Citizen Journalism Empowers Local Activists in Puerto Rico

Citizen Journalism Empowers Local Activists in Puerto Rico

On Presidents Day, a circle of women and neighbors came together to learn how to build community resilience through citizen journalism. Citizen journalism, as the name suggests, is a movement to empower people to report, responsibly and accurately, on local stories that are overlooked by government and larger media organizations. 

Atma Connect’s training focuses on how citizen journalists can use AtmaGo to bring attention to local problems, build social cohesion, and improve disaster resilience. And after the terrible blows that this island has taken, we need that resilience more than ever.

Participants in Atma Connect's first Citizen Journalism workshop held in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

With that as the setting, the workshop, held in Arecibo, met for three hours of instruction and discussion. Attendees learned about best practices in digital reporting, ethics of journalism, and how to amplify their community’s voice with AtmaGo, which was launched just a few months ago in Puerto Rico.

Atma’s Citizen Journalism Workshops always ask attendees to get out and make a post — and our first class in Puerto Rico generated some fascinating stories and posts. 

One participant wrote about an illegal dump site located near her home and the frustrations her community has with it — and she also highlighted that residents of her condominium and neighbors are organizing to place a community garden on the illegal dump site. She used AtmaGo to amplify her message that she wants “to transform the space into a place where neighbors can harvest health, hope and peace.” 

Another participant featured a recurring environmental awareness event in her community which highlights the diverse ecosystems within the community. The goal of the event is to educate the public and instill responsibility for caring for these spaces. She used AtmaGo to share her message that she wants each resident to feel “a sense of ownership of these ecosystems to ensure their commitment to conserving them.”

We are looking forward to bringing more communities together through these citizen journalism and community resilience workshops to showcase the powerful resilience work happening on the ground. The citizen journalists from this first workshop will create additional events in their community and share their initiatives on AtmaGo — we look forward to seeing their work make an impact.

Celebrating Leaders, Some Who We Lost Too Soon, and Some Who Remain Unsung

Celebrating Leaders, Some Who We Lost Too Soon, and Some Who Remain Unsung

This week the untimely passing of the incomparable Leilah Janah hit me hard. She was a rockstar in the world of social entrepreneurs, committed to ensuring that there were opportunities available for everyone to rise out of poverty. 

I first met Leilah at a friend’s holiday party, and she walked in like a glamorous royal guest, while being able to connect with everyone in the room.

I was drawn to her because Janah’s core belief is one I share: while talent is equally distributed around the world, opportunity is not. She spent her life and career creating companies and organizations that provide opportunities for work instead of charity.

Why did her untimely death hit me so hard? I wanted to see how many more incredible initiatives she would give birth to. The world needs more committed passionate visionaries like her, not less. And, I think it is part of the kinship I feel toward many social entrepreneurs. 

Being a social entrepreneur is a long and sometimes lonely journey, and I’ve often looked to people like Janah for inspiration and practical guidance. Those who have ridden the highs and weathered the lows, and who have built something that has, against all odds, succeeded in making the world more equitable and just.

I want to celebrate those world renowned social entrepreneurs who left the world too soon, and who have been an inspiration to me:

By giving work instead of charity, Leilah Janah transformed development. She created numerous companies and organizations including Samasource, Samaschool, and LXMI beauty products, and had just closed $15M in investment to grow her impact.

James Le Mesurier, who passed away in November 2019, founded and led Mayday Rescue Foundation, the organization that originated the Syrian White Helmet volunteer teams who were trained in search and rescue for conflict affected areas. 

And, Priya Haji, who Van Jones called “the best social entrepreneur of our generation,” died in 2014. She started numerous social enterprises including SaveUp and World of Good. A favorite phrase of Haji’s:  “Dream a solution the size of the problem you’re addressing.”

We should continue celebrating and carrying on the incredible work of Leilah, James and Priya — And, I also want to celebrate the many millions of unsung heroes. The everyday heroes who live in communities around the world — heroes who, with limited resources, develop brilliant ideas that make their communities better. It is their stories of grit and determination in the face of mountains of trash, or unresponsive bureaucracies, or disaster that are the stories of AtmaGo users, and are equally worthy of celebration. Like Erlina, who spread solutions to plastic waste in her community to hundreds of others. And, Joko, who uses AtmaGo to both organize garbage clean-ups and his disaster rescue team.

These everyday heroes give me hope in thinking about the impact of Leilah’s life. My first impression of Leilah is how she will remain etched in my memory — a spark who graced the world with her vision and passion, and whose work will live on forever.

Sincerely,

Meena Palaniappan
CEO and Founder, Atma Connect

Update on 2020 Flood in the Greater Jakarta Area

Update on 2020 Flood in the Greater Jakarta Area

Dear Atma Community,

My belongings were destroyed during the flooding that struck Jakarta on the first day of the new year. This has been some of the worst flooding we’ve seen, and has been devastating for local residents and for the Atma Connect team in the area. Heavy rains struck and continued to flood over 308 villages over 15 hours, mainly in the Greater Jakarta Area, West Java, and Banten Provinces. Based on data from the National Disaster Management Agency, the floods submerged 308 villages, with water levels of up to six meters, and claimed the lives of 66 people. Over 92,000 people were displaced and evacuated to 189 shelters. The floods also affected public infrastructure and public service buildings such as schools, bridges, and traditional markets, as you can see through posts on AtmaGo

I don’t only want to update you on the crisis the floods have caused, I also want to lift up the direct impact that AtmaGo is having to help people prepare and recover. Through the mobile app, people received critical early warnings about the flooding. AtmaGo delivered over 200 alerts on the floods that reached over 30,000 residents in 74 districts. In over 100 user generated posts during this period, AtmaGo users were helping one another by sharing real time updates, warning each other about damaged infrastructure and flooded areas, sharing preparedness information, and communicating the location of aid and shelters. People used AtmaGo to ask for help, warn others, and seek moral support.

“Our neighborhood usually floods every year, so we got used to it. But this year it was so big, we never experienced anything like this before,” said Muhammad Jaenudin, an AtmaGo user in East Jakarta. His neighborhood was severely affected by the flood, and is working to secure clothing, food, medical supplies and also inflatable vests, to prepare for additional flooding that could occur during this year’s rainy season, which has just begun. 

He posted photos of the flooding on AtmaGo. You can see through the photos that the water height reached 4.42 feet. The flood had a strong current which made it dangerous for those who attempted to walk through the water. For safety reasons, the power company turned off the grids in flood-affected areas starting at 7 am on Jan 1. Most of Muhammad’s neighbors had evacuated to safer places, but all were affected. 

The Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), one of Atma’s partners, is using AtmaGo to share their flooding response efforts. They dropped aid supplies and evacuated victims in Lebak, Banten and Sukajaya, Bogor (both locations in West Java Province) using a helicopter because that was the only way they could reach the area. PMI also provided ambulance services and set up communal kitchens to help flood victims in other areas.

Since the flood, the Jakarta Provincial Government and local communities are working together to clean up mud, garbage, and debris. So far communal cleanups have taken place in 390 villages, involving 800 civil servants and 12,000 sanitation workers. In addition, 1,400 garbage trucks, 20 heavy equipment vehicles, 50 road sweepers, and 100 pick-up trucks were also deployed to support the effort. Similar activities also took place in areas such as Lebak, Tangerang, and Bekasi. These post-disaster activities are ongoing because the floods have caused other issues such as excessive garbage and debris, damaged public facilities and infrastructure, as well as public health issues like diarrhea, typhoid, dengue, and skin and respiratory infections.

Atma is on the ground, connecting residents, sponsoring recovery activities, and building resilience. Thank you again for your support in building neighbor to neighbor resilience in the most vulnerable communities – we could not do this without you.

Sincerely,

Alfan Kasdar

Indonesia Field Director, Atma Connect

P.S. Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to find out more about our work on the flooding in Jakarta and the disaster in Puerto Rico. If you’d like, donate to support this work. Thank you again.

Puerto Rico Update on 2020 Earthquakes

Puerto Rico Update on 2020 Earthquakes

Dear Atma Community,

I wanted to give you an update on what is happening in Puerto Rico right now, since the earthquakes that left the entirety of the island without power. We want to thank you so much for your support of Atma. Puerto Rico is an island that remains unprepared for disaster, and there is a tremendous need to build more resilience. 

Since the earthquake I had to travel from where I live on the outskirts of San Juan to my father’s place where there is a generator. When I talk to people on the street, they say that this event is reminiscent to the period after Hurricane María. Many communities are anxiously waiting for the return of light and some communities are even without water. 

The governor of Puerto Rico, Wanda Vázquez, declared a state of emergency on the island amidst the earthquakes which collapsed the fragile electric utility and left the entire island without power, killing one person, and affecting infrastructure in several communities in the southern portion of the island. 

Both quakes were felt in the San Juan metropolitan area. Residents awoke for the second, bigger quake at 4:24AM on January 7th, a 6.4 magnitude tremor which took out the electricity for the whole island. I quickly sprang out of bed, picked up my daughter, and ran for the door. Many friends who live closer to the epicenter have shared that they are sleeping outside out of fear that their house will collapse like so many already have. Public offices have suspended services and few businesses with generators have opened to provide services to the public. 

The day carried on and there was no news from the power utility company except for the occasional tweet to inform they were inspecting power plants and that they hoped to soon have electricity up and running. Longer and longer lines started to form at gas stations by people trying to get  fuel to power their generators, to keep their groceries from spoiling in the fridge, and to power fans to get some relief from the heat. In my household, I  already emptied out my fridge, tossed refrigerated goods that I have nowhere to keep into the trash – knowing that power is not going to be restored before Friday, and trying to avoid a mold problem. In the early evening, a press conference was held by the governor and the electric utility’s CEO to announce that two of the power plants that provide electricity to 67% of the demand in Puerto Rico had suffered significant damages. They informed the public that soon they would have energy restored to 70-80% of the island residents but with no guarantee of a date or time.

It is estimated that around 750 people have sought refuge at different shelters set up throughout the southern municipalities on the island, but this number is grossly underestimated. A shelter in Yauco, a municipality in the southwestern portion of the island, is reporting that 1,500 people have sought refuge. 

In January, we plan to work with youth in communities using citizen journalism to survey community members and identify the most vulnerable people. This FEMA trained youth corps will be using AtmaGo to document their experience of surveying the community, highlight essential resources within the community, and build social connectedness. We look forward to keeping you updated on our work.

Thank you again for your support, together we are building neighbor to neighbor resilience in the most vulnerable communities. 

Sincerely,

Natasha Mevs-Korff
Operations and Program Associate, Puerto Rico
Atma Connect 

P.S. Follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook to find out more about our work on the disaster in Puerto Rico and on the flooding in Jakarta. If you’d like, donate to support this work. Thanks again.

AtmaGo Builds Partnerships Towards Community-Based Resilience in Puerto Rico

AtmaGo Builds Partnerships Towards Community-Based Resilience in Puerto Rico

We have been working to prepare AtmaGo and our partnerships to bring AtmaGo to Puerto Rico this year. Our Partnerships Coordinator, Natasha, originally from Puerto Rico, has moved back to the island and has been introducing AtmaGo to community based organizations working on resilience and recovery. 

Puerto Ricans are still trying to recover and rebuild from the devastating effects of Hurricane Irma and María and the impact of a 12 year economic recession. The island has been hit hard by the exodus of its professional working class and the young population, looking for stability and work opportunities in the continental United States. The federally appointed fiscal control board is moving forward with austerity measures, cutting government pensions, severely cutting the University of Puerto Rico’s funding by $541 million in the next 5 years, closing 307 public schools across the island, and approving an increase in the cost of electricity. 

 AtmaGo has the potential to alleviate these hardships by providing a platform where residents can share solutions and resources, and organize, implement, and amplify community-led efforts. Our approach builds local social networks in the most vulnerable communities, and strengthens their resilience to acute shocks and chronic challenges. Our focus in Puerto Rico, like in Indonesia, will be to provide a platform that allows for the sharing of critical information and solutions to chronic local problems. AtmaGo will focus on building local economic empowerment, amplifying the voices of women, and providing a digital platform where vulnerable communities can be seen by governments and institutions.

Deepening local connections via Human Centered Design Interviews 

Natasha checked in with Jesús, a public school teacher whom we interviewed back in 2018 when we partnered with Mercy Corps to conduct Human Centered Design interviews to identify the needs and opportunities of local residents. Jesús shared that not a lot had changed since we last spoke. In April, The New York Times published a piece covering the failed recovery effort and the lack of funding for disaster relief legislation, echoing what Jesus was witnessing in his municipality of Naguabo on the eastern side of the island. He also shared that he will be greatly impacted by the cutting of government pensions, increasing his already precarious living situation despite having worked for the public school system for 24 years. “One month you pay the car and utilities, the next month you have enough to cover the mortgage.”

He concluded that the community itself needs to play an important role in social services’ programs. He thinks AtmaGo could serve the role of reinvigorating communities and supporting the organizing efforts already taking place around the island. In this same spirit, Jesús will be running for mayor of Naguabo in the upcoming elections — we find his commitment to his community inspiring! Meanwhile, we will be building connections with local governments all over the island, including Mayors’ offices, to increase the adoption and use of AtmaGo to improve communication between governments and local residents. 

Partnering with Community Organizations to Amplify Solutions

Natasha also met with several organizations working on community resilience, disaster recovery, psychosocial support, women’s health, and gender violence prevention. AtmaGo will help to amplify the voices of these organizations and create an avenue for them to communicate with their neighbors and build community. Universally, these local organizations reported that they have trouble communicating their work and the services they offer to community members. AtmaGo has offered to bridge this gap with our hyperlocal platform that crowd-sources user generated content, that will connect people to resources in their immediate area.

We traveled to Adjuntas, a small, mountainous town in the center of PR to meet with Casa Pueblo. They have been serving and organizing the community of Adjuntas and Puerto Rico for almost 40 years. Their work centers around environmental education, conservation, and now accessibility to renewable energy technology. Immediately after the passing of Hurricane María, Casa Pueblo distributed solar powered lights and refrigerators to households in Adjuntas. The organization is now running an island wide campaign to reinvest in solar micro grid networks to create access to clean and reliable energy sources for communities around the island.

We also met with Taller Salud, a nonprofit that was awarded the 2019 Richard C. Holbrooke Award for their service immediately after the passing of Hurricanes Irma & María. Their work centers on improving women’s access to health care and reducing violence in the communities they serve through education and community economic development. Taller Salud was key to the recovery and aid distribution efforts in the municipality of Loiza, a historically marginalized community that was hard hit after both hurricanes Irma & María.

Atma Connect has been invited to co-work out of the Americares office, along with other organizations like NetHope, Internews, and All Hands and Hearts. Building these relationships with other community-based organizations has created a network of organizations that will help bring AtmaGo into various communities in Puerto Rico to solve critical communication, social connectedness, resilience, and community building needs. These meetings have also informed us of the range of challenges that AtmaGo can help address. We are looking forward to launching in Puerto Rico with a detailed understanding of what other organizations are doing so we can coordinate effectively and extend our impact. 

Outlook for AtmaGo in Puerto Rico

All of the organizations we met with were excited about AtmaGo as a communication tool that serves for organizing, educating, and creating social cohesion. We are thrilled to bring AtmaGo to vulnerable regions and people in the United States, and expand the life saving impact of AtmaGo to communities in Puerto Rico! 

Thank you again for your dedication to our mission of empowering people to improve their communities from the ground up!

Sincerely,

Natasha Mevs-Korff

PS: Amplify Atma’s efforts building resilient communities and empowering the most vulnerable in Puerto Rico by donating!

Announcing our first Vice President of Growth & Impact – Zev Lowe

Announcing our first Vice President of Growth & Impact – Zev Lowe

We are excited to announce that Atma Connect has hired Zev Lowe as our first Vice President of Growth & Impact. This newly-created role will oversee Atma Connect’s cross-functional growth team, and will lead our field team in Indonesia, with the goal of connecting more people through AtmaGo, our award-winning app, so they can receive disaster alerts, report disaster-related issues, post local problems, learn about job opportunities, and share news and resources.

Zev Lowe brings over 12 years of leadership experience to Atma Connect. He was recently on the founding team of Worldreader, a FastCompany “most innovative” global technology nonprofit serving over 10M people. As a member of Worldreader’s Global Leadership Team, Mr. Lowe developed innovative models and partnerships that harnessed technology to address the lack of reading materials in the Global South.

Mr. Lowe has lived and worked extensively in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, he served as a Fellow with the microfinance nonprofit Kiva.org, and he also worked in the private sector in the software industry in Malaysia. He holds an MBA from ESADE Business School and an undergraduate degree in Computer Science and Anthropology from Dartmouth College. In addition to English, he also speaks Bahasa Indonesia and Spanish.

“Atma Connect is privileged to have connected 1 million people, allowing them to share information, help each other, create better lives, and prepare for and recover from natural disasters” said Meena Palaniappan, Atma Connect’s Founder & CEO. “With Zev on board, we’re looking forward to expanding our impact in Indonesia, as well as in other key geographies around the world.”

“Communities with good social networks bounce back more quickly from adversity,” said Mr. Lowe. “It is a privilege to join Atma Connect in harnessing technology to empower people, strengthen social ties, and develop resilience. I’m excited to help advance Atma Connect’s vision of building the power of people helping people in vulnerable communities around the world.”

Zev Lowe joins Atma Connect’s headquarters in the San Francisco Bay Area. He can be reached at zev[at]atmaconnect[dot]org.