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.

Creating sustainable, delicious meat alternatives

By guest contributor and TEDMED 2015 Speaker Patrick O. Brown, MD, PhD of TEDMED Hive Organization, Impossible Foods

The horse was a brilliant transportation technology until we developed the automobile. The typewriter was a wonder in its time until we invented the personal computer. The carrier pigeon was the state-of-the art in mobile communication, until radio communication was invented. Now it’s the cow’s turn to be replaced by better technology.

Cows, and the other animals we cultivate for food, have, for millennia, been our state-of-the-art technology for turning plants into meat. But we need to do better, and we can.

Cattle Farm - An inefficient source of meatAccording to a recent estimate by the International Livestock Research Institute, 45% of Earth’s dry land — a land area greater than North and South America, Australia and Europe combined — is currently being used to support livestock production. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, animal farming uses and pollutes more water than any other industry and generates as much greenhouse gas emissions as the entire global transportation system. And it is the major driver of deforestation and an unprecedented collapse of wildlife populations around the world.

The world is on a headlong quest to produce ever-greater quantities of meat in the belief that we need a growing supply to feed the world. We don’t. The plant crops harvested in 2015 contained more than enough of every essential nutrient to meet the nutritional needs not only of our current population but the 9 billion people who will share the planet in 2050.

Yet people love, and demand, meat; it is both unfair and unrealistic to ask people to change the diets they love. Fortunately, the problem isn’t that people love meat – it’s how we produce it. And that’s a solvable problem.

We simply need to replace the inefficient, unsustainable animal-based technology we’ve used for thousands of years with a better, more efficient and more sustainable way to transform plants into the meat and dairy foods the world loves.

Five years ago, I founded Impossible Foods, assembling a mission-driven and supremely talented research & development team to take on this challenge. They’ve been developing the know-how and inventing technology for transforming simple nutrients from plants into uncompromisingly delicious, nutritious, affordable and sustainable meats and dairy foods. Our first product, the Impossible Burger, will be available to consumers this summer.

A lifecycle analysis shows that producing an Impossible Burger requires less than 1/12th the land and 1/9th the water and emits only a quarter of the greenhouse gasses, compared to producing the same meat from a cow.

The cow is not getting any better at turning plants into meat and it never will. But with an entirely new approach, we are getting better at it every day, and we’ll keep getting better. And we won’t stop until we’ve made all the foods we currently get from animals — chicken, fish, milk, eggs — directly from plants.

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Pat Brown of Impossible FoodsIn his TEDMED 2015 talk, renowned geneticist and founder of Impossible Foods Pat Brown explains how he uses biochemistry to trick plants into producing the same protein as meat – all while tasting just as delicious – in his quest to eliminate the need for animal harvesting.