Opinion: Berkeley reaches out to Puerto Rico, part of its tradition of helping others

For more than 50 years, Berkeley residents have shown they care about developments overseas by lending assistance and money to grassroots movements.

Buffeted by hurricanes, earthquakes, a hostile White House and decades of exploitation and ecological destruction, many view Puerto Rico as an ongoing disaster. Some, however, see Puerto Rico’s plight as an opportunity. Tired of waiting for solutions from the top down, a nascent Puerto Rican grassroots movement supported by widespread social unrest is attempting to change its society and economy from the bottom up – and Berkeley is lending a helping hand.

Instead of waiting for disaster assistance that never comes, this new generation of Puerto Ricans is looking for ways to work together and build their own independent, sustainable future. Hurricane Maria was the catalyst that ignited the cooperative grassroots movement.  “Maria changed everything” island residents constantly recount.

The devastating storm showed clearly that “the emperor had no clothes,” and that Puerto Ricans were on their own with regard to extreme vulnerability to climate change, food insecurity (90% of its food is imported) and economic recovery.

Realizing they could not wait for government action, Puerto Ricans reacted to events by creating food kitchens, emergency search groups and shelters. These actions helped raise consciousness about the strength and need for grassroots community action. Many of these operations became ongoing activities and many people have chosen to stay on the island and contribute to the back to the land movement to produce more healthy food locally.

Berkeley residents have been involved in supporting these grassroots community groups, just as they have been throughout the decades on trips to Cuba, South Africa, and Vietnam. Green Cities Fund, established in 2005 by myself and my journalist wife TT Nhu (known as “Nhu”) is supporting projects in the “new” Puerto Rico.

Soon (when the coronavirus subsides) a team of chef “graduates” of Chez Panisse including Dominica Saloman and Melissa Fernandez, and restaurateur, chef, winemaker and author Narsai David will join organic “Farmer Al” Courchesne, owner of  Frog Hollow Farm (a major Chez Panisse supplier), and others on a “solidarity” tour of Puerto Rico in support of its local organic sustainable food movement  Local street artist Anthony Holdsworth, whose son is building microgrids in Puerto Rico to enable farms and villages to become energy independent, plans to join the group to record the journey.  A similar tour to Cuba in 2012 led to innovative improvements in its cuisine.

These people-to-people efforts have long been part of “The Republic of  Berkeley’s” DNA as its citizens and City Council have a long tradition of taking political action on matters far beyond Berkeley’s borders which affect the nation and the world. The “Free Speech” movement began in Berkeley and Berkeley resident Bob Baldock was one of the few U.S. citizens to participate in the Cuban Revolution as a combatant in Fidel Castro’s unit based in the Sierra Maestra in 1958.  The man who released the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, and, filmmaker Judith Ehrlich, whose Oscar-nominated documentary “The Most Dangerous Man in America’ inspired Edward Snowden, are also part of this Berkeley tradition.

In 1972, Nhu and I assisted UNICEF’s expansion into Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam and, in 1975, when thousands of Vietnamese “orphans” arrived in the U.S. at the end of the war, Nhu and her friends discovered that many were not orphans and had families searching for them. This resulted in a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government and adoption agencies, which ultimately resulted in many children’s return to their Vietnamese families in the United States.  “Daughter from Danang”, a documentary on one of the “orphans” by Berkeley filmmaker Gail Dolgin was voted best documentary at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and nominated for an Oscar.

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Our work has also extended to Afghanistan, where we established “Parwaz”, the first Afghan-run microlending organization. Much earlier, in 1961, I had the privilege of helping to train, at U.C. Berkeley, the first group of Peace Corps volunteers and, in 1966 I worked with plastic and reconstructive surgeon Arthur Barsky, a veteran of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, to establish a hospital in Vietnam to treat war-injured children. Nhu and I recently visited the hospital on the 50th anniversary of its official founding (having operated for several years in a Saigon apartment house “liberated” from the American embassy).  It was a journalist, Martha Gellhorn, who alerted me to the plight of children in Vietnam, and an article in the New York Times which brought our attention to the new movement in Puerto Rico.

Berkeley resident Eric Leenson, co-founder of Progressive Assets Management the first socially responsible investment fund, is spearheading Green Cities Fund work in Puerto Rico. In 2019, Eric helped organize the first national gathering of the new grassroots cooperative organizations. Over 240 people from 130 organizations, 25 of whom were non-island experts from seven regional countries, attended in a truly multigenerational environment to address a variety of key topics including agroecology, sustainable tourism, and the construction of a stronger cooperative movement.

The Christopher Reynolds Foundation funded the gathering and also donated an “Oggun,” a small, inexpensive, easy-to-fix tractor suitable for small organic farms. The design for the tractor is open source, most of the parts can be manufactured locally, and it can be assembled in a day by a mechanic. It will soon be manufactured in Puerto Rico.

California is also contributing to survival and sustainability in Puerto Rico through innovative earthquake-proof  “superadobe” housing developed by the California Institute of Earth Architecture (“CalEarth”)  Much of the housing in Puerto Rico is substandard and unable to withstand hurricanes and earthquakes.  The well-insulated superadobe “earthquake-proof” construction is easily built from earth and other local materials. Here’s a local TV story on project.

The Green Cities group soon visiting Puerto Rico will meet with innovative Puerto Rican chefs who are substituting local foods into the island’s cuisine. The group will also visit the farms producing these foods.  They will meet with the organizers of the grassroots movement and also visit Plenitud, an organization devoted to the grassroots rebuilding of communities and making them sustainable through agriculture, home and infrastructure rebuilding, community organization and energy independence.  Hopefully, this will be the beginning of an ongoing program of exchange and assistance.

Tom Miller is a Berkeley lawyer practicing in Oakland and co-founder of Green Cities Fund.