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From issue: Energy in the Americas (Summer 2013)


Some of our hemisphere's emerging leaders in politics, business, civil society, and the arts.

In this issue:
Oro Verde miners wash gold ore with balsa water in Chocó, Colombia. Photo: Guillaume Collanges/Oro Verde

Business Innovator: Felipe Arango, Colombia

The Chocó region in western Colombia is one of the most mineral-rich places in the hemisphere.  It is also ecologically rich, boasting species of flora thought to be unique to Chocó.  But due to years of commercial gold and platinum mining that have leached mercury and cyanide into local rivers, the Chocó region has also become one of the most threatened natural areas in the world. 

Felipe Arango has been working to change that.  Arango, 34, is CEO of Oro Verde—an NGO based in Medellín, Colombia, that empowers local miners to use more ecologically friendly artisanal mining techniques.  Founded in 2003, the organization purchases gold produced by certified artisanal miners, many of them Afro-Colombian, and sells it to socially conscious jewelers around the world. Oro Verde takes a 2 percent cut to fund its operations and administration, and contributes its profits and reinvested premiums to the protection of 11,120 acres (4,500 hectares) of tropical rainforest. Oro Verde’s gold certification process, meanwhile, has influenced the development of a global “fair-trade, fair-mined” gold certification process. 

The benefits accrue not only to the environment. Oro Verde distributes a percentage of its profits—amounting to more than $200,000 in the past decade—to local community councils, which use them for projects ranging from school renovation and infrastructure development to the purchase of new water pumps that improve the efficiency of artisanal mining techniques.  Such reinvestment, Arango says, “reinforces community involvement, builds accountability and gives miners an incentive to preserve their land.”

There’s just one problem. The eco-friendly technique certified by Oro Verde is slower and produces less gold.  While traditional miners use poisonous mercury to extract gold from ore, Oro Verde–certified miners soak balsa leaves in water until the balsa extracts attach to the lighter minerals in the ore, revealing the gold without the typical toxic byproducts. All told, the balsa process can take up to two weeks—one to wash the ore and another to extract the gold. Using mercury, traditional mining companies can extract the same amount of gold in a matter of hours.

In 2011, Oro Verde miners produced just over 15 pounds (7 kilograms) of gold—a fraction of a percent of Colombia’s annual production of 73,800 pounds (33,475 kilograms) per year. Currently, traditional mining groups produce so much gold that their profits often far exceed the 15 percent premium Oro Verde miners receive—leading many to sell the mining rights to their land or relinquish it to illegal miners, who offer large sums of cash and often threaten violence.  That’s one reason why comparatively few independent Chocó miners have found Oro Verde an attractive proposition—only 1 percent of miners in Chocó have signed up with the company.

Frustrated by these challenges, Arango, a Colombian with degrees in political science and business administration from Boston University, decided on a new marketing strategy. Starting in August, Oro Verde will stage the first-ever online auction for sustainably mined gold and platinum, on the assumption that socially conscious consumers will be willing to put their money where their values are.

Arango believes this will also attract more miners to the idea that eco-friendly techniques are not only good for the land, but can sustain their families. “The hope,” says Arango, “is that consumers who feel more connected to the product will generate greater returns for miners.”

Politics Innovator: Ruben Kihuen, The United States

Mari Hayman

Ruben Kihuen, 33, is used to winning. As a rising Mexican-American politician in Nevada—where Latinos have played a major role in deciding the last two U.S. presidential elections—Kihuen has attracted attention far outside his home state.

And with good reason: both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama courted him during their 2008 presidential campaigns, and Kihuen’s political mentor, U.S. Senator Harry Reid, has called him “a rising star in Nevada and the Democratic Party.” After winning two successive terms in the state assembly, Kihuen, a Democrat, became Nevada’s youngest state senator in 2010. This year, he served as senate majority whip and chairman of the Senate Revenue Committee.

Kihuen carved out a name for himself as soon as he entered politics. As a first-time assemblyman in 2007, he introduced a bill that would transfer the remaining balance on Nevadans’ expired gift cards from the state’s unclaimed property division to the State Treasury’s Educational Trust Fund. The bill’s success earned him “Co-Freshman of the Year” and granted him the political capital to tackle other challenges—like diversifying Nevada’s tourism and mining-dependent economy, passing an anti-bullying bill, and promoting comprehensive immigration reform.

Success also sharpened Kihuen’s frustration over his fellow Latinos’ lack of political representation. In the last census, approximately 27 percent of Nevada’s population identified as Hispanic, but only two of Nevada’s 63 state legislators were Hispanic in 2006. Motivated to change those statistics, Kihuen and Cuban-American State Senator Moises “Mo” Denis co-founded the Nevada Hispanic Legislative Caucus, helping six Latino candidates win state assembly seats in 2010.

Kihuen picked up his drive to succeed from his parents, who moved their family from Mexico in 1986 and labored long hours in the fields picking strawberries and cleaning homes to support him and his three siblings. At first, Kihuen enjoyed success in a different arena: at 18, he was selected “Nevada High Schools Soccer Player of the Year,” and was preparing to try out for Mexico’s Chivas de Guadalajara when he broke his foot. Searching for new worlds to conquer, he found work in Senator Reid’s 2004 reelection campaign.

Reid eventually offered him a job as a regional representative in Las Vegas. By then, Kihuen had caught the political bug. “I decided it’s not that difficult serving in office,” he jokes. With Reid’s blessing, Kihuen made his first run for office in 2006. He beat a well-funded incumbent to win 61 percent of the vote, becoming the first Latino immigrant elected to the Nevada legislature.

Last year, Kihuen experienced his first political setback. Originally planning to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, he  stepped down in favor of fellow Democrat Dina Titus, who went on to win the seat. “It was going to cause a huge division in the party, and the district is heavily Democratic, so I decided to be a statesman and bow out of the race,” Kihuen explains. “My goal is still to get to Washington DC.”

In the meantime, Kihuen seeks to make his mark on Nevada politics. In April, Kihuen, who is Catholic and had previously opposed same-sex marriage, spoke out in favor of marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples after speaking with his constituents. “America’s changing,” Kihuen says. “If two people love each other, let them be.”

Though he is set on an eventual move to the nation’s capital, Kihuen still enjoys being a lawmaker in his home state. “Good legislation impacts 2.5 million people [in Nevada],” he says. “There’s no better reward than that.”

Civic Innovator: Antonio Sosa-Pascual, Puerto Rico

Leani García

Puerto Ricans often feel that they are part of an invisible nation. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey, there are now 4.7 million Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states and the District of Columbia—more than on their ancestral Caribbean archipelago of 3.7 million. But because Puerto Ricans living abroad are not distinguished from other U.S. citizens, the true size of the Puerto Rican diaspora has long been impossible to determine.

Antonio Sosa-Pascual, 39, believes he can change that with an innovative social media site called Parranda, which uses Google Maps technology  to pinpoint where Puerto Ricans live all over the world. Launched last year, the site borrows from the Puerto Rican Christmas tradition of parrandas, in which revelers go from house to house singing Christmas carols until the host opens the door. By asking users to enter their location as they register—whether they live in Chicago or Beijing—the site effectively opens the door to the “Greater Puerto Rico,” Sosa-Pascual explains.

The Puerto Rican entrepreneur, who was born on the island and currently lives in San Juan, says Parranda “is an opportunity to realize that our community is bigger and stronger than what we think, that we have more resources than what we think, and that we have our own unique place in the world.”

Sosa-Pascual is himself an example of how far the Puerto Rican diaspora has reached. He earned his MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has held posts in the public and private sectors around the world, including serving as deputy clerk of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce of Puerto Rico. In 2010, he became managing director of REOF Capital, a venture capital company in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Sosa-Pascual’s networking skills were honed as a graduate student nearly a decade ago, when he founded the Harvard-MIT Puerto Rican Caucus, which enabled professors, businesspeople, government officials, and students to exchange proposals for economic reform on the island. The experience provided an opportunity to connect students in the Boston area with business and intellectual communities in Puerto Rico.

But he quickly discovered that while an increasing number of Puerto Rican professionals were anxious to funnel resources to the island, there was no easy way for different groups to partner or communicate with one another. Along with nine other founders—many from the boards of Puerto Rican social organizations on the U.S. mainland and in Puerto Rico—Sosa- Pascual launched Parranda on New Year’s Eve 2012. The service, which is free for users, is financed entirely by the founding members. Today, they have over 2,000 users on six continents.

“[We] focus on being able to channel resources, mentoring, capital, donations, and trying to make a difference in the communities,” Sosa-Pascual says.

On May 30, Parranda held its first Global Summit at the University of Puerto Rico’s Río Piedras campus. The event enabled Puerto Rican diaspora leaders to identify, discuss and develop solutions to Puerto Rico’s most pressing challenges and opportunities, including economic development, community building and education. At the summit, leaders from Puerto Rico and the U.S. pledged to create partnerships to provide mentorship opportunities for young Puerto Rican entrepreneurs, provide them with job opportunities and connect them with potential investors.

While Parranda is still growing, Sosa-Pascual believes the social networking platform’s greatest achievement so far has been to unite the global Puerto Rican community. As he puts it, Parranda has helped “an invisible nation become visible.”

Arts Innovator: The Laundromat Project, The United States

A mother and child load the week’s dirty clothes into a washing machine. Nearby, a young man stuffs his dry clothes into a hamper. An old woman methodically folds children’s socks and T-shirts. It’s a typical scene at laundromats around New York City—except for one difference: while waiting for their clothes to spin dry, a handful of neighbors are learning how to make batik-dyed T-shirts with a local artist.

This facility happens to be one of a dozen coin-op washaterias participating in The Laundromat Project, a not-for-profit enterprise that blends art and community spirit with the most ordinary of household chores. Its tagline: “wash clothes, make art, build community.”

Since 2006, The Laundromat Project has commissioned 27 public art projects in 23 laundromats.

“We’re working in communities of color, we’re working in communities living on modest incomes, people whose innate creativity is not being nurtured or seen as any kind of an asset,” explains Kemi Ilesanmi, who joined The Laundromat Project in 2004 and is now executive director.

The moving force behind the idea was Risë Wilson, now 37, who left a promising career in the corporate sector to pursue her vision of bringing “art-making down to earth.”

Despite early exposure to the arts while growing up in Philadelphia, Wilson never considered becoming an artist. “As a post–Civil Rights baby, the tacit message I had retained above all was that making good on the sacrifices of my forebears meant ‘getting a good education that would lead to a good job,’” Wilson says.

The Laundromat Project’s flagship program, Create Change, asks artists to develop socially engaged public art projects in local laundromats during six-month residencies. The projects are selected by a panel that judges them on both artistic merit and their potential for meaningful local impact. The Laundromat Project receives funding from private foundations and individuals, public agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts, local arts councils, and revenue from art sales and fees.

Watch an exclusive interview with the founder of The Laundromat Project, Risë Wilson.

Reflection on a community’s past, present and future is a common theme for many of the projects. In 2007, for example, artist Sarah Kolker hosted regular workshops at The Laundry Room, asking her young Harlem neighbors to write their visions for their neighborhood in 30 years on ceramic tiles. Neighbors then created mosaics with the tiles, covering two benches outside the laundromat.

Other artists address specific community needs. Micki Wantanabe Spiller’s project responded to public library budget cuts affecting her neighborhood in Queens, and involved creating a hand-illustrated book about her neighborhood, building a book cart for her laundromat and organizing local storytimes.

Hector Canonge transformed his laundromat in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Inwood into “The Inwood Laundromat Language Institute,” offering free English lessons to his neighbors.

In Mott Haven in the Bronx, Hatuey Ramos-Fermín and Elizabeth Hamby turned a laundromat into a classroom and asked neighbors to develop ideas to increase access to green spaces and the Bronx waterfront.

The Laundromat Project also offers extensive training to artists. “We’ve learned that just because artists are interested in doing this work doesn’t mean they are equipped to do it well,” says Ilesanmi. Monthly workshops focus on community organizing, communication skills and fundraising.

As a result, the participants become part of a network of socially active artists who continue to support one another and local communities. One multimedia project, “Housing Is a Human Right”—launched by multidisciplinary artist and activist Michael Premo at the Wash and Play Lotto laundromat in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood—developed its own website and now documents housing rights issues around the world.

Today, Wilson says, the local laundromat is much more than a place to wash clothes: it’s a place where neighbors meet and interact. “Some of the projects we’ve done have just been excuses for people to stop and talk to each other,” she explains. 

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