BLOG. Young, enthusiastic and passionate: the Let's Do It! America Congress

By Neil Bailey

I have had the pleasure over the last week to take part in the Let’s Do it, World: Congress of the Americas in San Salvador, El Salvador. It is one of four regional conferences around the world – two in St.Petersburg and Nepal have already occurred, and the congress in Benin (Africa) is happening as I put these words to paper. These four conferences are being held to bring together many of the 96 countries who have already participated in the inaugural World Cleanup 2012, connecting them to each other, local and international NGOs, and looking for opportunities to share successes and failures while reinforcing the movement that aims to clean up the world.

The week began (for me) in the house of Gilbert Argueta in San Salvador. Organizers from Estonia had already been there for a few days, and had firmly established a command centre in Gilbert's home with the rest of the El Salvadorian host team. Papers and white boards on the wall, too many computers logged in to his wifi, and an over-enthusiastic (i.e. - Not neutered) dog named Ness resulted in a frantically wonderful welcome to a beautiful country. I realized that this was not going to be anything like a ‘normal’ conference.

I’ll be honest. The El Salvadorians have taken on a nearly insurmountable task. Where in Nova Scotia, Canada, we are fortunate enough to have sophisticated multi-stream waste diversion infrastructure and the economic means to continually refine and improve our systems, El Salvadorians live with a very different reality. I see rampant litter in the streets of San Salvador, open garbage fires on the roadside, and thick black bus exhaust pointed at bicycles dodging cars. I see multiple different levels of poverty, and western capitalism thrusting up through the bricks and tires and razor wire like some poverty-resistant weed, offering up the opportunity to participate in the cycle of disposable consumption that we North Americans have somehow accepted as normal. This is a relatively recent phenomenon here, as well. A friend from El Salvador who works with the rural ‘campesinos’ told me the story that many of these people had grown up with the ability to dispose of their waste in nature - in the fields and forests where they lived - a mere 30 years ago. When once they were peeling bananas and throwing the ‘wrapper’ on the ground to decompose, many of those bananas have been replaced by chocolate bars, the wrappers composed of plastics and foil. The concept of waste that can’t be recycled by nature was a foreign one. As McDonald’s and Starbucks continue to sprout, they use the same disposable packaging here as they do anywhere else. Yet the social and economic infrastructure to dispose of it properly doesn’t yet exist, putting the country at a severe disadvantage. Without the ability to make all of this waste ‘disappear’ as it does for us in Canada, it is truly a wicked problem.

I wondered why, of all the causes in the world, our hosts have chosen this one. Surely, there must be an easier way to get involved with your community and make a difference.  My logical brain had a difficult time reconciling the enthusiasm of the El Salvadorian team with the relative impossibility of their task.

So I tried to quiet that part of my brain, dove into the conference and the hospitality our hosts so readily offered, and tried to understand how we had all come together in Latin America to talk about our common goal of cleaning up the world. And that’s when the learning started.

The El Salvadorian team is an enthusiastic, motivated and incredibly social group. From all the emails and communications I had with them prior to the conference, I was expecting a group of young, established professionals who were looking to give back to the community in their spare time. Instead, I was met by a group which was comprised primarily of students, with most of the organizing team barely older than 20. It was inspiring (to say the least) that this conference had been organized by a group that is so young. Instead of a week of separate hotel rooms, formal networking events, and paid tour guides, I found myself sleeping and eating at the organizer’s homes, meeting their friends and family, and being shown around the country by the organizers themselves. The energy was high, and conversations ran long into the night as we discussed everything from indigenous culture, to digital fabrication, to design from waste, to the cultural habits and expectations that drive our consumer habits and behavioral patterns. The wisdom in this crowd was evident, and they wore their passions on their sleeves.

Among the attendees, there were participants from Argentina, St.Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Russia, Peru, Estonia, Canada, the Philippines and the U.S. No single language was common to everyone, and there were no professional translators at the conference. Yet, it was second nature for the El Salvadorians to quickly, casually and efficiently identify those in need of help. I modified my presentation to try and better suit the group, and one of our El Salvadorian friends jumped at the opportunity to translate my presentation to the group as I spoke. To an English speaker from Canada, the process may have seemed chaotic, but things progressed (almost always) as planned, and resulted in a tremendous amount of social and cultural learning.

Denis Stark, the organizer of Let’s do it, Russia put this all in context during his presentation when he reminded us all that “We’re not fighting litter – we’re fighting isolation.” He couldn’t have been more right, and couldn’t have said this to a better group.  There was an implicit understanding among all the conference participants that cleanups are not a solution to our global waste problems – they’re simply an opportunity to gather people together, take action in a tangible way, and express our heartfelt desire to develop lasting solutions to a disposable lifestyle. Solutions to global waste problems would not come from simple regulations and infrastructure improvements. They would have to be the result of a shift in consciousness, a reconnecting to each other and the earth, and a collective reimagining of our roles in society.

That’s when I realized why the El Salvadorians weren’t seeing the impossibility of their task. They are focused on something bigger. Their branch of the World Cleanup movement is about passion, self-expression and the need to connect, both to each other, and to the rest of the world. They give of themselves willingly, without concern for what they receive in return. They are proud of their work, but more proud to share their country with people who can appreciate how beautiful its places and people are. And they seem to have absolutely no idea what the concept of impossibility means.

This is exactly why I loved them so much, and the reason that I believe they will do great things in their country. Young El Salvadorians are quite literally the children of a new generation, being born on the heels of a 12 year long civil war that left tens of thousands dead, and trust at a premium. They feel that change is possible, they are quickly connecting with other young people and organizations around Latin America, and they are finding kindred spirits around the world. In a country with a median age of 25 (Canada is 40), they have a voice that carries weight, and they aren’t afraid to get dirty while trying to get their message across. They know that their country deserves the love and enthusiasm they have for it, and they want to play a pivotal role in shaping a new era that puts social profit on par with personal profit.

If the goal of the Let’s Do It movement is to redefine normal as we try and figure out what a sustainable system of production and consumption looks like, then we need to think new thoughts, and build new relationships. From what I experienced during my stay in El Salvador, the team here is incredibly comfortable entertaining new people and new ideas, and they are actively seeking input from other people, and other cultures. They have given me insight into my own country’s strengths and weaknesses, and have shown me how wonderfully productive a little bit of chaos can be. I will always be grateful for this experience, and I hope that it changes me, and makes me grow.

Tired and a little sunburnt, I couldn’t be happier writing this on my last night here. My faith in the power of people with a dream is stronger than ever, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

With much love and respect,
Let’s do it, majes.


Photos by Jaime Sansivirini
See other photos from the conference on Let’s do it! El Salvador FB page »