Creating Change From The Bottom Up

Most of us are familiar with the concept that change starts from the top. I care to differ. In this article, I will share with you a story of how change that starts from the bottom, driven through action and example, can result in a solid foundation from which to build. 

A few years back I came into contact with a group of young inmates at Bollate Penitentiary, in Milano. My contact was Luca whom I met on a sunny but chilly January morning while having a coffee. I had the only table in the sun and Luca kindly asked if he could join me. We got to talking and one thing led to another.  He was a graphic artist who got leave three days a week, from the penitentiary, to work at Consorzio Viale dei Mille, an organization engaged in creating opportunities for inmates, the prison economy, and the cooperatives operating in prisons. He was working on another project, called Keep The Planet Clean, which piqued my interest immediately. That day both Luca and I left feeling as though our meeting was meant to be. We met on several occasions, and soon after I filled out the necessary documents in order to partake in a meeting with a compelling group of young inmates at Bollate penitentiary. 

When I entered Bollate I was led down a long bright corridor, almost one kilometer long, where Luca was waiting for me at the other end.  We made our way up a stairwell which led us to a room on the second floor, where I met the key players of Keep The Planet Clean, Matteo Gorelli, and Fernando Gomez da Silva, among others.

This group of inmates had taken the essential first steps in undertaking concrete actions, the kind of actions the planet needs more of because they can have a strong impact. It started with two inmates, Matteo and Fernando, who joined forces to make a difference in their restrained community and beyond its confines. They had a vision and the initiative to follow through. 

Their association, Keep The Planet Clean, had already patiently weaved a network of collaborations and partnerships with other non-profit organizations, associations, and entities that made environmental battles their mission. 

I sat in awe as I listened to a group of young men who showed a profound level of awareness and social responsibility. They did not claim to have a solution, instead, they had unanimously chosen to be the solution! I have attended my fair share of long intense meetings in my profession but rarely, if ever, had I come across such a cohesive group.

Matteo is straightforward, serious, and brutally honest, traits which I admire. He has a confident yet mysterious air about him. I also caught a glimpse of the pain mixed with anger, which fuel his passion. Matteo had set his sights on achieving redemption, through his exhaustive efforts, to create something bigger than himself, something that could reach out, touch, and reverberate far beyond the binding prison walls.

Matteo managed the association together with his colleague, Fernando.  The team of Keep the Planet Clean grew, in no time, to over 65 participants in the penitentiary alone. They had a newsletter that rocked, and a dedicated site in Milan, Italy, for events designed to inform and engage the community. 

Fernando was an effervescent mix of charm, goodwill, and vitality. His slightly skewed smile and steadfast gaze only added to his amiable and appealing disposition. In fact, the thought crossed my mind, that he certainly must have been detained by error.  The truth is that most of the detainees at Bollate were processed, by the penal system, at a young age. An age when many young people fall prey to wayward ways, whether by necessity or peer group pressure.  Fernando was far away from his home and family. A love story had taken him across the ocean, from Brazil to Italy, where his fate took on a dark twist. Behind his gregarious and light-hearted disposition, there was a brilliant, focused, and sweet-natured young man, dreaming of reconnecting with his family. The KPC project would become the trampoline that hurled him over the walls of Bollate Penitentiary.

Luca was the ambassador for KPC, outside Bollate. He was one of the first, of the group, to qualify for work leave, putting him into contact with the outside world. He was also the first to be released on parole. Luca is more than a talented graphic artist, he is an idea man, an innovator at heart, busy exploring new theories and practices in composting and vertical gardening. 

“Freedom is not a license to act but a license to exercise free choices in any given situation.” 

(Vera Nazarian)

This story deserves to be told from its humble beginnings. In 2015, Fernando and Matteo presented the prison management with an evaluation report on the waste of food in the structure. The report was the result of meticulous research and data collection, cell by cell, in the penitentiary, where the per capita quantity of waste was calculated, in a rudimentary way, by weighing it with a kitchen scale. 

The findings revealed that 4000 kilos of bread were thrown into the dustbin by inmates at the Bollate prison every month. Once they presented these findings in a report, the prison management immediately followed up on these two boys’ will and interest in implementing a system of waste collection and management. 

Following the acceptance of their waste management proposal and a period of experimentation, in less than two years the project was extended to the women’s ward, involving the entire penitentiary by November 2017. 

They succeeded in collecting, managing, and separating 91% of the total waste produced by the Penitentiary, which amounted to 19 tons/per month. With a population of almost 1300, not counting staff, this project was a turning point at Bollate. These numbers are difficult to reach, even for the most organized municipal administrations. This is a perfect example of activism that starts from the bottom, driven through action and example while engaging others, resulting in a solid foundation from which to build. 

The project’s humble beginnings from what is perceived as the lowest stratum of society, prisons and detention facilities, created the opportunity for a concrete form of redemption and activism, that could also be replicated in other penitentiary facilities. 

The group’s commitment to recycling and sustainability flourished beyond the prison walls. They set themselves to work on a series of improvements in public parks and schools where they implemented a recycling system by reallocating garbage bins and welding new structures to group together and color-code bins to encourage recycling in parks.

Another group of inmates dedicated themselves to re-using the plastic collected and created a variety of items that could be resold at markets, from lampshades using plastic cutlery, to tabletop Christmas trees and wreaths made by shredding and cutting plastic bottles, to name a few. In March 2019, the first issue of the bimonthly newsletter ‘Riciclami’ was published, a magazine that dealt with green and sustainability issues, completely self-produced in the penitentiary. The magazine was slick, with in-depth well-written articles that could compete with the best out there.  I subsequently met with the group several times, attended their community events, and shot a short documentary in Italian. 

With a change in direction of the penitentiary and the pandemic, any further initiatives by Keep The Planet Clean were put on hold indefinitely. This means no more contact with external players, no more means of selling goods made from recycled plastic and no one knows if and when Keep The Planet Clean will be resuscitated.

“The truth of human freedom lies in the love that breaks down barriers.” 

(Jürgen Moltmann)

But this story doesn’t end here. Matteo, Fernando, and Luca are now on parole and they’ve all been busy setting themselves up to continue their work outside the penitentiary. The pillars that sustained the KPC project are the same ones that propel them on their journey forward, raising awareness, economizing on waste production, recovery of the same, and the social recovery of people subjected to detention measures.

Matteo learned a lot from his experience in prison and has even graduated from Bicocca. He has embarked on a new adventure called MITIGA, a social enterprise comprised of inmates detained in the Bollate prison and designed to promote the full integration into the society of the prisoners themselves, often subject to the exclusion and social marginalization, once they are released. An important project not only for the reintegration of detainees but also to raise awareness of the collective and stimulate them to be rid of prejudices based on social stigma. Matteo’s commitment to sustainability is still a driving force behind MITIGA. 

Fernando, a former electrician, has designed a condominium waste meter, called Riselda, after his mother. The three functions of the Riselda project, in partnership with the “BiPart” social enterprise, MITIGA: are the digitization of waste in condominiums, a reward system, and the networking of neighborhood citizens. Riselda, in fact, is a sort of “intelligent” bin that has the function of weighing, tracking, and producing personalized information on the waste produced by each user, who is provided with a personal card, which allows them to print a sticker with barcode issued for the various types of waste. This waste meter which rewards virtuous tenants is an innovative approach to increasing awareness and engagement in densely populated city buildings. 

Fernando’s waste meter, Riselda is becoming the basis for engaging tenants who get rewarded with lower garbage taxes by converting the “points” earned by the most virtuous into discounts and shopping vouchers.

Luca, who had been actively involved with a greenhouse project at Bollate, focused on composting, for several years, which has led him to a unique compost recipe, using micro-organisms that turn food waste into a rich fertilizer, without attracting bugs or rodents.  Thanks to Matteo’s enterprise, MITIGA, Luca’s compost recipe, and Fernando’s Waste Meter are now being tested and applied in residential buildings, in Milan. 

If what we do is who we are, and our actions define us, these three ex-convicts and their cellmates who worked seamlessly together, for several years, have shown that change starts from the bottom up and most importantly from within. 

Published by Maddalena Di Gregorio

“I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in” Robert L. Stevenson

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