FAQ with Solidarity Engineering
In this episode you'll hear from Chloe Rastatter and Christa Cook, the co-hosts of Dignity Displaced. They talk about their work on the US/Mexico border and answer the most frequently asked questions they get from reporters about who they are, what they do, and what its like being a grassroots organization at the border.
Erin Hughes, Chloe Rastatter, and Christa Cook
The three co-founders of Solidarity Engineering, Erin Hughes, Chloe Rastatter, and Christa Cook, started Solidarity Engineering with the goal to promote human rights and dignity within the asylum seeking population at the US/Mexico border. This episode focuses on questions the three women engineers often get asked as well as insight including how they formed, how they chose their name and why water, sanitation and hygiene response is so crucial to the well being of the populations they work with.
Chloe Rastatter: Hi and welcome to Dignity Displaced, a podcast by Solidarity Engineering. My name is Chloe Rastatter
Christa Cook: And I'm Christa Cook
Chloe Rastatter: And we are your co-hosts and two of the founders of Solidarity Engineering. A small grassroots organization that has been working on the US/Mexico border for going on two years now. On the Mexican side in refugee camps and shelters in the Rio Grande Valley.
Christa Cook: Yeah, so we started back in 2020 in Matamoros, where we mostly worked on water, sanitation, hygiene and stormwater management and then in 2021, we moved to Reynosa doing similar work but slightly different.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and as many of you know, our podcast has been going for about a year now and we have never really introduced ourselves and our work and you know who we are, and why you should care what we have to say. So we decided to make this kind of in-between episode as we're transitioning and restructuring the podcast where we are going to basically answer frequently asked questions. We have been interviewed by a number of different journalists, you know, from New York Times, Newsy, Spectrum One, The Brownsville Herald, The Border Report, a few other podcasts, and they basically always ask kind of four main questions. And so we figured we’d just outright answer them all because we know you wanna know anyway.
Christa Cook: Before we get into that, though, we do have a few housekeeping things we wanna address. For instance, you're hearing me. Chloe and I are going to start co-hosting the podcast.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and you know, this podcast from the beginning has really been Christa and I’s like shared brainchild. We have just been in and out of the border, kind of cycling, dancing around each other a little bit for the past year, which you can hear about in our future episode, a year in review.
Christa Cook: So I think it would be important here to give an overarching timeline of our work. So in 2020, we spent a year at Matamoros, that's when we formed. That's when we did all of our preliminary projects. And then in 2021, due to a change of both administration and policy, we then migrated to Reynosa where we worked there for about a year. And where we are still actively working, the populations were mostly working with are asylum seekers, meaning these are people who are trying to enter the United States legally. They are escaping violence, often they're persecuted because they may be gay or because they may have different religious affiliations. So they're leaving their countries because they feel that their lives are at threat.
Chloe Rastatter: And I think it's important to note here that the populations that we work with traditionally would have been able to enter the US and wait out the duration of their case pre 2018 and pre family separation under Trump and so there’s really been a big change in how the border runs in the past few years and we're kind of responding to that. 'Cause before 2018, there was not these massive camps on the Mexican side. But because of border closures under covid, because of deterrent based policies like MPP which you can learn about in some of our previous episodes, there are now hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers living on the Mexican side in shelters, informal tent cities, casitas, a whole bunch of different locations.
Christa Cook: I think it’s also important to note of why asylum exists in the United States legally to begin with. During World War II, the United States turned away a lot of Jewish refugees who were then murdered within concentration camps. So that is how asylum started. And these people, these populations, are seeking the same rights that we denied Jewish people in the 40s.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and I also just kind of want to iterate off of that a little bit and be very clear about what the US is doing currently. By closing its border to asylum has been harshly condemned by huge organizations like the UN and asylum is an internationally recognized human right which we are currently denying. But yeah, before we get into you know the main part of the show where we answer the questions you know we wanna specifically acknowledge a few things about the podcast and kind of reintroduce it a little bit. Because we’re restructuring it and you could kind of call this Season 2.
Christa Cook: So the point of our podcast is absolutely still to share stories of people who are coming to the border and what their lives are like. But also dive into the history of what forced people to leave their countries to make the treacherous journey to the US/Mexico Border. So we're gonna have essentially two types of episodes. One of them focusing more on the historical context that led people to make this decision to come North and another one focusing on stories. Similar to the Matamoros episode where you just hear stories of people’s lives here at the border.
Chloe Rastatter: We’re going to continue doing series for specific countries similar to the Guatemala one, where you can get a deep dive from you know multiple different perspectives. Experts, lawyers, people in the country themselves, asylum seekers, all of that. To kind of give a better understanding at least in modern history what has happened to cause people to flee. And then we also want to continue bringing stories from where we're working at now. Because we spend multiple days a week in Mexico, in these camps and shelters and our main thing is you know working in humanitarian aid and providing direct relief and so the podcast is kind of an outlet to share the really powerful stories that we’re surrounded by day in and day out.
Christa Cook: And what the major media outlets often overlook. So we thought we’re here anyways, we're working with, with all the asylum seekers anyways. Why not bring their stories to a broader audience.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, so we’re really excited for kind of next phase of the podcast. As you can probably hear we got new microphones. Yes we knew our audio was bad this whole time, we did know.
Christa Cook: Thank you for letting us know multiple times, we’re familiar.
Chloe Rastatter: We knew, we were extremely broke and a brand-new organization when we bought those microphones which we’ll talk a little but more about later but thank you to all of our amazing Patreon subscribers who have been giving us monthly donations so we were finally able to invest in some equipment. And also on top of that in the coming months we are going to be expanding our podcast team, we have recently been working with, really closely with one of the asylum seekers we worked with in Matamoros. Her name is Angie she was a translator for Global Response Management. She joined our podcast team, thank you Angie! We love having you, and we are also going to be adding a few podcast interns through CU Boulder, throughout the summer and next fall, so we’re really excited.
Christa Cook: So they're really gonna help us, lighten the load 'cause there's so much put into this podcast that happens behind the scenes. Such as transcribing, translating, doing the interviews themselves, editing all of them. So, with this expanded team, we hope to get podcasts out a little bit more on time.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, we’re still probably going to keep around once a month but you know like Christa and I were saying, this is a side thing, we do a lot on the ground, which we are actually going to talk about today in our frequently asked questions.
Christa Cook: So, over the next few months, you can expect to hear the 4th and final episode of the Guatemala Series. We're going to also start a mini-series on Honduras. We are going to share a year in review and we also have, in recognition of Women's History Month, we're going to give an update in Reynosa all based off of women's perspectives.
Chloe Rastatter: So yeah, that'll be our episode out next month, but until then, let's get into our frequently asked questions, frequently asked questions.
Christa Cook: So one of the first questions we always get is how we met.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, so Solidarity Engineering is a women founded, women led organization that was founded by myself, Christa, and our third Erin Hughes. And we actually all met at the border in 2020. Through a podcast, believe it or not, and rewind: before we met in 2019, This American Life released an episode called The Out Crowd that went onto win a Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism. It was the first ever podcast to win a Pulitzer Prize and this episode was focused on MPP, Migrant Protection Protocols, which you can hear more about in our Reynosa episode “One camp closes, another one opens” and it focused on the formation of this ad hoc refugee camp in Matamoros, that started forming in 2019 and one of the main, one of the first interviews was with the executive director at the time of Global Response Management (GRM), Helen Perry. And she was just outlining how the camp had no clean water, and there weren't enough bathrooms and Ira Glass, you know, *whispers: we love you Ira Glass, you changed our lives... literally* Ira Glass asked Helen if she had ever done anything with clean water before, and she was like, no, but I'll Google it. And you know, we all heard this in our separate lives. I was finishing my undergrad in chemical and biological engineering and neuroscience at CU Boulder, so I was living in Boulder, Co.
Christa Cook: I was living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a grad student at Villanova
Chloe Rastatter: And then our third Erin, was also living in Philly, but didn't know Christa at all, and she was working her professional engineering job with the Philadelphia Water Department. And we all individually heard Helen outlining these engineering problems, right, clean water and bathrooms, are direct WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene) problems, and we all individually reached out to GRM being like hey, we heard this podcast and we're wondering, you know, we're engineers, like I'm an engineer how can I help? And we all kind of got the same kind of answer of there's no engineering presence down at the border, but we could all, we could come and, you know, see what's going on and see how we could help.
Christa Cook: So now we're in summer of 2020. Where all three of us were in Matamoros at the time, we had all just met each other, again through Global Response Management, but as they’re a medical organization, they didn’t have a lot we could do for them. So us three just started working together, really pulling from our previous experience.
Chloe Rastatter: So basically, how we met, so we all heard this podcast and then we all individually came down here to the border and it was honestly the right place right time. Erin was taking a sabbatical off of her job, about a year where she was originally going to go back and work for the Philly Water Department following her year of working at the border. I had just lost my job because of Covid.
Christa Cook: And I had just graduated from Villanova with my masters in sustainable engineering. I had a job lined up but again because of Covid, that got canceled so I came back down to the border. I had previously been there in 2019 and I thought why not go back.
Chloe Rastatter: And so a lot of things happened. Between you know, when we met and when we formalized. But basically kind of to put it in a nutshell, we all heard a podcast, we quit our jobs, quit our lives, and moved to the border. A week turned into a month, a month turned into a summer and a summer turned into Solidarity Engineering. So that’s kind of how we met.
Christa Cook: And now I guess the next natural question that people usually ask is how did we formalize.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, it’s a, a lot happened.
Christa Cook: A bit of a loaded question.
Chloe Rastatter: Bit of a loaded question because from, we knew each other for three months before we decided to formalize, and a lot happened in those three months. Before we get into exactly what happened, I think it's helpful to kind of set the stage and give a little context to where we were working. Matamoros was a camp that at its lowest, had 700 hundred people at its highest had 3,500 people, and it was in the flood zone of the city of Matamoros. Which meant it was designed to flood in order to save the rest of the city.
Christa Cook: And also keep in mind that Matamoros, this camp was on the Rio Grande, which was right across from the United States. From this camp you can see the United States. You can see Brownsville, Texas.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and not only is this place, was this camp in a specifically dangerous, environmentally speaking location, it also was not recognized by the UN. This camp and all the places that we work in along the border do not have support from the UN because the UN must be invited by the host country. And Mexico, hasn’t invited them. Yeah, so since the UN wasn't present, it was basically up to individuals and organizations to just kind of show up. And if nobody showed up, then no resources were gonna be provided, and so Erin, Christa and I all met in the summer of 2020, which is storm season there. And so our first kind of major project we focused on was stormwater.
Christa Cook: Yeah, and the reason this is so important is because if you have a big hurricane event and then all that water just stands around, now you have a breeding ground for mosquitoes, obviously known for spreading all sorts of diseases.
Chloe Rastatter: And more than that, if you don't have stormwater directed correctly, then it's just going to flood out the entire camp and it’s going to become a mud pit.
Christa Cook: And keep in mind, everybody is living in a tent, so it's not just a mud pit outside of their homes. It's very easy for it to come into their homes as well. Yeah. So we spent the summer, you know, trying to address the stormwater, led by our wonderful PE Erin Hughes, whose background was in stormwater management that’s what she was doing with the Philly Water Department. And we did a whole bunch of projects. We started with drainage ditches, that was number one. And then it just kind of grew. After drainage ditches came gravel, and then building pallets to raise people's tents and that’s really the kind of, the context that we started to get to know each other. But there was this looming threat this entire time, of what if a hurricane happened because we're in a flood zone of Matamoros and we are entering hurricane season.
Christa Cook: Now enter Hurricane Hannah, in July 2020.
Choe Rastatter: Worst case scenario. Well, not worst case scenario, 'cause it was a category one hurricane. But it was this thing that we had been dreading for so long of what are we going to do with these, you know, it was over 1,000 people at that time. What are we gonna do with them if this camp floods? And Erin had spent the past six months at that point designing the flood, a flood risk plan, essentially.
Christa Cook: And so that leads us to the hurricane. This hurricane caused a big riff, and more a big lack of trust between the American led NGO’s and the asylum seekers themselves because the Americans were very much of the opinion that we should evacuate the camp, because from the American perspective, a hurricane coming, the best thing we can do is evacuate. However, the asylum seeker perspective was way more, we need to stay here, we don't wanna be forgotten about.
Chloe Rastatter: You also have to keep in mind that there is huge mistrust in this population in general. They don't want to get put into buses and bussed somewhere 'cause there is not confidence that they’re not going to get deported cause that has happened. And so we didn't realize all of this context at the time. We didn’t realize all the complexities and basically what happened is American NGOs tried to evacuate the camp because it was gonna gonna flood, and it did flood but it flooded inch by inch, you know you could watch the water slowly increase over about two weeks.
Christa Cook: Whereas as we were really worried, worried for a flash flood, which would have picked up people and taken them down river. So the long and the short of it if it is the asylum seekers did not have a place at the table to help make decisions when it came to hurricane response. So that that's where we came up with the name Solidarity Engineering which was to remind ourselves that we are not serving the asylum seekers, we are working with them directly. And the point of that is to give them a seat at the table, us a seat at the table, and by us, I mean NGOs, local missionaries, local government and basically make sure their voices are being heard in decision making spaces.
Chloe Rastatter: And I think it was a huge lesson learned. I mean it feels so obvious now, to be like of course you can’t make decisions for other people but when there’s so much pressure and such a high intensity situation, it's really easy to forget that. And so you know, after the hurricane, happened and clearly mistakes were made, it was very obvious the asylum seekers made it very clear. And you know we, we knew there was mistakes being made, Christa and I started just you know chatting, about casually lessons learned. Like if we were in the same situation again what would we do different, and it was like, well this is all just floating ideas around because we were just individuals volunteering at the time and Erin was actually this whole time at her, on vacation with her husband. And so Christa and I started going back going back and forth, well we could have done, this, this or this, this and then we’re like well, why don’t we make a future.
Christa Cook: Yeah, so that’s when we decided to formalize as a group and by formalize we essentially mean file paperwork to become and official recognized NGO
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah and so we named ourselves Solidarity Engineering and we made our logo a shovel because our first project was digging drainage ditches. And how that started was picking up, buying a few shovels, picking them up and starting digging. The asylum seekers just joined in, so we made the logo, Solidarity Engineering and then we...
Christa Cook: We picked lavender.
Chloe Rastatter: We picked lavender.
Christa Cook: Which is ya know it’s a wink at the women before us have because there's no way we would be able to operate in this space had the women’s suffrage movement not have happened, had Me Too not happened. So it really, really was just kind of an ode to the women before us who made us able to enter the space to begin with.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and for those who don’t know, purple and you know therefore lavender is one of the main colors of the women’s suffrage movement in the US and in the feminist movement all throughout Latin America. So it is extremely symbolic and it's just a beautiful colorful color.
Christa Cook: Yeah
Chloe Rastatter: Lavender rocks.
Christa Cook: So that leads us to the next main question we usually get which is “What do we do?”
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah so cool you formalize, you met as strangers, and now what. And so what do we do? We do a lot. I think before we get really in to much what we do we kind of have to introduce who we are. Because believe it or not, we had a whole ass life before we moved here and started an NGO and quit our jobs. Yeah we had whole lives and so we, Erin, Christa and I all have pretty diverse backgrounds and I think that’s why we worked so well together as a team.
Christa Cook: We all brought very different ideas and skill sets to the to the table. We were very complementary us three as a group. For instance, my background is really more in WASH- water, sanitation and hygiene. I got my undergrad in civil engineering, I then worked for a civil engineering firm for a year, where I then joined the Peace Corps in Peru where I learned Spanish, and I was also a WASH engineer there so I learned a lot about the WASH field and then after that I went to Villanova to do my masters in sustainable engineering. So walking into this space I had some field work, a good amount of education, and then I was ready to get my hands dirty with other people who were interested in this work.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah and then as far as I go, I’m the young one of the group, I was actually still in university for the first year that we decided to do this, which was quite a rollercoaster finishing school remotely. But my background was quite a bit different, Erin and Christa have much more, they both have, they are both environmental and civil and for those who are not in the engineering world, your background for environmental and civil, a lot of the times there’s a good amount of overlap. My background was in chemical and biological engineering which is designing medicines which is an extremely expensive process and neuroscience and so I came into it bringing a skillset that was a little bit different because I had that neuroscience background which I had gotten specifically to focus on the effects of trauma and mental health because I had worked in refugee spaces before. Before I had worked in Greece at two different camps and I had also worked during my time in college with a few different settlement agencies in the US. So I had a pretty thorough understanding coming in of what the general system is, what are the general barriers that people overcome how does the system work overall.
Christa Cook: And Erin obviously she’s a professional engineer in storm water. So she brought that to the table that both Chloe and I do not have that background. So given these three skill sets, we started working on various projects. So of course, one of the first things that we tackled outside of stormwater was WASH- water sanitation and hygiene.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, but building, one of the main things about our organization is that we’re extremely community based so although we started with stormwater and WASH, one of our pillars is talking to the community about what do they see as necessary. What do they prioritize, because it’s not always obvious and almost in fact it’s almost never obvious to us because we don’t live there, we are able to cross back into the US every day. And so, our scope has really, really ballooned since then.
Christa Cook: And that comes back to the lessons learned from the hurricane. The people living in these in these environments know their needs way better than we do and we just realized we shouldn’t make assumptions about what people need, in fact we should just ask them what they need, let them come up with a plan and we support them as much as possible.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and so we really ballooned into a few different things, but we, if we were to kind of breakdown, I think, our major quote un-quote, our major sections of projects, it's WASH- water sanitation and hygiene, infrastructure and general stormwater, education outreach, and the podcast, but all of those like subcategories are just so much more. Like they’re huge projects within themselves.
Christa Cook: So when it comes to WASH, again, water, sanitation and hygiene, you're going to hear this acronym a lot throughout this podcast. This is a relatively easy to understand as to why we need this.
Chloe Rastatter: And would you just explain to everyone what exactly WASH infrastructure looks like.
Christa Cook: Sure yeah so WASH infrastructure is basically how do we get people potable water, how do we get them access to sanitation, and hygiene is oddly it sounds like the easiest one, but it by far is the most difficult one because it has a lot to do with behavior change, and access to things like soap, which in a refugee camp is often very hard to find.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah and just to be clear, sanitation is bathrooms and hygiene is shower, clothes washing, basic stuff that everybody needs to live.
Christa Cook: Right and these all play a part into a broader public health approach, essentially. Because the point of WASH is to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. The whole idea is to prevent diseases to begin with, so that way there is just less of a need for medical care. And this is particularly important to us as a group, as an all-female led group, we are highly interested in how the settings effect women, and WASH disproportionately effects women because who's usually in charge of making sure the kid can go to the bathroom, to make sure that water is available in the household, so a lot of the WASH work ends up falling on the shoulders of women, and as an all-female group, of course we want to support women as much as possible in these spaces. Because not only does the WASH work fall on them, they're also the most vulnerable because they're in spaces of extreme violence. Kidnapping, rape, extortion, this happens to many people in these spaces but particularly women.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah and so I think one of our strengths of being a women led organization is you know academically everyone knows that you need access to water, sanitation, and hygiene, you just need it to live. But in practice, people forget the small details that really make a difference, for example having locking doors in showers.
Christa Cook: Lights
Chloe Rastatter: Lights, where are women alone and most vulnerable- bathrooms. And we have really integrated into our approach this very women conscious- how do we keep women at least marginally more safe in places that are extremely dangerous.
Christa Cook: Another important side note of WASH is the movement of water. Not only moving it into these spaces, but then now you have what we call black water, water from sanitation and greywater, runoff basically from showers, clothes washing stations, hand washing sinks. But what do you do with that water in a camp that has no connection to a city grid? So that is another big part of WASH, is just moving water into these spaces and then safely managing them out of these places.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and it's, you know, the places that we work in are not easy, like to be frank.
Christa Cook: Particularly not easy.
Chloe Rastatter: They’re particularly not easy. There's a lot of pushback from different actors, you know whether that be organized crime, whether that be government, whether that be, you know, just lack of money. The resources are extremely limited and so you know, our solutions in general are actually relatively simple. It’s like oh we’re just going to raise a tank and then gravity feed it into the showers so we don’t have to use a pump. But when you actually get into the details of it you know, where’s that water going to come from? Who’s going to pay for it? How are you going to afford for the pumps to pump it up? Where's the water gonna go? And there's a lot of there's so many moving parts to these camps and shelters and so many organizations trying to meet so many needs and WASH is one of the most important ones. It’s one of the first things to go into camps as they’re being built.
Christa Cook: But it's also one of the least sexy projects. Everybody wants to build a school. Everyone wants to provide medicine, but who wants to deal with poop, who wants to take care of sanitation?
Chloe Rastatter: We do.
Christa Cook: *laughs* That’s us, that’s what we do.
Chloe Rastatter: So that's kind of like our main, our main thing is WASH. But we do a whole lot more than that.
Christa Cook: I think it's also important to mention here that the asylum seekers themselves come from many different countries, many different backgrounds. So there's also a layer of social complexity that we have to address in these solutions. Making sure essentially that no one group feels like they have been excluded in any way, and water obviously is needed by everybody, so tensions can be high if one group feels that they have more access to water than the other.
Chloe Rastatter: WASH is something that you know, we dedicate a lot of our time to, one because it's so important. And two, even though the UN is not here, there are set standards that the UN follows and makes public. They're called Sphere Standards. And so we have goals of how much water to be providing, how many bathrooms we’re providing, but we are literally never at standards. Ever. Because we're just so low resourced.
Christa Cook: And I would also like to emphasize here not only low resources financially but low resources on space. There's very little space. The land that people are on is extraordinarily limited.
Chloe Rastatter: We have to walk the line of how much infrastructure to provide versus how much space 'cause realistically speaking, the more infrastructure you build, the less people can live in that area, in that community, behind that wall, with other asylum seekers, because there is safety in numbers.
Christa Cook: So that's, that's WASH. That’s one of our main projects, arguably our principal project. However, we also focus on infrastructure and how we mentioned earlier, stormwater,
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and infrastructure is, that encompasses a lot, because although we're engineering, our overall goal is to better public health and public health is mental health as well. And we really try to include that in our approach. Like, for example, we built a playground in Matamoros because there were so many kids who had nothing to do. And with so many kids with nothing to do comes a lot of time that the adults have to put in to watch their kids. And the power of play is, cannot be understated and is also a human right.
Christa Cook: Also another thing to point out about kids having their own space is without that, they are often susceptible to adults taking advantage of them.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, so I think that through our time, we’ve really prioritized providing infrastructure specifically for kids. So for example, we built a playground in Matamoros. We’re hoping to build another one in our new location “The Baseball Field”, we built a school in Matamoros.
Christa Cook: Another note on infrastructure is this is another simple yet very effective solution which is shade. You wouldn't necessarily think that shade is so important, but we're in Mexico. It is hot. You're living in a tent. Overheating is real. So, building roofs has been actually a pretty big part of our job, and arguably one of the most impactful parts of our job.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, so infrastructure is really like a wide range. It goes from playgrounds all the way to roofs that are used for clinics for medical. With infrastructure though it's not just actually building it, it is site planning because when space is so limited, you have to really think through- where is everything gonna go and realistically, how much stuff can we put in here.
Christa Cook: And how can we do it in the most efficient manner?
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah. So we use we, you know, throw the drone up in the air pretty regularly around Reynosa. Into these different locations and take imagery and are able to map on those, on the drone imagery exact site plans and bring them not only to people like Pastor Hector who will be managing the camp, but to the asylum seekers themselves who are helping build it and who will live in it, to get their feedback about what's missing, how could we better think about this.
Christa Cook: So, infrastructure and site planning is a very iterative process cause we’ll bring an idea, we’ll ask different leaders in that space, including religious leaders like Hector, the asylum seekers themselves, and the other NGOs who are contributing to these spaces. We’ll take their feedback, we’ll make the next site plan, and it’s iterative like that. We go back and forth until we find something that everybody can agree on.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah and with infrastructure and the site plan, you can’t really disentangle stormwater from it. Because you have to plan infrastructure around stormwater.
Christa Cook: The next major pillar of what we do is education outreach.
Chloe Rastatter: Education, education, education.
Christa Cook: Honestly, this started because we had very little money and it was a very cheap project for us to do.
Chloe Rastatter: We had no money.
Christa Cook: Yeah, let’s rephrase- we had no money. It was a very cheap project to do and it was not only was it very beneficial to the kids because they really don't have a lot of access to formal education, and this was an introduction to STEM- science, technology, engineering and math. But we realized, that this really helped get community feedback. Community members definitely saw us teaching their kids and now they were much more likely to approach us with different ideas, which is how the park got built. One of the women saw us in the school and she asked us if we could build a park and we said, let’s do it. And this is really kind of what brought us back to the roots of Solidarity Engineering. That community feedback is truly what we're looking for. And this, the STEM outreach really helped us gain trust back in the community after the Hurricane Hannah fiasco.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, and I think, you know, we started it 'cause we had no money and we have made it kind of a staple in a lot of the locations we work at because really, these kids who are stuck in these camps are the future of our country, undoubtably. And there’s so many kids...so many kids.
Christa Cook: And they're kids, they're eager to learn. They want to be taught. They really want their own space. So, it's kind of like, why not? We have the skill set. Let's do it.
Chloe Rastatter: What started as teaching STEM classes in Matamoros really has bloomed into kind of a broader goal and a lot of broader ideas, including long term thinking. Cause this is a huge problem. Migration is incredibly disruptive to people’s access to education.
Christa Cook: So that’s when we started another project using the Raspberry Pi which is a microcontroller. Basically, a very cheap minicomputer.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, it’s a single chip computer.
Christa Cook: Yeah, and what’s nice about this is you don’t need Wi-Fi. It in fact emits its own Wi-Fi network. It’s extremely cheap.
Christa Cook: Oh yeah that’s the best part, 30 bucks.
Chloe Rastatter: That’s the best part.
Christa Cook: It emits its own Wi-Fi network so any device, smartphone, tablet, computer can connect to that network and download any of the educational resources that are on there. Again, without access to internet. So that has been particularly helpful in this context because internet is a very scarce resource.
Choe Rastatter: Major shoutout to all of our Solidarity Pi volunteers, y’all rock. We’re still working on the technology end of it and we’re going to be piloting it in Reynosa soon but the idea is if someone doesn’t have Wi-Fi connection or you know, data, they can just connect to this computer directly and not lose the materials they previously had access to. Because not only are people making really long journeys from their home countries to the border, they're also moving along the border a lot. Because the border is closed and there's a lot of volatility. So the idea is this would help bridge the gap.
Christa Cook: And lastly one of the main things that we do is this podcast.
Chloe Rastatter: The podcast, oh the podcast. As it's clear, Christa and I are engineers, and those who have listened to the podcast from start to finish have probably figured out that we have learned a lot about how to podcast over time.
Christa Cook: We’re very much amateurs at this.
Chloe Rastatter: Yes, very much amateurs. But the reason we started getting into podcasting to begin with is we, you know, we’re reading articles coming out of Matamoros at the time and basically, how media works down here a lot of the time is reporters will fly down and cross for a day, maybe two, get some interviews and then publish their pieces. But, the situations down here are often so complex that it's really hard to come down and get a thorough understanding of what's going on in one or two, one or two days. And Christa and I started reading pieces where, yes, it was right...
Christa Cook: factually.
Chloe Rastatter: Factually, but it wasn't what we would say, or you know what the asylum seekers would even say about the situation.
Christa Cook: And of course, mainstream media plays a huge role because they're bringing this issue to a much broader audience than we are able to. However, we thought, let's start this podcast because we want to tell more day-to-day stories about what it's like living in a refugee camp from people who are living it. Also, we really wanted to kind of humanize this population. They are not helpless. They come with many sets of skills, all sorts of personalities, and we just wanted to share their stories directly with an American audience.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah. And you know, the podcast is one of my favorite and simultaneously least favorite projects that we do, because I think it's really, I love the end product I think we get a lot of really positive feedback but it’s honestly emotionally very difficult. Because what the podcast has honestly turned into us asking, you know, we would collect these interviews and then we would be like, okay but why, you know, like, we get these people stories and we started asking ourselves, why did it happen this way? Why has this situation reached to the point that it is? And that's kind of where the country mini-series came from is answering the why. And with the why comes uncomfortable history, it comes with, comes with it uncomfortable realizations about how our world works, I guess. And so, now welcome to our podcast Dignity Displaced. So yeah, obviously we kind of have our hands in basically a little bit of everything, but I think right now is a really important time to mention that we are just one part of an overall collaborative and we would not function without all of the strong partnerships that we have between other organizations. Other churches, other aid groups that we work with day in, day out. If it wasn't for these strong partnerships, both when we were working in Matamoros and now where we’re working right now, our work might not be possible.
Christa Cook: Our overall goal in this work is to reduce human suffering, obviously by providing basic needs such as water, education, sanitation, and hygiene. It is ultimately up to the United States government about who crosses. We are simply supporting people while they're waiting on the Mexican side.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, we're just trying to make people's lives, you know, more livable, and we don't really have anything to do with crossing or any of the legal type of stuff. It's very water is water, water is life.
Christa Cook: Water is life, and it's unfortunate that people look at our work as political in the sense that providing water shouldn't be political, giving somebody access to basic sanitation shouldn't be a political issue.
Chloe Rastatter: And finally, our 4th
Christa Cook: And least favorite question
Chloe Rastatter: It’s the least favorite, but we know you're all asking...
Christa Cook and Chloe Rastatter: What's it like to be women in this space?
Chloe Rastatter: I think being women is actually one of our biggest strengths. When people ask us this question, it's very, you know, it took us a long time to figure out how to answer it because when people ask us questions a lot of times it feels like well what challenges did you have? And it's like ask any woman. I'm having the same challenges. Like we get it. But it's actually one of the strongest points of our organization because it really increases the amount of people who are comfortable to come to us and be included in the projects and give feedback.
Christa Cook: I think another big strength about being females in this space is other women feel like we're going to actually listen to them and not write off their concerns and their worries. So, for instance, there was this amazing woman, Perla.
Chloe Rastatter: Perlaaa
Christa Cook: She is the best. She is just a powerhouse. She was an asylum seeker from Matamoros and she asked all the NGOs about building a school and finally she came to us again. This was before we were formalized. This so we were still kind of just like three engineers running around doing stuff. And so she finally came to us and said can y'all build a school? We said absolutely. The day the school gets built, we're in a WhatsApp group with her, she starts sending pictures of playgrounds. So she was really wanting to create safe spaces for children, so I think women feel more comfortable approaching us, not only because we're also women, but because they think they'll be listened to, hopefully a little bit better.
Chloe Rastatter: And I think because we're all women, we maybe prioritize projects a little bit differently. If we were, you know, a group of men, for example. The playground, yes, that's not really engineering, but the impact that that has on kids and women cannot be understated.
Christa Cook: So just to talk about that a little bit more, we built this, this playground really with the idea, obviously to give kids a space to play and grow. But it ended up turning into a bit of a, a woman’s liberation to be able to go to work. Because, before women had their kids with them 24/7 'cause there's no space for them to go to and after this playground had a fence around it and it had a playground attendant. So it sort of became a daycare, which freed up women's time to pursue other opportunities.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah. And so, being women, being a woman founded organization, to me is one of my favorite parts about us. I think it allows for more flexibility in our thought of what can and what does engineering mean in this space. Because in the reality of speaking, this is something we talk about a lot and joke about is like we're not really doing a lot of technical engineering. You know we're not designing some reactor or something crazy, but we're expanding what engineering can mean.
Christa Cook: And I think it's another huge benefit that we're not overly technical because we need simple solutions. We need things that are not overly complicated because this is a transitionary population. So we need every group who's coming in to be able to understand the system. So if we keep it very simple and intuitive, then it's more likely to actually function.
Chloe Rastatter: And, to be frank. Women are disproportionately affected in these spaces, and so always having other women at the forefront of our minds when we implement projects is so incredibly important for their safety, for the functionality of the camp, for everything. I think that one other thing, another thing to kind of know is we are not the only women in this space. This is an incredibly women dominated space, both in the American NGO side of things and in the Mexican asylum seeker side of things. Some of our most successful projects like the hygiene teams in Reynosa, like the park, like the school, were led by women asylum seekers and I think we, like Christa said earlier, because we are women, they're more likely to come to us with their ideas and we're more likely to hear it. So yeah, with that, it's kind of, you know, our frequently asked questions that we have answered a million times and now you all can kind of get a little bit better of an idea as to who we are and why we are making this podcast and why maybe you should listen to us or support our work.
Christa Cook: So if you are interested in continuing listening to this podcast, we've got a lot of great episodes coming out over the next few months. We have an episode with a Guatemalan woman where she details her journey from Guatemala to Matamoros and that will be the 4th and final episode of Guatemala Series. We also will be starting Honduras series. We, as previously mentioned, will be doing a year in review where you can hear a little bit about what our first year as an NGO is like.
Chloe Rastatter: It was crazy.
Christa Cook: It was a lot of up and downs.
Chloe Rastatter: Yeah, we're gonna be doing a update in Reynosa, kind of, it's almost a follow up from the first episode in Reynosa where we talked about the camp closing, the situation has developed a lot in the past few months and in honor and recognition of March being Women’s History Month, we're gonna release an episode that lets everybody know exactly what's going on, on the ground. But solely from the perspective of women. So with that, thank you so much for listening to today's episode. If you like what you heard and got something out of it or interested in our work, please, please, please consider sharing it with a friend, subscribing on our Patreon @ Solidarity Engineering, following us on Instagram @ Solidarity Engineering. Visiting our website solidarityengineering.org. We are a small grassroots organization, so all donations you know go directly into supporting our projects that you heard about today, directly to providing water, STEM classes, all of those types of things.
Christa Cook: And I think now is a great time to kind of shout out a lot of major support that we've had from a lot of different people in the past year. So a huge shout out a big thank you to Dave Rastatter, Rachel Manring, Jordan Ermilio, Vero Cardenas, Jennifer Harbury, Bernard Amadei, Bill Cory, Hector de Silva, Brendon Tucker, and the whole GRM crew, Adam Erispaha, Wesley Ansel Howard Shugart Schmidt, Angie Matos, Siobhan Merrill, Dison Varas, Perla Vargas, Mario Savio, Gabby Zavalla, and everyone else who has helped and worked with us along the way.
Chloe Rastatter: We wouldn't be here without y'all, so thanks. Catch us next month.