Christine Nieves on Community

After Hurricane Maria decimated the physical and material infrastructure of the island of Puerto Rico, Christine Nieves began to mobilize what could not be destroyed, the community. At TEDMED 2018, Christine shared the importance of community and how she and her team are finding ways to support healing from individual and collective trauma. Watch her Talk, “Why Community is our best chance for survival—a lesson post-Hurricane Maria” and read her blog post below to learn about her new venture, Emerge Puerto Rico (EmergePR) and why she is working to pioneer community-based climate change education and leadership.

Growing up, I didn’t see Puerto Rican figures as examples of leaders, visionaries, or doers that I could call role models. Through the radio, news, neighborhood and social gatherings, I learned that we just weren’t capable of solving our problems, running our island, or frankly, being accountable for anything. “Without America,” I heard repeated over and over again, “we will not have jobs, or food, or funds for public services.” I also learned that nothing good could ever happen in Puerto Rico; so why even try? This idea became an unquestionable truth for me. When I left Puerto Rico for college, I carried a mix of conspicuous pride for being Puertorriqueña and a disdain towards Puerto Rico, my mainland. People in Puerto Rico, I heard around me, were lazy, and just wanted things done easy, and then we had corruption throughout government and corporations making it difficult to be on the island if you were a regular hard-working family. Life for everyone around me was a constant survival struggle. I didn’t feel I had options, so I left the island, and promised to never come back.

Photo Credit: Christine Nieves

Why I returned and how my view of Puerto Rico changed forever is what I go into detail in my talk. And while Hurricane Maria was my catalyst for this chapter, just this summer we had another Hurricane-level event: a historic million people 12-day protest that culminated in our highest-ranking elected official being forced to resign. Just like after Hurricane Maria, this summer the message was crystal clear: we, Puerto Ricans, have been believing a story about ourselves that is not true and when everything collapsed, when our leaders failed us, our true nature emerged. What we accomplished this summer and after Maria is more than a lesson about Puerto Ricans, it is a sobering truth about the greatness waiting on the other side of liberation. Liberation from our own ideas about our history, humanity and what we are capable of.

Volunteer board in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria.
Photo Credit: Ricardo Alcaraz

On Sept 20, 2017, the world changed for me, and for the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans living on the archipelago. Our home was flooded and my husband and I lost almost all of our furniture, clothes, books, technology—we’re still recovering! —but out of this devastation, we decided we needed to do something. And to our surprise, that something would turn into Proyecto de Apoyo Mutuo Mariana (PAM): a fully community-driven disaster response and recovery effort: kitchen, aid distribution, food delivery, arts, culture and recreation activities for kids, and a full transformation towards renewable energy sources, rain-water catchment systems, filters installed in natural water sources through the mountain, even solar-powered Wi-Fi and satellite communication. While in the midst of doing, we spent a lot of time reflecting on this question: How can our community (a so-called marginalized community) support human adaptation to a changing climate?

Now we face a unifying threat for humanity – our changing climate. And because Puerto Rico is an archipelago, our islands are living the future, NOW. Through Emerge Puerto Rico (EmergePR), our new venture, we are ringing a clarion call for harnessing wonder, awe and imagination as the birthplace of powerful community-based adaptations to climate change. In so doing we are moving beyond from fear, shame and guilt, towards the concrete examples that challenge our notions of what so-called marginal communities are capable of.

Puerto Rico, as it turns out, is bursting with audacious endeavors that are getting world-wide acclaim and our role at EmergePR is to make it impossible to ignore initiatives like PAM that every day become stronger all over our islands. When ALL of our attention and energy is placed on the inspiring history-bending and counter-narrative examples of human greatness we can begin to transform our future.

If you haven’t been to Puerto Rico, come see for yourself.