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.

Massive Science on Christine Nieves

Massive Science is a digital science media publication that brings together scientists and the science-curious public. The team at Massive joined us at TEDMED 2018 and covered talks by various speakers including Christine Nieves. Check out their coverage of Nieves’ TEDMED 2018 Talk below.


As storms become more severe and more frequent, people around the world will need to get better at recovering from disasters. After Hurricane Maria struck in September 2017, for example, Puerto Ricans had to become experts in disaster recovery overnight. One such newly-minted authority is Christine Nieves, who has a vision of apoyo mutuo, or mutual aid.

Nieves left Puerto Rico when she was 18, after spending years feeling trapped on the island. She finished her education at UPenn and Oxford, but while living in the mainland United States, she realized that she didn’t have a sense of community. So she decided to return home, just a few months before Hurricane Maria made landfall.

Nieves remembers telling her mother, “I’m ready! We’re going to be fine”

Nieves now lives in a small, mountainous community in Puerto Rico called Mariana. She wasn’t concerned when she heard that a hurricane was on its way. “We didn’t know what was coming,” she said. Nieves remembers telling her mother, “I’m ready! We’re going to be fine,” — but the storm was much more destructive than expected.

After the worst of the hurricane was over, Nieves and her neighbors were in rough shape: Like most of the island’s towns and cities, there was no electricity, no running water, and no cell phone service. People in Mariana knew that because of their isolated location, it would take days for government aid to reach them, so they took matters into their own hands.

Image by erikawg from Pixabay

Nieves and her partner decided to start a community kitchen. They got permission to use an industrial kitchen space. Finding food and cooks was a little bit harder than they anticipated, at least at first. Immediately after the hurricane, it was difficult or impossible to call anyone, so they had to go door to door to contact people. “When everything collapsed, there was a different system left,” Nieves said. That effort made Nieves realize how reliant they had been on phones and the internet. “We need to really strengthen and understand how our infrastructure is fragile. But at the same time, we need to create systems that are not fragile, and not tech-related,” Nieves said.

She asked people, “What do you love to do? Do you want to come and join us?” Nieves ended up with a small team of local residents who had been hit hard by the storm, but still wanted to help. People contributed whatever they could, from beans to vegetables to bags of rice. Young people brought hot food to elderly neighbors. By the end of the week, the community kitchen was feeding 300 people every day. Even more importantly, everyone had a job to do.

Community-based mutual support is totally different from how disaster recovery is usually approached.

In some ways, this may sound like an idealistic community of preppers. But instead of an individual person building up a cache of canned food and guns so they can hole up and wait out a disaster, Nieves says that mutual support brings communities together.

Community-based mutual support is totally different from how disaster recovery is usually approached. In many places, including parts of Puerto Rico, disaster survivors eat government-provided MREs (Meals, Ready to Eat) and wait in long lines to receive water or charge their phone. That’s not to say they don’t want to do anything, but sometimes all there is to do is wait.

In Nieves’ model, mutual aid allows community members play an active role in the survival and rebuilding process. It’s not a new concept, but it’s one that was necessary in Mariana: Government officials didn’t reach Nieves’ community until 12 days after the storm subsided.

Nieves pointed out that once help arrived, there was an additional layer of complication: many of her neighbors don’t read English, so they were unable to understand the directions on the MREs that were distributed. They ended up eating them cold or without knowing what they contained.

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash

So, even after some aid started coming in, the community kitchen continued. “Being able to eat something vibrant that was cooked with love transmits hope. We saw the difference between big operations that were giving you just enough food so that you wouldn’t die, and the abuelas [grandmothers] who were going to give you a big plate so that you would be full and nourished for the whole day, with a smile.”

Mariana spent nine months without electricity from the grid, and six without water. Even now, it isn’t back to anything resembling normal. “There are a lot of blackouts, so there is a constant state of not knowing if you’re going to need gas for your generator. You don’t know if your food is going to rot. If you depend on electricity for oxygen, dialysis, anything … good luck,” Nieves told me.

Still, Nieves has hope that the lessons her community learned after Maria will help other towns in the future. “We believe that this is a model, or at least a series of ingredients, that every community needs to have if they’re going to survive,” she told me. “Communities are our best chance at adapting. Together we might be able to create more.”

If you’d like to support mutual aid in Puerto Rico, you can make a donation here and read more about Nieves’ work here.


About the author: Gabriela Serrato Marks is a PhD candidate in marine geology at MIT. She uses stalagmites to create past climate records that provide context for future climate change.

Gaining Wisdom in the Family, Workplace, Community, and Society

By guest contributor and TEDMED speaker, Dilip V. Jeste, MD.

Wisdom is a complex human trait. It includes several components: 1) ability to make appropriate social decisions, 2) overall happiness coupled with control over emotions, 3) helping others through compassion and altruism, 4) self-knowledge and ability to reflect, 5) humility to know the limits of one’s knowledge, and 6) decisiveness when needed. I believe there is an evolutionary purpose to wisdom – it enhances individual well-being along with one’s usefulness to society. Wisdom includes much more than intelligence – that is why wise people are typically intelligent, but not all intelligent people are wise!

The basic concept of wisdom is similar across the globe and has been essentially unchanged over the known history of human behavior. However, there are some cultural differences. For example, spirituality would be considered an essential component of wisdom in some cultures, but not in others. Aging is associated with increased wisdom. As I mention in my TEDMED talk, wisdom likely compensates for the loss of fertility and of physical health that accompanies aging, and allows wise grandparents to transfer their life knowledge to younger generations.

Aging is associated with increased wisdom. (Image: Shutterstock.)
Aging is associated with increased wisdom. (Image: Shutterstock.)

How do these concepts of individual wisdom apply to the wisdom of larger groups such as a family, workplace, sports team, community, or society? A large majority of the members of a wise group would have high levels of wisdom; however, it is not necessary for all members of the group to be particularly wise. Indeed, it is more useful to have diversity in multiple forms including some individuals with varied levels of wisdom. A critical necessity is having wise leadership. Openness to new experience is an essential criterion for group wisdom, but not necessarily for individual wisdom.

A wise workplace will be productive and creative, but will also be happy. Businesses that focus solely on sales or profits would not be considered wise if they require constant or unhealthy competition among their members. Similarly, a collegiate sports team that seeks to win at all costs rather than to ensure high graduation rates and a milieu of collaboration, cooperation, and empathy toward less gifted competitors, is not a wise team, regardless of the number of championships it wins. The trick is in balancing a drive for excellence and hard work, with grace in defeat and magnanimity in victories.

How can wisdom be fostered in such groups? An important means would be through behavioral strategies. Wise parents seek to raise their children to be better decision makers, less impulsive, and with more control over their emotions, more caring of their siblings and friends, while avoiding egotism or ambivalence, and promoting self-reflection. Successful parents do not rely only on teaching their children to embrace these values; they also act as role models of such behaviors by reinforcing positive behaviors and not rewarding untoward ones.

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other therapists and counselors seek to modify the high-risk behavior of persons with mental illnesses, such as delusions, aggression, or suicidal depression, with cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). The focus of CBT is on 3c’sCatch the untoward behavior, Check that it is unhelpful, and then Change it to helpful behavior. The same principles can be applied to replace unwise behavior with wise behavior at workplace, on sports teams, and in various businesses. While employees who sell the largest volume of products can be rewarded, so too should be rewarded the people who help develop a collegial milieu which increases other workers’ level of happiness leading to greater overall productivity. For example, in basketball, they would reward players with the most assists along with those who scored the most points.

The responsibility for making a group wise lies primarily with its leadership, which then makes sure that the culture promoting wisdom trickles down the chain of command, and reaches the workers on the lowest rung. Ultimately, promoting group wisdom is not merely a nice thing to do– it is a smart thing to do!

 



Dilip Jeste

 

In his TEDMED talk, geriatric psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dilip V. Jeste reveals how our brains compensate for physical aging, and discusses an unexpected evolutionary advantage to growing old–gaining sage wisdom–which holds great promise to benefit society as a whole. Watch Dilip’s talk here.

References:

Jeste DV and Vahia I: Comparison of the conceptualization of wisdom in ancient Indian literature with modern views: Focus on the Bhagavad Gita. Psychiatry 71:197-209, 2008.

Meeks TW and Jeste DV: Neurobiology of wisdom: An overview. Archives of General Psychiatry 66:355-365, 2009.

Jeste DV and Harris JC: Commentary: Wisdom – A neuroscience perspective. Journal of the American Medical Association 304:1602-1603, 2010.

Jeste DV, Ardelt M, Blazer D, Kraemer HC, Vaillant G, and Meeks T: Expert consensus on the characteristics of wisdom: A Delphi Method study. Gerontologist 50:668-680, 2010.
Bangen KJ, Meeks TW and Jeste DV. Defining and assessing wisdom: A review of the literature. American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry 21:1254-1266, 2013.

Jeste DV and Oswald AJ. Individual and societal wisdom: Explaining the paradox of aging and well-being. Psychiatry 77:317-330, 2014.

Thomas ML, Bangen KJ, Ardelt M, Jeste DV. Development of a 12-item abbreviated three-dimensional wisdom scale (3D-WS-12): Item selection and psychometric properties. Assessment 24, 2015.

Meeks TW, Cahn R, and Jeste DV: Neurobiological foundations of wisdom. In Siegel R, Germer C (eds.): Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. New York, NY: Guilford Press. pp. 189-202, March 7, 2012.

Sanders JD, Meeks TW and Jeste DV: Neurobiological basis of personal wisdom. In Ferrari M, Westrate MN (eds.): The Scientific Study of Personal Wisdom. New York, NY: Springer. pp. 99-114, 2013.

Indigenous economic health: Q&A with Rebecca Adamson

On the TEDMED 2014 stage, Indigenous economist Rebecca Adamson, founder of the First Nations Development Institute and First Peoples Worldwide and a globally recognized advocate for the rights of Indigenous Peoples, shares how culturally appropriate, values-driven, sustainable development based on indigenous principles contributes to a new concept of health. We caught up with her to learn more.

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

Understanding health as an emergent property, and seeing the individual’s health as merely a part of society’s collective health, aligns closely with the holistic approach found within Indigenous Peoples’ worldview. This understanding provided me a natural bridge to make the case that the old medical paradigm that has operated until now with a single, limited, linear worldview needed rethinking. I wanted to show how much the Indigenous worldview has been literally and figuratively handcuffed and prohibited from use. Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t solve a problem with the same conscience that created it.”  I wanted to present how culturally diverse perspectives, especially Indigenous perspectives that emphasize the health of the community rather than the health of the individual, are compelling and relevant technologies for today.

Medical science has determined that healthy individuals emerge from a healthy relationship with a healthy society in a healthy ecosystem. This means that the distribution and delivery of healthcare must meet the needs of the whole society, not merely a part of it. For me, this is a game-changer. As a Cherokee Economist, with a lifetime invested in Indigenous development, my experience with western models has been that they focus on accumulation with little attention to distribution. One of the most crucial aspects of the emergent property of health is that well-being is achieved collectively, meaning that the distribution and delivery of our healthcare actually determines the efficacy of our medical system, our individual health, and the well-being of our society. I believe the Indigenous paradigm lends a new perspective in rethinking healthcare and the medical profession.

Rebecca Adamson at TEDMED 2014
“One of the most crucial aspects of the emergent property of health is that well-being is achieved collectively, meaning that the distribution and delivery of our healthcare actually determines the efficacy of our medical system, our individual health, and the well-being of our society.” Rebecca Adamson at TEDMED 2014

Why does this talk matter now?

Indigenous Peoples are still being handcuffed, figuratively and literally. We are being arrested, shot at and killed for our natural resources. This is going on at the same time that many of our sciences (not just medical) are uncovering the interconnectivity of life – all Life. Holistic worldviews are not exclusive to Indigenous Peoples but the millennia of empirical data on how societies can organize politically, socially and economically for sustainability is being lost. Right now there is an overemphasis on the technological and financial aspects of our society. As medical practitioners, you can really see it in the healthcare system. For example, if we know that health is an emergent property then why is so little or no attention given to the distribution and delivery of healthcare for all – not merely a portion – of society? Sure, we need technology and sure, we need to pay for it – but I wanted to challenge my audience to consider a new way of thinking about healthcare and medicine, one that encompasses society as a whole. Remember the distribution of the whale hunt in an Inuit village, compared to the distribution of cash in the same village? Could you imagine our society if healthcare were to be distributed with the same sophistication as the Inuit whale harvest?  However, if we were to map the distribution of healthcare services in our society today, I fear that it would follow the pattern of hierarchical cash distribution, as opposed to holistic asset or resource distribution, where everyone is accounted for.

The efficacy of traditional medicines is just one part of what Indigenous Peoples can offer the field of medicine. Because the Indigenous worldview is holistic, Indigenous Peoples are brilliant systems thinkers. Indigenous systems leverage and account for the inter- and inner-connections between individuals, community, society and even the ecosystem. Today, we are at a critical point of opportunity where changing the distribution of healthcare is imperative for changing the health and wellbeing of our society. An Indigenous paradigm that values the interconnectedness and interdependence of society can serve as a crucial guide in shifting emphasis from financial gain to collective well-being in the medical field.

What impact do you hope the talk will have?

Our healthcare system today is riddled with problems, that I see stemming from an exaggerated focus on the individual and neglect of the collective wellbeing. I hope my talk will lead TEDMED to focus on the importance of access, distribution and healthcare delivery with the same attention that it dedicates to technology, data and finance. The answers lie in alternative ways of understanding healthcare and medicine. TEDMED has a commitment to diversity that it demonstrated in this incredible gathering of experts, both in speakers and in the audience. I challenge you all to do more. Take the mental handcuffs off. Challenge paradigms that prevent diverse voices and perspectives, as they are the only way we are going to solve the complex issues facing us today. An Indigenous way of thought accounts for the collective – an individual is just one part of a community, just as a plant is one piece of an ecosystem. In the Indigenous paradigm, the health of the individual is dependent on the health of the community. I hope my talk inspires those in medicine to begin rethinking how they approach health care, and to begin considering how our current system can reach society as a whole rather than merely a part.

Please share anything else you wish you could have included in your talk.

Ultimately, I wanted to leave the audience with this question: what do Indigenous Peoples have to share with TEDMED? Remember the distribution of the whale hunt – isn’t that, at its very best, the kind of distribution you would wish for today’s health delivery system? Can you imagine the preventative savings in a health system that reaches everyone? In a society where everyone is someone else’s mother, father, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, cousin… It is the entire society, not merely a part of it, that must survive.

What are some actions viewers can take in support of this cause?

In my talk, I challenged the audience to begin thinking about healthcare from an Indigenous perspective. Now, I challenge them to start working from that perspective – begin exploring how to make healthcare delivery reach the furthermost places in our society; how to begin emphasizing the health of the community over the health of the individual; and how to distribute medicine and healthcare so that it resembles the whale distribution map, and not the cash distribution map. I challenge medical professionals to imagine a society of collective prosperity and health, and to begin a collective discussion on how to achieve that dream.