Saturday, January 13, 2018

Friends Transform Vacant Building Into Popular Community Centre

by Martha Pskowski, YES! Magazine: 
It’s a cool Sunday afternoon in Ecatepec, Mexico, and a crowd is forming along the sidewalk. A slow drumbeat rises above the sound of honking taxis and chatter as four dancers step out and begin moving to the rhythm of an African beat.
Up and down nearby streets, small businesses selling everything from stationery to carnitas, or pork tacos, are interspersed with shuttered storefronts and abandoned businesses. At night, store owners pull down heavy metal curtains to keep out intruders.
The dancers are part of a free fair at El BANCO—or “The Bank” in Spanish—a unique and vibrant community hub sprouting up amid suburban blight. In this sprawling municipality northeast of Mexico City, neighborhood friends are turning abandoned commercial space—long forgotten by businesses and politicians—into a gathering spot for families and young people.
El BANCO hosts workshops, film screenings, community festivals and concerts by local artists. Families and youth can participate in yoga classes and guitar workshops; they can paint, perform martial arts and practice Aztec dance. Some activities, like African dance, show the group’s interest in exploring other cultures.
The bustling center acts as a counterbalance to the wave of murders, robberies and disappearances that have become all too common here. All around them, decades of government mismanagement and neglect are evident: poor roads, insufficient trash and water services, accusations of police corruption. Crime is common here and parents worry about their children going out at night.
“Our idea was to recuperate spaces that have been forgotten and abandoned.”
Jacqueline Celestino Ortega, 25, one of the El BANCO organizers, said the group wanted to provide a space where families and children can feel safe while engaging in cultural activities. “Our idea was to recuperate spaces that have been forgotten and abandoned,” she said.
She lives just a few blocks away and ticks off other vacant properties in the neighborhood—a pharmacy, another banka car dealership. Businesses have fled Ecatepec in response to the high levels of violent crime. The Bancomer National Bank branch that used to occupy the BANCO building closed in 2013. In the absence of an effective local police force, the remaining businesses invest in private security, with armed guards posted outside pawn shops, supermarkets, and electronics stores. Not so at El BANCO. Its doors remain open all day—to everyone.
El BANCO volunteers Jacqueline Celestino Ortiz, Pavel Rodríguez Valencia and Isabel Alcazar.
The neighborhood friends had been organizing an annual cultural festival in a nearby park for years when they walked by the empty building one day in 2015 and started thinking they could use it for an upcoming festival.
Little by little, they began cleaning up the space. They pulled out mountains of trash, swept up piles of broken glass, and fashioning a gate at the entrance to the space. No one—not the government, building owners, or police—has objected. “We started having movie projections,” during the cleanup work, she said. “People would come to watch the projections while the other half of the space was still filled with trash.”
El BANCO helps local young people understand their identity.
In two years, they have decorated the cavernous central hall with collages and graffiti. Where there were once tellers’ windows, there’s now a stage. An urban garden grows on the roof, filled with endemic species such as palo dulce(Kidneywood), mesquite and cempasuchil, one of the traditional flowers used on Day of the Dead.
Planting flowers or edible plants around the neighborhood is part of their mission. The members hand out small succulent plants at free fairs and encouraged attendees to transplant them on a median, along a sidewalk or in another public place.
Jacqueline Celestino Ortiz on the roof of El BANCO.
The rooftop garden has an expansive view out across Ecatepec, across endless rows of concrete houses. Shopping malls dot the horizon, and green spaces are few. The collective’s vision goes beyond the walls of El BANCO, and out into the neighborhood. In the future, they want Ecatepec to mean something different all together.
The four friends who began the collective two years ago now number 10. “More people kept joining,” Ortega says, sitting in the dappled afternoon sunlight that fills the central room of El BANCO. “And they began sharing their own skills and knowledge.”
All are from the Ecatepec, which developed as part of Mexico City’s eastern sprawl. While the first planned suburbs of Mexico’s capital city were built to the West, development in the East was haphazard. Families built their homes and the roads leading to them with little oversight, and the government arrived later to install utilities and other services.
The population of Ecatepec, one of those Eastern suburbs, soared from 40,000 in 1960 to 780,000 20 years later. Today, 1.6 million people live there.
Residents and local youth feel betrayed by politicians.
El BANCO helps local young people understand their identity in a place that has transformed in a few generations from rural to densely urban. And it provides an important after-school or summertime outlet for children whose families are discouraged from using the local parks because of crime. Malls are often the only option for families to get out of the house.
“The idea of having this space, and making art here, is part of a process to understand our roots, and create a local identity,” Ortega says. “Growing up here, everything interesting, and all the cultural offerings, were always in Mexico City. You felt marginal being out here.”
Two neighborhood kids stand on the roof of El BANCO.
Ortega said she hopes El BANCO can help youth who might not thrive in a school setting find their passions. For her, a photography workshop as a teen sparked her creative interest, and she later earned an undergraduate degree in design.
“If you see other options outside of school—in the arts, or music, or alternative medicine—that help you find your talent,” she says. “And if you don’t have those opportunities nearby, you might never realize it.”
The collective members, most in their 20s or early 30s, also want to inspire local youth to take initiative in the neighborhood. On a fall afternoon, a 10-year-old is teaching a friend how to rollerblade, under Ortega’s watchful eye. The smooth concrete floor of the bank is the perfect stage for his tricks on wheels. He attended El BANCO’s summer camp and now comes by everyday after school.
Activities as simple as drawing can help children process the volatile atmosphere they live in.
Eduardo Brun, 26, another El BANCO member, said working with the collective has allowed him to reconnect with his neighborhood after years seeking out educational and cultural opportunities in Mexico City and elsewhere. After high school, he studied natural construction, alternative medicine, and yoga, and now practices those skills in Ecatepec.
El BANCO has maintained a distance from party politics. During the state governor’s race last year, right-wing candidate Josefina Vázquez Mota held an impromptu campaign rally on the sidewalk in front of El BANCO, perhaps because of the lack of public spaces in the neighborhood. El BANCO denounced the use of its space on its Facebook page.
Residents and local youth feel betrayed by politicians and feel as if their neighborhood has been abandoned by all sides. In recent years, femicide, the gender-based murder of women, has become the most urgent problem facing the municipality. San Agustín, where El BANCO is located, is one of five neighborhoods in Ecatepec where state telephone union members said they would not work unless accompanied by a police escort.
The view across Ecatepec from the roof of El BANCO.
The BANCO collective held a protest after the slaying of a young woman in the nearby state of Puebla in September. They have hosted self-defense workshops for women to address the problem locally.
“We don’t want to make women even more scared, we don’t think that’s the solution,” Ortega says. “We prefer to counsel them, so they can be alert in case a situation arises. We talk about how to stay alert, or how to de-escalate.”
Brun adds that their workshops with children they emphasize non-violence and tolerance. With a lack of local after-school options for youth, activities at El BANCO create structure for those who might otherwise be pulled towards crime, the members say.
Activities as simple as drawing can help children process the volatile atmosphere they live in. “We believe that a different future is possible,” he says. “We want to educate kids that violence isn’t the solution to problems.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

Every Friday Is Black Friday: Why Our Addiction to Consumption and Growth Is Killing Us

by George Monbiot, Common Dreams:

A general view of the inbound area of the MPX5 fulfillment center on November 17, 2017 in Castel San Giovanni, Italy. "In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction," writes Monbiot, "we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing." (Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)
A general view of the inbound area of the MPX5 fulfillment center on November 17, 2017 in Castel San Giovanni, Italy. "In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction," writes Monbiot, "we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing." (Photo by Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)

Everyone wants everything – how is that going to work? The promise of economic growth is that the poor can live like the rich and the rich can live like the oligarchs. But already we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us. Climate breakdown, soil loss, the collapse of habitats and species, the sea of plastic, insectageddon: all are driven by rising consumption. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.

But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative. And we must adjust our tastes accordingly. In the name of autonomy and choice, marketing uses the latest findings in neuroscience to break down our defences. Those who seek to resist must, like the Simple Lifers in Brave New World, be silenced – in this case by the media.

With every generation, the baseline of normalised consumption shifts. Thirty years ago, it was ridiculous to buy bottled water, where tap water is clean and abundant. Today, worldwide, we use a million plastic bottles a minute.

Every Friday is a Black Friday, every Christmas a more garish festival of destruction. Among the snow saunas, portable watermelon coolers and smartphones for dogs with which we are urged to fill our lives, my #extremecivilisation prize now goes to the PancakeBot: a 3D batter printer that allows you to eat the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, or your dog’s bottom every morning. In practice, it will clog up your kitchen for a week until you decide you don’t have room for it. For junk like this, we’re trashing the living planet, and our own prospects of survival. Everything must go.

The ancillary promise is that, through green consumerism, we can reconcile perpetual growth with planetary survival. But a series of research papers reveal there is no significant difference between the ecological footprints of people who care and people who don’t. One recent article, published in the journal Environment and Behaviour, says those who identify themselves as conscious consumers use more energy and carbon than those who do not.

Why? Because environmental awareness tends to be higher among wealthy people. It is not attitudes that govern our impact on the planet but income. The richer we are, the bigger our footprint, regardless of our good intentions. Those who see themselves as green consumers, the research found, mainly focused on behaviours that had “relatively small benefits”.

I know people who recycle meticulously, save their plastic bags, carefully measure the water in their kettles, then take their holidays in the Caribbean, cancelling any environmental savings a hundredfold. I’ve come to believe that the recycling licences their long-haul flights. It persuades people they’ve gone green, enabling them to overlook their greater impacts.

None of this means that we should not try to reduce our footprint, but we should be aware of the limits of the exercise. Our behaviour within the system cannot change the outcomes of the system. It is the system itself that needs to change.

Research by Oxfam suggests that the world’s richest 1% (if your household has an income of £70,000 or more, this means you) produce about 175 times as much carbon as the poorest 10%. How, in a world in which everyone is supposed to aspire to high incomes, can we avoid turning the Earth, on which all prosperity depends, into a dust ball?

By decoupling, the economists tell us: detaching economic growth from our use of materials. So how well is this going? A paper in the journal Plos One finds that while, in some countries, relative decoupling has occurred, “no country has achieved absolute decoupling during the past 50 years”. What this means is that the amount of materials and energy associated with each increment of GDP might decline but, as growth outpaces efficiency, the total use of resources keeps rising. More important, the paper reveals that, in the long term, both absolute and relative decoupling from the use of essential resources is impossible, because of the physical limits of efficiency.

A global growth rate of 3% means that the size of the world economy doubles every 24 years. This is why environmental crises are accelerating at such a rate. Yet the plan is to ensure that it doubles and doubles again, and keeps doubling in perpetuity. In seeking to defend the living world from the maelstrom of destruction, we might believe we are fighting corporations and governments and the general foolishness of humankind. But they are all proxies for the real issue: perpetual growth on a planet that is not growing.

When you hear that something makes economic sense, this means it makes the opposite of common sense. Those sensible men and women who run the world’s treasuries and central banks, who see an indefinite rise in consumption as normal and necessary, are beserkers: smashing through the wonders of the living world, destroying the prosperity of future generations to sustain a set of figures that bear ever less relation to general welfare.Those who justify this system insist that economic growth is essential for the relief of poverty. But a paper in the World Economic Review finds that the poorest 60% of the world’s people receive only 5% of the additional income generated by rising GDP. As a result, $111 (£84) of growth is required for every $1 reduction in poverty. This is why, on current trends, it would take 200 years to ensure that everyone receives $5 a day. By this point, average per capita income will have reached $1m a year, and the economy will be 175 times bigger than it is today. This is not a formula for poverty relief. It is a formula for the destruction of everything and everyone.

Green consumerism, material decoupling, sustainable growth: all are illusions, designed to justify an economic model that is driving us to catastrophe. The current system, based on private luxury and public squalor, will immiserate us all: under this model, luxury and deprivation are one beast with two heads.

We need a different system, rooted not in economic abstractions but in physical realities, that establish the parameters by which we judge its health. We need to build a world in which growth is unnecessary, a world of private sufficiency and public luxury. And we must do it before catastrophe forces our hand.