Category Archives: Heading the Call

Quick to jot down some thoughts Economic Development, Education, Social Activism all discussed in the first person.

Low Performing School Communities and the Digital Divide

A NAEP report published by the IES in 2007 assessed academic achievement of Puerto Rico’s public schools in Mathematics to be, on average, 50% below the national average by the time students reach the fourth grade. This disparity continues as students reach the eighth grade. It is estimated that Puerto Rico’s educational system lost access to $60 million in Reading First Programs under No Child Left Behind after failing to provide a curriculum that could be approved.

In the most recent study of Internet use on the Island (Puerto Rico Internet Pulse 2008), 38% of the population 12 and older connects to the Internet. Of this group, 15% does not cite the availability of home based connections. The study suggests that this latter group uses access points and computers at school or at work to navigate the web. This information is in stark contrast to the assessment realized by the Library and Information Systems Program of the Puerto Rico Department of Education.

In December 2006, April and May 2007 the Library and Information Systems Program of the Puerto Rico Department of Education conducted a survey among public schools and municipal library users and determined that ·”libraries need (1) to increase the public’s use of technology by increasing electronic capacities of libraries and training librarians and the public to effectively use technology” and secondly, “ (2) public schools need strong school library media programs that will support the academic success of Puerto Rico’s students. However, when the report was published in 2008, its assessment states that nearly 30% of the Puerto Rico public schools do not have adequate technology resources and 85% of public school libraries are said to need urgent renovation of media and technology equipment.

Over 78% of Puerto Rico’s public school students are below the poverty line. For this population, public schools are the first, and often only place, with access to computers. When the reality of Puerto Rico’s public school libraries is considered, it provides a powerful argument for why over 60% of the population 12 and older do not have access to the Internet and can be considered technologically illiterate.

The digital divide, herein described, alongside the recurring under-performance of public school students portrays a population at risk of being systemically disenfranchised from economic opportunity and social advancement. In order to effect change in the short term, a multi-pronged approach that combines innovation in the curriculum, improvement in the technology resources, and ongoing training of the human resources that will manage and interact with the new technology and curriculum changes.

Under the American Recovery and Rehabilitation Act (ARRA) the Federal Government makes funds available to Educational Regions for the modernization of school infrastructure, education reform for underachieving schools, “innovation and improvement” in education, improving data systems and data coordination efforts, ongoing education of teachers in support of school reform and innovation, integration of technology in education and initiatives advancing the learning of math and science. Furthermore, the Federal Government has renewed its commitment to Reading First Programs and has grant programs that focus on the development of libraries and early literacy initiatives.

The Puerto Rico Department of Education has identified problems with the passive integration of educational software in any given class. Computers identified for specific classes and software use are usually made unavailable for other classes to use. Furthermore the breakdown of any computer seems to not only inconvenience the teacher but also the school and negatively taints students and teachers relationship with technology, leaving an impression of disempowerment and lack of control.

The moment is right for making change happen. The proverbial ball is in our court.  Teachers, students, parents, administrators and the community at large all need to come together to bring about change.  Not just change to ease the immediate flow of funds, but the kind of change that transforms us all in the process. Teachers raising the bar on their performance, students growing in focus and commitment, parents with a renewed faith and joy in the school in of their children. Change is never easy but it  is possible we are open to it.

Addressing Identity and Empowerment in Schools

I am sure I will find little argument when I say "schools and the education system of any population are the foundation for any sustainable economic development."  But then most people who agree would go on to talk about the importance of science and math, technology and global perspectives, and all these issues are important to the curriculum of schools in the 21st century as we each search for a way out of the current recession.  But there is another subject matter in need of reform which is often overlooked when discussing how to better prepare students for the new economic realities.  The development of empowered self aware individuals ready to add value on a local or supranational world stage requires more than math and science.  History and civics unattended may just be holding us back or if properly reviewed be factors of  innovation and economic development. 

The objectification of Puerto Rican culture ­

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Poison Pills and Miracle Cures in Education

The many in Puerto Rico’s working class will do most anything to avoid putting their children in the public education system. The reputation earned in the community at large and the media is of a bloated, broken bureaucracy that suffers a drop out rate by 7th grade of over 40% and results in systematic failure to prepare its students.  If this sounds unrealistic take the real life cases of Sonia, 37 and Mildred, 44. These are two of the many stories I hear. Some of the stories come from friends, members of my community and from people I casually start talking to in public settings.

Sonia has worked her entire life primarily as a housekeeper, earning under $17,000 a year while raising 3 children. Sonia lives in one of our recently dubbed metro area "special communities" she had a public elementary school just a couple of blocks away. When her eldest son was close to becoming another statistic, she was able to enroll him in a National Guard program designed to help at risk youth. As her second child finished middle school Sonia grew skeptical of the main public school system and enrolled her daughter in a vocational school. For her third child, Sonia was a mom with a plan. With great sacrifice her third child was enrolled in an inner city catholic school. Among the Sonia’s complaints were racism in the schools that victimized her children and resulted in lack of commitment to her children’s progress.

Lets change the setting to a gated working class community.  Mildred’s story is similar, public school is a working parent’s last choice. Eight years ago, Mildred’s husband lost his job at a hotel, leaving the family with only her wages as a secretary. In this period of uncertainty and financial duress 3 of her children were still in school.The parents fretted over the decision but keeping up with the mortgage and rising utility bills, they opted to pull out of the private catholic school her two boys who seemed to be underperforming,  leaving only the youngest in the catholic school elementary.  The eldest of these was enrolled in a vocational school and the younger brother in a public elementary school just a mile away.  As soon as it was practical, the younger brother was enrolled in the same vocational school.

Both stories illustrate that to many parents relying on Puerto Rico’s public school system is a  choice they are forced to consider and try to avoid making if it is at all possible.  Oakland, New York City, St. Louis, have all had failing school district, there like here, right now, against this backdrop, the timing seems right for the institution of charter schools. This new educational offer would be available only in places where the community came together in a grassroots movement that activated parents, teacher and administrators and rallied them around a common set of principles and rules. These new community charter schools would best be suited for failing schools as a dramatic measure of restoring the hope of a better educational offer. The introduction of these schools would be only one part of a plan regain the public trust in public education. 

Charter schools are not a magical pill. Public education needs to be reformed and strengthened, but like many teachers and administrators today know, public schools cannot work in a vacuum. They need the support of parents and the community, but the climate for cooperation has been poisoned, not by Charter schools, as the teachers unions suggest but by an unresponsive bureaucratic system, exhaustion, fear and despair.

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The Role of Parents and Community in Education

In reading Charles Glenn’s book "Educational Freedom in ­Eastern Europe" (1995) I delve into the world of totalitarian states, regimes that looked to education to perpetuate a carefully tailored ideology that would ensure the perpetuation of the state.  Slowly as I read on, current day issues distract me and compel me search for implications this work has for understanding and rethinking problems in our education system. ­

Glenn himself draws parallels between the focus of his study and western educational systems:

 "While an authoritarian regime may be satisfied with obedience, a totalitarian regime seeks devotion that will be self-perpetuating….the nation-building elites who made popular education a priority in the United States and other industrializing nations throughout the 19th century had something similar in mind. Without intending to suggest a ‘moral equivalence’ between the educational goals of totalitarian regimes and those of liberal democracies, it is appropriate to recognize that few political leaders in times of rapid social change can resist the temptation to seek to promote their own agenda through schooling…" (p 11-12)

While Glenn sees a shared trend in governments wanting to use education to promote a common ideology, the problem I see is not with the goal -many examples attest to the lack of efficacy of large bureaucracies-, but the growing lack of balance of power, not by design but by happenstance. Many questioned whether the Communist regime would be successful in destroying civil society. When I paraphrase this question I see a bridge between bodies of work and analysis. I understand this question about civil society to be whether individual agency and the will and freedom to organize and collaborate could be eradicated, supplanted by a top down state control.

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Why so concerned with “happiness”

My kids see my husband and I all the time. Up to the age of 4 we are both the primary care givers. Once they begin school and music lessons they begin to meet the world. Schooling ends and again they are again in the fold of their parents. So much togetherness forces the issue of emotions.   My children have seen all range of emotions. They know that I can cry when I am tired and tense,  I can be angry when I am feeling sorry about something, or be grouchy when I am tired or hungry. While I am scolding them and upset, dissapointed or frustrated I sometimes remind them I love them at the same time I reiterate how I feel and why. 

My 6 year old explained to my 3 year old who had just spilled milk all over the coffee table within a foot of my laptop: "Javier, mami may be mad at you but she always loves you." It was good to know that through all the repetition the message had stuck. Not only the messages seem to be understood, the emotional analysis seems to be catching on too… Javier (3y) will now turn around and tell me when I deny him a petition that he is "very angry with me because I am being mean with him because I said no when he wanted to play with play dough". I congratulated him on his complete assessment, gave him a hug, told him I loved him and still said "no."

Now, the next time I say "no" or have my children bummed out I will go the extra step and set them to do some home based learning activity: puzzles, mind games, reading or math. I just read in Education Week (June 11, 2008) in an article by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo that happy is not all its cracked up to be in learning circles. It seems students  who were feeling melancholy, somber, neutral or just not happy were better at detail oriented tasks and math. Students who were happy were less able to concentrate and made more mistakes.

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The New Generation Begins to Make Their Mark

I now I am not alone when I wondered what my children would be like. However, I thought we would have more time – "more time" for our lives to change and somehow be "more ready" to help them as they each found their way. But here I am. Not much has changed but our children have. The difficulty and anxiety of nearing 40 has not yet subsided but life does go on -and now, without "more time" to wallow in that mid-life awakening,  I have to confess I am loving every minute of seeing the next generation, our kids begin to make their mark on the world.

For the past 3 years, Olaia, our eldest daughter has been wanting to start a lemonade stand. It all started with me doing my best to explain how family finances work. Jim and I have our own technology startup. This has been good but challenging. There are no sure things. No sure paycheck and a lot of working at odd hours. Our kids all know that we may be at home but we still are at work. We may hear what is going on and get involved but our attention will quickly turn again to work.

"Mom, can we go to Disney?" Olaia asked. " I am sure Jaimito and Javier would enjoy it." she adds trying to ensure her proposal is evaluated positively. She knows that if the activity proposed benefits the majority there is a greater chance for it to pass the parental approval. But rather than a quick "yes" or "no." She got an earful of how everything costs money and mommy and daddy have to work hard to earn it.  Money goes to pay for her school, the house, the cars, and trips to see family.  "The best thing you can do is try to help mommy and daddy by picking up after yourself, playing with your brothers while we work." Olaia, weighing her options, eagerly asked: "Maybe I can work too?!"  "Maybe, " I replied laying the topic for a long rest, or so I thought.


Some months later, kids were at our door selling chocolates for school. Olaia asked "What are they doing?" I explained, "they  are selling chocolates to earn some money for a class trip or activity." I should heard the distinct sound of the gears in her head turning. A few days later, Olaia announced: "Mami, how about I sell lemonade in the park? Kids come they play basketball or run around and get all hot and sweaty. Many of them dont bring water and if the water fountain is broken, I think they would love to have lemonade. I can use one of the tv tray tables and sell lemonade!" "Sounds like a good idea," I loved hearing her plan, still I cautioned "but there are more things to selling lemonade that we need to get and prepare." That afternoon she drew a lemonade sign. Over the years, she has drawn at least three. We also bought some powdered fruit punch and asked her great uncle for lemons from his farm.

Now Olaia is 9 years old. She is old enough to begin to manage an effort such as a lemonade stand. More surprisingly, Olaia has also added a new twist:

limpio2.png"Mami, how about I use a corner of the table for a sign up and take volunteers to pick up trash in the park?"

Her spontaneous suggestion for combining profit making and social responsibility took us both by surprise. Upon reflection it is so much like her. Olaia is a very perceptive, sensitive soul, always mature for her age. She has grown up hearing about her Dad’s volunteer work in prison, preparing care packages for handing out to homeless people begging under street lights and hearing me talk about corporate social responsibility and economic and social development.

I don’t know if she had planned it this way, but her complete vision for her lemonade stand with a community activism angle pushed Jim and I into action.  Her concern for the welfare of the community pushed her good idea to become a noble and great idea. She had a plan and it would be wrong not to endorse and facilitate it. The next day I shared Olaia’s ideas with our neighborhood association treasurer and he not only supported her initiative but vowed to be the first to sign up as a volunteer.  We shall see where this great idea takes us. For now I include the poster ideas Olaia and I were working on to spread the word throughout our community.

Cross-disciplinary Education for Global Economy

I was having another quiet morning digesting educational research in preparation to resume writing my dissertation. This morning I was reading Loli Arnaut’s description of her Amara Berri project.  I was trying to understand how news of the "success" of the Amara Berri project was spreading and individual teachers were inte­rpreting, adopting and adapting what they thought the Amara Berri project was. Practically all, six out of seven first grade classrooms visited were incorporat­ing elements from the Amara Berri project trying to introduce its "winning formula."  I was lost amidst my field experience and struggling to find the words and connections to my dissertation a voice in the back of my head asked: How are you going to apply this? What is the Amara Berri project to you? How am I going to sum it up? What am I going to do with this knowledge? How am I going to put this into action? How is this going to apply to anything else outside of the Basque Country?"

The questions had progressed from a distant third person perspective asking others, sifting through memories of research, to a third person asking myself. I then embarked on a brief tangent as I asked explored answers to these questions. This is when I crafted a vision for Cross-disciplinary Education for Global Economy program. The idea pulls from experiences beyond the Basque Country and sought to apply lessons learned to problems at hand. The problem I was contemplating was how to introduce reform and revitalize the public education system without creating havoc.

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Exploring the limits: CSR to Individual Social Responsibility

Almost a month ago, at the request of the Universidad de Puerto Rico in Arecibo’s Business Administration Faculty I offered a conference on how to apply corporate social responsibility to the small and medium sized business.  A month before the conference I had been brought aboard a project by a client of mine that sought to instill the precepts of Free Enterprise and Social Responsibility in our Univerisity students (you can see our contribution – the webdesign and framework -to our client’s project by opening this link).  What a coincidence, I thought.  I am tasked with speaking to their target audience about the very same principles.  As I worked on my client’s pet project,  I became convinced that the students would be better served if I took the core business proposition for corporate social responsibility and applied it to more immediate examples.  And thus I wrote about: "Corporate Social Responsibility: Beyond the Multinationals" (I attached it FYI).

Usually when we talk about CSR we hear examples of multi-nationals that get involved in their communities, become greener, and push the limits of human resources policies. Nike had their supplier’s child sweatshop scandal –> Nike developed new stricter policies for ensuring that there is no child labor or violation of human rights on the premises of their suppliers.  Scandal did not always directly pre-empt the socially responsible corporate program, Ford Motor company has their green manufacturing plant where explore new ways to reduce the impact of their plants, Starbucks pro-actively sought to incorporate into their purchases, a percentage of coffee that comes from suppliers recognized to have fair wages. Though the examples are good and noteworthy, when the examples used are solely of the big and mighty one begins to think that in order to work in CSR one has to be employed by them or count with their resources.

In preparation for my presentation I googled around for CSR and small business and found alot of nothing and some "under construction pages."  I was on my own on this one and yet I was teaming with things to say. I pulled from my own experiences. Looking back our the highs and lows of these past 7 years as an entrepreneur I can safely say CSR strategies have been vital to making things easier for the company and its employees.

In designing the business I kept in mind "living wages," office day care, volunteer hours, flexible hours, flexible location, and the means to motivate and measure performance in order to get ideal results.  I had to defend these policies to investors, board members and lenders, who thought – and not wrongly so – I was being idealistic and causing unnecessary expense to the company. 

My response: the actual costly decision is to employ anybody. Pay anybody a miserable wage ad you get bottom of the barrel quality you communicate to the employee "you are just another body I need to run this business" and they reply "this is just a jobs to pay the bills." This common meeting of the minds results in a revolving door of hiring, valuable time of the key company officers training newbies and a constant loss of company history. To give you an actual example: My administrative assistant was paid $21,500 in 2000, not a lot, for US standards, but this was a startup in a lower paying marketplace it raised many eyebrows.

"Laura, the market does not demand that type of salary, comparable positions earn 16,000, heck you could even get away with less!" I was told more than once. Aware that the  salary was $5- 6,000 more than I was suggested to pay I added that company policy would also cover her and every employee’s direct health plan.  She had 2 week paid vacations and 9 "personal use" days.Had she had children she could have used our office daycare. Had she found the right non-profit she could have volunteered 2 hrs of work  every 2 weeks.  I was lucky to have found her and keep her working with me for over 2 years. She was committed, driven, open to perform multiple tasks and explore or develop new talents.

Unfortunately, a myriad of factors coalesced and six years later the staff had dwindled down from 12 to 2 but that is another story.  I credit these policies for having assured me the best out of the staff I had. The administrative assistant was excellent. She worked with us for of long as we could have her. In the end, however, it was she, like many employees before her, who decided to part ways, realizing it would be in the best intent for the company. Years later employees that worked with us harbored the company no ill will and when they could sent us referrals for sales. 

No matter how fun Donald Trump made it seem, firing people is not fun and a moment fraught with potential liabilities  for the company. I consider the company’s inhouse CSR policies to have benefitted it greatly when things got tough and the economy tanked.  

Drawing from my experience in those early years I spoke to these students on the ROI  for socially responsible policies- even in the early years of a company.   But keeping in mind that these were students, I wanted to take my message a step further. take CSR to the individual.

The bridge to talking about individual social responsibility is more elegantly made in Spanish – the original language of the presentation – since in this Spanish CSR uses the word Entreprise, Empresa and the link to entrepreneurial spirit  "empresarismo, espíritu empresarial" is more easily made. Once the task of being socially responsible is put to the entrepreneurial spirit -and not limited to a corporation- the concept of CSR flourishes into a force of social change and economic development.

The importance of entrepreneurship is that it does not require the actual birthing of a company. Anybody can be entrepreneurial by having a vision, a plan, strategies, and metrics. A dreamer with a plan and the good sense to make it happen or revise it. When students get together and develop a call to action and steps for change, they are being entrepreneurial.  There are social entrepreneurs, these give birth to social movements, foundations, and non-profit organizations. There are intrapreneurs working in large companies and government. These are employees that lend their vision and leadership to the larger bureaucracy for which they work and take on the responsibility for carrying out that vision. 

The world needs more entrepreneurs and if these individuals layout plans for change ensure that their plans are socially responsible in the methods and goals, the world will be a better place.

Basque is in the air

I was just writing down how many Basque parents in Oarsoaldea had an intuitive Gramscian perspective on schools when  I got a call from  a dear friend. The call was welcome because though on a self imposed silent retreat to write, her voice takes me back to my college years. I shared with her what I was just writing about when she in reply unveiled the bizarre coincidence.

"You do know you are just fee away from the President of the Basque Country, right. He is there at the hotel."  she chimed.  Basque is in the air. The Juan JoséIbarretxe is here to address the Puerto Rican lawyers in their annual retreat and explore the "free associated state" model defined by Puerto Rico. 

 Here I am, sitting no more than 200 yards away in an apartment within the same resort writing, pondering the quirks of how Basque national identity tracends and evolves from generation to generation.  I chose to study the Basque Country because I found it to be oddly similar to Puerto Rico as a geographic region with its own national identity and a language that is different than the larger state that encompasses the territory. Language and identity are hotly debated in the US discourse on bilingual education. Will bilingual education introduce fissures into the US melting pot? Will bilingual citizens have conflicting national loyalties? A lot has been said on this topic and I am drawn to join the debate.

Just this past week, as part of my day to day business development,  I visited Puerto Rico’s first cooperative of farmers – recent clients of ours – and learned about their plans to grow their production and export coffee. A few weeks back the Executive President of the Cooperative and I were clear that the exports would most likely be aimed to the US market. To my surprise last week I learned he was considering the Spanish market, beginning with the Basque region. This change in plans came from ongoing exchanges with the leaders of the Mondragon Cooperative movement.  Jim took plenty of great pictures of the countryside and the facilities for the Cooperative to use in their meetings this week with the visitors from Mondragon. The talk of the Basque Country during our visit to the coffee plantations got me thinking of going back there someday. It was enough motivation to get me to write.

I now can imagine it is all part of the same trip. The President of the Basque Country travelled in the company of leaders of Mondragon.  They are most likely all here in Rio Mar having their meetings. The President is set to address Puerto Rico’s lawyers at their annual convention and those interested in cooperatives are likely to meet here too.

Basque is in the air. If ever there would be muses or metaphysical spirit at work the remarkable coincidences would prescribe it for today of all days.

"Once concepts reach a sweet point of communicability through schooling they are borne to a new life where they evolve in the popular imagination to unpredictable destinations."…. ok not all sentences are making it to the final chapter but I now resume the task at hand. 

Threads Leading up to Proyecto Siembra

Jim works with the prison ministry and this past tuesday they resumed the group of mentors resumed their visits to the local juvenile detention center. I know he was upset to be unable to attend. Tired and stressed as he might be on any given day, when he does go connect with any one of these youths both parties reap the benefit. Jim comes home with a story with the satisfaction of having given of his time to say "I am here, and I care" to another human being in need. The youth I surmise is impacted by the simple truth that somebody, a stranger was there to see him.  Well Jim could not make it because it was our anniversary and instead we would be taking a work related trip to coffee country to learn about the operations of Puerto Rico’s oldest agricultural cooperative and their recent commercial launch of a coffee brand: Café Cibales.  Jim and I love coffee and have had the occassional dream of someday retiring to the countryside and growing coffee.

This past week week I was able to put the final touches on the launch of a strategic collaboration with Miray and Isabel.   Miray Ramy is an amazing educator and entrepreneur. The passion with which she designs and develops educational programs for her after-school programs and summer camps is intoxicating. Her can do spirit is definitely the entrepreneur in her fueling her interest education. Around her its easy to think: sure lets do robotics, lets make chess hip, lets teach kids writing through film projects. Isabel is a clinical psychologist that works primarily with elementary school children. This week she and I were discussing bilingual education and whether an early or late exposure to a third language would be best  for our children. Her plans were French for preschoolers, chinese for high school.

To finish the preamble here, last night as I drove to the beach apartment to have my weekly writing retreat, I listened on the radio two people, a man and a woman, who had served their time in a federal prison facility and were at present gainfully employed and productive members of society with a loving family of their own. Their stories were very similar. They were convicted for trafficking drugs. In prison they were able to finish their education, get a higher degree, develop a love for self improvement, develop a work ethic and leave the prison system with books undertow to face life anew. Saddly this is not the case for most of the people serving prison sentences in Puerto Rico prisons – where resources are limited and education and productive skill development of the prisoners is a big area for improvement. Therefore, it is no surprise there is a great degree of re-incidence as prison is visited once and again by individuals stuck in a routine they lack the tools to change.

Last night in my dreams these influences must have all coalesced in my dreams because I woke up with the a beautiful vision for a future project: Proyecto Siembra.

I envision Proyecto Siembra to be a cooperative of coffee pickers or farm hands. An opportunity open to juvenile offenders and selective older convicts in the adult prison system. The project would begin with education in the prison system to finish high school diplomas and offer courses in agronomy and the business of farming.  I would encourage visits from farmers to come talk to the kids and have them see productive male role models that are not slaves to bling or twisted around by disses.  I would hope these youths would see what I saw: soft spoken men full of grace, poise, strength and knowledge for their place tending and depending on the eco-system.  If our youths are plagued by a loss of purpose and sense to their surrounding and they are severely lacking in male role models Proyecto Siembra would begin to address these needs and sow the seed of hope.  As the youths make it to the country side to put in 8 hours of productive work I would bet that  would also see in themselves the growth of their self esteem and dreams for a better and more meaninful life.

 Just this past year the Department of Agriculture on the island was asking the immigrant population to lend a hand and assist with the collection of coffee beans. It is hard manual labor in a mountainous terrain. Extra hands seem to always be in need.

Now that I think about  it, Lilimar told me of a similar project was designed in Venezuela by a Rum company.  I remember hearing a top executive of

Ron Santa Teresa come and talk about how they gave local youths who had vandalized the premises of their company the opportunity to earn their freedom by working the fields rather than being processed through the criminal system.  Years later youths from the surrounding neighborhood gangs voluntarily requested to join the work program and the crime wave that threatened productivity and peace was dissipated.

Looking to transplant some of these examples of corporate social responsibility to the Island, Lilimar facilitated the development of Fundación Arte en Concreto. This Fundación is the pro-active response of Cemex to the social and economic development of the Island. This foundation supervises the delivery of cement handling skills to prisoners giving them the opportunity to become masterful builders.

So in the end as I write down my semi-conscious dream, I realize it did not come out of the thin blue ether but evolved from the interconnection of many recent and not so recent threads. Threads of action, talent and thought of socially committed citizens that inspire me to see solutions to the ills of today.