On a warm summer afternoon, we made our way down a crowded, pothole-laden street in Havana toward a restored red and white building. Wild ficus tree roots buckled the pavement leading up to the colonial-era building that was surely once home to a well-to-do family. It was now home to Espiral.
Espiral was founded in April 2000 by a group of 20 people with a passion for helping others in communities across Cuba. Roughly 1,000 young professionals make up Espiral, a grassroots effort aimed at engaging people in a wide variety of initiatives. The nonprofit organization centers on activities for youth and the elderly, the environment, sustainability, health and wellness, and future development. Some of their workshops include infrastructure and simple things such as how to take care of farm animals or household pets.
We sat in a circle on the second floor of the Espiral building, enjoying the aroma of freshly-cooked Cuban food emanating from the first floor, which was occupied by a family-owned restaurant. The room was dark, with billowing fabric covering the windows where there once was glass. Espiral members shared personal stories with our American education group NAME (National Association for Multicultural Education), outlining how they hoped to one day make Koo-bah, as they pronounced it, a better place.
Twenty-two-year-old Inga was a substitute teacher. She and the others were keenly aware that Cuba doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle big tourism. She led the discussion of plans to develop small farmers markets in various communities, which would allow locals to sell and share their goods to individuals coming off cruise ships and airlines. Unemployment is at 48 percent, and of those who are employed, eight out of every ten work for the government. Developing plans for the future is what motivates Espiral members.
In 2011, the Obama administration took decisive action to expand academic travel to Cuba. This was a big victory for educators, especially international groups such as NAME.
Education is free, but the reality is that most people cannot afford to stay in school. Ariana graduated two years ago and is a coordinator for Espiral. Her love of people has guided her toward working with seniors, a growing population in Cuba. She couldn’t find a job, however, so she conducts tours in cities like Havana, Santa Clara, and Cienfuegos.
Outside the small tourist area, the rest of the city looks as though it’s suffered the effects of Hurricane Harvey or Irma. Most buildings have collapsed roofs, missing window glass, and peeling paint, which is what motivated Miguel to be a part of Espiral. As a college student, he was able to spend five years outside of Cuba working on initiatives to improve sustainability and infrastructure. He brought that knowledge and motivation back to his country with the hope of improving the island he loves so much.
At the end of the day, NAME was able to announce sponsorship of its own Cuban Chapter of the educational organization to the group. Applause, hugs, and tears of joy filled the room.
Traveling to Cuba was an experience that’s impossible to forget. The images were as transfixing as they were timeless. Dancing in rumbas at Callejon de Hamel, sweating profusely inside the packed Havana jazz club, or sipping café on the lawn of Hotel Nacional, we shared the life of the Espiral members and believe in their efforts to leave Cuba better than it was the day before.
Mary Parks is creator and host of the weekly PBS television series American Spirit with Mary Parks. She is also an award-winning journalist.