Raise up Your Bottles

I am sure that I will never look at an Evian water bottle in the same way.  In the right light, a bottle can be seen as a construction tool for a wall, bathroom, school, or bench.  This past week, Rising Minds used bottles as the core supply in two projects: a wall to contain a medicinal and vegetable garden in Panyebar and a wall to contain the Rising Minds nursery.  For the past 3 months, the Rising Minds team and beneficiaries have been collecting plastic bottles from local restaurants, bars, stores, and the ever-so-glamorous Guatemalan dumps.  Why build with bottles?  Modern consumer culture generates billions of tons of trash every year.  Many communities cannot process the trash and it either ends up being burned or put in streets and lake.

Arranging bottles for the bottle wall

Bottle construction is a cost effective and environmentally friendly solution that provides both construction materials as well as reduces plastic bottle pollution problems.  Building with plastic bottles ‘upcycles’ trash, turning something that can pollute lakes into something that contributes to the betterment of the community.  Communities come together during the building process to focus on environmental education and reducing trash pollution as well as fostering resilience, transferable skills, and empowerment.

Myself and Nick working on the bottle wall construction at Rising Minds nursery

The bottle wall in Panyebar has been completed partly using bottles and canes.  The bottle wall at the Rising Minds Nursery is still in process as it requires 744 bottles to complete.  The Rising Minds bottle wall will also serve as a communication outreach point for the work we do as it will have a photo and fact in each bottle to form a mural.

Working on the bottle wall in Panyebar

In my experience, projects utilizing recyclable materials are more time intensive and require a higher degree of flexibility than projects using traditional building materials.  The recyclable materials have already lived one life and so they come with a history that can make building trickier (such as when bottles have been crushed).  Building with bottles has taught me two additional important lessons:

1.)    In the future with Rising Minds projects, I believe the women and men we work with should not only identify the need, supply the idea, and provide the labor and some supplies for a project, but the community should also ideally supply all the building materials.  In the case of the bottle wall in Panyebar, the women did not have enough bottles to make a bottle wall and so we supplemented most of the bottles.  In this situation, I think it would be better to find an alternative material so the project could be more easily replicated by the community without Rising Mind support.

2.)    The application of the advice Professor David Blaney gave me before I left for Guatemala: “don’t make things worse, and you’ll be fine.”  I recently read an article about a non-profit which was building a bottle school in a village.  They soon noticed that the soda consumption had sky-rocketed in that village.  When staffers asked people about the increase in soda consumption, people responded that of course they were going to drink more soda to collect enough bottles for the school.  This reminded me that it is critical that we ask ourselves at each step, “am I making things better or worse?”  I believe that is a bar I can raise my bottle to.


300 Chip Bag Earrings and 14 Wishes

This was my best moment by far of the summer; I don’t think I have ever felt so proud.  It was only a little over a month ago that I had first taught the women in Panyebar how to fold nacho bags into origami chains.  Now at the end of summer, each of the 14 women proudly displayed their recycled products on coco krispies cereal boxes.  The products ranged from coffee earrings, watermelon seed earrings, woven recycled chip bag purses to bracelets made from dyed orange peels.  The women had spent weeks making hundreds of products for the States, they even took out a small business loan from the bank to buy the input products.  One woman, Aracely, told me, “we had all of these things around us, we just had no idea that we could use to them to make jewelry then to earn money.”  There was probably nothing more satisfying then to watch these women experience empowerment through the process of making a product and then earning money to support their families.  Many of the women began having children at 16 or 17 years old, some could not read nor write, some could not speak Spanish very well (speaking mainly their native language, Tz’utujil), and some were widows without husbands.  Young children of families in the highland village of Panyebar experience malnutrition rates of 68%.  The average family has 6-8 children and earns about $3.12 a day through farm-hand labor.  This is enough money to purchase beans and rice; however it is neither an adequate salary to support an education past free primary school for each child nor provide a well-balanced diet with appropriate protein.

Yessy (17) shows off her chip bag earrings.

To tackle these challenges, Rising Minds provides hands-on Eco-Art trainings for indigenous women in surrounding villages to produce products that will generate revenue. Rising Minds bridges economic divides by suggesting eco-friendly techniques using recyclables to lower production costs for the women and benefit the environment at the same time.  We provide avenues for the women to reach customers (as there is no market in Panyebar) and sell the handicrafts, as well as offer small business development courses to help them make their businesses thrive.
I bought the jewelry at fair wages from the women to sell at a marked up price in the States (the proceeds will benefit Rising Minds programming such as Eco-Art training).  When asked what the women would use the profits from the jewelry for, they responded: “shoes for my family,” “money for my single dad,” “money for my education,” and “money for my baby.”  The women began talking excitedly about how they wanted to expand the cooperative and I was struck by how intelligent and resourceful they were.  The women in Panyebar make me feel humbled and inspired.  Every human being has an unlimited capacity to thrive and to create when given the right opportunities.


It was quesadilla day at camp today!  We brought in heirloom tomatoes, two varieties of onions, red bell peppers, and spinach, with enough cheese to cover the whole shebang.  Before setting down to the cooking of it all, we brainstormed some lists of proteins, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables, and talked about how our quesadillas would include all of those categories!  Important takeaways include: spaghetti is not a vegetable, cheese is a protein (we’re going by loose definitions here), and cooking is fun!

I cut up the vegetables to the campers’ specifications, the red onions larger than the spanish yellow because they’re “prettier”, the tomatoes small, the peppers large.  We cooked the onions and added the rest of the ingredients as everyone took turns stirring.  Then, we made them into quesadillas and practiced the highly skilled art of flipping.

Some campers were reluctant to eat their vegetables, and stealthily picked out their peppers and spinach, but by the end of the day, every camper agreed that they now wanted to make quesadillas at home.

Here is some photoevidence, and stay tuned for a harvest update!


Camp Update

Hello cyber-universe.

Camp is swinging, after a few weeks of regroup.  Instead of one six-week long program, we are super excited to be doing a series of classes at several different sites.  On Monday, we were over at the West Minnehaha Rec Center, about a block away from our sites on Dale and Lafond in Frogtown.  We went over the seed cycle, sprouted fava beans, and then planted pumpkin seeds in toilet paper roles, which are compostable upon sprouting and planting! 

Here are some pictures, both of vegetables and camp events this summer.ImageImageImageImage

Popular education/advocacy at Peace House

Concurrent with all of the amazing conversations we’ve been having this summer at Peace House about voter ID and the criminalization of homelessness, a buzz has been growing within the community about the harassment of people experiencing homelessness at the hands of the police. Just the other day, two members of the community were having an innocent cigarette in the parking lot when several of Minneapolis’ finest pulled up and searched them without a probable cause. The stories that I’ve heard show that this is an unfortunately regular occurrence; after all, people on the street are exposed not only to the natural elements, but also to the nexus of control and coercion of urban space.

I do a great deal of listening at Peace House, and listening lead me to work with a couple of community members to start an advocacy council to continue conversations that might lead to action on issues such as violence/harassment against people experiencing homelessness in the community. I facilitated the first meeting this past Tuesday using the popular education model, a set of theories and practices that changed my life several times (first when I was 16 and had just started working in community settings, and again this past May when I visited the Highlander Center in Tennessee, a major home for popular education and struggles for change in the US). The spiral model that I used is replicated below:


For more info on popular education and Highlander, check this out (courtesy of the wonderful Larry Olds)

At our first meeting, the group resolved to begin documenting instances of harassment and/or violence within the community. One of the others goals of the group is to eventually become more connected to other advocacy groups in the area, which could lead to a wider effort on the topic. While I was at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness in Washington, DC this past month, I attended a couple of sessions about these topics, and came away rather confused. On the one hand, homeless advocates seem very eager to work with law enforcement to help connect homeless people in downtown business districts to housing resources rather than jail/prisons. This relationship certainly flows both ways, as the police would like to spend fewer resources (both human and financial) dealing with “low-level crime.” However, I had (and still have) a critique of this partnership: ultimately, law enforcement is bound to control the way space is used, and people experiencing homelessness defy “proper use” of consumer space, usually found in downtown areas of American cities. So the third player, consumerism, is a hump that I haven’t gotten over yet, at least conceptually.

Hence the brilliance of this group at Peace House, which will surely grapple with all of these issues in a wide variety of vocabularies and with a wider range of experiences and ideas. The spiral of knowledge and power continues!