Story/Photo By Ken Krayeske • 6:40 PM EST
Rafa Cancel Vazquez speaks at the University of Connecticut School of Law, Thursday, February 26, 2009 about Anda, the public interest environmental law firm he started in Puerto Rico.
Decades ago, Attorney Charles Hamilton Houston, who mentored Thurgood Marshall from young Howard University law student to NAACP super lawyer, called Marshall and his peers social engineers.
Today, the Echoing Green Foundation, a non-profit think tank dedicated to planetary preservation, calls people like Marshall social entrepreneurs. We might call them leaders or visionaries or innovators who perceive injustice, then develop plans and systems to address these needs.
Every year, about 1,500 or so idealists apply for a two-year, $60,000 grant from Echoing Green to pursue dreams that might one day end up as a Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation win Marshall argued before the Supreme Court he eventually served on.
Every year, only 20 people win Echoing Green Fellowships. It’s not quite the Nobel Prize, but I’d be pretty thrilled to win $60 grand to sink into my ideas.
Last week, two of those 2008 Echoing Green fellows were at UConn Law. One of them, Ben Smilowitz, is there all the time, because he is a UConn law student.
The other, Rafa Cancel-Vazquez, was visiting from San Juan, Puerto Rico at Smilowotz’s invitation to discuss his project, and more importantly, Cancel encouraged the small group of 30 law students in attendance to pursue their passions.
Smilowitz, from West Hartford, won his Echoing Green Fellowship for creating the Disaster Accountability Project, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to insuring that if a category five hurricane ever hits land again, the post-storm rescue, relief and rebuilding efforts don’t fail like those efforts in New Orleans for Katrina.
Cancel won his Echoing Green Fellowship for establishing Anda: the Asociacion Nacional de Derecho Ambiental, or the National Environmental Law Association. In Castillian Spanish, Anda means walk. In Puerto Rican vernacular, Anda means cool, good, right on.
As a law student at the University of Puerto Rico, Cancel saw no public interest environmental law firm existed in Puerto Rico. So, like a good social engineer, he started one.
"Two main experiences showed me the need for accessible environmental legal services: participating in a grassroots movement to end the U.S. Navy's bombing of Vieques, and my involvement in a community group against the cutting of 300 trees in an urban area," Cancel said at the Echoing Green website.
"In Vieques, I realized that a legal strategy is essential in producing social change," Cancel said.
Cancel was arrested for entering the Navy's bombing range on Vieques. Now that the Navy has stopped the target practice, the small island just east of the Puerto Rican mainland is full of toxins and cancer clusters. To clean it up, the Navy wants to burn the half of the island it polluted. Cancel and Anda are fighting against it.
"Despite Vieques' environmental problems receiving international attention, the legal aspects of public health and safety, endangered species and land use required legal expertise that proved difficult to obtain with limited resources," he said.
Cancel, who is only 27 and just graduated from UPR in 2008, had an impressive list of accomplishments, all done since Anda started three years ago. His biggest victory was against a multibillion dollar construction corporation called Cemex.
Cemex is one of the world's largest cement manufacturers, and, like so many other multinationals, it has a plant in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is not a state, so environmental regulations aren’t quite as strict there. Labor costs are cheaper, and taxes aren’t as bad as here.
Cemex wanted to burn tires to generate electricity at its plant in Ponce, in southern Puerto Rico. Here in the States, Cemex wouldn't stand a fighting chance to win a permit to burn tires in a factory. Yet in Puerto Rico, it merely altered its existing emissions permit.
The government in Puerto Rico approved it. Residents who live near the factory, already suffering from a statistically abnormal rate of breathing ailments, likely from dust and microscopic airborne cement particles from the factory, had little recourse to stop the new source of pollution.
Cemex claimed it was helping the island with a major waste problem – five million tires a year get trashed in Puerto Rico, and there is no place to put them. The solution of burning tires for energy in a poor place where residents lack resources for legal help smacks of colonialism, and environmental racism.
Enter social engineer Rafa Cancel. Enter Anda. Through community organizing, Anda pushed the Puerto Rican government to demand a stiffer permitting process, and through a lawsuit, Anda stopped Cemex’s attempt to profit at the expense of local air quality.
The suit never made it to trial, as Anda and Cemex settled. Residents are overjoyed, as Cancel showed in his video presentation.
Sounds too good to be true. How did Cancel pay for it? And how does Cancel fund Anda now? Simple. Salsa lessons. Cancel gives salsa lessons - $3.50 a lesson (far less than the $10 or $12 a lesson here). Cancel gave UConn law students a free lesson last Thursday night.
In San Juan, he gives dance lessons to raise money for Anda. He turns them into social events, and earns press coverage. People give Anda money when Cancel’s salsa is in the newspaper.
Cancel presented a slide at UConn Law that showed Americans give some $306 billion to charity every year. While a good chunk of that goes to religious organizations, plenty of the market remains open to the aspiring social entrepreneur.
Add some in-kind donations, like office space and internet and computers from the University of Puerto Rico, and law interns from Harvard and Columbia, and Cancel has become a force for social change in Puerto Rico.
As part of the Echoing Green Fellowship, Cancel had to come up with a five-year plan, a long-term vision for Anda. Cancel said he sees his environmental law movement stretching across the Caribbean, to the Dominican Republic and to Haiti, and maybe even to the Puerto Rican population centers in the United States like New York and Hartford, even though civil society already has some environmental law infrastructure here.
Why not? Cancel's passion is contagious, his mission of social engineering is clear and his vision is easy to share – Salsa lessons as fundraisers, and a few lawyers, partnering with local law schools for interns, to foster environmental justice. Charles Hamilton Houston would be proud.