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Sustainable South Bronx: Participatory learning meets sustainable living in the FabLab

During a typical week in the Bronx, diesel trucks make 60,000 tripshauling up to 16,000 tons or 40 percent of New York City?s waste anddrop it into one of the most beleaguered communities in the nation.Most of the trash will pause briefly at one of nearly two dozen wastetransfer stations in the Bronx before heading south to massivelandfills in Virginia. With this much trash on the move, the air isoften ripe with garbage, dust and diesel fumes as trucks rumble nonstopthrough the borough.

This is not a portrait of affluence: in addition to the trash, SouthBronx has high unemployment, violent crime, failing schools, and asthmarates eight times the national average. But out of the trash has come asignificant treasure?one of the country?s most compelling green collarmovements.

In 2001, Majora Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx(SSBx), an organization dedicated to greening the local community whileproviding jobs for residents. Under Carter?s direction, SSBx began agreen-roof project, designed to absorb storm water, reduce carbondioxide in the air, and put people to work in green collar jobs.Sustainable South Bronx also started the Bronx Environmental Stewardship program(B.E.S.T.), a free 10- to 14-week long training program that liftsworkers out of poverty, and helps turn limited opportunities intosustainable living through specialized jobs. By the end of 2008, SSBxhad graduated 126 individuals, 82 percent of which are in green jobs orcollege.

Miquela Craytor now guides SSBx as executive director, and at a recent talkshe tells her audience, ?When we talk about sustainability, it?s notjust about trees. It?s about social systems, it?s about ourcommunities.? As a screen behind her displays three interlockingcircles, Craytor talks about the complex relationships that contributeto real sustainability: environment, equity, and economics. When wetalk about the environment, says Craytor, we tend to focus onwilderness, pristine watersheds, areas that are relatively untouched.Her next slide shows an eyesore of trash, a scene repeated again andagain not only in the Bronx, but in poor communities around the world.This is the environment, too, Craytor tells the audience, lingering onimages we tend to overlook.

Most recently, SSBx won a 2007 HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media & Learning grant to support a new fabrication laboratory, or FabLab,which introduces youth and others to hi-tech tools and fabricationskills to make almost anything. Being able to scale down andmanufacture at this level means SSBx can build solutions to communityproblems in-house. As of spring 2009, there were 34 FabLabs in 10countries including India, Ghana, Costa Rica, Kenya, Spain, Iceland,and most recently, Afghanistan. For now, SSBx uses a mobile FabLabtrailer on loan from M.I.T. until capital campaign funds help towardbuilding a full shop.

In SSBx's mobile FabLab,students can use a laser cutter to do 2D and 3D etching, as well as cutthrough thin layers of wood and plexiglass. A small desktop mill makesit possible to make circuit boards for electronics, and a vinyl cutteris useful for thicker materials. These same tools will help build thepermanent FabLab, giving staff and students an opportunity to customdesign exactly what they need.

on Santiago, SSBx FabLab?s coordinator, studied applied math at M.I.T.and always knew he wanted to tie his technical background to communityoutreach. ?People have a need to create and make,? he says, ?so we wantto offer [FabLab], fold it into the mission of Sustainable South Bronxand incubate businesses around design and manufacturing.?

While working toward his undergraduate degree, Santiago studied withDr. Neil Gershenfeld, head of M.I.T.?s Center for Bits and Atoms, andthere he developed a shared interest in technology by and for thecommunity, in support of grassroots goals.

For Sustainable South Bronx, those grassroots goals go hand-in-handwith job creation and ?greening the ghetto,? in which everything isdone to benefit the local community. One of SSBx FabLab?s first goalswas to bring students in from nearby school programs and train them howto use the digital tools and make almost anything they want. While theprogram is still in its early stages, Santiago already sees success.

?I worked with a student last spring, and initially she had a lot ofdifficulty figuring out what was going on in our facility,? saysSantiago. Students from Bronx Guild High School, a Big Picture Schoolfunded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, take part ininternships as part of their education. Some of those students willspend time in the FabLab as part of their schooling.

?I took her through a project, showed her the steps, and then let herdo the same, but had her modify it and make it her own.? It was agradual change, according to Santiago, but he saw her transform fromblank stares to smiles, becoming talkative and excited as her projectevolved into something tangible.

?To start, she kind of went through the motions, using the graphicssoftware to design her project. But then she became savvy about themachinery and got this idea to make a personalized picture frame forher mother.? Figuring out how to design, implement and manage aself-created project is a major learning shift, not just for studentsfrom South Bronx, but for many accustomed to traditional schoolsettings. This is the type of participatory learning that Santiago andCraytor expect to see more of as FabLab grows.

People in the environmental justice movement have a way of figuring outhow to work with like-minded organizations, and FabLab is an idealcollaboratory for other sustainable-living groups in the South Bronx.Omar Freilla, another local leader and former member of SSBx, went onto found ReBuilders Source,a ?Home Depot? for reusable construction and demolition materials.Having access to a source of affordable materials gives FabLab a nearlyunlimited canvas to work with.

Upcyling?transforming something disposable into an item of greatervalue?is something artists and designers have always done. But FabLab?sdesign and machine tools mean students and staff have almost unlimitedpossibilities to manufacture items. Already they have built furnituremade of recycled wood, including a collapsible vending system to sellsunglasses, and manufactured a remarkably strong chess board made withsturdy cardboard and bottle caps.

?Our task is to fold FabLab into [SSBx?s] mission,? says Santiago, ?andfigure out how we can translate it into the larger vision, to restorethe environment, to create something sustainable here.? It is achallenge not only for SSBx, but for all of us.

 

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