Method To The Madness


Leila Salazar-Lopez

Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:01] This is Method to the Madness, a bi-weekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area Innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, our first show of 2020 will feature Layla Salazar-Lopez, the executive director of Amazon Watch. Most people know what Amazon Watch is, but for some people who may not know, can you review the mission?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:00:31] Sure. Thanks for having me. Amazon Watch is a Bay Area based nonprofit organization. We were founded in 1996. Our mission is to protect the Amazon rainforest and advance the rights of indigenous peoples throughout the Amazon basin. The Amazon rainforest is the biggest tropical rainforest on the planet. Most people know and think of the Amazon as the lungs of the earth. All those trees, all of that life, absorbing carbon and producing rain for not just the Amazon, but for the world. This massive rainforest, an ecosystem, actually helps to create the weather systems throughout South America and also around the world. So it is a vital organ of the earth's ecosystem. And so we're working to protect the rainforest to avert climate chaos. And our theory of change is that the best way to do that is by working with, standing with, supporting the rights and the voices in the territories of indigenous peoples.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:44] And is that because they live there, they are on the front lines of i?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:01:48] Of course! indigenous peoples have been living in the Amazon rainforest for thousands of years, over 400 distinct nationalities, groups and even uncontacted peoples. Indigenous peoples in the Amazon and throughout the world are the best protectors of the natural places that we still have left on this planet. Eighty percent of the biodiversity around the world is on indigenous people's lands. So if we are concerned about climate change or chaos, I would say, or if we concern about the extinction crisis that we're facing, one of the best ways that we can do all we can to protect what we have left, is to support indigenous people's territories being protected. Those are the places that have the biodiversity and have the trees that create the much needed rain.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:43] Well, you just got back from the Madrid climate summit, the 25th summit, and it was supposed to be in Brazil. And Bolonaro nixed that. And there have been many challenges, but it did come off. I wondered if you could give us sort of a a summary of what what you talked about.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:03:00] You know, as you mentioned, COP 25, which is a conference of parties on climate change, world leaders, government leaders, elected leaders, negotiators that represent governments. Nearly 200 governments around the world attend the cops, plus civil society, NGOs, affected communities and also corporations. Unfortunately, the COP for decades has been primarily dominated by governments and corporations. That's why we've had 25 years of inactivity, really, of doing the minimum. And yes, we could praise the Paris Climate Agreement. Amazon Watch was there with indigenous peoples from around the world, from the Amazon to Alaska, to ensure that the voices of of the community that are most affected are heard. Our focus at COP 25 was to amplify the voices of indigenous peoples. There are very few spaces for indigenous peoples, people who are protecting biodiversity on our planet, for them to speak, for them to share their concerns and share their solutions. And so our mission is to ensure that they have a space not only to have space, but they are promoting their solutions and their solutions are heard. And one of those solutions is the Sacred Headwaters Initiative. So we released a report, at COP, a threat assessment on the sacred headwaters. And we spoke to global media and got a lot of attention on this region. It's in Ecuador and Peru, which is the most biodiverse part of the Amazon. It's Yasuni National Park. The scientists, the conservationists who are on the ground in the Yasuni, the indigenous peoples who live there, say that this is the most biodiverse part of the Amazon. It's under threat by massive oil development. This region, the tropical Andes region of the Amazon, is mega-biodiverse. We need our governments and true leaders to really take the action that's needed, right now, which is to make commitments to really take us off fossil fuels.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:05] So what does the COP 25 conference hold people to?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:05:08] All of the governments, 196 countries have made commitments to reduce emissions. I mean, that's really the language spoken at COP, to reduce emissions, to deal with mitigation, adaptation. Governments have made commitments to reduce emissions. The big elephant in the room is what about stopping extraction? What about a phase out, a full phase out of fossil fuel extraction and a complete commitment to a transition to renewable energies, to renewable energy economies, green jobs? Like what we're talking about in the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is a recipe for what, not just the United States, but world governments can be doing around the world to do what's really, really needed. Because if we only focus on reducing emissions, we are not going to get below 1.5 degrees.  1.5 degrees is really what we need to aim for. We've already surpassed 350 parts per million. We're on a track to go way beyond 2 degrees and way beyond 2 degrees is is what we're seeing. We're seeing the signs of it now. We're seeing Australia. We're seeing California. I mean, right here in our own backyard for three years, for three summers and falls, we have felt the effects of climate change and climate chaos. We have had massive wildfires, massive forest fires. And not just in the forest. Right? They've all also affected communities, you know, from Santa Rosa to Paradise. We're not just seeing fires, you know, in forests in California. We're seeing fires in the Arctic. We're seeing fires in the Amazon. We're seeing fires in Australia right now. It's not 10 years away. It's not 20 years away. It's now.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:59] I'm curious if Black Rock was at the COP 25 conference. Do they show up?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:07:05] Representatives of Black Rock. Representatives of Exxon. Representatives of agribusiness or the fossil fuel and agribusiness industries? The financiers. I mean, they're definitely there.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:17] And do you feel that you had success this time or is it just sort of a stalemate?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:07:21] I think COP 25 was a major failure for the state of the planet right now. Major failure for global governments, considering the urgency of what we're facing.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:32] We have so many distractions right now, the assassination of Soleimani, the impeachment proceedings, those are attention grabbers. With those challenges of distraction, what is your strategy at Amazon Watch for 2020 to keep you in the news cycle?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:07:48] At the end of August 2019, the world woke up to what was really happening in the Amazon. It's what we've been seeing for decades, which is, the Amazon is under major, major threat by governments, including, you know, the Bolsonaro government in Brazil, by corporations, primarily agri-business in Brazil, and the fossil fuel and mining industries in the western Amazon and also by the banks that invest in these destructive projects and destructive practices. You know, warning after warning, report after report, protest after protest, we were doing everything that we could to sound the alarm. And it wasn't until the news story broke that the Amazon is on fire. And the visuals people saw the rainforest on fire, that people started to say, what is happening? You know, not only the Amazon is on fire, we should stop the fires, but why? Why is Amazon on fire? The Amazon is not on fire because it was an accidental wildfire. The Amazon was set on fire. The Amazon was set on fire by intentional government policies to set the fires, to clear land, to make way for agri-business. And that's why over 3 million hectares of forest burned in Brazil and over five million burned in Bolivia. And while people will say there's always fires, yeah, there's always a dry season and a wet season in the Amazon. But the fires are not like this. And the reason they're not like this is because, one, there is a drought-- for many years. And two, there was an intentional, deliberate, malicious intent behind this.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:31] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a bi-weekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Leila Salazar Lopez, the executive director of Amazon Watch, an organization that protects and defends the bio cultural and climate integrity of the Amazon rainforest.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:10:00] There's always been fires in in Australia during the dry season and they're wildfires. They're not intentionally set. But why have millions of hectares of Australia burned and are burning at the same time? Because there has been a massive drought caused by climate change. Basically what I'm saying is making the connection between the Amazon and Australia's drought caused by climate change and there's governments behind policies that are ignoring the reality of what's happening.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:28] Bolsonaro's argument is to the world that 'this is my country. Don't tell me how to run my country.'

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:10:35] Well, he prides himself on calling himself the Trump of the tropics. Bolsonaro is a far right president who was elected last year in Brazil. You know, we're talking about a fascist, a leader, and, you know, I hesitate to say that because I think, you know, a leader should be thinking about all of their people they're representing. People like Bolsonaro were elected on a platform of stability and security. The prior government was deemed corrupt, inefficient. And so what the government ran on was, you know, we need security. We need jobs and we need to better our economy. And under the Lula administration, under the prior socialist, the Worker's Party platform, the government of Brazil was on top. The National Development Bank had money and they were, you know, constructing and building and had plans to have zero poverty, zero hunger, zero deforestation. They had a soy moratorium. They had lots of policies in place. But they also, because there were the Workers Party, they also were promoting jobs that were mostly engineering construction jobs like huge industrial construction, including the Belo Monte Dam, which is the third largest mega dam in the world. And it was built in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. So, you know, while we had many, many concerns, environmental and human rights concerns, with the prior government. They are nothing in comparison to what's happening with this government. The Bolonaro government is in an all out attack on civil society, is an all out attack on indigenous people, on human rights, on women, on Afro-Brazilians across the country, the environment. And we've seen it since day one in office. A year ago when Bolsonaro was elected, he immediately merged ministries, the agriculture, the environment ministry. He defunded the FUNAI, which is like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, de-funded IBAMA, which is the Environmental Agency, like the Environmental Protection Agency. How is IBAMA and FUNAI going to do their work in protecting the rainforest and defending indigenous people's rights if they don't have any funding? And it was intentional, if you defund them yet there's no forest guards, there's no there's no monitoring. I mean, Brazil is the most dangerous place to be an indigenous or human rights activist. And that was even before Bolsanaro. But now it's even worse. On a weekly basis, we're getting reports of indigenous people primarily being assassinated, not only threatened, but assassinated on their lands for protecting their lands, for protecting forests from cattle ranchers, from people paid by agri-business, people paid by corporations, to take their land and land grabbers.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:29] So what do you, as an organisation, what are you going to do about this?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:13:32] So Amazon Watch has been working since 1996, protecting the rainforest, defending human rights, indigenous rights. And our mission isn't going to change. Our strategies are really to hone in on the major threats and who's causing those threats. So, for example, we are naming and shaming the governments, companies and banks that are responsible. We actually released a report last April with ipb, which is the articulation of indigenous peoples of Brazil, because remember, Brazil has the world's largest rainforest, tropical rainforests, the world's largest tropical savanna and the world's largest wetlands, the Amazon, the Sahado and the Pantanal. It is a massive, interconnected ecosystem protected by indigenous peoples and very threatened by industry and government. And so we are organizing campaigns, organizing actions, coordinating with our NGO allies, with indigenous allies, with human rights organizations around the world to act for the Amazon. And immediately after the news of the fires broke at the end of September, we called upon allies around the world and said, let's all work together. Let's all work together. This is the time to work together.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:48] And who are those allies?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:14:50] Extinction rebellion, Greenpeace, Avaaz, Rainforest Action Network, and here locally in the Bay Area, Brazil Solidarity Network. Every month, there's an action at the Brazilian consulate since Bolsonaro was elected, there's been actions to respond to the attacks on the rainforest,  attacks on indigenous people, attacks on Afro-Brazilians. Attacks on women. And so if we continue to coordinate actions at the Brazilian consulate, the government, we continue to organize actions at BlackRock, which we have done many times over the last year. And we also engage with the governments and these corporations when possible. We're writing them letters. We're going to their headquarters. During the U.N. Climate Week in September with a delegation of, you know, over 50 people, we went into BlackRock's corporate headquarters in New York and delivered over 500000 thousand letters from around the world to say BlackRock stop investing in the destruction of the Amazon, the destruction of our climate. BlackRock is an asset manager that is the biggest investor in climate destruction around the world. They invest in oil and gas. They invest in mining. They invest in agro business. And so there's a network called "BlackRock's big problem" that we're a part of, that is organizing, you know, writing reports and writing letters to BlackRock and engaging with BlackRock, going to their shareholder meetings. Before two years ago, no one had ever been to a BlackRock Shareholder meeting. It was just 30 people sitting around a table in suits. And over the last two years, they've had to face criticism. They've had to face indigenous peoples in their boardrooms. They've had to face, you know, NGOs and questioning.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:36] Has this resulted in any changes?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:16:38] Not yet, to be totally honest. You know, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock every January, puts out a letter to clients saying how they're committed to the environment, how they're committed to equality. You know, we're going to continue to call him out on that and hold him to those words, because if you're saying you're committed to the environment and climate change, we don't want minimum action, as Greta Thunberg so eloquently says. You know, we have to act as if our house is on fire because it is. We are responding to the needs and requests of our partners, primarily in the Amazon.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:18] So how often do you go down there?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:17:20] I go a couple times a year to to meet with our partners and actually be in the forest and get inspiration for, you know, why we're doing this work. And we also lead delegations down to the Amazon. We have field coordinators in the Amazon, in Ecuador and Peru and Brazil. And we're a pretty small organization. And our strength really lies in the partnerships, the long term partnerships that we have with the indigenous communities, organizations, national organization, national indigenous organizations and regional organizations, and as well as our NGO allies throughout the Amazon. So those long term partnerships are what help us define like what we need to do this year. You know, respond to the fires, respond to new oil development projects, respond to China in the Amazon, and then from there develop strategies. Also work with local movements such as the Sunrise Movement that is really led by the youth. The youth right now are really showing the leadership.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:22] Who do you think of all the candidates is the most, would be the most reliable partner in terms of climate mitigation and adaptation?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:18:31] Amazon Watch doesn't officially endorse, but personally, there's only two candidates that even come close. And that's Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:40] Well, they're the only ones who even talk about the Green New Deal.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:18:43] Yeah. Think about how much energy and resources governments put into war. We invest a lot of our tax money in, you know, it's all in. But when it's time to think about the future of our children, grandchildren, seven generations and all life on this planet, what we need is a war effort to turn, not only turn emissions around, but turn extraction around and a complete commitment by government and civil society and the private sector and companies. If we have any kind of future left on this planet, we need to really turn around the way that we're living our daily lives. And, you know, that may be scary for people to hear. But when I say we need to, we need to change our economy, we need to change our daily way of life. It's not inconceivable to think that civil society can mobilize a new economy, a new way of life, new policies that could protect us and and our future. Nationalism and the rise of nationalism is the opposite of what we need to be doing. You know, we need to be looking at planet Earth like a system. We're all on this earth together. We have no other, even though there's some people who want to build, you know, space stations and think they can get away from our problems. The majority of the people can't. We are the Majority. We're way more than them. We can demand and make the changes that we need.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:20:04] I'm curious how you got involved in the Amazon. Was there a moment where you were inspired to do that?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:20:10] Well, I grew up in Southern California, near the border. My family's from Mexico. I grew up pretty traditional Mexican family. We grew up near the beach. And one summer there was a medical waste spill on our beach. We couldn't go on the beach for a while. And that was my kind of wakeup call to environmental awareness. You know, because the beach was like, oh, you know, it's where we go to to play, to rest, enjoy. And it's free and it should be open and accessible to everyone. And when it wasn't, that was my wake-up call. And then from there, you know, we we started up an environmental group on our high school campus and, you know, started doing beach cleanups. And that was kind of the beginning of activism. We started our environmental group and we started or organizing our own Earth Day festivals and Earth Day events. One of the guest speakers I will always remember because he gave a slideshow about the rainforest and it was so beautiful. And I'd never seen anything like that. And I just thought one day I want to go there. Fast forward a couple years. I'm at UC Santa Barbara and student advisor says, you know, you're going to need to do an internship in your second year. And, you know, you could volunteer at a local environmental organization or a local government representatives office. And I said, well, I wanna go to the rainforest. I said, okay, that's pretty far and pretty expensive. And I said, well, I'll take out a student loan. And I did that. And that changed my life. That changed the path and the direction of my life. Because, one, I'd never been to South America. I'd never seen the rainforest. I'd never seen the beauty and also the destruction and the threats. The summer of 1995 was when I connected with the forest and realized that it was indigenous peoples who were protecting it and that they were a library of knowledge that could not be replicated in any way. You know, just walking in the forest with someone who has lived there all their life and has a spiritual connection to the forest. I mean, you could walk 30 meters and they will know every single plant that you walk by and know what its properties are. Know what it's used for and whether it's used to build a house, or to cook with, or to use as medicine, or to build a canoe. They know how to use everything and they do it with respect. And that, just that, was like a huge lesson in what is really needed to protect the forest. On my way out of the forest, I saw an oil spill. The trans Ecuadorian pipeline had ruptured and crude oil from the north east Ecuadorian Amazon was just spilling into the river, into the main water source of the city of Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. It was my, you know, my second kind of wake-up call to how could this be happening? Who did this? Why is this happening? Who allowed this? Why aren't they shutting it off? Why isn't it stopping? That really enraged me. And I found out that it was Texaco who had set up the infrastructure, who had basically found oil in the Amazon, set up the entire infrastructure, convinced the government in the 1960s to allow them to set up the infrastructure and drill and dump. And there were no environmental or human rights or indigenous rights laws in the country or even in the world. At that time, there weren't conventions on, there was a declaration on human rights, but there wasn't the declaration on indigenous rights. But still, during this time, Texaco drilled and dumped on the indigenous territories of five indigenous nationalities. And also where uncontacted peoples are and created what we called a rainforest Chernobyl. And still to this day, even though Chevron, which Texaco is now Chevron here in the bay, even though Chevron was found guilty in 2012, they still have not paid a dime, and probably have paid more in legal fees in the last 25 years to fight this than to resolve it. They've never denied that they did it, that they drilled and dumped. They don't wanna set a precedent that if you do this, you'll be held accountable. When I got back from the Amazon the first time, I said, I'm going to dedicate my life to doing everything I can to prevent this from happening again. And I will do everything I can to hold this company accountable. And so in 2002, when I first started working for Amazon Watch, we launched a campaign called the Chevron Cleanup Ecuador Campaign. And so we've been doing a lot of.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:34] That was very successful.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:24:34] The Chevron lawsuit was a major, major victory when we heard news of of the judgment. It was one of the proudest moments of...

Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:46] We can do this.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:24:47] We can do this. Like this is one of the biggest just a very typical David Goliath story. Right. We're going up against one of the biggest corporations on the planet. We beat them. Also another Oil victory was Occidental Petroleum. Occidental Petroleum did very similar to what Chevron, Texaco, now Chevron did in the Peruvian Amazon. And after seven years of attending their shareholder meetings, also filing a lawsuit against them with the Otwar people of Peru.  We we actually settled a lawsuit with Occidental Petroleum and they agreed to pay a settlement to the Otwar people for the contamination that they had caused in the Peruvian Amazon and also with Oxy, one of the first and most proudest victories of Amazon Watch, is working with the Ottawa and a whole network that wide defense coalition around the world to get Occidental Petroleum out of what territory in Colombia. Many of our victories, the last one I'll mention is in Brazil. Actually, it's the Tapajos dam and we were not able to stop the Belo Monte mega dam construction. The following dam proposal was Tapajos mega dam on one last free flowing blackwater rivers in the Amazon, in Brazil. And just a few years ago, the Brazilian government announced that they were not going to build it. They were actually going to change their dam building policy and begin to invest in renewable energy. That's now all changed with Bolsanaro.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:18] Are the dams back on the table?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:26:20] Everything's back on the table. I mean, their policy is the Amazon is open for business. And I think that's shameful. It's completely shameful.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:28] What are some of your immediate plans as an organization?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:26:32] Funny that you mentioned it. Amazon Watch has been a pretty small organization for the last 23 years. I mean, we've been around 10 people plus field consultants plus, you know, working with our partners across the Amazon. One result of the attention on the Amazon is that there's been a lot more interest in supporting organizations like ours. And so we are growing. There is a lot more attention on organizations such as Amazon Watch and a lot more offers for financial support and a lot more offers for volunteers and people who across the world who want to volunteer, who want to help. And so right now, we're at a moment, we're actually at a moment of strategic planning to really envision what we want the next five to 10 years, the focus of our next five to 10 years, to be. Our mission is to protect the rainforest, defend indigenous rights and advance climate justice. We're going to continue to focus on those strategic areas with campaigns, but we have to do it with more urgency because the Amazon is at a tipping point. Scientists say that the Amazon will reach its tipping point when the deforestation and degradation is over 20 percent. It's about 17 to 18 percent now. And so what we need for the Amazon is a full scale commitment to protect, defend and restore it. Protect means protecting what's left. Anything that's still left standing, whether it be indigenous peoples territories, whether it be protected areas, national parks, private lands, anything that's still left standing needs to be protected and defended. And promote solutions of indigenous peoples, promote on the ground solutions for restoration, for alternative energy. We need to invest and increase the use of solar energy, the use of renewable energy.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:19] And show some solutions.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:28:21] And show those solutions. And so we are working on promoting indigenous led solutions, promoting protection and defense of indigenous territories with our people in Peru. We're fighting Geo Park to get them off territory this year and in years to come. Our focus really is going to be on protecting and advancing the sacred headwaters and beyond. Who is complicit in the destruction of the Amazon? Let's call them out. Let's engage with them. Let's pressure them. We're also getting ready for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the establishment of the environmental movement around the world. I'm a UC Santa Barbara alumni. It's where the first environmental studies department was in the whole world. And why was that? Because there was a giant oil spill in 1969 in Santa Barbara. And what that sparked was a movement, that sparked environmental studies department at UC Santa Barbara. It sparked environmental laws across this country. It sparked Earth Day. When we reflect on 50 years ago and everything that's happened, we've made progress and we've also majorly rolled back progress with the Trump administration. Here in the United States, we need to defend all of the achievements over the last 50 years. We need to defend our laws. We need to defend our rights and our democracy. And that's very similar to what Brazilians are saying. We're at a turning point, a very important election that, you know, could really turn things around. We have to do everything we possibly can.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:29:55] If you could just tell people how they might get a hold of you?

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:29:57] Follow us on social media for all the latest reports and news and updates and opportunities to get involved. We're located in Oakland. You can call us up, visit us. We would really encourage youth and students and anyone who wants to get involved to make the connections between California and the Amazon. The oil and the Amazon, while it comes from the Amazon, the majority that's exported comes right here to California. We are very connected to the Amazon. It's it's it's real. Learn more. Go to our Web site. We have to do this together.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:36] Thank you, Leila, for coming on the program.

Leila Salazar-Lopez: [00:30:38] You're welcome. Thank you.

Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:41] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.

More Episodes


Ashley Grosh

TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:06] This is Method to the Madness, a bi-weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with Ashley Grosh, the CEO of PIP's Rewards. Thank you for coming on the show, Ashley. What is PIPs?Ashley Grosh: [00:00:36] So PIPs Rewards is an app and it's a technology platform that is owned and operated by our company 3P Partners. We call ourselves an impact tech company. What we really do is we turn a verifiable engagement in beneficial behaviors, things happening daily, riding your bike, bus riding, taking a workout class. All these beneficial behaviors that you might be doing throughout the day, we verify that and we award you our digital currency when you do those things. So Pip's is our digital currency, which stands for Positive Impact Points.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:09] That's interesting. It sounds complex how you would measure this. So walk me through the application as a user. An example.Ashley Grosh: [00:01:18] Yeah. So from a user perspective, it's actually very lightweight and easy. You just would download the app in the app store for iPhone or Android. You download Pip's rewards. Today we're targeted in higher education, so you would use your university email through a single sign on. We would capture who you are. You'd set up an account and then you'd really begin to start using the platform. It takes you through a quick tutorial of what you need to do. You'd want to have your Bluetooth enabled and it shows you ways in which you can now start going out into the community and around campus and earning the currency. So a day in the life of a Pip's user, you may wake up in the morning, you fill up your water bottle, which has our little QR code sticker on it, which you may have gone to pick up an environmental center on campus. So you carry that water bottle with you. But when you fill it up, you take your phone out, you take a picture of your QR code and then you've earned 10 points. You can only refill your water bottle three times per day. So if you try to do that again, you'll get an error message. And that's really more just the behavior, we want you just to be in the habit of carrying that water bottle.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:19] You don't want people scamming this system.Ashley Grosh: [00:02:20] That's right. So we set barriers in place to make sure that doesn't happen. So then let's say you're going to a study group in the morning, so you hop on one of the bike shares programs that's here on campus and we are automatically already integrated with that bike sharing platform. So when you check out that bike, we know who you are. We know you're on that bike. And all the sudden immediately our currency goes into your digital wallet with inside the app. And now you've earned for refilling your water bottle. Now you've taken a bike to a meeting and now you've earned again. Let's say you're coming back up to campus for a class in the afternoon and you hop on the bus. Well, now we have either a beacon or an API integration installed with the transit company, and you don't even have to have your phone out for this. In some cases, we might use near-field communication. So we're using a lot of technologies, right, to integrate innovative technologies. If we think about the connected city, smart cities. Right. All these things to track and measure. So you come back up the bus to class and then again in your digital wallet, you see your currency being added for that behavior. :et's say in the afternoon then, there's a speaker coming onto campus that's talking about climate finance on an environmental or health related topic. So let's say you go to that event and that's one of the activities that we award for. We also capture that you've gone to that event and you've earned our currency than you maybe go refill your water bottle again. Then you go into housing and dining. You go have some lunch and let's say you brought your own silverware. So let's say you brought your own bamboo silverware and then let's say you're composting and you're doing all these things. We have different mechanisms to capture that as well within the dining hall. And if if the campus is interested in financial literacy, then students can take EDquity financial literacy modules and earn our currency. I'm giving you kind of a flavor, right, of you go about your day and you're earning all this currency.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:08] And it's very transparent to the user, it sounds like.Ashley Grosh: [00:04:11] Yeah, it happens in real time. So you can see your digital dashboard in your wallet.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:15] What is a a data point worth?Ashley Grosh: [00:04:17] So that's a great point. So one pip is worth one cent. And so then we we do this, you know, kind of carbon pricing on your actions. So when you're refilling a water bottle, you may only get 10 pips for that. But if you're riding the bus. Right, that's got a bigger implication in terms of your carbon savings. So maybe you'll get 50 pips, in that case, if you go to volunteer at a tree planning event in the community, maybe that's a thousand. So we work with the university to really put the value behind each of these actions.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:48] And then is this accumulated reward money, can it pay for education and books and things to do with college?Ashley Grosh: [00:04:55] There you go. That whole secret sauce. So what happens is when you accumulate your your pips in your wallet, well, then the question becomes, what can you do with it? Right. And so there's really kind of three key things that you can do. We have an in app e-commerce platform. And so we screen for green, though, any company that we partner with in there has to be promoting sustainability or have a sustainable product. And so we have some food companies in there. So Whole Foods, Chipotle, Patagonia's an example. Roffey shoes, right? These are sustainable companies and brands. And so you can convert your pip's into either gift cards or discounts with those vendors. It's really cool. So you can, you know, use that in app e-commerce site to redeem your currency. You also could donate your currency. So we work with a number of nonprofits, both national and local. So if you're really interested in a cause, an environmental justice or the Nature Conservancy or something happening right here in your community, you can donate your pip's and we will cut a check to that organization from 3P on your behalf. And then the real secret sauce that we just rolled out last spring is the Pip's for Schools program. So this is where it now you can take the Pip's that you've earned and convert it to pay down tuition, books, school fees. We do that through the Office of Financial Aid and then we have a separate fund called the Pips Education Fund in which we provide a match. So let's say you have $100 that you've accumulated. You put that towards your books. We provide you a one to one match. Now you've gotten a $200 scholarship.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:27] Who's matching it?Ashley Grosh: [00:06:32] So we have a separate fund and it's a 501 C 3 non-profit. We're raising for that fund separately.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:34] And so people can donate to that fund.Ashley Grosh: [00:06:36] Absolutely. So, alumni or corporate partners, charitable institutions, community foundations, people that are really interested in supporting education, sustainability, student success and higher ed can make a contribution and donate to that fund. And then we use that fund to make the match. And our goal over time is to get to a two or three to one match. So all the sudden you go about your daily life, you're doing all these good things. You're earning the currency that has real value and you're putting that towards your education. When students are taking those earned pips and converting them to tuition dollars, the money's then flowing back to the university through the Office of Financial Aid. And then we are providing through our separate 501 C-3, the Pip's Education Fund, a match. And so really the university is recouping their initial investment of the subscription back through the Office of Financial Aid. So it's a really great ROI for the university. It's really a win win win.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:33] The technology behind this is mind boggling to me. It seems like there's a lot of tech pieces, a lot of data points.Ashley Grosh: [00:07:40] It is. It is.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:41] It's very I mean, it's transparent to the user. But can you talk to me about the technology that is in place and how that all works?Ashley Grosh: [00:07:49] Yeah. So some of it, you know, we install so there is an infrastructure component. So I mentioned on buses or on transit or if you're going to an event on campus, we may use little beacons or sensors. And these sensors can know that if you're in the building, it's Bluetooth enabled. And so we can pick up on that, that that student ID is there, we verify that you're there.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:10] So do you have to turn that on, the behavior tracking system?Ashley Grosh: [00:08:12] You just turn on your Bluetooth and actually people may or may not know this, but these beacons and sensors are used in retail stores. So if I go into Target, for example, they want to know how long am I spending in each section? How long am I spending in the food, in the women's clothing? I'm a mom. So how long am I spending in the baby section? Right. So beacons and sensors have been used in the retail market too.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:34] From your phones.Ashley Grosh: [00:08:35] From your phones through location based services. Right. If those are enabled on your phone to get data. And now that's a different use case. Right. So we're not using that. We're using it in more of a closed loop system.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:46] There's a lot of talk about giving you back money for your data that you're giving to like, say, Facebook or Amazon. And there are some parallels as far as, you know, verification and the tracking.Ashley Grosh: [00:08:56] You're right on. I mean, this question comes up a lot, but we follow the privacy policy of the university so we don't do anything with that data other than analyze it, look at it and share it with the university. And then the university looks at, wow, look at the impact, look how many bike rides or look how many bus rides. And wow maybe we need another bus station over here because we're seeing so much action and so we only share the data with the university and we use it to measure retention, engagement, a bunch of things related to the platform. We would never sell that data anywhere outside of the campus.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:34] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness a bi weekly public affairs show on K.A.L.X. Berkeley celebrating innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Ashley Grosh, the COO of Pip's. Pip's uses a behavior tracking platform to reward positive behavior.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:00] How do you know that a company or a service that I use as a student is sustainable?Ashley Grosh: [00:10:05] In the case of like Patagonia, for example, who we bring onto the platform,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:08] That one's pretty obvious.Ashley Grosh: [00:10:09] That one's pretty obvious, right. But, you know, Rothey's is a good example or Blue Planet that makes sustainable sunglasses. So we really do as a B Corp Right. So we're a certified B Corp. Okay.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:21] And just so our audience knows, a benefit corporation is for profit, but you are required to consider the society and the environment in addition to profit. Correct?Ashley Grosh: [00:10:31] That's right. So it's that triple bottom line that we hear about where we want to see an environmental return, a social return and then a financial return. Right. So we're looking at the triple bottom line and we screen for other companies and partners to be a part of our ecosystem. You've also got to have those same values. Air BnB is a partner of ours. Again, that's a circular economy. The shared economy. I can convert my pip's to a gift card for AirBnb.You know, we provide gift cards to Wholefoods, which is technically Amazon's the parent company, but Wholefoods is still a wonderful partner of ours and we'd like to see Amazon learn more about our platform and figure out other ways to partner with us and then offer maybe even further discounts. Could we also work with Amazon on other features, you know, other sustainable products? That's a huge area of opportunity for us. So I think Amazon, you know, will continue to have those conversations through the door of working with Whole Foods. You know, we're selectively screened for green companies. And so Panera is one that we just added, Chipotle,right, that are thoughtful about their supply chain. We love to really promote local. So when we come onto a campus, we also will go around to all the local vendors. In Boulder, for example, our flagship university, CU Boulder, there is a store called Refill Revolution where you can fill up bulk laundry detergent, lotion, shampoo, conditioner, things like that. And so they're a partner of ours. They accept our currency as well as you earn. So there are certain sort of a dual partner. But we love to go locally and find partners like that in the community, local stores. And we haven't had anybody turn us away yet in wanting to be a part of the program.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:10] Where are you happening? You say you're focusing on universities.Ashley Grosh: [00:12:14] CU Boulder, as I mentioned, was our early adopter. They are our flagship university, Univeristy of Colorado Boulder and very similar, a sister campus, I would say, to Berkeley. But so CU is really interested in this technology. When they learned about it really from two aspects from a retention standpoint and from a sustainability standpoint. So they want to be leaders in promoting sustainable actions on campus. They want to measure that. They want to put that into their climate action planning. They really want to better understand that the footprint they're having in the city and then retention, retention is probably the number one buzz word on campuses. Right. If you don't get students to stay engaged and to graduate the four, five plus years, you're leaving big money on the table. There's a lot of reasons why students come to campus and they don't continue. And partly it's the cost. Partly it's food insecurity and then it's mental stress and it's not finding friends. And so those are some of the top reasons that we've we've studied a lot of surveys around retention data. And so our thought is, if we can help with food insecurity. Right. We're helping to offset and subsidize the cost of healthy food by providing more access and more funding to food, healthy food choices, transportation costs. We can help to offset that. Financial aid. Right. If we're now starting to contribute in, you know, a couple thousand dollars per semester that a student could earn. Now, it doesn't seem so overwhelming, the burden of debt and then mental health. We also have mindfulness trainings. We also have financial literacy that we can do through the app and then we make it fun. You can gamify it..Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:44] So you get points for taking care of yourself.Ashley Grosh: [00:13:46] Yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:46] So how long have you been doing Boulder?Ashley Grosh: [00:13:48] We started a pilot there in the fall of 2017. That was our pilot year. And then we took the outcomes. We targeted just freshman that year and we took all the results back to the university and they really saw the opportunity to scale this. So they in 2018 signed a three year contract with us. And so we're now in that contract. We've we keep adding to it. We're constantly measuring, really working on the user adoption and then adding new actions, adding new partners, building the ecosystem.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:17] So it's actually working there and it's successful.Ashley Grosh: [00:14:19] Yes, we've got about 5000 users on the platform. We initially set out to get about 10 percent of the student body and now we've exceeded that. Now we've added staff and faculty onto the platform. And what's cool about that is the staff or faculty can donate their pip's to individual student or to the Pip's Education Fund. It's really booming over there. And it's we now just launch refer a friend feature. So if you bring a friend onto the platform, you're rewarded. The origin of this is really around behavior, you know, neuroscience kind of the way that we act. Dopamine, the way that we're engaged, incented. And we know that rewards work. We know that gamification works. And so. We gamify, we do a lot of contests where you can count constantly be earning. And then we make it really fun with our prizes. We also have ski passes. That's what makes us different if you think about the value of these rewards. You know, you're getting food, you're getting Patagonia gear. You're getting tuition. Ski passes.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:15] And it's not interfering with academic study.Ashley Grosh: [00:15:18] It's actually aiding in helping them with basic needs support.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:22] What were some of the challenges that, what were your biggest challenges?Ashley Grosh: [00:15:25] There's a lot of different parts of campus that you want to engage. So you want to engage housing and dining, you know, Office of Financial Aid, the communications group, because you want to message this out in any way you can. So you really got to work and integrate with the communications teams on campus. Hey, how can we get included in newsletters? Where can we get some signage? So it really is a collaboration I think, when you're first setting it up, the messaging, how do we fit into the brand in the brand voice on campus? And so it takes, you know, a couple of of different groups to come together on campus.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:58] Campuses are noisy with groups.Ashley Grosh: [00:16:00] That's right.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:01] There's a lot going.Ashley Grosh: [00:16:02] That's that's exactly right. So there's clubs every which way. There's a lot of competing interest. That's why the refer a friend. Right. We know that things get sticky when other people talk about it. So if I'm a student and I have my phone out and I'm doing something. It seems like. What are you doing? Oh, well, I'm doing this cool app where I can earn currency and I can pay my tuition. tuition.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:19] How did you get the word out initially?Ashley Grosh: [00:16:22] The strategy that we used at Boulder was to integrate it into welcome week. And so as students are coming to campus, even before they came to campus, we had a welcome letter that went to the parents and the students. Download this app before you come to campus. And then when you come to campus, we set up a scavenger hunt so that students could really learn, hey, here's the library, here's the dining hall, here's the rec center. And they used our appto go through this scavenger hunt. And then they got Pip's at every place they went. And so we got really clever about welcome week. All the students filed into the football stadium and we got a big P.A. message, hey, have you heard about the Pip's app? And we got thousands of downloads in a matter of a week. And so that, you know, integrating into welcome week, but otherwise you can do it into other events on campus. So there's lots of different ways. But the welcome week one is is really a trick of ours.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:14] Where are your other applications happening?Ashley Grosh: [00:17:14] Yeah, we're pretty early in our journey. So CU was the early adopter. But now we like to take a systems approach. So we're looking at the University of Colorado system. So we've launched to their second largest campus, which is in Colorado Springs. And then we're looking to roll out at U.C. Denver. And so that would capture the entire system so we're at two of those system wide campuses now and then we've got proposals really throughout the country into large university systems. And so really looking at a systems approach in different parts of the country, but also within Colorado, we've got a handful of other universities coming on in 2020 to help us regionally gain some traction, gain some visibility, get some of the regional transit partners on board, getting a ubiquitous feel to the currency across higher ed in one state, and then we can go regionally and plug and play. But what's really great is we're getting all of these in-bounds now. So people, sustainability officers are talking about this. You know, Forbes did an article on us, hey, turn your actions into tuition money. There's a lot of talk right now around basic needs support, food insecurity. Just this week, I talked to somebody at University of Miami that said, hey, we're on the frontlines of climate change. Our students and our staff and community need to be doing everything we can. Can you please come here and help us? And so that's what's really starting to get exciting is is the inbound buzz that we're getting.So I think we'll continue to really lead in Colorado, but then you'll start to see us regionally as we head into 2020.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:41] And California is on your map?Ashley Grosh: [00:18:43] California is... all things lead back to California in some ways, just from the leadership standpoint that California has taken, in so many measures. And so, you know, we really would love to be out in California. There's a lot we could do. And even in the UC system, you could imagine two of the two or three or handful, the universities competing. Right. Who could draw down the most carbon. So we have a carbon drawdown challenge. And so that becomes really fun, right? In the storytelling there. We can also integrate into athletics. So we could have a green game, you know, through the PAC Twelve and do some fun things there. But really getting a system on board is a significant goal. And where we're spending a lot of our focus right now, talking to the UC system, talking to the California state system, the community college system, too, if we think about some rural places, Bakersfield and others, you know, how can we promote alternative transportation, how can we promote some of these healthy behaviors in more rural communities?Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:37] You're giving currency back to people, social currency. But how are you as a company making money off of this?Ashley Grosh: [00:19:44] Great question. So I'm a trained banker and I spent my whole career working on businesses, scaling technologies, looking at business models, a program I actually in my former role worked with here on campus at Berkeley is the Clean Tech to Market program, the C-2M Program with Brian Steele and Beverly Alexander, I have to give them a shout out. But really looking at right, how do you take an innovative technology platform and scale it? And so we make revenue in a couple of different ways. So it's a subscription model. So first and foremost, the university pays us a subscription to have the Pip's Rewards platform deployed on campus that unlocks the pool of pips then that we divvy out. But then we also have action partners that pay to join our programs. So that could be ridesharing companies, companies like Zipcar, Car2Go, you know, Lyft and Uber really want to dominate the university place. We've got proposals into both of them. If I come to the university and I pick a ridesharing company, when I leave the university, I'm probably going to use that one. Bike sharing platforms pay to be on our platform. So that's another source of revenue. Within our catalog, our E commerce catalogue, our affiliate catalog, we also earn a small commission. If somebody uses their pip's to buy something, we may have a commission that comes back to us. And then sponsorship is another source of revenue. And this is when I really get excited about too. So I mentioned, Chipotle and some other partners that are on the platform. But thinking about large corporate brands. Right, that spend so much money on marketing, if they have a really strong CSR, corporate social responsibility mission, an initiative, you know, their brands are really working hard across communities to promote sustainability, promote maybe their products. So we really see sponsorship in underwriting as an opportunity. A beverage company, for example, could come in and underwrite the recycling behaviors on our platform. As we know in most California campuses that have divested from plastic. But that takes a little bit of behavior change to think about. What are the alternative sources? CU Boulder just rolled out some new aluminum type refillable cans for their stadiums or cups, I should say. But there's some behavior change that has to happen there so we can use our app to educate. But brands that really want to be associated with an app like ours, we're in front of young people, we're in front of their customers. Sponsorship is it is a big opportunity for us to go and work with large corporate and small corporate brands.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:01] Tell me how this idea even got started.Ashley Grosh: [00:22:04] So Wendy Gordon is our co-founder. There's several co-founders. And so Wendy has a fascinating history. She's a serial entrepreneur and she's always tackled this riddle of how do we change the behavior? How do we get consumers, you know, to think about smarter products, to think about their footprint? She launched and co-founded Mothers and Others for a Livable Planet with Meryl Streep, which was the original green guide, and that ended up being acquired by National Geographic. And then Wendy was an environmentalist at the National Resource Defense Council, NRDC. And so she's got a really fascinating background all around, you know, sustainability, the sciences in consumer. And so, Wendy, you know, really thought how could we think about rewards points? So if we look at traditional credit card, frequent flyer miles, they sound really good on the surface, but the redemption rates of those are very low. And so, Wendy and one of her college classmates, David Sands, got together. They went to Princeton. And they've kind of been thinking about this riddle of how do we how do we get people to do things, right? It's through incentives and rewards. So they came up with this initial idea and then they were introduced to two developers. So technical folks, Evan and Ynev and Ynevactually has a neuroscience background. And he ran a dopamine lab. So he started bringing in the science and started to look at loss aversion and all these different, you know, scientific ways of the way that we interact in the way that we're, you know, incentivized and what works and what does it what keeps us coming back, what makes things sticky. That's why we bring in gamification. So you had the business side that, you know, Wendy and David were building and then you had the technical side and Evan and Ynev said, think about all the wearables, the wearable market, Fitbit, if you think about the connected economy, that there's so many things that we could plug into. If we build an open source platform with API, we can connect into all these tracking devices and start to verify the actions. We don't want to see greenwashing. We don't want to say, I pledge to do this or I pledge to do that. We really want to verify that you took an action. So the company got formed and then really started to think about where could this application where's the best use case? They tested it in a new enterprise locations, some real estate firms doing fitness competitions and things like that. But then really it was CU Boulder that said, you know, we think this is a higher ed solution. So spend a couple of years.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:24] So they came to you?Ashley Grosh: [00:24:25] Yeah. Yeah. Sue Boulder came to Wendy and said, you know, we really think this is best served in the higher ed space. And so they completely pivoted and decided to focus all the actions, all the technical side on Boulder and in really targeting higher, higher institutions, higher ed.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:44] What are some of your future plans?Ashley Grosh: [00:24:46] So longer term, I think there is absolutely an enterprise solution here. So that's an employee engagement platform. Again, retention is another key issue we know with employers. And so if you could. Offer meaningful rewards for employees. You know, Google we've talked to, they have a problem with transportation. They have too many people driving single occupancy vehicles or this is a case of a lot of employers, right. So how can you change the behavior and get them to carpool or get them to ride the bus system? And then how do you incentivize them to do that? So you could use our rewards platform to do that. And we have proposals into some other large corporates that, you know, see it as a benefit from a fun currency. But if they need to change behavior.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:26] So are you reaching out to cities, city governments?Ashley Grosh: [00:25:29] We have proposals into municipalities as well. You know, a lot of the team members within municipalities, they want them to be riding buses, going to certain events. And so it's a similar program that you would do at higher ed, but you would change the actions based on what that individual employer municipality would want to do. And then you you can customize the rewards. One day, what if you just had the city of Berkeley and that included the campus and that included and that's actually the goal is to get it to be a ubiquitous currency. So I think to get there right, you've got to start traction and so you start traction among the universities. But then that can lead over into the cities and they adopt it. And then you're right, it just becomes, you know, a taxpayer benefit. So we also have a carbon footprint calculator. And so I can see.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:13] Where's that?Ashley Grosh: [00:26:14] In the app.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:15] In the app.Ashley Grosh: [00:26:15] And it's individualized. So I can see my individual footprint and then I can see my community's footprint. And I can see, you know what? We are making an impact. And so then it doesn't seem so daunting. Right. And I'm doing my part. The other thing is we're building environmental stewards in higher education. We have stories about this, case studies, students that have graduated from C.U. that were on our platform. They've moved to big cities. And their first inclination is to not get into a car or buy a car. They're used to doing public transportation. So Pip's has really led them to those behaviors. And so then they go on and carry them forward.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:53] Do you have competition in this space?Ashley Grosh: [00:26:54] So that's a great question, right? You always want to know kind of who's in the rear view mirror or off to the side. And we haven't come across anybody that's doing exactly what we're doing in the way that we're doing it. And especially from the technology integration, the verification and the scholarship component and the matching. Right. That's really unique. There are a couple other pledge based systems, pledging that you rode the bus or pledging to do a Meatless Monday or something like that. And then they don't have a reward platform. So they might say you get a gold star or or.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:27] You don't get any monetary.Ashley Grosh: [00:27:29] Right. You might get a badge. They call it. And then two students have five badges and they get eligible for a pizza party or, you know, something. So they don't have the high value rewards into the system, which we know are the drivers to get students to stay on this. And then they don't have all the other bells and whistles that, you know, carbon footprint calculators and all those things, verified actions and the currency. Right. The currency component with the scholarship piece. So that's really what we believe sets us apart. I really think we're on the cutting edge, because if you look at 5G, right. That's getting rolled out. Things are gonna be happening a lot faster, more devices. I'm seeing more wired, you know, clothing and wearable rings that that track your your health metrics and send them to your doctor in real time. So, you know, 5G is really going to enable us to do more of this. And so we're, you know, at the forefront of that. And we're really excited about being able to plug in to the new wearables and the new companies that are coming into the space.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:30] Tell our listeners how to get your website and what they can expect to find there.Ashley Grosh: [00:28:34] Yeah. So if you go to and then you won't want to sign in because you're not a user... yet. There's some graphics you can start to see our story. You can get a list of all of our partners. As we mentioned some of them on the show today. The earn, redeem, the donate, the nonprofits that we also support that you can donate to, and then you can reach us that you want to learn more or bring this to your campus or if you have any other questions or ideas, we're always open to discussions.Lisa Kiefer: [00:29:09] Are you looking for volunteers or interns at any point?Ashley Grosh: [00:29:11] We are. So we we have two interns right now and we are growing like crazy. So for folks that are interested, reach out to us. You know, the reason this is so important to me, you know, I've worked in climate and sustainability almost my entire career, but I'm a mom and I also spend a lot of time on college campuses. And I think about these students and I think about my own kids and how successful I want them to be, and any boost that we can give them, any head start, if we can help them chip away at their debt sooner, if we can help them really have healthy behaviors and habits, we're going to better equip them when they head out into the into the big, real scary world. Your actions can make a difference and added up together, they can have a really big impact. You know, that's what we want to do.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:01] Thank you, Ashley, for coming on Method to the Madness.Ashley Grosh: [00:30:04] Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:06] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K.A.L.X. Berkeley celebrating innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.

Mohamed Shehk

TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:01] You're listening to Method to the Madness. A biweekly public affairs show on K-A-L-X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:12] I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with Mohamed Shehk, co-director and media and communications director of Critical Resources. Welcome to Method to the Madness.Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:28] Thank you for having me.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:29] I've been hearing a whole lot with the upcoming presidential election and all the debates, about prison reform. I find it kind of interesting that for the past over 20 years, your organization has said "forget reform, we need to abolish prisons."Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:43] Yes. Critical Resistance was founded in 1998. It was founded in Berkeley. There was a conference called Critical Resistance Beyond the Prison Industrial Complex.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:53] Yes. And you had a lot of heavy hitters, Angela Davis.Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:55] Angela Davis was one of our co-founders,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:57] And, Ruth Wilson Gilmore!Mohamed Shehk: [00:00:59] And we're actually doing an event with Ruthie down in L.A.. Yeah. So we began using a term that was actually coined by Mike Davis, the prison industrial complex. And it was a way to begin thinking about the interrelated systems of imprisonment, policing, surveillance and other forms of state violence and control. Really looking at this system as being built intentionally to control, repress and inflict harm and violence in communities. So if we understand that its purpose is to control communities, then we don't want to fix it. Right. We want to chip away at its power. We want to abolish it. So we really popularized the notion of prison industrial complex abolition. And for the past 20 years, we've been working on various projects and campaigns toward eliminating the prison industrial complex in our society.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:51] So of all the candidates, who do you think is most onboard or at least understanding of what your strategy is toward prisons?Mohamed Shehk: [00:02:00] It's really interesting with the current presidential candidates that have approached criminal justice reform in a variety of ways. I mean, you just had Bernie Sanders releasea platform that actually picks up a lot of some of the concepts and community based approaches rather than continuing to invest and waste millions and millions and millions of dollars into the system of policing, into imprisonment. What are the reforms that appear to be liberal or progressive but are actually entrenching the system?Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:36] Right. They're kind of co-opting.Mohamed Shehk: [00:02:37] Yeah. After the death of Mike Brown and Eric Garner back in 2014 with the, you know, upsurge of Black Lives Matter and the enormous amount of attention being focused on policing, and you had an array of reforms being discussed, such as body cameras, such as,more training for police officers. And we see that these kinds of reforms are actually pouring money into the system of policing. They're expanding the role of policing. We're giving surveillance technology to policing. Right. So these reforms aren't actually chipping away at the power, but actually legitimizing and entrenching the system of policing itself. So these are the kinds of reforms that we want to be cautious of and use this framework of thinking about abolitionist reforms vs. reformist reforms.What are the reforms that are actually cutting away resources from the systems that we're fighting rather than continuing to waste investments into these systems.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:36] And so what are some of the strategies that you are using in your organization? And you're located in four cities.You're headquartered in Oakland in the Temescal. You're in New York City, L.A. and Portland.Mohamed Shehk: [00:03:48] Yes. Our national office is based in Oakland. We are a nonprofit organization and we function primarily through our chapters and our chapters, the ones that you named, our volunteer members really make up the bulk of the organization and we work with them and they decide what local projects and campaigns are most relevant to the political geography that they're operating in, to attack the prison industrial complex. So, for instance, in Portland, we started a campaign called Care Not Cops. Initially, that campaign was really focused on cutting policing away from mental health crisis response. We want to divest resources away from policing, take money away from the police budget and put that into community based and user determined mental health resources. One strategy is to really focus on the city budget and to use that as a method to organize communities and to say these are actually where we want our resources going, not continuing to go into the Police Bureau's budget. We use a variety of different strategies and tactics, so we do a lot of media and communications work to kind of shift how we understand safety, how we understand what strong and healthy communities actually look like. We do a lot of work around the legislative realm. We work with decision makers and also put pressure on decision makers to put forth policies that are actually in line with what we're advocating for.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:28] So let's talk about what you're doing in the Bay Area... Urban Shield, for one thing. Can you talk about that a little bit and some of the other successes you've had locally?Mohamed Shehk: [00:05:36] Yeah. Thank you for raising that. Critical Resistance along with a number of other organizations, including the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, Chicano Moratorium Coalition, the American Friends Service Committee. We're part of a coalition called the Stop Urban Shield Coalition. And we came together to put an end to Urban Shield, which was the world's largest SWAT training, and also included a weapons expo. That organizing happened for five plus years. We built a grassroots campaign to essentially pressure and empower the Board of supervisors in Alameda County to say to the sheriff, no, we do not want this kind of program anymore. Urban Shield was justified under the guise of emergency preparedness. Right. And so the sheriff would say, well, we need this kind of program because of all these different kinds of emergencies. But obviously, just as with many programs that came after 9/11, it was funded through and bolstered by the logic of militarization and counter-terrorism and was effectively a program that endorsed war on black and brown communities. So last year, the Board of Supervisors made a decision to end Urban Shield. They said after this year, Urban Shield is no longer.Then this year, a gain, after some kind of foul play by the sheriff to attempt to kind of reverse their decision and even just ignore that it actually happened. Earlier this year, they reaffirmed their decision and Urban Shield was effectively defunded.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:08] Does that money then go to the programs that you are backing?Mohamed Shehk: [00:07:12] Yes. So we have been working alongside various city and county agencies to really put in place what emergency preparedness and disaster response looks like. So one of the things that we did with the Alameda County Board of Supervisors is part of their decision to end Urban Shield was to put together a task force to say, okay, let's actually look at how this money could be funded. And they adopted a number of recommendations, which was about 60 recommendations that called for things like no more SWAT centered scenarios. You know, we want inclusive programs and transparency that include community members in the planning and the implementation. And so these recommendations were adopted. We also took them to San Francisco because San Francisco is the fiscal agent of this money that's coming from the federal government. And they also looked and adopted many of the recommendations. And so for what comes next, we are hopeful that it really embodies the kind of program, the kind of framing that we were after.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:23] Can you tell me also about the project called Oakland Power Projects?Mohamed Shehk: [00:08:27] So there was a coalition, the Stop the Injunctions Coalition, that put an end to gang injunctions in Oakland. It was the first instance of a city in the United States ending gang injunctions as a result of grassroots mobilization and pressure. And so after that, we said, OK, we ended gang injunctions. This is tremendous. What do we want to do next? So we started surveying and interviewing Oakland community members around things like what does safety look like to you? Do you have instances where you feel like you need to call the cops? What kind of investments do you want to see in your community? And so we compiled all of these interviews. We started picking through them and found a common theme which was around health related emergencies and people saying, when these emergencies happen, I don't want to call the cops, but they're the only options that I have.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:19] Give me an example of something like that.Mohamed Shehk: [00:09:21] So it could be someone gets in a car accident. Someone is having a or experience as someone else, having a mental health crisis or someone just badly cuts themselves or injured themselves. They have to call 9 1 1. And in many instances, the police show up and either don't really help in what's often the case or exacerbate the situation.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:45] By criminalizing it.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:46] Exactly. What we did is we got together a number of health workers from counselors to kind of traditional like EMT as doctors, nurses, acupuncturists, the whole range, right? Street medics and we said, okay, now we want you to come up with different resources and come up with a number of different workshops that you can provide to communities on knowing your options when situations occur. They did exactly that and it was really powerful. They came up with three different tracks. One was acute emergencies. Another was mental health and behavioral crises. And another one was chronic illnesses and also tied in opiate overdoses. And so we began to offer these workshops to different community organizations, to places of business, to community groups, neighborhoods. And the workshops are really geared toward ending our reliance on policing by building up our know how and our capacity to be able to respond to situations in our communities.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:54] You must've gotten a lot of resistance because it sounds very radical when you say abolish prison.Mohamed Shehk: [00:10:59] We really want to understand the root causes of harm and violence. Right. Because oftentimes what the status quo has been is that when something happens, we're reactive and we respond. And oftentimes what that looks like is targeting black and brown people and putting them in cages. So if we really are to want to address harm and violence in our communities, social injustices, we have to understand the root causes. And we have to begin to see how we can transform the underlying conditions that gave rise to harm and violence in the first place. When we say prison industrial complex and when we say prison industrial complex abolition, we know full well that just taking the prisons away from society is not going to be the end of the game. Right. We have to understand that prisons don't exist in a vacuum. Policing does not exist in a vacuum. That we're gonna have to also look at the ways that different dynamics in society are integral to the prison industrial complex. And so changing social conditions and transforming the ways that we relate to each other is fundamental to understanding and achieving abolition.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:21] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness,a bi-weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley, celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with Mohammed Scheck, the media and communications director of Critical Resistance.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:43] And you've been successful. You're stopping a prison from being built locally here in San Francisco, is that correct?Mohamed Shehk: [00:12:49] Yeah. So one of our one of our campaigns here in the Bay Area is the No New S.F. Jail Coalition. What that essentially is, is the sheriff back in 2013 or so or even a little bit before, but that's when the coalition really came together. The sheriff wanted to build a replacement jail to one that already exists at 850 Bryant Street, which is known as the Hall of Justice in San Francisco. The interesting thing about the Hall of Justice is that nearly all of San Francisco, it's it's unanimous that that building needs to be torn down because it's seismically unsafe, it's decrepit, it's falling apart. And the sheriff wanted to build a replacement saying that that was his only option. What we did was we formed a coalition with a number of other organizations and effectively put a halt to that plan. So in 2015, we got the supervisors to vote unanimously and say we don't want to build a new jail. We actually want to look at alternatives. We want to look at ways to reduce the jail population while building up resources and looking at investments that actually support people coming back home and can support communities in need where we don't have to respond by criminalizing.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:08] So you guys are active participants in this new solution?Mohamed Shehk: [00:14:12] Yes, absolutely. And so right now, our effort is to actually close the jail at 850 Bryant Street. That's that's kind of the main thrust that we're working on right now. We do have one supervisor who has stepped up and is willing to put forward legislation toward shutting the jail this year. What we're looking at is opposing different kinds of reforms and different proposals that would actually legitimize other forms of punishment as a response. So like they'll say, OK, we're going to close this jail, let's put everyone on electronic monitoring and we're like, no, we don't want to expand surveillance. We don't want to expand the jail beyond its reach, which is essentially what electronic monitor shackles are. We don't want to move people to Alameda County, to Santa Rita jail. We want people to remain close to their families, close to their communities. And we don't want to reopen new jails or reopen old jails and refurbish them. So it really is about looking at what are the resources that we can build, what already exists, and then what do we need to build up around. Housing is a big one. I mean, you have nearly 30 percent of the jail population that was house less before they were arrested and booked. You have enormous racial disparities in the jail population in San Francisco,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:15:34] And in the nation.[00:15:36] Yeah, but I was going to say even more so than the rates that we see across the country where the city of San Francisco has about a 4 percent black population that is on the decline and black people make up 80 percent of the jail population. So you look at that enormous disparity and say what's really going on wrong? Right? What is, what's wrong? You have a significant number of people that face mental health issues and substance abuse. Just looking at these numbers, we can easily begin to say a new jail is not necessary. We do not need to be locking these people up. We can easily be thinking about other kinds of investments that would actually strengthen communities and make new jails obsolete.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:16] Tell me how you're getting funding for these programs, because they sound like they might be pretty expensive.Mohamed Shehk: [00:16:22] We do fund raising. We are actually fortunate to be majority grassroots funded. So about 65 percent of our of our funding comes from people, you know, donating monthly, giving us onetime gifts. We hold events, you know, fundraising benefits. In terms of the funding for the programs,were advocating for those to be taken away from the police, sheriffs, other agencies that are about criminalization. And we want to divert funding away from them into the resources that we want and need.Lisa Kiefer: [00:16:57] Have you seen an upsurge in interest over the 20 years that you guys have been working hard at this? It seems like there's more of an opening now.Mohamed Shehk: [00:17:05] We definitely have seen a tremendous upsurge in the popularity and interest in just in the concept of abolition. Right. What we've done and other community members, other organizations have done is to really make this concept common sense. Because you mentioned earlier that, you know, this can be kind of a scary radical concept for people. One of the things that we really do is to show how practical it is. We show the the way that abolition can be worked on, can be practiced on a day to day level.Lisa Kiefer: [00:17:38] How did you personally get involved with Critical Resistance. How long have you been there?Mohamed Shehk: [00:17:44] I've been involved in Critical Resistance for just over five years now. The way that I came to Critical Resistance was really beginning to recognize the role of policing and imprisonment in this country. My background as a Palestinian, as someone who has long been involved in organizing and in different activism around Palestine, solidarity, began to really look at what are the intersections between what's happening there and what we're experiencing here. When you see that the state of Israel imprisons such a significant portion of the Palestinian population, the aid that they get from the U.S. government in order to do so, that helps them and and allows them to do so. And then the ways that Israel really practices its tools of repression on the Palestinian population. So for many that follow this issue closely, you might know that Gaza is essentially a laboratory experiment for the state of Israel to test different tools, tactics, technologies, and then they export those technologies to governments all around the world by billing them as battlefield tested.Lisa Kiefer: [00:19:03] And I assume we are one of the recipients?Mohamed Shehk: [00:19:05] Absolutely.Mohamed Shehk: [00:19:06] And that's kind of what we get back for our military aid that we provide. When you look at this, the interconnections between policing and imprisonment there and in other places with the systems here, you begin to see that they're playing a fundamental role in whatever issue that you work on, whether that be environmental justice, whether that be public education, climate change, women's rights, LGBTQ rights and liberation, the prison industrial complex is tied to all of those issues. The prison industrial complex is fundamentally patriarchal. It's fundamentally toxic to the environment. It's fundamentally why we have such a disinvestment from public education. Right. Because of how many how much resources are being squandered on this enormous system. That for me, became very central in the kind of activism and organizing that I wanted to do.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:02] Are you also working inside prisons?Mohamed Shehk: [00:20:05] Yes. So our Oakland chapter has a inside, outside working group. Their primary drive is to communicate with people on the inside and to share resources on how to support organizing that's happening. We also do a lot of work in communicating with people on the inside to help inform the work that we're doing out here. We have a reading group that we do where we read articles from a newspaper that we published with people on the inside and then share and give reflections and circulate those. We publish a newspaper called the Abolitionists that goes to now over 7500 people in prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. Much of that content is actually composed and written by people that are currently or formerly imprisoned.Lisa Kiefer: [00:20:55] How about education programs inside?Mohamed Shehk: [00:20:58] We don't do education programs like formally, although we do share a lot of educational resources and organizing resources with folks on the inside. One of the main campaigns that we supported is the California Prisoner Hunger Strikes that happened. And so this was an effort that was organized by and led by people that were in prison in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. They had a list of demands and they initiated a hunger strike effectively aimed at ending solitary confinement, improving conditions, getting rights, ending discriminatory and criminalization policies. That hunger strike in 2013 reached over 30000 people in California prisons that joined in solidarity.Lisa Kiefer: [00:21:45] And what was the outcome?Mohamed Shehk: [00:21:46] That had a huge impact. It gained national and international attention and drew widespread condemnation on the practice of solitary, of locking someone up in a windowless cell for 23 hours a day. Because of that attention, the United Nations rapporteur on torture said that solitary confinement is a form of torture. The California legislature held a number of hearings on the use of solitary confinement. Mow in the midst of this happening, there was also a lawsuit that was initially brought by the prisoners themselves and then was taken up against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, CDCR. That was then taken up by a number of lawyers and legal organizations, including the Center for Constitutional Rights and that lawsuit in 2015 ended in a settlement by which the prisoners achieved a tremendous victory and effectively ended indefinite solitary sentences, which a lot of the prisoners were being held for five, 10, 15, 20 years in solitary confinement and were were put in indefinitely. It also greatly reduced and restricted the rationale by which someone could be placed in solitary confinement. Yeah, so we supported that as part of a coalition, the prisoner hunger strike solidarity coalition and Critical Resistance specifically kind of played the media house for the campaign.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:25] I recently read about your new headquarters location in the Temescal, which used to be Baby World, and it's such an interesting story. Would you mind sharing that?Mohamed Shehk: [00:23:35] Yeah, we had already been talking about needing to find a new location because the place that we're currently at, which is in downtown Oakland, the rents have been rising exponentially. And so we said to ourselves, we really have to start looking. This is just unsustainable. During the same time, some of us, you know, just through kind of personal and political connections, were having conversations with with other folks and the family that owned the building, the Cabello family, we had conversations with their daughter, Danya Cabello, and realized that this building was for sale. When we found that out, we jumped onto the opportunity and reached out to a loyal donor, Rachel Gilman, who is part of an organization called Resource Generation, which is essentially an organization that seeks to bring in people with wealth in order to redistribute their wealth to social justice causes. In talking with Rachel, we kind of put that on the table and just had kind of a frank conversation. This is what we're thinking. What do you think? And she loved the idea.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:43] She's only twenty nine.Mohamed Shehk: [00:24:44] Yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:45] She said herself that she thinks of giving as a "way to help up end the forces of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy that underlie her very own inheritance." And she said, "I believe ending this economic system that creates such drastic wealth inequality is necessary for all people's humanity and dignity, including my own and that of my family." I think this is revolutionary.Mohamed Shehk: [00:25:10] Yeah. Absolutely. And it's a beautiful space. We're in the process now of renovating the building to serve community organizations that are operating in the Bay Area. We want it to be a hub for social and racial justice organizing of all stripes. We want it to be a place where organizations and communities that are fighting to resist gentrification can have a place to hold their meetings, to have events, fundraisers. So we really want it to serve the community and to really pay homage to the legacy of organizing in Oakland.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:46] And it's kind of interesting because the owners, the Cabello's, their family had suffered under Pinochet in Chile. So they there was just all this serendipity that happened between you and them.Mohamed Shehk: [00:25:57] Yeah. No, absolutely. They come from a very kind of rough political history and also are very much tied to resistance movements. Right? So they were part of the first suit against basically the horrors of the Pinochet regime, the School of the Americas, and the role that the U.S. played in supporting the horrors of Pinochet.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:21] I did want to ask you what your greatest challenge has been in the time that you've been in this organization.Mohamed Shehk: [00:26:28] One of the greatest challenges that we face today is the way that the prison industrial complex is shifting, how much technological innovation is going on, the ways that technological innovation is being integrated into the prison industrial complex to expand its reach. Now, this can be like the physical tools and technologies that are developed or something that isn't so tangible, but it's just as dangerous, such as predictive policing or risk assessment algorithms. These are, in a way kind of taking away the the human element, so to speak, and putting in place algorithms and technologies that are actually serving to criminalize people in an automated fashion. It's a very scary concept to think about. We really need to resist attempts to say that we're going to make the prison industrial complex better by removing the bias of humans, by introducing technology. The society that we live in is built on racial oppression, gender oppression, oppression against sex. And so technologies are not going to solve that. We have to actually begin to transform those dynamics, eradicate systems of oppression if we want to achieve liberation.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:50] What's coming up for your organization?Mohamed Shehk: [00:27:52] As I mentioned, we are working on the NO NEW SF Jail effort to close 850 Bryant Street. Be on the lookout. Join our mailing list, visit our web site, sign up, because we'll be putting out information on how folks can can really plug into that fight and and close the jail. For folks in Los Angeles, we're gonna have an amazing event. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who's an amazing, inspiring, brilliant scholar, is going to be speaking. This comes after a huge victory where we, along with the Justice L.A. Coalition, stopped L.A. County from building a, quote unquote, mental health jail. That was an enormous victory. You've been fighting jails in Los Angeles for 10 years. And we wanted to celebrate and bring our communities together. We really just encourage folks to check us out.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:40] What is your web site?Mohamed Shehk: [00:28:41] criticalresistance.orgLisa Kiefer: [00:28:43] And can people volunteer in your organization?Mohamed Shehk: [00:28:45] Absolutely. Our Oakland chapter holds volunteer nights every Tuesday from 6 to 9 p.m. And that's in our current office. Not the not the new building, 1904 Franklin Street, Suite 5 0 4. And so come through, volunteer. We find ourselves in a very trying political moment. You know, the current presidential administration is unrelentless and attacks that it's waging on our communities, blatant racism and sexism and xenophobia that has come from this administration. We also have seen the ways that communities are resilient and resistant.Mohamed Shehk: [00:29:24] You saw the massive energy into opposition to shut down airports in response to the Muslim ban. We see opposition from ICE raids. We also want to resist the tendency or maybe even the appeal to want to go back to how things were, because there were a lot of things wrong and violent and racist in the policies in former administrations. Rather than shy away in this political moment, actually to raise up radical ideas like abolition as the tools, as the strategies that are actually going to get us to where we want to be, to a society where we truly have equity, self-determination and freedom.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:10] That's a nice, positive way to end this. Thank you, Mohamed, for coming in.Mohamed Shehk: [00:30:15] Thank you.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:16] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. We'll be back again in two weeks.

Saraswathi Devi and Claire Lavery

Method to the Madness host Lisa Kiefer speaks with CALSTAR Yoga program faculty Saraswathi Devi and Claire Lavery about their innovative adaptive yoga class on the UC Berkeley campus that teaches students how to help members of the public with disabilities.TranscriptLisa Kiefer: [00:00:27] You're listening to Method to the Madness. A bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. I'm your host, Lisa Kiefer. And today, I'm speaking with faculty members of CalStar Yoga, a program that helps people with disabilities practice yoga.Claire Lavery: [00:00:51] I'm Claire Lavery.Saraswathi Devi: [00:00:53] And I'm Saraswathi Devi.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:54] Welcome to the program. And you're both on the faculty of Cal Yoga.Saraswathi Devi: [00:00:58] I guess you could put it that way.Lisa Kiefer: [00:00:59] OK. Well, why don't you tell us about your program?Saraswathi Devi: [00:01:02] Well, we call it CalStar Yoga and at their recreational sports facility, the RSF, there is a little program called CalStar, which serves people who live with different kinds of disabilities and it's open to the public. So our part of that is an adaptive yoga class.Claire Lavery: [00:01:19] The class has been going on since 1996,.Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:22] Since 1996. Is it for just students or.Claire Lavery: [00:01:26] It's open to anyone with a disability in the community or in on campus, on staff, on faculty and any member of the gym or outside the community?, campus community can also join?Lisa Kiefer: [00:01:39] I thought it might be useful for our listeners to know how you define yoga and how you define disabilities.Saraswathi Devi: [00:01:47] Yoga is an ancient practice and it's a lot about body and mind health. It comes from an ancient root, yog, meaning to join. So it's all about balance of body and mind and the quiet aspects of the self and the more assertive aspects of the self. It has a lot to do with exercise, which is how most people in America know it. But it also has to do with mind training, with making your intellect more sharp and your emotions more clear and peaceful. And some people pursue it as a spiritual practice as well.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:22] And could you define disabilities for this class?Claire Lavery: [00:02:25] We define it as someone who is living with some kind of an ongoing condition that limits their presence, their ability to move in the world. Most of our participants have physical disabilities. We don't work too often with people with intellectual disabilities.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:44] Are you speaking of autism?Claire Lavery: [00:02:46] Right.Lisa Kiefer: [00:02:46] So you don't service.Claire Lavery: [00:02:48] We've had students with those kinds of disabilities in the class, but they've definitely been in the minority. And it's much more about the people who are living with more physical limitations, people with multiple sclerosis, people with cerebral palsy, people with post stroke syndrome, injury, trauma. So we've had quite a wide range of different kinds of disabilities represented in our class. And people with multiple disabilities are, have been long term members as well.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:14] I didn't know that this existed, honestly, and I want to know how it got founded. What was the reason behind it? Were you there at the beginning? Well, Saraswathi is the one to tell you.Saraswathi Devi: [00:03:24] Well, I've been practicing and teaching since the mid 70s. And as the years went on in the beginning, in the early days, we just had everybody in class. We would have kids and seniors and people who were injured or disabled. Everybody would just be glommed together.Lisa Kiefer: [00:03:42] On campus?Saraswathi Devi: [00:03:42] No, in the community in Berkeley. I was trained by and served very closely a yoga master from India who lived here part of the year. But then as the years went on, we found ourselves specializing. So I began to teach pre and post-natal yoga and children of all ages and seniors and adults at different levels. And then I found myself partly because I have some of my own disabilities. I found myself very attracted to the whole subject, observing a person who was not typically abled and so found myself to the Multiple Sclerosis Society and other places and began to develop a practice that seemed to be really helping people. And that gradually led me to UC Berkeley, where I was hired. Well, at first at the Hearst Gym and then down at the RSF.Lisa Kiefer: [00:04:28] Did they hear about you and hire you or did you know approach them?Saraswathi Devi: [00:04:31] They did. It's a kind of long, convoluted story. But there was a really forward looking woman working in the RSF who hired me. And what I have tried to do is in serving a person who is living with a profound disability or multiple disabilities, we're trying to offer them a practice that they would never otherwise have access to. So we're taking yoga to a place that you wouldn't imagine it could go, so somebody might not be able to speak or move outside of a power wheelchair, whose body might be contorted or who might be having a lot of involuntary movement and and meeting the whole person. So sometimes a person on the street will see somebody living with a disability and they'll either discount them or not have proper regard and respect for the humanity of that person. They just see a bunch of equipment on a wheelchair. But anybody who comes over the threshold into our class is automatically recognized for their rich humanity and just loved and respected instantly. So what I tried to do is take other disciplines that I recognize as another form of yoga in a way and sort of a broad way of thinking. So I'd like to add massage and acupressure and range of motion and sometimes even using free weights.Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:50] Do you use water?Saraswathi Devi: [00:05:51] No, we're not. I would...Lisa Kiefer: [00:05:53] There are pools here and I thought maybe...Saraswathi Devi: [00:05:53] True. Well, I love aqua yoga and if we had a way of somehow having a pool, we would do it for sure. But we lift people out of their wheelchairs who are not ambulatory. They'll be four or five or six of us carrying a person. Proper word is transfer out of the wheelchair onto the floor and then people who are much more mobile who will arrive in class with mobility aids like a cane or a walker, or even walking on their own in a maybe halting way. They're also in the class, so it's a broad range.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:28] I can imagine that you've encountered some really beautiful transformations for people who have never experienced this before.Saraswathi Devi: [00:06:36] It's a lot of hard work, but it's a joyful experience for all of us. For the students themselves. For Claire, for me, for our volunteers and for our young undergrads who help us every semester.Lisa Kiefer: [00:06:48] And how many undergrads help you?Claire Lavery: [00:06:50] Well, we have a range. We often have up to 60 or 70 students. They enroll in an undergraduate course that gives them two credits. It's a DeCal course. So they come and help us every week.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:03] And they learn how?Claire Lavery: [00:07:04] We train them. We supervise them. We keep an eye on them and they blossom. They do wonders. Many of them arrive without any experience. Many of them arrive thinking that they're going to be doing yoga. And we tell them right away that's not the case. But some of them decide that's not for them. Some of them despite their fears or trepidation, stay with us. And just are wonderful helpers.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:29] Are any of these students disabled that come to you?Claire Lavery: [00:07:31] Yes, some of them are. We've had many students who didn't tell us right away that they had a disability and some are significantly disabled, but would gradually feel safe enough to reveal that. And sometimes they found that they couldn't do the kind of heavy lifting or harder work that we asked them to do. And we are fine with having them help in whatever way they can.Lisa Kiefer: [00:07:54] It seems like they would have the most empathy and understanding of where that person might be.[00:07:59] Sometimes that's true.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:01] Not always, but.Claire Lavery: [00:08:02] Not always. And many of the students who come have a family member with a disability or an aging family member or have had an injury and and can apply that emotional information to the work that they're doing with the students.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:14] And how many of your students are Berkeley students and how many are community members generally?Saraswathi Devi: [00:08:21] At the moment, we don't even have one Berkeley student, but we've often had maybe four, three, four or five, maybe a professor or two. But actually the better part of the student population is from the surrounding area.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:35] Do you do this every semester?Saraswathi Devi: [00:08:36] We do it all year round and we have a summer session.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:39] OK. Claire, how did you get involved in this?Claire Lavery: [00:08:43] Well, I had started teaching yoga in the mainstream yoga classes here at Cal and had been doing that just for a couple of years. And the same wonderful woman who hired Saraswathi knew me and said, you know, there's this great class that you might like to help with. They're always looking for volunteers.Lisa Kiefer: [00:08:59] Is she still around?Saraswathi Devi: [00:09:00] NO,Suzanne McQuade, she retired. We miss her terribly.Claire Lavery: [00:09:06] Unfortunately, she's not there, but we're trying to keep it going. And she steered me to help out with this class. So I showed up as a volunteer. And I just kind of stayed. I learned a lot.Lisa Kiefer: [00:09:19] It seems so innovative. Do you know of any other programs, anywhere else that are like this or is this unique?Saraswathi Devi: [00:09:25] For a lot of years, we thought we were the only place in the country or maybe beyond. And we're starting to see others somewhat similar programs sprouting up, but we still haven't found anything that that goes as far as we go. And the reason why I say this, once we have the opening of class where we're sitting in concentric circles and doing a little bit of breathing or light meditation, then we will transfer people onto the floor. And then we essentially divide ourselves up into two groups where Claire works with the people who are more ambulatory during that part of the class. And I work with people who are less mobile and. So with the people who are more mobile, they'll be two usually two people serving each of the students and they'll be on the floor. They'll be sitting up. They'll be standing against a wall using chairs and yoga blocks and people's hands and arms and legs to help hold them with good alignment in yoga postures. And that actually draws up the strength and balance and alignment from within the person's body. It's not just an artificial hole. On my side of the room, we're moving people on the floor and forward and backward bending movements and yoga postures that look pretty conventional. But there might be two or even five or six people clustered around each of the students holding them at the shoulder at the low back and stretching their feet. And then we incorporate, as I said, a lot of massage and acupressure and other methods.Lisa Kiefer: [00:10:58] If you're just tuning in, you're listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on K A L X Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. Today, I'm speaking with faculty members of CalStar Yoga, a program that helps people with disabilities practice yoga.Saraswathi Devi: [00:11:24] We had a woman who came in the other day and this is a few months ago, and she had been injured rather badly in her back and was able to after her initial rehabilitation, this was probably 20, 15 or 20 years ago, after her initial rehabilitation, she was able to walk at first with a walker and then with a cane. And then she was able to somewhat haltingly walk in a conventional manner. And then as she started to age, gradually, she found herself in a wheelchair. However, it's a manual chair, so she gets around quite nicely. But she came in very suspicious, trepidatious, and frankly, bitter, understandably highly educated, very productive, talented woman. And she was a little resentful, understandably, of of this new loss of full action in her body and and in some ways in her personality and affect and effect. And so came into the class and we tried to humor her and love her and respect her. And then she said to us, I feel transformed. At the end of the first class now, she's a very stalwart member.Lisa Kiefer: [00:12:30] Once you founded this, what were your major challenges in getting this up and running and accepted?Claire Lavery: [00:12:37] We've had challenges. Initially, the class was really only supported by volunteers from the community and Saraswathi would put out messages in the free papers. This was several years ago before there was a big Internet presence, posters and flyers and put out the word on the street asking for people to come and volunteer. And so we struggled along and it would only be maybe five volunteers and we still have about that time, 10, 15, 20 yoga students. So we couldn't have two people working with each yoga student. We didn't have the manpower of a woman person power. So we would revolve. And we'd do some poses as one person and then we'd set them up comfortably and we'd move on to the next. So that was a little difficult. We had a really innovative and wonderful undergraduate volunteer who had a brainstorm in about 2003 and said, we should make this into a DeCal class because then students would get credit and then.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:30] ..Tell me what a DeCal class is because some people may not know.Claire Lavery: [00:13:33] A DeCal class is an undergraduate led class in the university and there are hundreds of them. They range from things like baking, hip hop music, to electronic engineering theory or more esoteric interests that students in in Cal hold and want to share.Lisa Kiefer: [00:13:52] And there's credit, course credit?[00:13:53] There's course credits. So our student who was interested in social work and in our class really wanted to make this accessible to more calendar grads. He thought they'd be interested. And so he went registered as a DeCal. And he was right. People came. When that happened, we had many more students and we did start to get the numbers of people we wanted to see to really fully support our yoga students. I know Saraswathi's dream is to have 75 students every semester so that we can have a really full bodied support group and we get pretty close sometimes now.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:29] Do students have to pay to get into this class?Saraswathi Devi: [00:14:32] Yeah, it's a modest fee and they get a little bit of a discount for proving that they they might come in in a wheelchair and not able to speak, but they still are required to bring a doctor verification. That's understandable.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:43] I wanted to ask you what you think your greatest impacts have been. You've been at this for several years now,.Saraswathi Devi: [00:14:49] Since 1996.Lisa Kiefer: [00:14:50] Yes. So what do you think has been the greatest impacts or accomplishments?Saraswathi Devi: [00:14:55] I think as far as the yoga students, probably the best benefit that they derive from the class is psychological. They feel seen, respected, loved. They are touched. And I don't mean that in any kind of negative way. They're touched in a nurturing and helpful way. And many of them also experienced good physical effects. They're more relaxed. They feel more cheerful. They have better sleep. Sometimes they have a considerable reduction in pain and stiffness. Many of them find that their circulation has improved, their digestion, a whole host of physical benefits. So I would say really in some ways, though, it's more, one of our students who had been coming for some years who is living the after effects of having been assaulted. So he was brain injured. So he asked what we would call TBI, traumatic brain injury. It affects his vision. So he's legally blind, almost completely blind, and his brain somehow recovered quite amazingly. So he has a very sharp mind, but very halting speech. So he has a speech aphasia. So he walks and speaks in a halting manner and uses a cane. So one day he said to us, when I come into this room, I am treated utterly differently from anywhere else that I go. People just see me as a disability and don't see me. So that's a huge part of it. For our yoga students, volunteers, the undergrads, we always at the end of every semester we ask them to write a reflection paper and we'll give them a certain theme, but essentially it's asking them in some way or other to tell us what their experience was and what they derived from it. And many of them, well, undergrads often will try to write to what they think the professor wants to hear. But nevertheless, you can hear a lot of sincerity in it, too. Most of them will say they were, they had never met a disabled person, with a small exception of some of them who do have as Claire said a disabled person in their family. Many of them have never met a disabled person, or if they have or seen people in the community, they've discounted them or really not given them much credence or attention. And then they also will say that they were terrified that they were gonna do something wrong. They didn't want to touch or hurt anybody. And then they started to get to know our students while we're practicing. There's a lot of really fun, gossip and conversation and everybody's giving each other mutual support and mutual interest in each other's lives. And so they discovered that these are full human beings. Some of them are UC grads. As I said, some are professors. They're all incredibly interesting. And so they find their lives utterly transformed. And we've had a small percentage of of them also change their majors. We've had some who decided to be an attorney giving pro bono services to people who were disabled and any number of really interesting trajectories to their story as they moved through the semester and have their their experience transformed. For me, it's impossible to describe. It's each of the people that we serve is an entire universe as it is for any human being. And I've gotten to know almost all of them, at least those who've stayed for many, many years. I've gotten to know them very well. Some of them have become very dear and close friends. So for me, it's it's like seeing the face of all of creation in the eyes of each person. So I feel like it's the huge super consciousness of the universe. Me and this other person in this lovely communication together across all conventional societal membranes, across any way that you might think that there's an encumbrance when you are communicating with someone who is not is typically abled.Lisa Kiefer: [00:18:33] Well, that kind of leads me to the next question, which is when you're doing these movements, do you also provide some sort of a lecture on the philosophy of what you were just talking about, which is, it's so beyond the physical, that we can, you know, reach each other beyond the flesh.Saraswathi Devi: [00:18:52] We do that in a variety of really subtle ways, and we do it increasingly quietly coming in the side door for our young undergrads as the semester goes on, through reading assignments, through the opening in class, where we give them some internal practices and in some other ways. So.Claire Lavery: [00:19:11] I agree. And Saraswathy said it so beautifully. We don't approach them head on. These are skeptical young people and really don't want to be told what to think or how to think. But they do come into class pretty much glazed over and heavy and distracted. And in our opening session, where we do some meditation and some breathing exercises, you can see them visibly relax. And we have had people, undergraduates right in the end of this semester that that meditation session was what transformed their experience and how they've got to understand what we were really doing. Many of them say that they are now going to start doing yoga. Of course, as we've noted, that might just be so that they look good in our eyes. And I do see some of them in my classes, in the mainstream classes. We do have some readings that we ask them to consider. And when we veer from the very technical or practical readings into a little more theory, they're sometimes a little bit at sea. We just had them reading the Bhagavad Gita which is a pretty familiar text to many Westerners, but it's dense and it talks about a lot of mythological people that are not familiar in the Western culture, and that's enough to really put up a wall for many of the students. So when we discuss it, we have to kind of break down and ask them what did they understand? And some of them are just unwilling to engage in that. They want to be, they're scientists, they're practical, they're 21st century kids. So some of them get it from the meditation. Some of them get it from the theory and the Bhagavad Gita. Some of them have their own understanding or practice of yoga that they bring with them. And some have other traditions that are congruent or complementary to the kinds of thoughts that we were just discussing.Saraswathi Devi: [00:21:03] And partly also when we're teaching a technique because they're learning hands on as we go over the semester, we're not training them for weeks. And then we have weekend workshops throughout the semester, several of them. But part of what we're doing, too, is we're helping them to see a link between this kind of beautiful ancient ritual form of exercise and the quietness and focus of mind and emotion that comes to the yoga student who's being served, but also comes to the volunteers who are doing the serving. Because here we are, we're holding a little bit challenging position and we have to breathe slowly. Yes, there is a lot of fun conversation in between. But there's also a lot of slow, deep breathing. And anyone who experiences that kind of breath on a regular basis will find that it has a very focusing effect on the mind and emotions and makes your brain more clear. So one of the things I like to say when we're doing an opening meditation with these undergrads is this will help your memory, your ability to focus and do well on finals. So sometimes that..Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:04]that's kind of a carrot...Saraswathi Devi: [00:22:05] that helps.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:06] Well, this Igen generation after the millennials is the first to have grown up with so much technology in their lives. Have you been able to monitor the difference in the students you've had over the years since technology has become so prevalent in their lives?Claire Lavery: [00:22:22] We kind of saw a sea change about 10 years ago in the way the attention spans worked. Students are a little, a little antsy at the start of class. They generally settle in and they can focus. They're intelligent and they're used to working hard and intellectually hard. But they're not always used to working emotionally hard or are focusing in a more subtle way. We do have them take their phones out, turn them off and put them on the side of the room for class. And that's challenging for a lot of them.Saraswathi Devi: [00:22:52]we have a little bit of fun with that.Lisa Kiefer: [00:22:55] Probably helps them in school. What you're doing?Saraswathi Devi: [00:22:58] They've said that. Yeah. So we all benefit everybody. And they. One of the things that they will say to us often is this was a great ending of my school week. I've left class feeling really refreshed and ready for the weekend.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:12] Do you have anything else going on that you want to tell us about coming up?Saraswathi Devi: [00:23:16] People have been asking Claire and me in all of the different universes that she and I both live in. Asked if we would please do a teacher training. So we're in the very, very first steps of organizing that. And we're going to do it collaboratively between the two of us and a third person who has been an on and off volunteer with us, who's very talented. So we're just in the beginning stages of formulating that. And then we have to do outreach and funding and all of that.Lisa Kiefer: [00:23:42] And where do you see this heading out to?Saraswathi Devi: [00:23:43] We'd like to serve other yoga teachers who are interested to make a foray into this universe. And many of them, most of them have not. They couldn't even imagine it. And we'd also like to find ways of influencing and giving some practical strategies to someone who's a family member or a caregiver who could help someone with a disability at home.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:06] It sounds like you've got a lot of data over the years that you maybe collected?Saraswathi Devi: [00:24:10] We do. It's it's very informal, but yeah.Lisa Kiefer: [00:24:13] Still, that's very valuable. I would think from a lot of different people it would be of value. Are you going to put together guidelines, like a book?Saraswathi Devi: [00:24:22] There will be our training manual. Yeah. Okay. And it may end up and we'll see. Claire, we're both so busy, but it may end up that we'll have satellite programs that will come from that where we'll we'll start with a basic teacher training and then we may find that we'll do some specialty as an extra specialty training over there. You might do some kind of weekend workshopy kinds of things. We haven't figured it all out. Yes. But it's something that we really we have a responsibility to do. We need to share it more widely than just here.Claire Lavery: [00:24:53] We would like to have medical professionals in our trainings that would learn a different way to communicate and work with the people they see on a very regular basis.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:03] Are you talking about physical therapists?Claire Lavery: [00:25:05]Physical therapists, doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, the whole spectrum. We want them to be aware that this is an alternative to the very strict regime of drugs and hope.Saraswathi Devi: [00:25:17] You know, we have the father of one of our students who lives with cerebral palsy one time said to me, what you're doing here is much better than most of the doctoring my daughter is ever going to receive. He's a physician. I thought that was maybe a little dramatic, but actually in a lot of cases, I'm sure it's quite true.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:34] If somebody is interested in the community, whether that's a student or a regular person out there, how would they get a hold of you? Do you have a Web site? And how can they help you or join up?Saraswathi Devi: [00:25:47] One way is to contact the RSF, the recreational sports facility, on the UC Berkeley campus on Bancroft at Dana. And it's right near the student union.Lisa Kiefer: [00:25:58] Is that reachable via the Web?Claire Lavery: [00:26:00] There is an online website presence under CalStar. So if you look under recreational sports and there's a drop down menu and you'll have to look, I think it's under group exercise or you can type in the search bar. CalStar, one word C-A-L-S-T-A-R and that's the program. And if you write CalStar yoga, it should bring you to the page that describes our class.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:24] And if people wanted to volunteer, it's the same. It is the same place you go to the same place, whether you want to volunteer or take the class.?Claire Lavery: [00:26:32]Right. And in either case, if you're interested in volunteering or in being a student, you could drop in to one of our Friday afternoon classes and just see the first class.Lisa Kiefer: [00:26:41] And where are those classes located? Where would they go?Claire Lavery: [00:26:44] They're in the RSF, the main gym on campus at Bancroft Way. They're in the combatives room, which is unfortunate for a yoga class. It's on the first floor. You'll have to tell the guard at the gate that you're going to CalStar Yoga and they'll let you in and you'll walk down the hall. It's the last door on your left.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:00] And how long are your sessions, generally?Claire Lavery: [00:27:01] We meet from 1:30 to 3:30 Friday afternoons every week.Saraswathi Devi: [00:27:06] I like sometimes for someone who's inquiring, who might be interested. Who really wants a description of the class beforehand. Some people like to just jump in. Everybody has a different way. I would be happy to give my email address if somebody wanted to contact me. I would be very pleased to describe the program and just try to light a little psychological fire in the person. So it's I teach and live in a yoga and meditation center. So yogalayam is all one word spelled y o g a l a y a Lavery: [00:27:42] And it is a good idea before joining the class, especially as a yoga student, to communicate with us so that we can both understand what you are going to experience.Lisa Kiefer: [00:27:52] Before we leave today, I wanted to ask you what advice you might give someone before they start this program.Saraswathi Devi: [00:27:59] And I believe you're talking about people who would come in as a volunteer and also people who would come in as a yoga student. I would say for the volunteers, please come with an open mind and realize that you will probably learn more than you thought you could and that you will enjoy what you're doing and feel a certain psychological upliftment that you might not ever have imagined you could. For the yoga students, again, I would ask the person to come to the class with an open mind and see if they feel like it's a good fit and give themselves a chance, coming even more than once to see how we can stretch the practice to accommodate anyone's needs.Claire Lavery: [00:28:42] I would also just advise everyone who comes to come with an open heart and to be open to the transformations that might not feel familiar.Lisa Kiefer: [00:28:54] It seems like this is such a valuable experience for anyone of any age to to take part.Saraswathi Devi: [00:29:01] I would say the human body, mind and heart have an amazing ability to survive. If you find yourselves, caught yourself, compromised in some way. If you're not able to garner all of the themes and abilities and structures and functions that you typically have or used to have, other people can come in and make up some of that difference. They can support you not only physically with their hands, but really, I would say psycho spiritually surrounding you and helping you to find and sustain what is profound and essential in yourself. Even if you can't do it all by yourself.Claire Lavery: [00:29:43] I can say from my experience, I am an able bodied yoga instructor. I have been fortunate to be fairly strong and healthy. I get so much out of this class. I get emotionally an uplift. I get a calming effect. I get love. And I'm a cynical New Yorker, so it works for me.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:07] Well, I want to thank you both.Claire Lavery: [00:30:08] Thank you so much for having me.Saraswathi Devi: [00:30:09] Thank you very, very much.Lisa Kiefer: [00:30:16] You've been listening to Method to the Madness, a bi weekly public affairs show on KALX Berkeley celebrating Bay Area innovators. You can find all of our podcasts on iTunes University. We'll be back again in two weeks.