Exploring Sustainable Education and Development Projects in Chihuahua, Mexico

April 22, 2019

Nicole Kennard, a 2017 graduate of Georgia Tech, Fulbright Scholar, and current Ph.D. student at the University of Sheffield, writes about the impact of RCE Greater Atlanta on her studies and her work.  This week, RCE Greater Atlanta and Serve-Learn-Sustain are partnering with the Atlanta Global Studies Center to host the Inaugural Annual Atlanta Global Studies Symposium, April 25 - 27.  Highlighting the need to solve emerging sustainability issues through collaborative approaches, RCE Greater Atlanta will host a track - “Transforming Education and Society through University-Community Partnerships."  The Symposium fosters collaboration among institutions of higher education, the public and the community, and the K-12 sector in the Atlanta region and beyond through education, research, and outreach about global, regional, and international studies and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

The RCE track will engage academia and community partners in conversation on diverse approaches, successes and challenges in implementing the SDGs through research, teaching, service and community development.  The three sessions will bring together scholars and practitioners—including members of regional and global RCEs—with an aim to educate the broader public on the foundations of ESD; share the ways in which RCEs around the world are advancing ESD in their regions; and facilitate partnership within RCE Greater Atlanta and with other RCEs around the world.  Additionally, RCE Greater Atlanta will contribute to poster fair to showcase collaborative projects on sustainability and offer new networking opportunities.  The RCE sessions all take place on April 26th.  If you are unable to attend the Symposium, you can join our sessions via the BlueJeans Collaboration Platform.

From March 22nd  – April 1st, 2019, I had the amazing opportunity to visit 9 different communities spanning over 240 miles in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. I flew from my hometown of Atlanta, GA, USA to Mexico that Friday evening. Upon landing, I awoke to what seemed like the yolk of egg running across the sky -  deep rays of orange and pink streaked across the dry, desert-like mountains of Chihuahua city, Mexico. I was immediately greeted by Professor Carolina Lopez-Caballero, who I had come to visit after meeting her just three months before.

Carolina and I met in Cebu, Philippines, at the 11th global conference of representatives of United Nations Regional Centres of Expertise (RCEs) on Education for Sustainable Development. I was there representing RCE Greater Atlanta (my hometown), and Carolina was representing RCE Borderlands Mexico-USA, which is incorporated under Living Lab / Centre for Dialogue & Transformation, Inc. I had been lucky enough to be funded by UN University and the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain at Georgia Tech (my alma mater) to attend and speak at this conference.

I first became involved with RCE Greater Atlanta as an undergraduate, when working for the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) at Georgia Tech, which spearheaded Atlanta’s RCE application process. I had been President of a student group, Engineers for a Sustainable World, for two years, and through this, I led a hydroponics research group, where we experimented with closed-loop growing methods. I first came to know about SLS after applying for small grant funding for the hydroponics group, to experiment with replacing chemical nutrient solutions with compost tea – thereby using waste resources to grow food. I soon came to realize that my passions – community-based, sustainability research – closely matched those of SLS. My senior year, I was lucky enough to work for the center as a student assistant. I helped manage communication platforms and even put on my own events, such as sustainability design-a-thons and climate change book club discussions. I also helped initiate the RCE Greater Atlanta Youth Network, where youth across the various universities in Atlanta could collaborate in projects and share information about events. In fact, I used this RCE Youth Network to help gather volunteers from several universities in Atlanta to build self-watering raised beds at a local urban farm. Through this experience with the RCE and SLS, I was able to learn a lot about education for sustainable development and asset based community development, which has consequently led me to pursue PhD research focused on using urban agriculture as a method of community food system development.

And so, that is how I ended up in Cebu, Philippines, speaking with Carolina at a breakout session for the Americas region. I was immediately inspired and amazed by her honest work serving communities in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. We shared similar beliefs on development strategies that focus on serving as a resource for communities to ultimately help them achieve their own goals and dreams, instead of pushing academic research priorities on communities in a top-down manner.

Fast forward three months, and I was sitting with Carolina that Friday evening, eating my first-ever real tacos in Mexico, and discussing transformational research strategies. From the moment I landed, we were constantly discussing new project ideas and constantly on the move. On Saturday, I met university students in Chihuahua working on projects to provide resources for the migrant caravan refugees, mainly from the Honduras and El Salvador, who were now stuck in Chihuahua after failing to cross the U.S. border. Many of these refugees lived without electricity in small huts on rock outcroppings surrounding the main city. These university students were also working with the local government to develop a policy framework that would allow the city to better incorporate refugees within the community and increase available infrastructure to support them. I was also able to share with these students about RCE projects in Atlanta, such as the 1st Americas Virtual Youth Conference, in hopes of connecting youth interested in sustainable development projects across the Americas.

After that day, it was a week-long road trip across Chihuahua, the biggest state in Mexico. In Santa Isabel, I visited a sustainable buildings project, which included a house, an educational centre, and a sweat lodge, as well as a rain catchment system, greenhouse, and organic farming area. The architect, Miguel Mayagoitia, had a strong spiritual connection to the Earth and wanted to demonstrate his respect for natural resources through his building projects. Indeed, this seemed like an important way to educate youth and adults about respecting natural resources. Miguel used local earth to form bricks, integrated glass bottles into the housing structure to repurpose waste and to bring in light, and even used local plant material in the ceiling structures. He was also interested in using an aquaponic system (growing fish and plants together) into the water cycling framework for the buildings, using the fish waste to provide nutrients for his farm and plants to clean water to be used for toilets and clothes washing. As this is my area of research, I was able to give practical information on how to implement these types of systems, and we exchanged many ideas. This site was perhaps the most inspirational for me, as I one day hope to develop a sustainable farm and education model site, which will be completely carbon neutral and focus on sustainable buildings and energy, as well as closed-loop cycling connecting water, nutrients, and soil.

In Ejido Favela, I visited another small farm and antique / fossil museum; in Bachíniva, I visited a new library project, focused on expanding student interests in new subjects such as puppetry and storytelling and incorporating body movement into the learning process. Also in Bachíniva, I met the “father” of bio-intensive organic agriculture in Mexico – Gaspar Mayagoitia – who was as much of an inspiration as his son, Miguel. Although he owned 15 hectares of land, he only farmed on a small plot of 40 m2 – just enough space to feed the three people living there. On the rest of the land, which he had acquired as barren, eroded soil 20 years ago, he had replanted native grasses to replenish the soil and to improve water cycling; it took 20 years, but he is now able to provide all the water for his family via groundwater from that land, using a well he drilled 300 feet deep. On his cultivated land, he uses a variety of crop rotation with nitrogen-fixing legumes and composting to feed his soil – even recycling his own human waste back into the ground to produce more nutrients for people once again! Gaspar even had an extensive seed bank of heirloom varieties, and was extremely proud of his vast and colourful collection of maize!

On the move again – this time, visiting Anáhuac, where I stayed with Mother Lolita, a nun who had dedicated her life to advocating for local farmers’ rights. When the free trade agreement was put into effect in 1994, Mexico was flooded with cheap grain from the U.S., pushing many local famers out of business, and therefore opening land for transnational companies to come in. Mother Lolita had helped start a co-op, first out of the church, and now the biggest supermarket in the town, where they focus on buying from local farmers and giving fair prices, enough so that these farmers were able to stay in business. Mother Lolita even recounted stories of walking to Chihuahua city (a 57 mile feat) to protest at the capitol, and even organizing a sit-in at grain silos in Anahuac, where she camped out for months in winter, surrounded by soldiers. She never stopped fighting for the rights of the local farmers and community in the face of international oppression.

Anáhuac was also where I would give my first workshop on social-emotional development, starting my journey as a teacher. I was able to talk with youth about their dreams and values, and emphasize the need for positive self-talk, making decisions based on values, using their strengths to help others, and showing care and empathy for all people. I was extremely touched by their dreams and their kind words for me. One boy even said to me: “You have given me time to think about things which I normally don’t think about. I now have the courage to go for my dreams -  and if I fall, because of you, I have the strength to get back up again.” I gave this workshop 7 more times, in El Molino Namiquipa and in Témoris, and each time I was amazed by the dreams of the students and also their respect and engagement with me.

On my last day, I was brought to the mountain communities of Puerto Chiquito and Guazapares by the state president and the district’s education superintendent. In Puerto Chiquito, I was greeted at the local primary school by the indigenous Rarámuri people, many who had come from many towns over just to welcome us. Children from the school talked of their dreams and their rights to equal education access – something that was obviously lacking between this one-room school in the mountains and the more developed towns of Guazapares and Témoris just miles away. To beautiful music played by hand-crafted violins made from local wood and horse hair, the parents of the schoolchildren performed a traditional Matachines dance that they normally only perform for spiritual occasions - it was a true honor to be given this cultural gift. The governor of the Rarámuri people even came to greet me, and we all shared in food made from corn and cactus grown in the local area. In the community of Guazapares, I was also welcomed at the primary school by schoolchildren, who had organized visual demonstrations and presentations to speak about the local industries in their town – mining, agriculture, gastronomy, and livestock production. I was touched to eat the local food prepared by the children, and I will hold the experience from this day in my heart forever.

Leaving Chihuahua, all I could think about was the warmth and kindness I was welcomed with in each community. I have met many amazing people who I will keep working with to help provide the youth in these areas with more educational opportunities to achieve their dreams. I believe we in Atlanta could learn a lot from the emphasis of RCE Borderlands projects on spiritual, social, and emotional connections. In the face of climate change, it is crucial that more focus is placed on helping youth understand their own emotions and empathize with others. The most vulnerable will be the most affected by climate change, but we need all people to care about this issue. These days, the idea of sustainability has also become so commercialized – about energy savings, cutting resource use, increasing production efficiencies, etc. Being in Chihuahua helped me remember why I care about this buzzword so much. As researchers studying new ways to preserve natural resources and protect our planet, we also need to remember and emphasize emotional arguments of sustainability – focusing on the natural beauty of the world and our own personal connections to the Earth. I hope to return to Chihuahua soon and learn more from the amazing and kind-hearted people of this state.