One of the biggest challenges to executing an effective response to the pandemic is data. Without enough accurate data, it’s impossible to know exactly how far-reaching and deadly the coronavirus is. There’s still so much uncertainty about basic things like the infection rate of asymptomatic carriers, or how easy it is for them to pass it on to others.
As this crisis continues to drag on, we’re starting to see some of the damaging results of incomplete data. As It’s become increasingly difficult for communities to advocate for the resources they need without it.
One place, where the lack of support has become a lived reality, are the favelas in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro.
With 2.3 million reported cases of COVid-19 as of July 24, Brazil comes in a distant second place with roughly half as many as the United States. But as Theresa Willamson, the founder and director of Catalytic Communities points out, “the data from Brazil [is] so problematic in so many ways, there’s really no way to do these comparisons now.”
Across Rio de Janeiro, people living in favelas make up nearly a quarter of the city’s population. And yet, there are no official counts of infections specific to each favela. Chronic neglect and a lack of access to public services in these communities puts their residents at a greater risk of community transmission of the virus, and ultimately death, than other areas of the city.
Witnessing the catastrophic toll the virus is taking, a coalition of favela-based organizations, and their supporters like Theresa and her staff, have teamed up to create the COVID-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard with the goal to decrease the spread of COVID-19, keep residents informed in new developments, pressure the government to implement public policies, and layout an accurate view of COVID-19’s impact on favelas.
While working on her PhD in city planning 20 years ago, Theresa moved back to Rio after realizing how many positive things were actually happening in the favelas. Soon after, she founded Catalytic Communities to support the development of local initiatives. She also wanted to change the dominant narrative about these communities with the ultimate goal of securing more productive public policies that build on the unique histories of the favelas.
Over the course of our conversation, we discussed many of the favela-led responses to the pandemic — things like food distribution, communication techniques, and the tracking dashboard. We also touched on the importance of historical memory following disasters and other crises’ and how Rio’s legacy of being the world’s largest slave port is continuing to exacerbate the ongoing social disaster the favelas were facing before the pandemic.
In addition to the reading the full transcript of the interview with Theresa Williamson below, you can listen to it on The Response Podcast:
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The Response from Shareable.net, is a documentary film, book, and podcast series exploring how communities are building collective resilience in the wake of disasters.
Below is a transcript of the episode, modified for your reading pleasure.
Tom Llewellyn: Hi Theresa. Thanks for coming on The Response.
Theresa Williamson: Hi, Tom. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Will you start by introducing yourself and sharing a little bit about your personal journey?
Okay. I’m Theresa Williamson. I’m an urban planner, and 20 years ago I founded a nonprofit here in Rio, in Brazil, called Catalytic Communities. I’m originally from Brazil, from Rio, but I moved to the States when I was six, and I grew up there, went to all schools in the U.S., and then when I was working on a PhD in city planning, I decided to come back, work with the cities’ favelas. That led to realizing how many positive things actually happen in these communities. I started an NGO, a nonprofit, to support those local efforts on the ground to start changing the narrative about these communities so that we can ultimately get more productive public policies that build on their histories.
Before we dive into the work that’s happening in Rio right now, I’m wondering if you can start by just describing what life was like in the favelas before the pandemic.
Yeah. Well, life in the favelas is hard to describe in a sort of soundbite, because they’re so diverse. That’s actually what is probably the main characteristic of informal settlements. Because they’re not regulated, and because they’re so driven by local factors, they’re actually really different from each other. Part of the problem they face is the broad stigmatization of these communities. But actually, on the ground, you can find all sorts of conditions. From communities that are incredibly vibrant, livable, sort of human-scale neighborhoods where people have managed to improve their lives over generations, and invest in community and have a strong sort of local business sector, and a lot of solidarity, which is really another governing factor in these communities. People helping each other out.
But they’re also marked by neglect. That’s another common theme that produces informal settlements and favelas. You can also find communities where the informal conditions have led to chaos, and those are often the ones we hear about in the media; those are communities where you might get drug traffickers, or vigilante militias taking over; Where residents have a harder time breaking out of poverty, or self-organizing, or advocating for themselves and so on. So, the day-to-day life in these communities varies dramatically. But what I would say is common is self-creation. These are self-made neighborhoods; Very vibrant culturally; A lot of rich social life; A lot of people engaged in the fabric of the community, whether individually, as a family, and trying to improve their family lives, or collectively through collective improvements. And then just struggling, as well. There are struggles on and off, sometimes regularly, depending on the state of the economy, depending on the criminality in the neighborhood and police operations which come in and can be devastating. It’s important to underscore that there’s also the legacy of slavery in Brazil that produced these communities in the first place. So, yes, favelas are not new slums. They’re historic neighborhoods. The oldest favela is over 120 years old, the vast majority of them are over 50 years old. So, these are established neighborhoods, but they started within… The first favelas were formed within 10 years of abolition. Rio was the largest slave port in world history, and so people who had been formerly enslaved in the late 1800s, after abolition looked for somewhere to live. There was nowhere formally, so they occupied abandoned spaces, or empty lots, or hillsides, and they created homes and communities which ultimately now have a huge history.
Before the pandemic it was complex, and now it continues to be complex, but very different.
When the pandemic first hit and made it to Rio, what was the initial response like, and then as it has continued, how has the community response evolved over this time?
When we first saw the pandemic at a distance, looking at China and Europe, there was a sort of hope I think at some level across Rio, including in the favelas, that it wouldn’t reach us. There was a sense in the favelas that if it did reach Brazil, it would stay among the wealthy, because there was a sense that it was coming from Europe, and it was coming from people traveling, and so it was going to be a rich person’s disease. I think [some] people did know it might arrive, people like myself. I was fearful that if it did arrive, the havoc might play out. And so, we were sort of hopeful it wouldn’t.
Once it was here, in March, and we actually went into quarantine pretty quickly, immediately, within a week or two of it becoming obvious that it was an issue locally. The favelas were also targeted for the quarantines, and there was a general growing awareness. There was still the sense that it was a rich person’s disease among some residents, but Rio’s favelas are really full of local organizers. Some communities boast hundreds of local groups in one neighborhood. Others have less, but pretty much across the board you’ll find local people that are working to improve their neighborhood, and so those people were pretty switched on. They knew the government wasn’t going to do much for them, if anything, as it’s always been the case, and so they started organizing very quickly, and they started organizing on a number of fronts.
So, everything from information, to trying to get residents aware of the risks and how to prevent them, but also helping try to create the conditions for people through identifying, doing fundraising, crowdfunding campaigns for food supplies, and hygiene supplies. Those efforts really grew. They’ve been significant, these local community-based efforts at prevention and mitigation. Eventually, within maybe a month or two we actually saw some community groups realize they needed data, and so they started creating dashboards of cases in their community, sourcing information from local clinics and elsewhere to try to see [who]… was being affected, so they could try to help prevent it spreading.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has continued to grow here. It’s sort of stabilizing, but it’s still high, and it possibly will just go right up again because we’ve lifted most of the restrictions recently. And so, what’s happened is we’ve had people, for various reasons, having a really hard time or simply not heeding the quarantine and other recommendations. Masks and so on. There are many reasons for this. Some of them involve just a basic lack of understanding of how the virus works and whether masks are really relevant. We have a president in Brazil, similar to the U.S., that has for months negated the pandemic and implied that masks are not useful, or manly, etc. We also have, for example in the case of Brazil, the safety nets that were supposed to be approved and made accessible in terms of basic checks that people were supposed to have access to, those have not reached many people.
A lot of people work informally, and rely on the informal sector of the economy, meaning they won’t get [paid]. Nobody is going to pay them money if they don’t leave the house. They have to go out and try to work. When people are living literally paycheck to paycheck, or month to month, or even day to day, it’s really hard to get people to stop. There’s also the historical psychological element of people who are so used to struggle, this just seems like one more issue. It doesn’t seem initially to people as particularly significant in relation to the other threats people face, whether it’s police violence, whether it’s economic struggles, or other health issues.
Yeah, and you mentioned a little bit about just the kind of larger political context for what’s going on, and how difficult it has been to have an organized governmental response, like we’re having here in the United States, as well. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the issues with tracking the pandemic and how that’s affecting people living in the favelas around support, or communication, and then a little bit about the new dashboard that I know you’ve been instrumental in creating to help alleviate some of these issues.
Brazil has been really slow on testing. The vast majority of cases are not being recognized and that’s particularly serious in the favelas.
So, what that leaves us with is a total data deficit. We really don’t have a clear idea. Sometimes I hear news reports from the U.S. and they’re comparing the U.S. to Brazil, and I just think to myself the data from Brazil are so problematic in so many ways, there’s really no way to do these comparisons now. It’s all going to be after the fact, when we look back and compare year to year, the deaths and cases. A lot of people are dying in their homes. A lot of people are dying supposedly of comorbidity and other factors, so that’s another thing.
In response to all of that, our nonprofit, Catalytic Communities, like I mentioned, we are set up to support local organizers in favelas, and as the pandemic took hold, we’ve changed all of our activities to provide different kinds of logistical support to the folks on the ground doing the prevention and mitigation work. And one of the areas that surfaced was this area of data deficits.
There are communities that are doing incredible work collecting data on the ground. In some cases, they are using public records, so they’re using local family clinic data from their neighborhood when there is a clinic for the neighborhood, but again, that would only include test-based confirmations. There are some communities where they’re actually going around and talking to residents, and looking at symptoms and suspected cases. One favela called Maré, which is a complex actually of 16 favelas, they have a very well established, globally renowned community-based organization called Redes da Maré, or Maré Development Networks. They have local offices in all the 16 neighborhoods within Maré, and those spaces have turned into a center where people come and they can look at who has suspected cases and so on.
The best data of any Favela in Rio are Maré, because of this effort, or very tiny favelas, where a local organizer knows everyone and they’re looking out at cases and keeping a record. But most favelas are somewhere in between. There are some, again like I said, that are using public data, and there are many, many, the vast majority, where no data are being collected at all. The ones where there are data collection efforts are usually the ones that are already historically most organized. They have local newspapers, local social media feeds. They have a number of local organizations and collectives that work together historically. So, they’ve repurposed all of that historic knowledge of how to organize, and they’re now using it around and just generally preventing and mitigating the pandemic’s effect.
Anyway, all of that led us to realize that there was a real need for a sort of central, unified dashboard focusing on favelas. Favelas are the most vulnerable areas in Rio to the pandemic by far because of their built environment, highly social environment, density, limited economic prosperity, and low-quality public services, sanitation services, like water and sewage. The city really should have a specific effort set up to address the pandemic in favelas, but they have totally ignored these territories, as they always have. Almost always have.
There was a need for somewhere that just focused on favelas, that attempted to document, collect data for all favelas, because there was no effort to do that. And also maps it, so it’s visual, and offers a space for counting both suspected and confirmed data, so those are all the things that went into our designing the unified COVID-19 in favelas dashboard, which is available at favela.info on the internet. We launched it a couple of weeks ago and now we’re really focusing on growing the data set.
And once you have that data, how are you expecting to be able to use it to be able to benefit people within the favelas?
Initially, as we launched, the focus was calling out the city, calling out the government on these ill issues. Not on counting suspected cases, or putting a spotlight on favelas specifically. Now, the focus is on growing the data set so that residents and local organizers can use that information to reach out to residents and keep encouraging people to observe the rules, the needs, to keep encouraging people to physically distance themselves, use masks, avoid going out, etc. But also, so they can go to local officials and say, “Look, we now have data that in our favela there are this many cases, and we need resources to address this.”
Ultimately, once we have a full data set as best as we can, then we will be able to paint a much more accurate picture of the true impact of the pandemic and of public sector neglect on these communities during this period. We’re trying right now to save lives by creating a data set that helps local organizers advocate for support, while making sure residents know that the situation is still critical. Because really, we have a very strong social pressure and economic and political pressure right now for people to just ignore the pandemic and pretend that it’s just another part of life, and obviously that’s going to be devastating. It’s already been devastating.
I didn’t mention this, but part of the reason we started the dashboard was obviously inspired by the initiatives where communities were collecting data, but also because as the pandemic began, Catalytic Communities, we moved all of our activities online. And so, we’ve been having evening meetings with community organizers in favelas for months now. We’ve had over 70 meetings. Actually, I think it’s nearly 90 meetings. We were just hearing case after case of community leaders telling us who had died and who was infected in communities that were not on any public or even other community-based dashboards. We just needed a space for people to be able to do this reporting and make sure these cases were registered.
Have these conversations been part of the teach-ins you’ve been doing? Do they overlap or are they kept separate?
Those conversations are the precursors to the teach-ins, so these are private, smaller-scale meetings we have with local leaders as we identify needs and how we can work together. But then in the process of realizing those meetings, ideas have come up for the need for teach-ins on different issues, and these teach-ins are large, they’re open to the public, they usually have about 100 people in the Zoom [meeting], and then up to even a thousand on Facebook. Of course we put them on YouTube, and we write articles about them, and so they get a lot of visibility.
And these teach-ins are on the issues that come up. We’ve had a teach-in on how to mobilize in the pandemic, and how to communicate about the pandemic within favelas given all the circumstances we’ve talked about here.
Can I actually ask you a little bit about the communications? Because I’m sure that communicating in a way that people will understand has to be nuanced. I’m wondering if you can talk about some of the techniques and tools that have been successful or at least have been attempted to communicate about the pandemic and the issues around it, but also some of the resources that are available.
When we did a teach-in about how to talk about the coronavirus in the favelas, it was with local communicators. Mostly people who [know] how to reach residents. They’re residents themselves and they’re always trying to figure out how to reach other residents. What we saw there was a real diversity of techniques, approaches, ranging from folks in terms of the technology they use, ranging from banners and graffiti with data and information, to loudspeakers on the top of vehicles or podcasts even. We heard a lot about mutual support and providing support.
There’s an organization in the favela Paraisópolis in Sao Paulo who is represented on this panel. They talked about how when they deliver supplies to families in need, they deliver it to the home at an undisclosed time. So, encouraging the families to stay home. But it’s still very hard to get a universal acceptance. Favelas in some ways are really free spaces, where people do their own thing, even if it’s collective, and so it creates a sort of a juxtaposition. It’s hard to work this out easily, but that’s why you have to have people on the ground that know their community, that know the personalities, the local culture, and how people are likely to engage with new information.
We had [a teach-in] on mental health during the pandemic in favelas. We had one of the mistakes made by the media covering favelas during the pandemic. We had a live teach-in on food sovereignty and how some local favela groups are organizing healthy food staple baskets and how they’re doing that, how they’re connecting favelas to organic farmers right now. We had one on solar energy and if it’s possible after the pandemic. So, all sorts of different ideas have come out.
We’ve also got a really strong campaign going right now supporting waste pickers, because they actually do 90 percent of Brazil’s recycling, and they are some of the most impacted people by the pandemic. Some of them live on the street. And there’s the issue of contamination from the actual work of recycling. Also, the recycling industry is paying a lot less for material right now, and so we had a campaign to raise awareness about how important they are to our society here, and how we can help them and get to know the people who do this work and support them directly.
We’ve even had [a teach-in] just recently about sanitation, and about looking at how community organizing is changing during the pandemic. The next one actually is really exciting on Monday. It’s going to be a really important conversation about memory after the pandemic, and there’s a saying that Brazilians don’t have memory, and it seems quite on point when we think about the legacy of slavery here and how little it’s really discussed. These things are barely taught in school. And so, we’re playing on that and saying, “Do the Brazilian people have a memory?” And how is memory going to be recorded during this period of the pandemic in favelas?
So, all of these teach-ins are mostly run by community-based organizers from the favelas that are the ones discussing these issues.
That idea of the collective memory is something that comes up again and again after disasters of all different types and major crises, because there is often a strong desire to get back to what was a sense of normalcy beforehand. Yet these moments provide these kind of critical opportunities for reimagining our communities in new ways that are more empowering to the people within them, that have greater justice and equity. That’s a theme that we’ve continued to try to explore during The Response. A great example of that, was when we did an episode last season looking at Paradise, California. A fire destroyed almost the entire community almost two years ago now, and in the episode, we track some of the lessons from the town of Onagawa in Japan after it was washed away because of the tsunami following an earthquake in 2011.
They’ve gone through a participatory process to reimagine how the community actually is physically. They’ve moved where everybody lives, and there’s been a lot of work that’s been done to maintain the memory of the storm, to not go back to how things were before, because they were already precarious, as things seem to be in the favelas. That’s going to be something that I know that I’ll be interested in tracking; how some of that memory is kept moving forward where you are, as well. Another thing we see again and again during disasters is that the strength and number of relationships people have is a major determinant on how people fare during disasters. You talked about the rich history that is in the favelas, the creativity, and the artistry that is often another strong factor when it comes to social bonds. Can you talk about any stories that have come up, of people showing up and supporting each other?
What are the ways that people are working with each other in their neighborhoods to meet the basic needs they’re facing?
I agree with everything you just said. I think that one of the variables that most demonstrated success is the ability to keep an eye on their past and build forward, and really keep that history in mind. We have an issue with that in Brazil. It’s a significant issue. Chile did their process of looking back at the dictatorship immediately. They created a human rights museum that pretty much all Chileans visit to this day, and it’s taught in school from very early. Similar processes happened with apartheid in South Africa, and in Nazi Germany, and in other parts of the world. Civil rights movement and the way it’s taught in U.S. schools, despite its limitations, is significantly more than anything we have here in terms of teaching about the history of slavery or the military dictatorship.
When you don’t teach about that history and when you don’t reflect on it as you build a society, you don’t progress, and we see this in Brazil; it’s a textbook case. Rio is maybe the most obvious, because again, it was the largest slave port in Brazil and in the world, and yet doesn’t talk about it.
I agree that it’s a big risk here from the pandemic that we are going to go out of this, and you hear this even in the favelas, you hear residents say, “I can’t wait for things to go back to normal.” And it actually breaks my heart every time I hear somebody say this, because normal is so bad in terms of injustice, in terms of access to basic rights and treatment. However, when you talk to organizers, they are very aware of the potential and need to transform things based on what’s happening. There’s a difference between the average resident, who’s just trying to live their lives and improve, and the people who are actively trying to shift and transform their communities.
Sorry, I think I missed the question. I was still reflecting on your earlier comment. Can you just remind me?
Yeah. And there’s no judgment about people that are just trying to get by, either. Of course there are people that are just trying to have some amount of the harm that’s being done to them alleviated, so it’s completely understandable that there would be that dichotomy. Not everybody’s going to have the privilege to be able to be looking forward, and it’s a great privilege to be able to go out and protest. Like sometimes you can’t go through the normal channels. We talk about when the bulldozer is at your door, it’s too late to write a letter to the government, you know? You got to stand in front of it or get out of the way and move on and work on the next struggle.
To get back to what I was asking, I was just wondering about, how people are showing up for each other. Because it’s not always in these big ways. It’s not always about changing the structure, as much as it is just showing up and bringing food, checking in with each other, making sure that people that are getting sick are able to get support. Whatever those seemingly small things, they really do add up in a really big way when they’re aggregated together. And so, that was really what I was getting at was my question, was what are some of just the stories of how people are showing up for each other?
Yes. Absolutely. People are showing up for each other across favelas, across society. We have some recent data actually that show that about 49 percent of Brazilians have made some kind of donation during the pandemic, which is very significant, but actually this number rises to 63 percent among favela residents. So, there’s great solidarity in those communities among the people who have the least, and so we hear stories of community organizers being much more active, out and about, even though it’s putting them at great risk. Of course, they’re using masks. Production of masks actually was a huge thing in the beginning of the pandemic. All sorts of community-based groups started producing masks and making sure everybody had access.
And the food baskets, the “Cesta básica” as we say in Portuguese. These food campaigns raise money to be able to provide families with a basket that basically supplies them with food for about a month. It’s very low quality nutritionally, unfortunately, which is why some of the community groups that are working with agro-forestry and different types of organic agriculture, or trying to. There are community-based groups in favelas that have community gardens and so on. Some of these sorts of groups have been working to try to create a healthier version, but there’s the same risk we all face. It’s “do we go out and help people or are we putting ourselves at risk?”
You hear a lot of people saying, “Well, I’m healthy, so I’m going to go out and do these deliveries.” And other people saying, “I’m at risk or my family member’s at risk, so I have to stay home.” It’s just the same sorts of questions that we all face that are trying to do something helpful. But the solidarity that was always there is still there. ike I said in the beginning, there’s such diversity in these communities. We know of all these cases where communities are organizing to help and residents are going out of their way to help each other. Then we also hear cases of people feeling incredibly isolated and lonely. They’re used to very social environments, where people are out in the street talking to each other, and maybe in some favelas this isn’t happening as much, so people are feeling isolated.
But we also hear of cases where some communities, it’s now become stigmatizing to have COVID-19. If you have COVID-19, you’re now stigmatized, like at the beginning of the HIV epidemic, or literally like the plague. There are communities where you hear people say, “So and so has COVID-19. Get them out of here.” And so, you have really a diversity of responses, but I would say much more what you hear about is that people are just trying to do what they can to help each other out. The basic food baskets have literally saved thousands of lives during this pandemic. The same data set [linked above] talked about nine out of every 10 favela residents have received some sort of donation in this period. Ninety one percent of them received food. These came from a variety of sources, like NGOs, but 52 percent actually came from neighbors, friends, and relatives. And only 36 percent from the government.
It’s been really critical to have these solidarity networks, and it’s very common to hear from local organizers that more important than any other resource in their organizing are the networks that they belong to and that they participate in. It’s that casting a wide and large net of support and building of bridges with different groups that’s really been critical.
But the deficit is huge. The neglect of generations is still there. And so, it’s again, a very complicated, very complex situation that we’re dealing with here.
As you just mentioned, communities living in favelas have already been facing an ongoing social disaster. It’s clear this pandemic is not happening in a bubble, and it’s also those communities that face a number of what we’d refer to as natural disasters, as well. Are there other naturally-faced disasters that are either on the horizon or are happening now that are going to be exacerbating what’s already occurring?
So the biggest disaster right now favelas are facing in addition to the pandemic is just the economic recession that we’ve been living in since 2014, because it most deeply affects them. It’s a social disaster. In terms of natural disasters, the most impactful here in Rio is the summer rains. Every summer, we have some periods of intense rains. Sometimes that leads to landslides in favelas that are on hills, and floods in favelas that are in low-lying areas. Right now, the last few years, actually not this year but the previous couple of years had historic rains, and many people were affected and some people died.
So, that’s the big natural disaster that sort of faces favelas, but it’s seasonal. Right now, it’s not impacting or on the horizon for people. But our disasters are human made here. There’s an old joke that God created the world and he created Brazil, and Brazil was perfect, but then he said, “But look at the people I’m going to put there.” Brazilians tell this joke. Self-deprecating joke. There’s an idea that there are issues that are so deep that are unaddressed that produce the huge numbers of police killings, some of the worst inequality data in the world in terms of Gini index, and the territorial issues, and so those are really much more critical here still than natural disasters. That said, with climate change, this could all be different in five or 10 years, so we don’t know.
As we start to wrap up, I’m just wondering if there’s anything else you’d like to share.
Gosh. I think I’ve said most of it. I know your season is focused on people’s response to the pandemic, and I think Rio is just a really important place for people to look at for this, and the way favela communities have responded is really exemplary. At the same time, there’s just no way it can fill the gap, and now we’re doing everything from providing food as civil society, to masks and hygiene products, information, and data collection. The hope is that we can transform the city in the future based on what we’re learning now. Certainly, civil society is stronger for this pandemic, and we’ll come out of it continuing to organize.
Like a lot of places, I think that’s a hopeful sign. Hopefully it’s a chance at something different in the near future for all of us.
Thank you so much for joining. It was really a pleasure getting to talk to you, and illuminating to learn more about what’s happening down in Brazil.
Thank you so much, Tom. It’s been a pleasure.
If you’re interested in contributing to Catalytic Communities’ Covid-19 response efforts in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, check out their crowdfunding campaign at www.bit.ly/FavelaCovidResponse.
You’ll be supporting efforts by the Sustainable Favela Network to build community resilience, independent reporting on the pandemic, the Covid-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard, and their community prevention efforts.
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