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Meet the Banco Popular Big Idea Challenge Finalists: Caras con Causa

Caras con Causa, a Banco Popular Big Idea Challenge Finalist, is a nonprofit organization in the prototype stage, headquartered in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and led by Michael Fernández.

The Problem

In Puerto Rico, public schools are shutting down and hindering families’ upward mobility. The South of the Bay of San Juan is a particularly vulnerable area, where 92 percent of students are poor, and proficiency levels for reading and math among high school students is below 20 percent. It’s an area where mangroves once flourished, naturally protecting the coasts and filtering toxins from water, land, and air. However, the community now sits on a contaminated wetland, and when disasters like Hurricane Maria hit, polluted floods ravage homes.

The Solution

Caras con Causa provides school-time and after-school programs that teach young children about the interdependence of ecosystems while supporting them with their school work. This effort is part of greater local strategy for community development championed by Caras with several neighborhoods and schools.

Alongside students and families, the group also develops, introduces, and nurtures mangroves from seed to growth. Through combining opportunities for students to restore ecological health and foster community development, Caras con Causa drives a path toward self-empowered economic prosperity.

Looking forward, Caras con Causa plans to expand. By developing a Community Laboratory (“LabCom”), the group intends to dedicate space for members to gather and turn long-term research into coastal solutions. Its existing educational programs will house labs in which students can study the wetland ecosystem and its interaction with the community, and other forms of green infrastructure.

The LabCom will also serve as an investigative base for students to study and work with the nature reserve that harbors the wetland. Finally, the center’s facilities will be rented out to partner organizations, providing a source of predictable revenue for the nonprofit.

Market Opportunity

  • Puerto Rico has an education shortage. In 2018, more than 165 schools closed. As of 2018, the island was set to shut down an additional 265 schools.
  • Dense mangrove forests are estimated to reduce deaths during hurricanes by about two-thirds, though close to 80 percent of coastal mangroves have been wiped out by human development.
  • There is great international interest in research regarding climate change and coastal-urban wetlands.

Organization Highlights

  • Founded PR’s first “School Consortium”, a volunteer group of local school directors working together to promote local community development
  • Created “Connected Relief” project in 2017, an online platform that connects victims of natural disasters with relief impacting thousands of Hurricane Maria victims
  • Authorized to launch PR’s first turnaround charter school in August 2019
  • Awards: Big Ideas Challenge
  • Media: El Nuevo Dia, Samantha B, NPR News

Existing Partnerships

For this project, Caras Con Causa currently partners with:

  • Local public schools and neighborhoods
  • Social Innovation and Collaboration Community (CCIS)
  • University of Pittsburgh Business School
  • Amizade
  • Ciencia PR

Organization Goals

Caras con Causa seeks to achieve the following goals:

  • Increase graduation rates and decrease indicators of poverty
  • Open a successful community lab to continue a self-organized, self-driven mission
  • Obtain federal research funding for the lab

Partnership Goals

To reach the organization goals mentioned above, Caras con Causa seeks partnerships for:

  • Legal advice on drafting effective partnership agreements between small nonprofits and larger institutions
  • Guidance with National Science Foundation (NSF) grant-writing
  • Providing strategy to align programs in multiple locations and available resources
  • Funding the transportation of students to and from the community lab
  • Building a long-term monitoring and evaluation system for its programs, particularly for tracking the correlation between mangrove rehabilitation sites and flooding in the communities served
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