netflix DVD service.

Hannah Ellis-Petersen, South Asia correspondent for the Guardian, describes one film that looks promising. The story of grinding poverty might be too painful for some potential viewers if they didn’t know that the director himself had lived that life and risen to be a filmmaker.

“As a child laborer working in the flower markets of Madurai, there was nothing more exciting for PS Vinothraj than when the film crews would descend. He would put down his sacks of petals and look up in awe at the camera operators who sat atop cranes to get dramatic sweeping shots. It was, to his nine-year-old mind, intoxicating. ‘I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life,’ he said. …

“The odds were stacked heavily against him. Vinothraj was born into a poverty-stricken family of daily wage laborers in Tamil Nadu. He left school, aged nine, to support his family after his father died and by 14 was working in the sweatshops of Tiruppur.

“This month, his debut film Pebbles [Koozhangal] a Tamil-language movie made on a shoestring budget and set in the arid landscape where he grew up, was unanimously selected as India’s entry to the Oscars. In February this year, it had won the Tiger award for best film at the 50th International Film Festival Rotterdam. In a New Yorker review, Vinothraj was described as an ‘extraordinary observational filmmaker’ whose film presents ‘a gendered vision of rage.’

Pebbles is, as Vinothraj describes it, a ‘snapshot of a life.’ It depicts the journey of an abusive, alcoholic father and his son as they walk back home through the barren, overwhelmingly hot landscape of rural Tamil Nadu, after the father has dragged the boy out of school and taken him to a village where he wants to force his estranged wife to return home.

“It was inspired by true events; as Vinothraj says, ‘the story chose me.’ When his sister married a man from a neighboring village, the family were unable to provide a dowry. In a humiliating march, his sister was sent back to the family home by her new husband through the parched landscape. It was this walk of shame, that so many women are still forced to endure, that Vinothraj wanted to capture.

“ ‘But I wanted to make it so it was the husband who had to make the walk, not the woman,’ he said. ‘It was my small way of taking revenge for this humiliation of my sister.’

He also chose to portray the journey through the eye of a child, the son, to inject ‘hope and humanity’ into their journey.

“The film focuses on the small but devastating tragedies and inequalities that life in rural Tamil Nadu inflicts on women. … Women forced to get off buses in blazing heat when their babies, awoken by men aggressively coming to blows, need to be breast fed. Women forced to patiently scoop water from the ground and into jars as the merciless sun beats down.

“Tamil Nadu’s oppressive environment is omnipresent in Pebbles. ‘The landscape is the third main character in the film,’ Vinothraj said. ‘I wanted to explore it in detail, the role it plays in the plight of the people.’ For authenticity, he filmed during the hottest days of the year in May. Temperatures got so high during the 27-day shoot that cameras began to malfunction.

“Vinothraj’s determination to make films never wavered. While working in garment factories at 14, he enrolled into college between 6am and 10am before back-to-back shifts, realizing he would need education to go into cinema.

“Small things would bring glimmers of joy. In Pebbles a girl, whose family are depicted in such abject poverty that they hunt for rats to eat, is pictured momentarily euphoric as she collects helicopter seeds in her dress and then scatters them into the air. ‘This was how I used to feel when I was a child,’ said Vinothraj. ‘The conditions of my life were bad, but I could still find moments to be happy. I did not feel like I was suffering because I did not know anything else.’

“At 19, after his bosses tried to marry him off – a tactic used to keep child laborers working in factories once they grow up – he decided it was time to leave. He had heard that Chennai, the bustling main metropolis of Tamil Nadu, was where films were made and movie people mingled.

“ ‘I had no idea how I would survive; my only thought was that I had to pursue my passion for cinema,’ he said. On arriving in Chennai he slept in the streets until he convinced a DVD shop to hire him.

“ ‘In the DVD shop, I used to watch three films a day,’ he said. “English films, Korean films, Japanese films, Latin American films.’ … The DVD shop also gave Vinothraj access to film directors, who would borrow or buy films, often on his recommendation. After almost three years, he was hired as an assistant on a short film and began to work his way up. …

“The success of the film has left Vinothraj in a state of disbelief. He thought its only audience would be the villagers whose lives inspired the story.” More at the Guardian, here.

Click here to see 10 other foreign films submitted for this year. Several look like my cup of tea, maybe yours, too.

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Photo: TBC via Flipboard.
Phyllis Ali and her grandson are both involved in a retired Baltimore cop’s inspiring youth initiative.

In Baltimore, a former cop saw that, for poor children, a lack of options can create desperation. So she created a foundation to help kids envision a world of possibility — and to give them the tools to make dreams come true.

Theresa Vargas writes at the Washington Post, “During a drive earlier this week, Phyllis Ali asked the children in the car with her what they wanted to be when they grew up.

” ‘An astronaut,’ said one.

“ ‘A schoolteacher,’ said another.

“A boy replied that he hoped to be the owner of ‘a nice house.’

“ ‘I’m just glad they want to be something,’ Ali said, reflecting on that drive. ‘I’m just glad that none of them said, “I don’t know.” ‘ …

“The 68-year-old Baltimore native has spent much of her adult life working with the city’s children, and she has seen how people too often write off those who live on blocks with boarded-up buildings. She has also seen what is lost when they do.

“ ‘We can’t cast them away because of their environment,’ she said. ‘Don’t take their hope away. They are somebody. Just because they are here doesn’t mean they don’t have talents and hopes and futures. They are somebody.’

” ‘In the car with Ali that day were her 12-year-old grandson, whom she calls Scooter, and his younger siblings, ages 6, 7 and 8. They were headed to the Baltimore offices of the advertising agency TBC to join other children in the filming of a commercial.

“For hours on Monday, those children would wait for their names to be called, and then step under bright lights, look into a camera and offer an answer to that same question Ali had asked. …

“The children are participants in a program that is based in a Baltimore neighborhood where many families live below the poverty line. It’s also a place that people across the nation saw burn six years ago after a CVS was looted and torched during the uprising that followed Freddie Gray’s police-custody death.

“Debbie Ramsey, a former Baltimore police detective and the founder of the nonprofit Unified Efforts, said that about a week before that fire, she and others — with the blessing of community leaders — had picked the Penn-North neighborhood as the site for a program that would aim to help children thrive.

“ ‘When the uprising began, that did not scare us away,’ Ramsey told [me]. ‘I said, “Okay, that’s a confirmation. This is where we have to be.” ‘

“In the six years that have followed, Unified Efforts has worked in the neighborhood with more than 120 young people between the ages of 5 and 24. Initially, the organization planned to stop working with teenagers once they graduated high school, but the staff continued to hear from participants even after they got their diplomas. A college student in New York recently reached out to say that if she had a bike she could get to her classes more easily. The staff helped her get one. …

“It takes only spending a day in some of the city’s most impoverished neighborhoods to see that the organization is up against a mix of painful and complex challenges. In the year that followed Gray’s death, I spent months profiling a teenager who attended a Baltimore high school that was located next to a public-housing project. …

“The teenager I wrote about had spent three weeks alone in his home without hot water, a working stove or lights, after his mother was hospitalized. His school records showed he had struggled, ending one year with a 1.64 GPA, but I also witnessed him be the only student in his class to complete an assignment. It called for him to write a poem using a simile or metaphor.

‘The sun is the smile behind the night,’ his began.

“That tug-of-war between struggle and potential is something Ramsey knows well. She saw it as a police officer and she sees it now as the executive director of Unified Efforts. [The program] aims to ‘reduce summer and vital learning loss’ … offering children a safe haven to learn and exposing them to experiences they might not have otherwise. …

“Participants not only spent days learning from a violinist; they were handed their own violins to take home. They not only spent a summer with staff who made sure they were fed (and given clean clothes if they showed up in ones that were soiled in a way that would draw insults from their peers); they were given laptops to continue working at home. High school students are sent every year to a college prep writing workshop and given the chance to work with professionals to produce a magazine filled with their stories.

“ ‘I have something I call “the crayon model” and that is what really forms our foundation,’ Ramsey said. ‘When our kids are at a table and creating, we put no less than 300 crayons on the table. We do that to show what abundance looks like.’ “

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: West Volusia Beacon.
Charles Peacock, a paraprofessional at New Smyrna Beach High School, tells the Volusia County School Board that he has recently been made homeless.

It pains me to think how little most of those entrusted with educating America’s children — daycare professionals, teachers, teachers’ aides — are paid. We are talking about work that any country should give the highest respect and reward.

In today’s story, a popular Florida teaching assistant confesses that he cannot find housing on his income. The shame he feels should be for us.

Kyle Swenson wrote at the Washington Post recently about the moment Charles Peacock went public.

“They called his name and Charles Peacock hustled up to the microphone to address the Volusia County School Board. The public comment period gave him three minutes. He had practiced his speech, but the 40-year-old knew that somewhere in that time frame, his emotions would overwhelm him.

“He introduced himself as a teacher’s assistant — called a ‘paraprofessional’ in the district — at New Smyrna Beach High School, a school of nearly 1,900-students near Daytona Beach, Fla. The divorced father of three detailed how overworked he and his colleagues are, how the ranks have thinned due to high demands and low compensation.

“Then he paused, knowing that his next sentences swung from workplace complaint to raw confession.

‘I myself, like most others, have to work multiple jobs in order to simply scrape by. I put in 80-plus hours each week, every week, between four jobs to barely make it,’ he said, the words bobbing along on muffled sobs.

“ ‘After four years with the county, I make a minimum salary which equates to less than a thousand dollars per month.’

“Peacock stopped, took a breath, and looked at the board.

“ ‘I personally have been made homeless,’ he said. ‘At least one of your employees — one who is great at their job, has been nominated for para of the year, who loves his students beyond measure — is homeless. Living out of his car. Crashing on couches from time to time. Getting showers at friend’s houses. I dare you to look me in the eyes right here, right now, and tell me that this is okay.’

“His three minutes were up.

“Peacock … represents a large number of Americans who struggle outside the reach of public policy because they don’t fall inside the traditional definitions of poverty. He was homeless, but he technically wasn’t poor.

“Untangling the difference for the board, or explaining it in public, was nothing compared with knowing that after the meeting that his family would now have questions.

“ ‘It wasn’t hard facing the board,’ he said later. ‘Facing my kids was harder.’

“Peacock’s typical day starts at 7 a.m. He is at the school by 8 a.m. He is done by 4 p.m., but then it’s off to a local bar where he works security. That gig ends between midnight and 2 a.m. Weekends, he umpires youth baseball games.

“For all of this scramble, Peacock estimates he makes somewhere between $22,000 to $25,000 each year.

“ ‘It was exhausting, and I was not the only one of my colleagues trying to keep this kind of schedule,’ he said. ‘We were all exhausted.’ …

“For decades, poverty experts have warned that the federal government’s official measurement misses a larger chunk of Americans. One measure that has since emerged has been pioneered by the United Way: the ALICE threshold, or Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Since 2009, United Way and its partners have used the criteria to take a high-definition snapshot of people in Peacock’s position — those living above the federal poverty line but scrambling to pay for necessities. …

“After his divorce, Peacock could only afford to rent a bedroom in a friend’s house. The profession he had chosen — he makes $11.65 an hour — alone could not support his basic needs.

” ‘I make next to nothing doing a job that I love,’ Peacock told the board in November. ‘But when does that love get outweighed by the need to survive, and dare I say, thrive? … If I’m in this situation, how many other paras are on the brink?’

“He decided to speak before the board and publicly detail his own situation. ‘That was difficult, trying to swallow my pride.’ “

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Uncommon Threads.
Uncommon Threads in Lawrence, Mass., helps “low-income women see and feel their true potential by using clothing and image as tools for building self-esteem.

Some time ago, Grace told me about the Lend a Hand Society, whichprovides emergency financial assistance to low-income families, individuals, seniors and disabled people primarily in the Greater Boston area.” It’s been filling a gap for generations now, and as you can imagine, has been especially needed during the pandemic.

A local nonprofit doing similar work but with a narrower focus is Uncommon Threads in Lawrence, Mass. Liz Neisloss at GBH television reported on the gap that the founder identified almost by accident.

“It’s not hard to find organizations that offer free or low-cost clothing,” says Neisloss, “but Susan Kanoff has created a boutique that uses clothes to transform not only the way women look, but how they feel.

“A social worker by training, Kanoff made her living helping low-income families move out of poverty. In her spare time, she channeled her love of fashion as a private stylist and style blogger. When her style clients began asking her where to best donate their old clothes, she had an idea.

“ ‘I started taking them into my social work office,’ said Kanoff, who lives in Methuen. ‘I had racks set up and (if) one of my clients was having a bad day, we’d put an outfit together; going on a job interview, we’d put an outfit together. And I started to realize how powerful these clothes were and how really important they were to a woman’s self-esteem.’

“Partnering with Family Services of the Merrimack Valley, she opened the non-profit Uncommon Threads [in 2017]. … In late 2019, the retailer Timberland helped fund the renovation of a larger space with dressing rooms, a sitting area in shades of beige and dark blue and a on the entry-way wall a message that reads: ‘Self Confidence is the Best Outfit.’

‘Our main goal is dignity and respect,’ said Kanoff. ‘We want women to feel like they’re in, they’re shopping in a beautiful place versus getting a handout.’

“Kanoff, who previously worked for the North Andover Housing Authority running the family self sufficiency program to help lift people out of poverty, works with a more than a dozen social service agencies who must refer women to be able to shop at the store. Retailers and the public donate clothing.

” ‘We could dress a woman who was maybe a victim of domestic violence and is ashamed to go to their kid’s school conference,’ said Kanoff. ‘Whatever it takes to get that woman to feel strong and powerful through the way she looks.’ …

“Women first meet with an Uncommon Threads volunteer to talk about their clothing needs, as well as their work or life goals. Clients can get up to four outfits and two pairs of shoes in one visit – but they can also get some items not commonly found in donation shops: bras, underwear, pyjamas and even matching jewelry. The meeting looks like one with a personal shopper at a pricey store, but costs just ten-dollars — a fee that can also be waived. Otherwise, the clothes are free.

“[Volunteer] Jen Marin sat down for a ‘styling session’ with 19-year-old JJ Ortiz. Shuttled around between group homes and foster care since she was 12, Ortiz said she struggled to find clothes that fit her as she grew and became self-conscious about her weight.

“ ‘I was kind of uncomfortable in my skin, who I was, how I would like show myself, like my clothes wasn’t the best,’ Ortiz said, ‘But they didn’t see that. They saw me for who I am.’

“Marin helped Ortiz try on a jeans jacket and then moved around to take a look. …

“Another volunteer stepped in to put a necklace over Ortiz’ head. Ortiz smiled, ‘I look so pretty,’ she said.

“With shopping finished, Ortiz stayed to sit in on a workshop called ‘Feminine Rocket Fuel.’ She took careful notes as motivational speaker Rosie Dalton explained to the gathering of clients how to use obstacles as ‘fuel’ to move forward.”

More at GBH, here, and at Uncommon Threads, here.

Are there similar services in your part of the world? But will clothes needed for work be different post-Covid? And finally, what are the chances that low-income people can start getting paid enough not to need charitable services in the future?

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Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for MoveOn.
Jean Evansmore of West Virginia, a leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, speaking at a rally on July 19, 2021

It’s not news that the attitudes of the people who raise you help to make you who you are. Activist Jean Evansmore, brought up by grandparents in West Virginia, never knew she was poor. What she knew was that her family worked hard and had dignity. Their self-esteem has carried her through life.

Courtland Milloy recently wrote about Evansmore at the Washington Post. “When Jean Evansmore was growing up in West Virginia coal country, her grandfather did two things that would have a profound effect on her life. He showed her how to plant a garden and, by his own example, let her see that just because you were poor didn’t mean you were lazy or stupid.

“Her grandfather, Webster Evans, earned between $2.50 and $5 a day in the 1920s if he could blast loose, load and haul at least five tons of coal from the mine where he worked. Today, low-wage workers make about $7.50 an hour.

“According to the Poor People’s Campaign, which focuses attention and resources on poverty, about 40 percent of West Virginia residents are poor or low-income. And as in much of the nation, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Since 1979, income for the top 1 percent in West Virginia grew by about 60 percent, while income for the bottom 99 percent fell by 0.4 percent, the group said. …

“Evansmore, 80, [is] one of the chairpersons for the West Virginia Poor People’s Campaign. That is a branch of a national faith-based activist civic organization founded by the Rev. William J. Barber II. In remaking the Poor People’s Campaign that was started by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Barber has cited poverty, racism and ecological destruction as culprits in the spiritual bankruptcy of the nation.

“The people of West Virginia know firsthand just how damaging poverty and not having a voice can be. One hundred years ago, in August 1921, thousands of coal miners gathered in Madison in preparation for a trek to Logan and Mingo counties. Several workers had been arrested for attempting to organize a union in both places.

“To reach their incarcerated co-workers, the miners had to cross Blair Mountain. … The miners lost what became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. But years later during President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, reforms were made that eventually would give miners safer working conditions along with better pay and health care.

” ‘What we should have learned from that history is organizing makes a difference,’ Evansmore said.

Just as the miners in the Battle of Blair Mountain were of different races and ethnic groups, Evansmore, who is Black, hopes the same diversity can be achieved in organizing the poor today.

“Her goal now is to teach more people about the fight for justice in the state. She encourages everyone to tune in to city and county council meetings. She writes letters to elected officials and newspaper editors, often expressing her dismay at how out of touch they are with the struggles of everyday residents.

“And she protests, carrying signs in opposition to proposed cuts to programs that help the poor — even if only a handful of people join in.

“ ‘Because people are told that poverty is caused by some character flaw, a lot of people won’t even admit they are poor,’ she said. … “Sometimes, she tells them about how little she knew about economics as a child.

‘I didn’t even know we were poor,’ said Evansmore. … ‘We were used to eating pinto beans six days a week and chicken on Sunday. The only time we knew something was wrong was when we had to eat beans on Sunday, too.’

“But after graduating from high school in 1958, she left the state to stay with relatives in New Jersey. It was a different world — one with well-insulated homes and indoor plumbing, not outhouses. She eventually enrolled at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut. Then she got a job with Raytheon, first as a secretary and later working her way up to a buyer in the submarine signaling division. … In 2012, she returned home for good.

“ ‘I vowed that nothing would run me out of West Virginia,’ she said. ‘If I didn’t like something, I’d just stay and fight it.’ ”

More at the Post, here.

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Photo: Maxim Dmitriev.
Men making spoons in the village of Deyanovo, Russia’s Volga region, 1897.

With the extremes of rich and poor we see around the world today, and especially in our own country, I often wonder if we can fix what’s broken before there’s some kind of uprising. Today’s story talks about what life was like in Russia before the revolution of 1917 as seen through the eyes of two photographers — one aristocratic, one not.

Billy Anania has the report at Hyperallergic.

“In the decades leading up to the October Revolution, the Russian Empire was already crumbling. The first 15 years of the 20th century saw two major industrial crises give way to economic collapse as the Romanov Tsar Nicholas II pitched the military into wars with Japan and Germany, slowing production and inflicting food shortages. Two revolutions in 1917 effectively vanquished the monarchy at the climax of World War I, resulting in the dissolution of the empire and the formation of the Soviet Union. 

“Before that upheaval, two Russian photographers, Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky and Maxim Dmitriev, rose to prominence by documenting everyday life under late tsarism. Though they were contemporaries, their work presents very different perspectives on the region. Prokudin-Gorsky’s images are high-definition and undeniably gorgeous, as well as some of the first color photographs in Russia. In contrast, Dmitriev’s pictures of peasant villages lay bare the dismal living conditions for the majority of the empire. The archives of these two men and the disparities in their personal histories exemplify early photography’s use as both imperialist propaganda and documentary journalism.

“Born into a noble family in Murom, Prokudin-Gorsky studied chemistry at the Saint Petersburg State Institute of Technology and art at the Imperial University of Arts. He married the daughter of an industrialist and became director of his father-in-law’s executive board. From there he joined the Imperial Russian Technology Society (IRTS), the preeminent scientific organization of the time, where he gained access to cutting-edge camera technology. Within a few years, he became president of IRTS’s photography section and an editor at Russia’s predominant photo journal, Fotograf-Liubitel (Amateur Photographer).

“These prestigious positions led Prokudin-Gorsky to exhibit his photography for Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich and Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, as well as Nicholas II and his family. The tsar admired his work so much that he commissioned the photographer to document Russia’s vast population and landscapes. From 1909 to 1915, Prokudin-Gorsky created more than 10,000 color photos of the diverse people and places comprising the empire, which at the time covered nearly 23 million square kilometers [8,880,350 square miles] of Europe and Asia.

“Nicholas provided Prokudin-Gorsky with a railroad car darkroom. … Much of his work was intended to educate schoolchildren on Russia’s array of cultures and its burgeoning modernization. The quality of these images, along with their pristine compositions, create a visual leveling effect across class divisions, depicting each walk of life as beautiful in its own way. …

“While Prokudin-Gorsky’s upbringing fast-tracked him to national recognition, Dmitriev’s more humble beginnings led him in a different direction. Born a commoner in Tambov, he worked for his bread from a young age, weaving baskets and reading hymns over the dead. In spite of these time constraints, he excelled in his studies, and at 15 he became an apprentice to acclaimed Russian photographers M.P. Nastyukov and later Andrei Karelin. Working in their studios expanded his knowledge of development techniques like soaking plates, processing, and retouching.

“In 1879, Dmitriev relocated to Nizhny Novgorod and began shooting scenes of everyday life — sea and landscapes, orthodox and Muslim ceremonies, monks on pilgrimage, and workers along the Volga River. After developing a portfolio, he traveled to Paris and participated in a few group exhibitions. His photos of prison construction workers caused a stir among viewers; some were critical of the content, others moved by their honesty. Returning to Russia, he continued to shoot unconventional scenes of suffering. His monograph A Lean Year documented a small village suffering a bad harvest. Starving peasants appear in rags alongside doctors and social workers rationing bread and caring for the sick in rundown houses. 

“The Bolshevik Revolution impacted both photographers’ careers, as the Soviet Union birthed new paradigms around inequality and political art. Dmitriev’s work from the 1890s remains some of the earliest examples of photojournalism in Russia, wherein the visual exposure of inequality shifted public opinion. …

“Dmitriev’s photos predate the Progressive Era in the West, when photography helped usher in robust social reforms necessitated by industrialization. Prokudin-Gorsky avoided these more dismal aspects of peasant life to sell more empire. …

“Today, Prokudin-Gorsky remains a visionary of color photography and checks all the boxes of a Western icon, while Dmitriev has all but faded into obscurity. Incidentally, the US Library of Congress acquired Prokudin-Gorsky’s archives in 1948, and Dmitriev’s work is barely findable online.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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Photo: Margaret Jankowski.
Students in a 2013 sewing class test their new skills on a suite of machines donated by the nonprofit Sewing Machine Project to a community center in New Orleans. 

There have always been a few followers of this blog who quilt, weave, knit, crochet, or sew, and I’m hoping they will like today’s focus on a nonprofit that harnesses the multifaceted power of sewing. Richard Mertens reported about it at the Christian Science Monitor.

“A tsunami helped Margaret Jankowski understand the real value of a sewing machine. Like many girls of her generation, she had learned to sew at an early age. Her mother taught her on an old Singer Featherweight, and she learned the basics by hemming her father’s handkerchiefs. As an adult, she bought her own clothes off the rack but sewed for her first child. … She taught classes at a sewing shop, ‘preaching the gospel of sewing,’ she says. …

“Then, in December 2004, a tsunami hit Sri Lanka and other coasts around the Indian Ocean, leveling communities, hurling wooden fishing boats far inland, and killing 230,000 people. … What touched Ms. Jankowski most deeply was the story of a woman returning to her ruined village. The woman had worked for years to save enough to buy a sewing machine, enabling her to work as a tailor and giving her a future. Now it was gone. …

“She resolved to send sewing machines to Sri Lanka. ‘I thought maybe I could collect a few of these machines that people are getting rid of anyway,’ she says. She explained her idea on a local news program and was inundated with machines. She raised money for voltage converters and shipping, and in 2005, with the help of the American Hindu Association, sent five boxes each to five orphanages in India and Sri Lanka, each packed with toys, medical supplies, fabric, and the most precious cargo – a sewing machine.

“ ‘They were used to sew for kids,’ she says. ‘They were also used to teach kids a trade, which I felt was really important.’

“It didn’t end there. Ms. Jankowski went on to start the Sewing Machine Project, a small organization that redistributes used machines. It’s a mission that springs from a love for an old craft and a belief in its practical and redemptive possibilities today. …

“In 16 years the project has shipped 3,350 machines around the world – and across town. It’s sent them to coffee pickers in Guatemala, women who help vulnerable girls in Guam, and war widows in Kosovo. It’s sent them to programs that help refugee women in Detroit, incarcerated women in Mississippi, and sewers of Mardi Gras outfits. … In these and other places, unwanted machines find new uses. In many places sewing can be a livelihood, whether in a factory job or at home.

For those trapped in poverty, Ms. Jankowski says, sewing ‘is a way out.’

“Sewing is also a way forward for immigrant and refugee women in Detroit, says Gigi Salka. Ms. Salka is the director of the B.O.O.S.T. training program at Zaman International, a nonprofit that serves poor and marginalized women and children, including immigrants and refugees, in the Detroit area. … Zaman began offering a two-year sewing instruction program. Graduates earn money doing alterations and creating made-to-order clothing, often from their homes. …

“The pandemic disrupted the classes but also created new opportunities for the women. ‘We gave them fabric. They took machines home. They made masks,’ Ms. Salka says. ‘In a population where five dollars makes a big difference, any supplemental income, any extra dollar is a dollar they can have. … Sewing is very empowering. You see it in a population that’s lost hope; the ability to create a product is very powerful to them. They’re so proud.’ …

“This idea is being tested in Rankin County, Mississippi, where a local woman, Renee Smith, persuaded prison officials to allow her to start a sewing program for women in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Her aim was to get help producing reusable menstrual pads for girls in countries like Uganda and Haiti where girls frequently stay home from school while menstruating, or quit school altogether because they lack access to sanitary supplies. … The inmates were glad to have something to do, she says, but sewing for distant schoolgirls also gave them a sense of purpose. …

“Some of the biggest beneficiaries of the Sewing Machine Project have been the Mardi Gras Indians of New Orleans, an African American community known for the elaborate feathered and beaded suits they wear for Mardi Gras. That effort, too, started with a disaster. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the city, hitting African American neighborhoods especially hard. Cherice Harrison-Nelson, also known as Queen Reesie and an early collaborator with the Sewing Machine Project, says that making Mardi Gras suits is an important cottage industry in the city, but that many people lost their machines in the hurricane.”

Read more at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Ann Hermes/CSM.
Najari Smith, who founded the bike shop co-op and nonprofit Rich City Rides, stands in front of a mural depicting him on April 9, 2021, in Richmond, California, a town across the bay from San Francisco.

There’s something liberating about riding a bike, as my youngest grandchild learned after taking an REI class in Cranston. She used to be afraid of falling. Now she’s a biking dervish. Today’s post is about another biking enthusiast, who’s been liberating a poor city and making it rich.

Erika Page writes at the Christian Science Monitor, “Najari Smith was down in the dumps the night he first heard the bicycles below his window. He was new to California, lonely, and felt he lacked purpose. On the street below, a costumed parade of cyclists rolled by blasting music. By the time Mr. Smith rushed downstairs to join the party, they were gone.

“Mr. Smith’s journey, though, was just beginning. After that night in 2010, he began riding his bike everywhere and joined every community biking event around. Slowly, his spirits lifted.

‘Shoot, bicycles kind of saved my life,’ he says. He became part of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee of Richmond, California, which improves bicycle infrastructure in the city. During a routine committee meeting, he got his big idea.

“ ‘I thought to myself, “We’re building this infrastructure, but, you know, who are we building it for? Who’s going to use it?” ‘ he recalls. How would he get his community – the Black community – excited about using the bike lanes he was advocating for? And how would he break down the stereotype that Black people don’t bike? He started small – fixing up bikes at the park with local mechanics and giving them out to anyone who wanted one.

“Today, Mr. Smith runs Rich City Rides: a worker-owned cooperative bike shop as well as a bicycle advocacy nonprofit. These two spokes of the organization are distinct, but both serve Mr. Smith’s vision of using bicycles to ‘bring people together for healthy civic change’ in Richmond. Just like the bikes he fixes at the shop, Mr. Smith believes that no one, no matter what they’ve been through, is ever broken beyond repair.

“ ‘He’s the type of leader that seeks out the strength that an individual may have, rather than identifying their weaknesses. … He’ll sit down with folks and try to figure out how to get them involved, no matter what,’ says Robin D. López, who volunteers as a photographer for Rich City Rides and thinks of Richmond as ‘a community of untapped potential.’

“Roshni McGee, the program manager at Rich City Rides and co-founder of the bike shop, agrees. ‘He always tries to, you know, put a little bit of extra pressure on people and make them really be that diamond in the rough,’ he says.

“Rich City Rides is situated on a busy corner of Macdonald Avenue in a neighborhood that locals call the Iron Triangle, notorious for high crime rates and gun violence. Even though they live just across the bay from tony gentrified neighborhoods of San Francisco, many residents struggle to make ends meet. …

“ ‘He leads with love. … He shows that this is what we can do as Black people. We can revitalize our downtown, and we don’t have to be afraid of each other,’ says Jovanka Beckles, a mental health specialist who served on Richmond’s City Council from 2010 to 2018. She says Rich City Rides’ success has inspired other small businesses to open too, helping put the neighborhood on a long-awaited upswing. …

“[The nonprofit arm] plans social and wellness rides, youth programs, and community outreach. Since the nonprofit began in 2012, it has given away more than 1,000 bikes, led hundreds of social bike rides with thousands of participants, and conducted countless youth bicycle workshops. And during the pandemic, Rich City Rides has been distributing grab-and-go meals to families in need – an idea suggested by one of the high schoolers who works at the shop.

“In fact, Mr. Smith says other members of the team, and especially young people, make most of the important decisions. ‘I’m just a connector,’ he says.

“Cameren Howard-Simons is one of those young people who has found purpose through the organization. When he first met the crew at Rich City Rides, he was in middle school, and his mother didn’t want him hanging out in the area because of its reputation.

“Now Cam, a junior in high school, spends most of his free time working at the shop. ‘It’s hard to keep me away from people like this,’ he says with a wide smile, as he tries to get a derailleur to behave on the pink bike that’s hanging from his repair stand. Rich City Rides has kept him out of trouble, he says, adding that it’s one of the few places where kids can be completely themselves, without judgment.

“ ‘You’re wheelieing next to somebody, and they’re clapping, they’re recording you [on their phones], and they’re showing you love – showing you that they actually care about what you do,’ he says. …

“The notion that Richmond is not poor – but rich – guides Rich City Rides. ‘We’re a community that’s really rich in creativity and capacity and ingenuity,’ says Mr. Smith.”

More at the Monitor, here.

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Photo: Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor.
Shoppers in Chelsea, Mass., have benefited from cash payments during the pandemic.

How many years have we kicked around the idea of a guaranteed income to eliminate poverty? If you search at this blog on the topic, you will see several forms the concept has taken in the past. And since COVID-19 became part of our lives, the feeling of urgency around Universal Basic Income (UBI) has grown.

At the Christian Science Monitor, Simon Montlake as a report on Chelsea, Massachusetts.

“Inside the hillside church where she works part time as custodian, Ana Vanegas-Rivera rests on a wooden bench and pulls out her phone wallet. She holds up a blue debit card, similar to the others in her wallet, minus her name or any issuing bank. 

“The card belongs to Chelsea, a blue-collar city outside Boston that is using it to give cash to around 2,000 low-income residents during a pandemic that has disproportionately hit its Latino-majority population. Every month the card is reloaded with between $200 and $400, depending on family size, allowing recipients to spend the money as they see fit. 

“Ms. Vanegas-Rivera’s $400 goes toward buying food, household items, school supplies, and shoes for Dylan, her third grade son. For now, the family is getting by on her modest custodian salary and disability checks, along with what her husband earns from sporadic construction jobs, so every extra dollar counts.

“ ‘It has been a big help. I’m very happy that we have this opportunity,’ she says. 

“The pilot income program, which began in November and runs until May, has been underwritten by federal and state COVID-19 relief dollars, as well as private donations, and is geared to feeding families, as its name, Chelsea Eats, suggests. ‘Our overriding goal is to get people through the spring,’ says Tom Ambrosino, the city manager. ‘For some of our families that is the only money they have.’ 

“Chelsea is also a national testbed for a simple idea: to help people by giving them money. Not a housing voucher, not food stamps, but a cash-equivalent payment that ensures recipients have a basic income that they can spend any way they want. The rationale is that people know best what they need, and letting them make decisions on how to use the money, without restrictions, is direct and empowering, and doesn’t require a big bureaucracy to implement.

“Chelsea is one of several U.S. cities experimenting with unconditional cash transfers to help some residents quickly – an idea that could become the basis for an alternative to traditional welfare and other safety net programs that have existed for decades. Indeed, advocates see these cash experiments as a building block toward a federal guarantee of a basic income for all, or at least all who manifestly need it. 

“The idea of a universal basic income that would fill in some of the crevasses in capitalist economies isn’t new. … But UBI has always been a provocative notion that seemed just a little too provocative, an unfathomable expense – free money for all – that nobody would want to pay. That was before the pandemic.

Once economies started closing down, governments around the world began to dig deep and spend freely, putting cash directly in people’s hands. …

“Most U.S. social assistance is modest and conditioned on certain requirements, such as work and family size. Except for older adults or people with disabilities, it rarely arrives in the form of cash. This reflects an ethos of self-reliance, as well as decades of conservative criticism that welfare is wasteful and breeds dependence. Backers of basic income believe these traditional assistance programs no longer work. 

“Yet the politics of governments handing out cash remains complicated. Many liberals like UBI but some don’t. Many conservatives don’t like UBI but some do. 

“For now, momentum is building for at least some form of basic income in the face of a lopsided economy that seems to generate more losers than winners, even before the pandemic. But the question is: How far will the idea go? …

“In Chelsea, Mr. Ambrosino doesn’t really focus much on whether the idea of a basic income is gaining ascendancy in Washington or not. His priority is simply to help families in a tough spot, and he’s happy with what he’s seeing so far with Chelsea Eats. ‘We’re getting money in the right hands,’ he says. 

“Roseann Bongiovanni, a former city councilor and now executive director of GreenRoots, a local nonprofit, agrees that the extra money is helping families. But Chelsea faces challenges of housing affordability and environmental justice, and overall demand at food pantries hasn’t gone away. ‘This is a short-term fix,’ she says. ‘It’s not resolving a larger structural issue.’ 

“Ms. Vanegas-Rivera knows that her debit card is temporary. Though she owes less on her credit cards and is managing better, her money problems haven’t gone away. What has changed, she says, is that she and her husband are no longer lining up daily at food pantries.” 

More here.

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Photo: Donnel Baird.
Donnel Baird is the founder and owner of BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy technology startup that markets, engineers, and finances renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies to buildings in underserved market segments.

This article starts by showing how a professor and a college friend helped motivate a young man depressed about race in America and then describes how he turned himself into a force for change.

Sarah Kaplan writes at the Washington Post, “Donnel Baird kept his coat on while he toured the aging sanctuary. His breath froze on his face mask as he took in the peeling plaster, the dusty basement, the failing boiler that never seemed able to make Bright Light Baptist Church warm.

But when he peered into the kitchen, the shiver he felt was one of recognition. Every burner on the stove was lit. The oven door was open, its temperature set on high. It was exactly how Baird’s family tried to heat his childhood home more than three decades earlier, in another Brooklyn building with a dysfunctional HVAC system.

“The landlord wouldn’t address the problem, and the family couldn’t afford to move. So they stayed, the need to keep their children warm outweighing the danger of toxic fumes and open flames.

“Baird, 40, has made it his life’s work to ensure other people don’t have to make that choice.

“That’s why he launched BlocPower. Since its inception in 2012, his Brooklyn-based start-up has brought clean energy to more than 1,100 low-income buildings across the New York area. Baird’s business plan is simple: the company replaces heating and cooling systems that run on fossil fuels with greener, more efficient alternatives such as electric heat pumps and solar panels. That reduces the pollution driving climate change while also making indoor air healthier. The gains in efficiency generate enough savings to lower costs for property owners and deliver a profit to BlocPower investors. And the renovations create jobs and increase property values, building wealth in neighborhoods that have long been marginalized. …

“The foundations for BlocPower were laid during Baird’s childhood in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a Brooklyn neighborhood just a few miles from Bright Light. It was a community with a spirit of civil rights activism — the center of school integration protests; the home district of Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and African American to seek a major party’s presidential nomination in 1972. But the area had also been depleted by predatory real estate practices and ravaged by the crack epidemic.

“By the 1980s, when Baird’s parents emigrated from Guyana, the neighborhood was at a nadir. Buildings were in disrepair, jobs were hard to come by, tensions with police were high. As an elementary-schooler, Baird witnessed a fistfight escalate into a deadly shooting. That taught him about desperation, he says; when someone pulls the trigger, it’s because their back is already against the wall.

“Baird’s family eventually moved to Atlanta, where Baird got scholarships to attend a private high school and then Duke University. Surrounded by Whiteness, wealth and privilege, ‘I really started to see the structural elements of racism in America,’ Baird said.

“Then police in the Bronx killed an unarmed Black man named Amadou Diallo, firing 41 shots at him. The immigrant from Guinea was only a few years older than Baird and had been standing in front of his apartment building when he was killed.

“Baird sank into a deep depression. He might have stayed there if he hadn’t wound up in a course at Duke about social movements taught by historian Larry Goodwyn. He became close with the professor, who called the struggling sophomore into his office one day and told him, Baird recalled, to ‘get my s— together.’

“ ‘He said, “You’re so smart, there’s no excuse for you not to figure out how to plug in and get active on the issue of race,’ ” Baird said. …

“After graduation, Baird moved back to New York to work as a community organizer, then got a job partnering with the Department of Energy to retrofit low-income houses so that they used less energy and cost less to heat.

“Roughly a third of U.S. households have trouble paying energy bills, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wealth disparities and decades of racist housing policies mean that Black and Latino Americans are disproportionately likely to live in homes with broken or inefficient HVAC equipment that is more expensive to operate.

“This energy inequality is a public health crisis: aging gas and oil furnaces — as well as the stoves and ovens used to supplement them — can fill homes with dangerous pollutants. A recent MIT study found that ozone and lung-irritating particles from buildings are the nation’s biggest cause of premature death from air pollution. In the neighborhood around Bright Light, where 67 percent of rented homes suffer from maintenance defects, children are hospitalized for severe asthma at twice the citywide rate.

“It’s also an environmental crisis. The energy needed to heat, cool and operate buildings produces almost a third of the United States’ planet-warming emissions.

” Working on buildings ‘brought all the themes of my life together,’ Baird said. ‘The racial justice stuff, the economic justice, the climate stuff.’ …

“Baird began to envision a company that could raise huge amounts of capital and use it to finance green retrofits in low-income buildings. Investors would be paid back out of a portion of the utility bill savings. Baird would make the venture profitable by embracing technology and seeking out partnerships every step of the way.”

Read how he established his company, BlocPower, here, and what it has accomplished so far.

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Photo: AP
A child protection officer in Sri Lanka wanted to help out rural children who have plenty of hardships but no books. He brings them books in his off hours.

Everybody needs books, maybe especially children who are developing. But children living in poverty often lack access.

I’ve blogged several times about efforts around the world to get books into the hands of poor children. (This post, for example, is about doing it by boat. And here’s one about delivering books on horseback and another by camel!)

Singer and philanthropist Dolly Parton is probably the best known person getting books to kids in the United States. We do have poverty here. Parton grew up poor and knows the discomfort of admitting you need help, so she gives out books without regard to family income.

Bharatha Mallawarachi writes at the Associated Press (AP) about a guy in Sri Lanka who is not famous but is equally determined to fill a need for reading material.

“During his leisure time, Mahinda Dasanayaka packs his motorbike with books and rides his mobile library — across mostly muddy roads running through tea-growing mountain areas — to underprivileged children in backward rural parts of Sri Lanka.

“Having witnessed the hardships faced by children whose villages have no library facilities, Dasanayaka was looking for ways to help them. Then he got the idea for his library on wheels. …

‘There are some kids who hadn’t seen even a children’s storybook until I went to their villages,’ he said.

“Dasanayaka, 32, works as a child protection officer for the government. On his off days — mostly during weekends — he rides his motorbike, which is fixed with a steel box to hold books, to rural villages and distributes the reading material to children free of charge. …

“His collection includes about 3,000 books on a variety of subjects. ‘Boys mostly like to read detective stories such as Sherlock Holmes, while girls prefer to read youth novels and biographies,’ he said. …

“He began the program in 2017 with 150 books — some of his own and others donated by friends, colleagues and well-wishers. He bought a second-hand Honda motorbike for 30,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($162). He then fixed a steel box on the bike’s pillion seat. …

“Apart from giving away books, Dasanayaka also speaks to the children for a few minutes, usually under a roadside tree, highlighting the value of reading, books and authors. He then conducts a discussion on books the children have read, with the aim of eventually forming reading clubs.

“His program has spread to more than 20 villages in Kegalle. He also has expanded it to some villages in Sri Lanka’s former civil war zone in the northern region, more than 340 kilometers (211 miles) from his home.

“The long civil war ended in 2009 when government troops defeated Tamil rebels who were fighting to create a separate state for their ethnic minority in the north.

“Dasanayaka, who is from the ethnic majority Sinhalese, believes books can build a ‘bridge between two ethnic groups. … Books can be used for the betterment of society and promote ethnic reconciliation — because no one can get angry with books,’ he said.

“He also has established mini libraries at intersections in some of the villages he visits, giving children and adults a place to share books. These involve installing a small steel box that can be opened from one side onto a wall or on a stand. So far, he has built four such facilities and aims to set up 20 in different villages.

“While Dasanayaka spends his own money on his program, he is not wealthy, with a take-home income of 20,000 rupees ($108) a month from his job. He said he spends about a quarter of that on gasoline for his mobile library. …

“ ‘I live a simple life,’ he said. ‘No big hopes, and I am not chasing after material values such as big houses and cars.’ …

“Dasanayaka said he does not seek any monetary benefit from his program.’My only happiness is to see that children read books, and I would be delighted to hear the kids say that books helped them to change their lives.’ “

More at AP, here.

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Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post
Eddie Adams rehearses on a cello at George Mason University.

This summer I have been reading installments about the early life of someone I thought I knew well when she was a child. I thought I knew how difficult life was for her and her younger brother after her parents divorced. Wrong. Without getting into details, I’ll just say I didn’t have the slightest idea. Reading her story, I feel like crying. I feel like going back in time and trying to fix things.

Fortunately, I know this girl as an adult and can see that somehow she was saved, with the violin playing an important role in saving her. I’m telling you this because I want to share a story about a boy who was saved by a cello.

Allison Klein reported the cello story in April at the Washington Post.

“Eddie Adams didn’t have the money to buy college textbooks this semester, so he had to rely on his classmates at George Mason University to loan him theirs. He is the principal cellist in the school orchestra, but he couldn’t afford to buy or even rent a cello. That, too, he had to borrow.

“That was two weeks ago.

“After a story ran in The Washington Post about Adams’s tormented, impoverished childhood and how the cello has become his lifeline, people started donating money — more than Adams ever imagined was possible.

“The day the story ran, April 13, Adams looked at a GoFundMe page that had been set up for him and saw it had reached $25,000. It was so much money, he was sure there was a technical problem with the fundraising site.

“ ‘I legitimately thought it was a glitch in the system,’ said Adams, 20, who as a child moved around Northern Virginia with his mother and five siblings about seven times, including to a homeless shelter in Alexandria.

“The next day when the fundraiser reached $70,000 — and hundreds of people had left comments telling him he was worth every penny — he texted his strings professor and mentor, June Huang: ‘I’ve been crying all day … happy tears.’ …

“As of late Wednesday evening, the GoFundMe donations had reached $141,120.

“ ‘I still don’t want to believe it happened because it’s too much money for me to even think about,’ said Adams, who is estranged from his family and whose only home is his dorm room.

“On top of that, people donated other large and personal gifts. Two people are buying him cellos, one valued at up to $20,000 and another that will be specially made for him, valued at more than $30,000. A couple in Delaware bought him a $700 custom-fitted tuxedo he will wear during performances. Gift cards and checks started arriving at the university, totaling close to $5,000.

“The City of Alexandria invited him to play at a homeless shelter, Huang said. He plans to do it. …

“Adams’s first move was to pay a $250 deposit for an educational music festival he will be attending this summer. Then he went to the dentist for the first time since he was a child. And he paid off $15,000 in student loans that were accruing interest and had been weighing heavily on him.

“ ‘That was a very big moment for me,’ he said. …

“Huang, whose support of Adams was described in the Post story, said she has been deluged by calls and emails from people who want to help Adams.

Huang first heard Adams play at an audition for the school’s orchestra. She dropped her pencil, forgetting to score his performance because she found it so soulful and beautiful. …

“It was Huang’s private violin student Noah Pan Stier who at age 12 set up the GoFundMe page last year after Huang told him about Adams’s difficult childhood. Noah recently turned 13 and had a bar mitzvah, asking for donations for Adams instead of gifts. By early April, Noah had reached his goal of raising $10,000. That is the same GoFundMe that is now at more than $141,000. …

“Now, Huang is the point person coordinating Adams’s donations and talking with people around the country and in places such as Germany, England and Singapore who contacted her in recent days wanting to help. She has been getting pro bono guidance from various estate planners, tax lawyers and accountants to figure out how to keep the money safe for Adams and make it last. She said she’s been in nonstop motion the past 10 days, but she’s thrilled with all the support. …

“Huang said she includes one of Adams’s close friends, Adam Rothenberg, and his former middle school teacher, Gerald Fowkes, in financial discussions she has with Adams for transparency’s sake. She keeps all his financial information in a binder the four of them can look at. And she’s trying to teach Adams how to manage his newfound money at the same time she’s trying to figure it out herself. …

“Adams said he is now getting a lot of attention on campus, as people approach him and say they had no idea that his past was so difficult, that he faces so many challenges. He’s shy so the attention is not always easy for him.

“ ‘I have anxiety about these types of things, but I should get used it because it’s all really good,’ he said. ‘I’m trying not to think about it because finals are coming up and I’m trying not to let that take up all my head space. I still need to study and practice as much as I was before. I need to focus on my schoolwork because that’s the whole purpose of it all.’ ”

Read more at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: John Waire/Washington Post
Richard Antoine White behind the scenes during the filming of “R.A.W,” a documentary about his life and musical career.

What is it about tuba players and altruism? Maybe I should say, What is it about Baltimore tuba players?

Not long ago I wrote a post about a Baltimore tuba player’s inspiring outreach to young impoverished musicians (here), and now I have a related story about a tuba player who grew up poor in Baltimore and now mentors kids.

Tim Smith writes at the Baltimore Sun, “Richard Antoine White looks back on his life — poverty and an unsettled family life growing up in [the Sandtown section of Baltimore]; tuba studies at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Peabody Institute and Indiana University; his current jobs with the New Mexico Philharmonic and University of New Mexico — and sums it up simply: ‘The American Dream is still alive and well.’ …

“White’s successful pursuit of that dream has been chronicled in the documentary ‘R.A.W.’ (White’s initials) by Baltimore filmmakers Darren Durlach and David Larson, co-founders of Early Light Media. …

“ ‘I feel honored and humbled that they wanted to do a film about me,’ says White, 45. ‘There was an awe factor when they showed up in Albuquerque. I thought, you guys are really going to follow me around with a camera? But I trusted them to tell this story appropriately.’

“Storytelling is a specialty for Durlach and Larson. They formed their production company not only to make a living (clients for their video work include companies and foundations, local and beyond), but also to give themselves an outlet for spotlighting worthy individuals and causes. … The duo decided to direct that interest into Invisible Thread, a venture they envisioned as a series of ‘people-driven stories.’ …

“[Their first film] had a screening at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where Durlach and Larson met the school’s director, Chris Ford.

“ ‘We were talking with him about an idea we had for a feature film about the arts, specifically arts education, in our culture,’ Durlach says, ‘how the arts are misunderstood, underfunded, and underutilized. And Chris said, “You know who you need to talk to is Richard White.” …

“ ‘The second we met Richard, we fell in love with him and were inspired by him,’ Durlach says. … For several days, the filmmakers shadowed White to chronicle his life in Albuquerque, where he is principal tuba in the New Mexico Philharmonic and associate professor of tuba/euphonium and associate director of the Spirit Marching Band at the University of New Mexico.

“The action then shifted to Baltimore, where more filming took place at the Baltimore School for the Arts and Peabody. The filmmakers also accompanied White to places in Sandtown, where he spent difficult years as a child and had largely avoided revisiting.

“ ‘Family members would sometimes let my mom and I sleep on a couch,’ White says. ‘Sometimes I slept under a tree or in an abandoned house. My mom had problems with alcoholism and finally gave me up. Her foster parents took me in. …’

“After White’s life smoothed out with the help of his foster parents, he found himself drawn to music — first the trumpet, then the tuba, which he learned partly with the help of a self-teaching tape. That gave him the confidence to go to the Baltimore School for the Arts, ready to audition for admission. … White gained admission.

“ ‘That proved to be a good decision on our part,’ Ford says. ‘He was an incredible worker. Through sheer grit, he was pushing past everyone. And he was a delightful individual throughout. ….

“ ‘Richard moved from someone who needed a handout to someone who now puts his hand out to help others,’ Ford says. ‘He’s been really powerful mentoring some of our kids.’ ” More at the Baltimore Sun, here.

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