I decided to start Capital Good Fund (CGF) in response to the 2008 financial collapse because I feel that, in the face of calamity, it is far better to take action than to lament. From day one–indeed, from the time I moved to Providence, RI for a masters program in environmental studies at Brown–my interest has been the intersection of poverty and the environment (my masters thesis deals with this very topic–you can check it out here). Why? Because it turns out that the poor bear the brunt of environmental destruction. Consider this: low-income Americans spend 17% of their income on energy, compared to 4% for the rest of the population. This makes them far more vulnerable to energy price volatility. At the same time, low-income families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with poor indoor and outdoor air quality. What’s more, by virtue of more often living in low-lying areas, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change (something Hurricane Katrina clearly demonstrated) and less able to evacuate from and rebuild after a storm.
Unfortunately, for the first couple of years as Executive Director of CGF, I’ve had to focus my efforts on the more immediate challenges of fundraising, building infrastructure, developing policies and procedures, and so on. In addition, I’ve had to accept that just tackling poverty is hard enough without incorporating an environmental justice component. That said, I never gave up on the idea of using equitable financing in order to tackle poverty and redress environmental degradation.
Last Monday, two ‘events’ transpired, only one of which elicited national anger. On the one hand, 25,000 children around the world died from eminently treatable illnesses like diarrhea–25,000 human lives, with all their potential, their beauty, their hope, snuffed out due to a lack of clean water to drink or cheap antibiotics to treat them. On the other hand, the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks on a last minute call that, observers around the country agree, was blown by replacement referees. Now, there are many angles to this. For one thing, the regular, unionized referees have been locked out by the NFL due to a dispute over pay and pensions, creating a fascinating dynamic whereby numerous anti-union figures, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, find themselves begging for a return to the unionized referees. What’s more, it’s been absolutely fascinating to read about the fact that, despite a litany of horrible calls by these amateur refs, many of which have literally changed the outcomes of games, viewership has actually gone up! So it seems that the old adage ‘there is no such thing as bad publicity’ holds true.
Anyway, where was I? Oh, right, national anger. So one of these two events got the President of the United States, presidential and vice presidential candidates Romney and Ryan, several governors, talk show hosts, tv show hosts, bloggers, newspapers and countless millions of ordinary Americans to unleash a unified crescendo of dismay, disgust and disdain for…the NFL. The fact that so many died quiet deaths in distant villages, crowded cities and everything in between? Not a peep. Not a word. Not even a side note on the evening news.
Andy and Jill with a Grameen Bank Center Manager and Borrowers
If you talk to anyone at Grameen Bank they will tell you that the real bank can only be found by going to the villages where Grameen operates. Grameen, after all, means rural, and in fact by law Grameen can only operate its lending programs in the villages. It is for this reason that on our third day in Bangladesh we–Jill, me, an Australian named Mark, our translator Matin and Mark’s translator Yunus–are all crammed into a mini-van barreling down the roads that lead to Rashahi, the zone that we will be visiting. Traffic here is an eclectic mix of motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, cars, trucks hauling absurdly large loads and comically unstable buses all chaotically weaving and swerving, honking and narrowly avoiding catastrophe.
After 6 hours of bouncing along these roads we are happy, if not relieved, to have arrived at the Branch that will be our home for the next 10 days. It is a two-story building–the first occupied by Grameen–with two small rooms for guests. In order to understand where branches fit into the Grameen hierarchy, I need to take a moment to explain how the bank is organized. For in truth, Grameen is nothing short of an organizational miracle. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while Dr. Muhammad Yunus is praised for recognizing that the poor can be credit worthy, his real, lasting achievement is in the details of how he goes about delivering that credit to them in a cost-effective manner.
This photo is from our first flight from Boston to London on 1-01-10
Jill and I are currently in the airport in Bahrain waiting for the third, and final, leg of our 28 hour trip to Dhaka, Bangladesh. We left Boston on the first of January at 7:20 PM and arrived in London at 6:50 AM on the second. As you can see from the photo above, we really lucked out in terms of our seating on the first flight: we got the seats that are usually reserved for flight attendants when they take naps on long flight; as a result, we had seats that could recline all the way down (even though we were in coach) and we had as much leg room as we could possibly want! The flight went smoothly and, as I have been reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich–an absolutely fascinating history of Hitler’s Germany–the time passed rather quickly. Our second flight took us from London to Bahrain, where we are currently in the midst of a seven hour layover before one final flight to Dhaka.
Several weeks ago I was nominated–and then auditioned–to speak at the commencement ceremony for graduating graduate students from Brown. Though I was not selected to be the speaker (I have some conspiracy theories on that front, I assure you!) I would like to share the text of the speech that I wrote, because I believe it captures the essence of how I feel about leaving the confines of the university and entering the ‘real world.’
New Opportunities in A Global Century of Innovation
At first glance it would seem that now is an inopportune time to leave the grounds of the university and venture out into the world. After all, between rising unemployment, a financial system in disarray, and a whole host of other local, regional and global problems ranging from urban blight to climate change, it would seem that the prospects for putting our newly minted skills to work as teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs and employees of firms large and small are, to put it bluntly, dim. Yet we are also entering a world rife with unprecedented opportunities for those willing and able to take advantage of them. An explosion of innovation in information technology has made it easier for more people to collaborate to tackle poverty, to create new products and services, and to share thoughts, ideas and experiences. The cost of renewable energy is falling. Social entrepreneurs are creating self-sufficient businesses that solve social and environmental problems. The list is seemingly endless, and I believe that regardless of our particular field of study, as graduates of one of the finest universities in the nation, we are in a unique position to seek out these opportunities and apply our intellectual and financial capital toward them.
As soon as Mike and I incorporated our environmental services company–The Capital Good Group, Inc.–on January 1st, we wanted to get to work branding ourselves as a socially minded, mission driven company dedicated to serving people and the planet. Our first step was to hire Douglas Bonneville, owner of BonFX, the company that designed and built this web site, to create a logo for both The Capital Good Group, as well as The Capital Good Fund. The idea was to develop a logo that would convey the concept of a “triple bottom line” (social, environmental and profitability); that would be applicable to environmental consulting, microfinance and any other endeavors we undertake using the ‘Capital Good’ name, brand and concept.
After several rounds with Doug, we finally settled on the above logo. Mike and I really thrilled with the way in which it conveys the concept of three without being oppressive about it, and how the shapes in the logo can be viewed as trees, or a family, or just interesting geometric shapes. Read on to see the logo for the Fund.
Image Credit: J. Miles Carey/Knoxville News Sentinel, via Associated Press
Coal Is An Awful Energy Source
For all the efforts of the coal industry to make it seem like it’s possible for there to be such a thing as “clean coal” (Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection has been running some great ads dispelling that myth), yesterday’s disaster in Tennessee has demonstrated yet another way in which coal is a nasty, dirty, awful source of energy. What happened was the following, as described by the New York Times: a “breach occurred when an earthen dike, the only thing separating millions of cubic yards of ash from the river, gave way, releasing a glossy sea of muck, four to six feet thick, dotted with icebergs of ash across the landscape.” The ash is actually fly ash, “a byproduct of the burning of coal to produce electricity” that “contain[s] significant amounts of carcinogens and retains the heavy metal present in coal in far higher concentrations.” This isn’t the first time such a breach has occurred, though it is probably the worst, having destroyed 15 homes and released 2.6 million cubic yards of toxic heavy metals. So add toxic sludge to air pollution, climate change, danger to miners, and mountaintop removal to the dangers posed by coal mining and the burning of coal to generate electricity. Isn’t that enough to convince America to switch to renewable energy?
Winning a $500 Grant
Two days ago, as I was sitting in my apartment and looking out the window at the snow piled on the branches and walkways of Providence, I received a call informing me that I had won a $500 grant from dosomething.org for The Capital Good Fund. Every week, Do Something selects a social entrepreneur that is under the age of 24 to win a $500 grant. I applied, along with the rest of the Capital Good Fund team, several months ago, and I had long ago forgotten about the grant. Although the money itself isn’t much–it will provide about half of a citizenship loan–it also provides our project with great exposure, gives us access to more networking, and provides us with additional, and much needed, technical assistance. Receiving the grant also gave me a boost of confidence as I enter a very busy of time during which I start a company, launch a non-profit and write my masters thesis.
Incorporating The Capital Good Group, Inc
In other exciting news, Mike and I finally incorporated our environmental consulting company last Friday. The Capital Good Group, Inc., will officially be a corporation in the state of Rhode Island as of January 1, 2009. The reason why we finally decided to incorporate is that it’s becoming increasingly clear that a lot of people are getting into the game, and we don’t want to be left behind. Specifically, we found out that the people in Berkeley, California, who came up with the bond model–wherein the up-front cost of doing efficiency or renewable energy upgrades is covered by a low-interest loan from the City, and the loan is paid back in the form of a property tax add-on equal to or less than the savings from the installation–started their own company. The company, Renewable Funding, LLC, helps municipalities implement the bond model. Well, I saw an article saying that the model, if implemented nationwide, has the potential to be worth $240 billion, and at the moment there is only one company doing it. Hence the urgency to get it on the game.
In last week’s third and final presidential debate, John McCain spent a considerable amount of time talking about “Joe the Plumber.” Joe is a guy that met Obama on the campaign trail, and who confronted him about the fact that his tax policy would “penalize” him if he were to buy the business he works for and see a dramatic rise in his income, because Obama’s tax plan calls for tax cuts for people that earn below $250,000, and tax increases for those that earn more. Now the amazing thing is that, for a lot of people, Joe’s complaint rings true even though they will most likely never earn more than a quarter million dollars a year. As I starting thinking about this bizarre dynamic, it occurred to me that we’ve heard from a lot of Joes during this campaign: Joe six-pack, Joe the Plumber and Joe Biden. But there’s another Joe we haven’t heard about–most likely because he died over a century ago–but whose story, immortalized in folk songs, has a lot to say about the state of the country and its potential for greatness.
A lot of you will have heard of Joe HIll because Joan Baez often sang, and probably still does sing, about his life. To put it briefly, Joe Hill was a songwriter, labor activist and union member, who was framed for murder and then executed by firing squad in November of 1915. In the version of the song about his life that Joan Baez sings, the lyrics go as follows: