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A wave of light in the halls of power on Capitol Hill

By Mary Babic
Professor María Dolores Fernós (right) presses urgent need for women to be at the table where decisions are made. Jordan Haedtler (from Congressman Chuy Garcia’s office) actively engaged in the conversation. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

For a few days in September, Oxfam hosted a stunning delegation of women community leaders from Puerto Rico. We helped amplify their urgent, clear voices where it could matter most.

In a city where lobbyists carry the weight of their status in the careful cut of dark suits, the group of lively women leaders washing through the halls of Congress brought a wave of light: bright colors, deep laughs, and passionate voices. And it wasn’t just the vibrancy—it was the heart of the matter: speaking truth to power.

The women brought a message straight from devastated communities in Puerto Rico: Two years after Hurricane Maria, the islands are far from recovered. Women and poorer communities are suffering the most. It’s time to include them in the planning for disaster recovery funds. And it’s time to take climate change seriously and rebuild with an eye toward increased resilience.

In short, it’s time to do business differently.

Not recovered, and increasingly exposed

It’s been two grueling years since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. While the lights are (mostly) on and the water is (mostly) running, the islands are still bearing deep injuries from the lashing winds and high waters that lasted for so many painful hours in 2017.

Some 30,000 homes are still covered by blue tarps rather than roofs. Roughly 1,000 roads are still impassable. The power “viene y va, viene y va” (comes and goes), especially in rural areas. Some communities are still without running water.

It’s likely that disaster will strike again and hit the hardest where the wounds are exposed. Rising temperatures of air and water mean that storms are more frequent and more severe. And the continual impacts of climate change mean that droughts are more common, water quality is affected, and food scarcity may become a problem.

So why is this dragging on, after two long years and thousands of fatalities? Billions have been allocated to fund recovery on the island–where is it, and why isn’t it having an impact?

In Oxfam’s work on Puerto Rico, we have seen and heard plenty: the agencies in charge have kept their processes hyper-centralized and don’t tap into local communities’ historical and institutional knowledge. Most communities are excluded from playing any role in program design and implementation, which undermines effective planning, execution, and oversight. Moreover, the federal government has increased centralized control over recovery efforts.

What then to do? The solution lies in the people: the people who experienced the storm, mobilized to survive and help those in need, and are working hard to restore the health and welfare of their communities. In this case, it means bringing leaders from these communities in Puerto Rico directly to Capitol Hill.

Mi corazón y mi alma responden a la gente” (my heart and soul respond to the people)

For three days, Oxfam’s delegation walked the halls of Congress, pressing their message about the importance of including women and people from vulnerable communities in the planning process for the recovery funds.

They met with several Congresspeople with roots in Puerto Rico (Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez) and many other staffers and Members. On September 19, they held a briefing that laid out their advocacy agenda. The hall was packed with a diverse audience that hung on every word and stayed long past the end time with questions and concerns.

The community leaders shared their experiences from the hurricane and painted a picture—sometimes dire—of how communities are still struggling to recover and what they need to make things right.

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Some of the community leaders have deep ties to offices on Capitol Hill. In Congressman Jose Serrano’s office, staffer Angel Nigaglioni greeted the delegation warmly. (from left) Maribel Bonilla, Carmen Villanueva, Adi Martinez-Roman, Alana Feldman, María Dolores Fernós, and Gretchen Sierra-Zorita. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

1. Include women and people from vulnerable communities at the table

Professor María Dolores Fernós, a lawyer and social activist who founded and has been a board member of several women’s rights organizations, shared a report from Intermujeres that explored women’s voices and experiences in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

“The response after the hurricane was inadequate,” she noted. “People were literally starving and dying for weeks afterward. Bridges were out, communications were out. And it was women who took it upon themselves to survive and to help others. They set up and ran communal kitchens, they took care of children and the elderly. Women were crucial to provide food and water and medicines. So why are they not at the tables now where the decisions are getting made? They should be the ones designing plans and allocating funds.”

Adi Martinez-Roman, Senior Domestic Policy Advisor on Puerto Rico for Oxfam, has put the creation of a Civil Society Task Force at the top of the list of initiatives to ensure equitable recovery on the islands. “We want transparency, and we want accountability," she said. "Oxfam has learned in our decades of disaster assistance work that successful recovery efforts are based on engaging and empowering community leaders and local people.”

Martinez-Roman previously worked for the Access to Justice Fund Foundation, which provided vital legal aid services to Puerto Ricans seeking to access FEMA funds in the wake of the hurricane. Since moving to Washington, DC earlier this year, she’s been dismayed by attitudes toward Puerto Rico. “The bureaucrats in DC say there’s no capacity on the islands—but what people are doing there is amazing. If we pull these people together into a body that represents civil society in Puerto Rico, they can answer all the questions,” she notes. “What’s more, they would make sure that the recovery funds go to the poorest communities and make the best use of tax dollars. It would specifically address mismanagement and corruption.”

Alana Feldman-Soler, who has supervised the implementation of Bosque Modelo’s (model forest) Women’s Solar Workforce Development Program, notes that it’s vital to include women because they bring different—and vitally important—perspectives to the table. “Women are not only interested in income and jobs, they’re interested in sustainability.” She asks, “Who’s looking after children and elderly and animals? It’s the women.”

She also says that “women want to work, but they also want to invest in communities. Their experiences are so vital, but the laws are designed to exclude them. If there isn’t a space where women can speak out and participate, then they think we don’t have capacity. When women in the communities ask to participate in the planning process, they’re told ‘No, you’re not an engineer, you can’t have access’.”

2. Expedite the obligation of recovery funds that are being held up in federal agencies

Carmen Villanueva Castro, a community leader from the Hills Brothers neighborhood and a Community Liaison for FURIA, visited Washington, DC for the first time—bringing passion, humor, and urgency. She lit up the Congressional offices when she reported from the most impoverished communities.

She cited “extremely slow disbursement of federal funds, and no coordination of government planning with participation of communities and civil society… There is urgent need to repair homes and infrastructure, and to make sure it’s done in a safe, permanent, and resilient manner.”

“Outside consultants come in to assess with no local knowledge, and they charge a mountain of money,” she notes. “If the consultants were people who live there, it would be much more efficient. And they could address economic and social development. We have to empower the community. We have to rebuild our neighborhoods.”

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Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (right) introduced the panel of women leaders at the briefing on Capitol Hill, September 19. Photo: Mary Babic/Oxfam America

Maribel Bonilla-Reyes, a community leader in Río Blanco, Naguabo, reported on concerns around a reservoir in her area. “After the hurricane, we had so many problems with the closing of roads and bridges, and lack of access to hospitals, schools, jobs. Now we’re worried because we discovered that the terrain that holds the wall of the nearby water reservoir has been damaged. If it collapses, there is no alarm; it would just flood our community with no warning. To us, this is a real red flag: this is where mitigation money should go."

3. To solve the problem of poverty, access the power

Oxfam is unique in the way it approaches poverty and disaster recovery: it funds programs to offer direct aid, but it also examines, understands, and leverages the power relationships where vital decisions are made.

“It’s really special to be able to bring these voices to Capitol Hill," said Roman-Martinez. "These are leaders of low- and moderate-income communities on the island, and they’re working to empower women every day.”

Now representing Oxfam on the Hill, she says, “I’m so glad to be able to work with Oxfam. It is different than other organizations, and it amplifies the voices of people who live these issues.”

Learn more about Oxfam's work with local partners in Puerto Rico.

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