By Grace Garey
During the first week of January, when most college students are lounging at home nursing New Year’s Eve hangovers and enjoying meals and laundry courtesy of mom, 60 California students will be working with the Berkeley-based non-profit Project Pueblo to help rebuild a Navajo Nation community devastated by a 43-year federal ban on development.
The founder of Project Pueblo is 28-year-old Sean Wycliffe. In 2002, Wycliffe was mid-way through his second year at Cal when he opted dropped out to oversee the expansion of a marketing business he’d started on the side. “I wanted to be financially independent,” Wycliffe said, “and I knew I had a good idea, so I just went for it.” Allowing himself to pursue his spontaneous instincts paid off; the business generated over $1 million in new revenue during his first year.
When he returned to Berkeley five years later, it wasn’t long before Wycliffe’s entrepreneurial tendencies kicked in again. His minor in Global Poverty required field work, and while his peers stressed about how they would save thousands of dollars to spend the summer in a developing country, Wycliffe wondered why he couldn’t use the money he would have spent traveling abroad to make a more direct impact.
“I thought, what if there was a way that I could have the same experience, but without giving all of that money to airline companies? What if I gave it directly to the group I’m trying to serve in the form of funding for projects on the ground?”
So, instead of leaving the country as many others felt they had to do, Wycliffe simply crossed a state border into Arizona to a desperately poor region of the Navajo Nation crippled by a 1966 law known as the Bennett Freeze.
The Bennett Freeze, so named because the Commissioner of Indian Affairs who in 1966 ordered the suspension of development in the region was named Robert Bennett, prohibited Navajos in the 1.5 million acre area from building new homes, schools, or roads. For over four decades, infrastructure was left to deteriorate without repair. Roofs collapsed, streets remained unpaved, and people were left without basic services. Not even gas, electric, or water lines were permitted.
Despite President Obama’s repeal of the Bennett Freeze in 2006 2009, the residual damage was so severe that the region is still struggling to recover. Today, of the more than 8,000 families who live in the area, only 25% have adequate shelter, 10% have running water, and 3% have electricity. In addition, this area heavily suffers from issues relating to uranium contamination stemming from mining during the Cold War.
After spending a week working on community projects in the area, Wycliffe knew he had to get others involved. “I wanted to create an opportunity for people to engage in a service-driven movement that intelligently responds to the issues facing the Navajo Nation, so I founded Project Pueblo.”
A 100% student-led organization that conducts week-long service trips to the region several times a year, Project Pueblo partners with local organizations to implement projects that help rebuild the community.
“In the beginning we just provided a lot of the manual labor for projects that our partner, Forgotten People, had already initiated in the community. We repaired homes, built a youth center, and supported a project to improve access to water.”
But as Project Pueblo gained popularity in Berkeley (this semester they are piloting a for-credit class through the university called “Helping the Navajo Rebuild”) and around California (Wycliffe expects more than 200 students from three colleges to participate this year), they were able to secure funding through grants, donations, and trip fees to implement larger scale projects.
“This next trip is exciting because we are going to establish a formal mentorship program with the local Navajo high school. We want to help them navigate the college application process, which can be confusing when not a lot of people around you have done it before. Eventually I’d love to have some of the Navajo kids go to college and become the leaders of Project Pueblo at their schools.”
Wycliffe’s big-picture outlook and practical approach have created an organization that benefits both community it serves, and the volunteer participants.
UC Berkeley senior and Urban Studies major Dixon Li says the Project Pueblo trips are “extremely rewarding.” Another participant, Integrative Biology and Conflict Resolution double major Rich Pauloo, says he thinks everyone should spend time in a developing region of the world, even if it is in your own country, because “the experience will viscerally demonstrate the struggle that humans endure.”
The list of things Project Pueblo hopes to accomplish in the former Bennett Freeze is ambitious, but considering Wycliffe’s track record of turning big ideas into real accomplishments, it is likely they will succeed.
“In the spring, we’ll be partnering with Cal Earth Institute to build an earth home with the long-term goal to use it as a prototype and build more over the summer. We’ve also connected with a group of masters candidates studying resource management who have offered to come out and explore ways to expand access to water in the area. It’s all very exciting. I just hope we can continue to add value and empower people in the community. As long as we are doing that, it will be worth it.”
Grace Garey, a Berkeley native, is a recent graduate of UC Santa Barbara.