The End of the Beginning: #UBLawResponds Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic has just commenced our journey

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For those of you who have followed this blog, you know that in January 2018, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic had an amazing service-learning adventure. After more than five weeks of classwork and preparation starting mid-December 2017 in Buffalo, these students, myself, and other UB staff were ready to travel to Puerto Rico. There we met experts, stood with law students and proficient faculty from University of Puerto Rico’s Law School, worked with other UPR experts, assisted community partners on legal brigades, and gathered on-the-ground data, stories, and experience to help draft papers and reports that we hope will inform ways forward after the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

While in Puerto Rico, #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys helped local lawyers file over 80 FEMA appeals and provide other legal assistance. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys raised money and purchased supplies and solar lamps for more than 800 families, delivered on multiple humanitarian brigades to strong people in distant places who have been without water, power, and other basic supplies for more than four months. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys met with local experts to plan long-term community-based research projects. You may have read about some of these adventures through Student Attorney blog posts.

What those blog posts may not have made clear, however, is the amazing fact that #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day. They were fierce in their commitment to (but gentle in their delivery of) both access to justice and basic supplies. The dedication of UB’s students made my heart sing (hace latir mi corazón).

I have met with each of these amazing Student Attorneys since our return. To a person, they remain committed to ensuring that the work of this clinic will continue. You will have a chance to read their final papers and reports for this course on this website next month. But that will not be the conclusion of the overall work.

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When this formal course wraps up later this month, it will only be the end of this first chapter. In other words … it will be the end of the beginning.

The mission that the students drafted during our January class has not changed:

Because recovery goes beyond disaster relief, #UBLawResponds provides practical legal research and thoughtful pro bono service, through an ongoing collaborative effort to empower a resilient Puerto Rico.

 

El camino a la restauración va más allá de responder a los efectos de un desastre natural. La misión de la clínica legal de la Universidad del Estado de Nueva York es contribuir al proceso de empoderamiento de Puerto Rico proveyendo servicios de investigación legal gratuitos con aplicaciones prácticas en colaboración con la comunidad puertorriqueña y sus aliados. 

Stay tuned. #PRSeLevanta, #UBLawResponds stands with them.

When Some is Better Than None: FEMA Accountability after Huracán María

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What is accountability, really? We’ve all tossed the word around and heard it used. Usually one hears “accountability” and thinks of “responsibility.” According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, accountability is defined as follows: “the quality or state of being accountable; especially : an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.”[1]

Now what does accountability have to do with Puerto Rico and Hurricane María? This concept of accountability is central to the failures we have seen in Puerto Rico since it was hit by María. The people of Puerto Rico are our brothers and sisters—they are our fellow United States citizens. As a student in the University at Buffalo School of La Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic [ hotlink], I have been looking closely at these issues since December. These people were in need of—and many are still in need of—basic life necessities, like water, shelter, electricity, and food.

Now, here is where the accountability comes in: when a natural disaster affects our country, we have government agencies in place to step up and help our citizens. The main agency responsible for coordinating relief efforts is the United States Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA is charged with establishing contracts with vendors to provide needed services: food, water, tarps, electricity. Hurricane María struck the island of Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017, resulting in a humanitarian crisis. Now that we are in February 2018, it’s easier to step back and look at the efficacy of our government’s response in helping our fellow citizens. FEMA was responsible for—and should be held accountable for accountable—in securing contracts to help these people.

So, how did FEMA’s response chock up? Unfortunately, not very well, when one looks beyond “official” statistics. The three essential contracts needed immediately in Puerto Rico were all secured with small companies with no proven track record of providing such services—and then the contracts were cancelled before any progress was made. The $30 million contract to provide tarps? Cancelled. The $300 million contract to reconstruct the destroyed electrical infrastructure on the island? Cancelled. The $156 million contract to provide 30 million meals? Cancelled. 2018 is already here and no contracts have been established to replace these services.

But who is accountable for these cancellations—FEMA or the contractors that did not follow through? The accountability lays with FEMA. The agency has drawn large amounts of criticism for hiring new, start-up companies with either proven track records of not being able to fulfill large contracts or no track records at all. Regarding the meals contract, Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md., summed up the problem pretty well: “one of the primary reasons FEMA failed to deliver these meals is because it inexplicably awarded a contract worth approximately $156 million to deliver 30 million emergency meals to a tiny, one-person company with a history of struggling with much smaller contracts.”[2] With multiple bids, why would FEMA rely on such unestablished businesses?

And it’s not necessarily fair to fully blame the businesses who took on these contracts for not fulfilling their part of the deal. First of all, FEMA should have picked more appropriate candidates to begin with. Secondly, one has to ask, how committed was FEMA to actually making sure these vital supplies made it to Puerto Rico? According to the owner of Tribute, LLC., the company hired to provide 30 million meals, FEMA cancelled her meals contract over a dispute about providing self-heating meals. Tiffany Brown, the owner of the company claims that she informed FEMA from the beginning that the meals would not be self-heating and the heating packets would be sent along with the meals. Brown claims that she “notified FEMA in [an] Oct. 19 email that 36,000 meals were en route – with the meals packaged separately from the heating component – a FEMA official told her that was not acceptable and told her not to deliver the meals.”[3]

This statement begs the question: wouldn’t 36,000 meals with separate heating packets be better than no meals at all? Apparently FEMA didn’t think so.

The work in Puerto Rico must continue. #UBLawResponds will be joining other legal experts to continue to seek FEMA accountability. You can support our ongoing work here.

 

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/accountability
[2] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221
[3] http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/fema-contractor-scapegoat-controversy-canceled-contract/story?id=52915221

“Living Without” versus “Being Without” Reflections on How Law and Policy Can’t Immediately Solve Certain Problems (Like No Running Water) But Can Offer Hope

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I spent ten days in January 2018, alongside #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys from the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, doing pro bono work in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. #UBLawResponds Student Attorneys worked from early morning to late at night (often past midnight) every day on legal brigades, humanitarian brigades, connecting with experts, doing research and writing, and thinking about how we could best serve. This meant we were immersed…but only to a point.

It is hard to describe exactly what is happening on the Islands to those who are not in Puerto Rico. Before I arrived, the students and I had read a lot of media, talked with many people, and done almost all the research we were capable of doing from the mainland. As is true for so many on the mainland, we were saddened by the pictures and descriptions of the devastation, dismayed by some of the response (or lack thereof) efforts by those who should be helping, and worried (about so many things).

As we began our service, the Student Attorneys and I realized that we were providing assistance to people who would be living without some things we take for granted for a long time to come. As visitors (there to serve and work hard, but with a plane ticket home), we approached our service-learning trip with the recognition that sometimes we might have to “do” without as we were working.

To make things affordable, #UBLawResponds rented AirBnB’s for our trip. The first morning of our full day, ironically, neither the student housing nor the housing where I was staying with my children had running water. We had to “do without” as we readied for work. No showers. No flushing toilets. And, of course, we made do. In fact, for most the days I was there, the AirBnB where I was staying with my children had no water for several hours early in the day. We actually got used to “doing without” water for part of the day. We also lost electricity…but we had a generator so we never had to do without power.

By contrast, most individuals and families that #UBLawResponds served were not just doing without temporarily – they were in fact truly living without, and had been for months. Moreover, many had no clear timeframe for when they would have reliable running water again.

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And yet, most of the people we encountered demonstrated hope, shared smiles, and were making do much better than I can imagine I would in their situation. For example, in one town we visited for a brigade, many homes lacked running water…but there was running water in the community center. The shared toilet in that center was sparkling clean and sweetly decorated. People stood politely in line to use it, and were clearly grateful for its presence.

#UBLawResponds gave our team a chance to see what Puerto Rico is really facing, and provide some direct help during our trip. But it also motivated us to dig deeper into our research, to think even more creatively, and to work hard to figure out how we can help suggest some legal and policy changes that can work toward ending this time of semi-permanent “living without” faced by so many fellow citizens in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The #UBLawResponds team is committed to developing and sharing viable policy options going forward. You can help us keep on working for real change by donating here

We are now back in New York, and none of us on the team are forced to do without water. But none of us can forget those who are still living without in Puerto Rico.

Sometimes I Get Angry: Contemplating the Role of Anger in Public Interest Work

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Sometimes, when working in a public interest organization, it can be difficult for me to remain calm. Sometimes I become angry and frustrated. I become angry and frustrated when I see people hurt needlessly. I become angry and frustrated when I see politicians and public figures disregard suffering. When I work with refugees and asylum seekers, I become angry and frustrated when I hear politicians and public figures speak poorly about people who have made the terrible decision to leave their homes.

As a Student Attorney in the University at Buffalo Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic, I have often felt angry and frustrated. The President of the United States has been very clear in his lack of sympathy for Puerto Rico. Many news media outlets are no longer regularly reporting about Hurricane Maria and its impact on Puerto Rico. Government organizations, such as FEMA, have had lackluster responses to the hurricane: sometimes this is because the organization does not have the resources to help the island, but often it appears that a lot of organizations just don’t care that much. Learning how the fact that Puerto Rico is a territory and not a state, making many mainland programs unavailable on the island, just adds to the anger and frustration I feel.

Being on the island with the #UBLawResponds team in January 2018, I find that anger isn’t enough of a reason to do the pro bono legal work I do. Anger and frustration is not enough to help anyone. It doesn’t help the people you are trying to advocate for. It doesn’t dismantle harmful policies and laws. It doesn’t change national discourse. It doesn’t change people’s minds. Anger, especially hot-blooded anger that spills over onto other people, usually does not serve a productive purpose.

One possible productive result of anger and frustration is that it sometimes serves as a fuel for yourself. Working in public interest is mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting, and sometimes I’ve found that anger can serve as a short-term motivator when I feel like giving up to go work in corporate America. Anger can help me get that extra little bit of emotion to power through when I feel oppressed by the weight of all the work there is to do. However, if the only emotion powering you through public interest work is anger, then you will burn out faster than you would otherwise. So, I put aside my anger and focus again on the work at hand for #UBLawResponds and others continuing to serve those devastated by Hurricane Maria. You can support our continuing work here.

 

Helping Overcome Darkness: Observations on the Creation of the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic

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“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”  – Anne Frank

I can remember when the October surprise storm hit Buffalo in October of 2006.  The wet snow came on Thursday, October 12. By Friday, October 13th, there were trees limbs everywhere. We had no power and we were shoveling out snow. It also happened to be the weekend of my wedding. A year of planning and then all I felt was panic that none of it would happen. We were lucky, despite a few small glitches our wedding went on as planned. However, we were without power for 13 days.  Our street was the last to get it back on … those 13 days living on generator power felt like forever.

I cannot imagine that there are people in Puerto Rico who have been living without power for 139 days since Hurricane Maria devastated the island.  Without power – powerless. Absence of light – darkness.

It saddens me to know that the people of Puerto Rico who are citizens of the very same United States of America that I call home would feel such a sense of powerlessness in their own country. That we are not supporting them. That they are living in darkness.

Within days of starting in my new position in the department of Clinical Legal Education, Hurricane Maria hit. Professor Kim Diana Connolly had an idea that seemed crazy and completely impossible to achieve: bring a group of students to Puerto Rico to help with the recovery and provide access to justice to people who need it most in the aftermath of a horrible disaster. The idea of the University at Buffalo School of Law Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic was born.

As part of the administrative support team, I did not have time to think about how crazy it was, I just had to get to work. Approvals needed to be gotten, complex paperwork and negotiations had to be completed, donors had to be nurtured and encouraged, students had to be recruited and selected…and the rest of my job responsibilities had to be met!

Fast forward to January 2 and the students who had been selected started class and it was time to make sure that we had everything prepared that they would need when the hit the ground in Puerto Rico. Daily classes for six hours each, coordinating guests and documents and still making arrangements for the trip,… and the rest of my job responsibilities still had to be met!

As I look back at the first few weeks of January, I do not know where all the time went.  It was a whirlwind of working on getting electronics, making reservations for flights, accommodations, meeting space. Then all of the sudden it was January 19 – my last day in the office with Professor Connolly before the group’s departure on January 21.  Business cards printed, polo shirts packed, name badges ready, banners and signage and electronics were ready to go. I felt a sense of pride that the things that I helped to organize and prepare would be just a small part of helping #UBLawResponds and our students drive out some of the darkness. That I was a small part of helping people feel as though they were no longer powerless that they had the tools to begin the process of rebuilding their lives.

We are all just a single candle…. but even just one candle can light up the dark and bring hope. I’m grateful to have had the chance to help our student attorneys and Professor Connolly bring hope, power, and light to Islands inhabited by our fellow citizens. #PuertoRicoselevanta #UBLawRespondsstandswithyou

 

 

 

Moving Beyond “Un Poquito de Español”

04_25_40When I interviewed with Professor Connolly for a position in the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic she asked me if I spoke any Spanish. I could tell it wasn’t a deal-breaker if I didn’t, but I couldn’t imagine UB Law helping people recover from the hurricane without it. I told her excitedly that I had been really working on getting fluent … for the last ten years.

I have always regretted letting my proficiency in the language slide after high school, but also never fully gave up. As a result, I’ve spent the last ten years telling people I speak “un poquito de español,” and encouraging them to use it with me – then missing the punchline to all the best jokes.
When I got to Puerto Rico this time I promised myself I would make the most concerted effort I could to learn, practice, and speak the language while here. Full immersion. And doing so has been the most enriching thing about the experience thus far, because it connects me to the people. It feels like the most meaningful thing I could do, to learn their language, and talk about their struggles with them in it. To drop s’s with them and wish one other good luck.

When we arrived at my first “humanitarian brigade,” (providing supplies like solar lamps to those still recovering from Hurricane Maria) I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had been told we would travel on-foot through the mountains, giving out whatever supplies we could to these communities, who were both hit the hardest by the hurricane and had the least resources to recover. Although we gave out soap and towels, the most important item were the solar lamps – because, unbelievably, almost every one of the houses we visited was still without power.

Where we were in the mountains most people speak only Spanish, and I wanted to try and use the opportunity to practice with people. But it turns out explaining how a solar lamp works is more complicated than ordering bacalaitos! It was a situation that could have scared me off from communicating, but the #UBLawResponds team encouraged me to embrace the opportunity instead and face my fears. Their support propelled me into practicing enough that I could lead a group of students without knowledge of the language provide supplies to residents all on our own.

I’m certain my grammar was not always correct, and I nodded and smiled through some bits I couldn’t quite catch, but ultimately the connection was made. I can’t begin to describe the warmth and compassion I received from these incredibly resilient people. They applauded my attempt where they could have been frustrated, and together we all understood one another a little better. I came to Puerto Rico with #UBLawResponds to try and help people here feel appreciated, and instead I found myself being offered water from someone who hadn’t had running water since María. The breadth of this island’s resiliency and beauty is unbounded. I am forever grateful.

So, go for it! Puerto Rico needs meaningful help from all kinds of people with all kinds of expertise, and even though many of the citizens speak some English, at least trying to speak with them in their language sets a reverent tone unlike anything else.

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A Smile and a Handshake is More Than Enough – My First Client

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The path to understanding the true value of the profession I have chosen perhaps began the day I received my LSAT score. At the time, I thought, how do I best challenge myself now that I have some measure of what I can do and where I can go to pursue a legal career. The challenge itself was what I valued the most at the time. I yearned for the academic rigors, challenging my mind and developing new understandings while I learned the profession. Almost two years have passed and my outlook on the legal profession, and more importantly, on life itself, has changed significantly.

For some, the goal remains to get the best job, which for most might mean the highest salary or a position at the biggest firm in the city. For others, it might mean breaking the barriers and leaving their hometown, heading to New York City maybe, or Washington. Now, I am not trying to judge or demean what is valuable to others. But I believe I now value other things, which within the context of life and humanity, mean to me more than any position, any salary, and any way other way of life. Let me tell you the story of how a smile and a handshake became the greatest measure of success in my legal career so far.

IMG_1291On January 25th, some of my colleagues and I went to Villa Cañona in Loiza, Puerto Rico. We were taking part in a legal brigade, started by one of our local partners, to provide legal service to a community devastated by Hurricane Maria. The goal for us student attorneys was to provide help in any way we could, whether that was interviewing clients, filing an appeal to FEMA, or even being on hold on the phone with FEMA for an hour trying to get a status update for a client. At first, I truly felt helpless in many ways. I talked to some locals and listened to their unfortunate stories. But there was nothing I could do, I was powerless beyond my willingness to lend an ear. That was until the end of our shift, when this gentleman walked in. I’ll call him Mr. Rivera.

Mr. Rivera walked in, looking kind of lost and somewhat helpless. He stood by the entrance looking around until his eyes met mine. I stood up and went over to greet him and ask him how we could help him; as I had done during the whole day. He told me he needed to file a claim with FEMA. Of course, up to that point, we had been filing appeals with FEMA; homeowners that had filed their initial claim and had been denied. But this gentleman had not yet been able to sit in front of a computer, understand the steps he had to take, and file his claim. As had been the process so far, I was ready to refer Mr. Rivera to one of the attorneys. However, once I told them what the man needed, the attorneys felt this was something I could do. Simple, right? Just file a claim.

I sat next to Mr. Rivera, opened my laptop, connected to a wireless hotspot, and proceeded to file his claim. As I asked him questions related to his situation, I had the opportunity to stare him in the eyes. I could almost feel what he felt. We got through it and there was, at that moment, no feeling out of the ordinary. That was until he stood up in front of me, leaned forward, grabbed my hand with both of his, and said “Thank you, young man,” as he let out a pleasant smile. At that moment, some of my colleagues and my professor saw me, and I believe they understood what I had just experienced and what it meant for me. However, for me, someone who is truly not used to exploring his feelings, I have only now, as I write this, just begun to understand what that moment meant for me and for the rest of my career.

The biggest paycheck I will ever receive, the greatest title I will ever have, truly means nothing. Smaller moments of gratitude and humility seem to have a greater impact on my life than anything else. I felt a strong sense of purpose and determination at that moment. Maybe Mr. Rivera will get denied, and someone else will file his appeal. But I was his aid at that moment, someone who was willing to help and be at his side. Since this clinical experience began, I have slowly been learning the true meaning of service; the spiritual concept deeply rooted in our humanity, not just the meaning of the word. However, through that half hour I spent with Mr. Rivera, I saw the outcome of serving; what it means to those I serve. It is not about a selfish sense of gratification, but about putting forth the best version of ourselves, causing a perdurable moment of relief to those who desperately need it. He might never hear about it, but Mr. Rivera may have given me one of the biggest, most humbling, and most important lessons of a career that has yet begun. Thanks to you, Mr. Rivera, a smile and handshake is more than enough.

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Connecting on Common Ground

IMG_20180129_090947_1-01I have connected with so many wonderful people in meaningful ways while I have been in Puerto Rico as a Student Attorney in University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic. Karla Raímundi, our team’s staff attorney for the trip and Puerto Rican native, played an important role in facilitating these interactions and uncovering the common ground Buffalo and Puerto Rico share. These new relationships are not only the foundation for #UBLawResponds in the future, but were also vital to learning about Puerto Rican life.

Karla has always been sensitive to social justice and civil rights issues. So when she completed her Environmental Law LLM at Pace Law School, she knew immediately that she was going to dedicate her professional life to empowering Environmental Justice Communities. During this time, she oversaw four climate justice assessments, an urban forestry initiative, and litigation centered on the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. Lucky for me, she did a lot of this work in my native Hudson Valley. While I was coming of age and learning to love the natural environment, little did I know that I had such a strong advocate working to protect my home. Being from an Environmental Justice community herself, Karla’s obvious passion and moral imperative for climate justice inspired me to do more and go further with my time on the island.

Being in Puerto Rico and focusing on environmental resilience and sustainability, in some ways, feels like returning the favor. Through our humanitarian aid journeys across the island, I have been introduced to Puerto Rico’s stunning natural beauty. In the midst of hiking through the Cayey Mountains in Karla’s grandparents’ hometown, she I shared a moment where we realized our traded places. The teary-eyed smiles we shared validated our appreciation of each other and strengthened our connection.

Connecting through the significance of our work helped highlight the meaning of the other relationships we were building with our time on the island. When actions like giving somebody a towel or just simply listening to somebody willing to tell their story moves them to tears, it is a powerful emotional experience that will forever bind me to this island. The passion exhibited from the activists, students, professors, stakeholders, and officials has not only inspired me to strengthen my connection with Puerto Rico in the future, but has renewed my vigor to defend my own home.

Buffalo and Puerto Rico are more similar than many would believe. They are both plagued by similar issues; large out-migration, loss of manufacturing jobs, financial issues, environmental degradation, and large economic disparities. Buffalo’s “resurgence” lends itself in part to the ingenuity of grassroots organizers and innovative policymakers. Organizations like “People United for Sustainable Housing” in Buffalo, and “Casa Pueblo” in Puerto Rico, carry out similar missions, albeit in different ways, and could potentially share valuable lessons with each other. By building bridges between our two places, we could seize on our collective knowledge working on similar issues to help the other get stronger.

These shared experiences and new relationships will allow #UBLawResponds to grow into a meaningful long term project and to help facilitate that exchange of ideas. Already, the team is coming up with ways to help support those we met back on the island, including the possibility of a fundraiser to replace a hurricane damaged sports pavilion at an elementary school in Arroyo. However, to do so we need more than just innovative ideas. In order to effectively carry out our mission, we ask that you continue to support this project in any way you can. Together, we can strive for better.

The Simple Things In Life: Observations of post-Maria Puerto Rico

10_37_42Four months have passed since hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico and conditions are far less than adequate, but the people are pushing through and doing the best they can with what they’ve been given.  Private companies, organizations, and individuals have stepped up to work with their fellow Americans where the government has failed.  Most of all, the sense of community and perseverance among Puerto Ricans has been extremely touching and motivating.

As a student attorney in the Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic of the University at Buffalo School of Law, I have observed that even in the most rehabilitated areas of San Juan, it is common to find electric poles snapped in half, transformers dangling a few feet from the ground, hundreds of feet of electric cables lining the edges of the roads, homes with tarp roofs, as well as homes with no roof at all that are still inhabited. The majority of traffic lights still do not work at all, many road and highway signs are uprooted and knocked-over, and there are periodic piles of brush and debris on the sides of roads. There are never ending remnants of the destruction Maria wrought and reminders of the abandonment of Puerto Rico.

Our #UBLawResponds law clinic has been going on what we call “humanitarian brigades” in rural towns, where we bring communities necessities such as soap, baby wipes, adult diapers, batteries, bed pads, towels, and solar lamps. So far, it has been one of the most important experiences of my life. People are struggling so hard just to survive. After Maria, thousands of people began leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland and as time has passed, thousands more people followed suit. Some abandoned houses have laundry hanging on the patio along with plants tastefully placed potted plants. Some of the most recently abandoned houses look as if the occupants disappeared mid-day.

This exodus to the mainland has led to tangential problems with serious consequences. Numerous disabled and bed-ridden people have died because their neighbors and caretakers moved to the mainland and no one remained who knew about their condition. On one brigade, we stopped at the house of a bed-ridden individual to give them a box of supplies, but he had died two days before we got there. A neighbor was caring for another elderly bed-ridden individual. When we began giving the caretaker some general supplies, she was very touched … but when we gave her a towel, she began to cry. A towel. A simple $2.88 bath towel from Walmart meant so much to this kind woman that she began to cry.

As difficult as these encounters are, I am thankful for them. I am thankful we are able to help people in significant ways. I am thankful for the reality check and perspective they provide. Most of all, I am thankful I get to see the strength, kindness, resilience, and perseverance of Puerto Ricans.

#PRSeLevanta! If you would like to support the continuing work of #UBLawResponds, please click here.

Fresh Perspectives on Puerto Rico’s Sustainability Why Socio-Technology Might Matter Most

800px-Sustainable_development.svgI have spent nearly a week as on the archipelago that is Puerto Rico as a student attorney with the University at Buffalo School of Law’s Puerto Rico Recovery Assistance Legal Clinic networking and connecting with students, industry leaders, and scholars in the microgrid and sustainable agriculture sectors. In the past two days, I had the distinct pleasure of partaking in back-to-back meetings, first with the Director of the Puerto Rico Resilience Fund and El Departamento De La Comida, non-profit with the goal of opening two-hundred local and sustainable farms in the next 24 months; and the second with the Steering Commissioner of INESI, an organization connecting faculty experts in energy transitions and resiliency throughout the 11 University of Puerto Rico campuses, and further connecting them with international partners.

While the two meetings were vastly different. They were different in structure (the first took place in Professor Kim Diana Connolly’s AirBnB kitchen table, and the second took place in French-style brunch restaurant), and they were radically different in specific content. Yet, both meetings left me with one very similar takeaway. Whether it’s Puerto Rico, Cuba, or Buffalo, before a community can overcome its self-sufficiency issues, a community must undergo a sociological change regarding what environmental access to justice means to it.

It was very interesting to hear all of both sets of meeting participants share one thing I have learned more about in Puerto Rico\ They both focused some of our discussions on the colonial nature of the Islands, and how this theme shapes each of their individual perspectives on how to decolonize.

Healthy food distribution networks and hub models are one goal, especially because food hubs are pliable and can be tailored to the specific needs on a community level, both big and small. According to the Director of the Resilience Fund, the Islands import anywhere from 85% to 98% of all consumed food, and most deaths on the Islands are diet related. Therefore, it naturally follows that the most logical solution to Puerto Rico’s dependency on imported food is the Fund’s creation of sustainable farms, markets, and food distribution networks.

But what does true sovereignty look like and how does Puerto Rico get there? INESI’s Steering Commissioner explained his view that if the social aspects of sustainability become separated from the technological, then renewables can be very harmful when operated by the wrong regime by way of regime-locking methods within infrastructure, colonialism, and systemic inequality. Both groups attest that transparency in renewable solutions and education within communities is critical to Puerto Rico’s ongoing sustainability and decolonialization movement.

Listening to these influential players in their respective sectors and their takes on how to change society’s path towards self-sufficient sustainable practices made me reflect on how Buffalo, NY struggles form its own solutions to similar problems. I am now wondering whether PUSH’s Green Development Zone be a flexible model for a community in Puerto Rico?

If you want to check out the Resilience Fund, INESI, and PUSH, I’ve provided the links here:

Be on the lookout for my next #UBLawResponds post detailing coming developments and possible partnership opportunities with these newly-formed connections on the Islands.