How One Person Can Change the World

I've never actually met Ruel Bernard; our paths have probably crossed at one time or another, but by the time we knew who each other was, we lived a continent apart. One day, we'll meet. In the meantime, I'm glad I know him, and know of him. It's people (and stories) like Ruel that always give me hope for a new year.

Our paths crossed because in 1991, two friends and I launched my first adventure in publishing -- and, for that matter, my first adventure in writing and reporting. It was a tiny volunteer, non-profit newspaper called On Indian Land, and it focused on Native American traditional land struggles and politics. (I left about five years ago, but it only recently went on a perhaps-permanent hiatus after a wonderful ten-year run.)

OIL turned out to primarily be about the newspaper, but it was originally only one piece of a larger project, called Support for Native Sovereignty, that carried out public education and raised material aid and political support for impoverished traditional Native communities. Enter Ruel.

Ruel Bernard is a carpenter who has lived for many years in Albany, New York. His sometimes-activism was abruptly jump-started by a trip to Nicaragua in the mid-'80s, of the sort common among progressives still then hopeful that the Sandanista revolution could withstand relentless hostility from the U.S. government. It was Ruel's first time in the Third World, and what he saw was that for the time he spent and the money he made building third bathrooms and luxury kitchens in one or another American suburb, whole communities could be built, and lives immeasurably improved, in an alternate universe not very far away.

One thing led to another, and when Hurricano Hugo devastated Puerto Rico in 1989, a project called Building Community was born. The purpose of Building Community, as with the Central American solidarity brigades Ruel learned from, was to apply U.S. skills and resources to far poorer communities where they were desperately needed -- but to do so by working with communities and responding to their perceived needs, rather than imposing norteamericano ideas and solutions. Ruel turned to Puerto Rico in part because it was a piece of the Third World that belongs to the United States -- Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, but often live in Latin American housing conditions. And after Hugo, many of them weren't living in any housing at all.

Sometimes, all it takes is a simple idea, and a good one, to change a lot of lives. Early on, Ruel hooked up with families from Villa sin Miedo ("City Without Fear"), the campesino community made famous by spectacular confrontations with the Puerto Rican government in the early '80s over a huge squat outside San Juan. (My friendship with Ruel was cemented when I found out about that connection, and he found out about the song I'd written about that squat.) Building Community, the organization, has been and continues to be focused on building community, the mission. Its collectivist ethic extends beyond building structures, but also skill trainings and self-help projects that give people with few resources more confidence in themselves and each other.

Over a decade later, Ruel's channel for his restless energy now has construction and medical brigades in Puerto Rico and Guatemala, and works with schools and the public in the mainland U.S. as well.

The reason for writing about Ruel and Building Communities here isn't so much as a testimonial or because it's a cool group -- though it is -- as to suggest what kinds of answers can be possible if any of us asks the right questions.

Those questions are both personal (What do we really want to do with our energy, our labor, our lives?) and societal (How can we best use our tremendous creativity, good will, and wealth? Why are the things some of us can take for granted seemingly so far beyond the reach of other, equally deserving peoples? And how can that be fixed?).

I have no idea how many people, how many families, how many children have had their lives immeasurably improved over the last decade because one guy in Albany decided to stop building third bathrooms. But somewhere, at the dawn of this new year, other people are making equally important and inspiring decisions. For all of the political grimness that crops up in this site, this country, this planet, there are still billions of people on it, and with each of us there is the seed of hope.

Most of us will never change the world. But we can change ourselves, and each of us can change some peoples' worlds -- for the better -- if only we pick the right questions, and have the courage to answer them.

Building Communities can be reached at 845/679-6100, or via e-mail at

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