THE BLOG

Lighting Out For The South

Tomorrow I will follow in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway, Che Guevara and Celia Cruz to the irrepressible rhythm of the Cuban son - grandfather of salsa, popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club - emanating from Cuban human beings, not my CD collection or a cover band in downtown Houston. Far from the Bayou City, I'll savor the sunset breezes on the Malecon, the famous boulevard that stretches the length of the city along the Bay of Havana. As many a tourist has done before me, I'll sit at Hemingway's favorite bar and have a mojito in his memory.

And while I will embrace the cultural magic of this legendary land, my journey goes beyond culture to something more essential, something universal and urgent.

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek recently articulated my thinking better than I could have. Salopek won the Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award last month from Colby College, and like a modern-day Horace Greeley, he uttered some sage words of advice to young journalists in his acceptance speech.

"I would advise any ambitious young reporter today not to head to Washington or to London to launch a career but to light out for the South, because that's where the global narrative is rapidly taking shape," he said.

Salopek, for those who may not know, is the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign correspondent who was captured and held captive in Sudan for a month while reporting a National Geographic cover story on Africa's Sahel region. One can only hope that his words will inspire a fraction of the shift in the national zeitgeist reflected in the famous 1800s phrase attributed to Greeley, "Go West, young man."

I am no longer a young reporter, but lighting out for the South is exactly what I am preparing to do. Over course of the next year, I will be traveling through Latin America, reporting on the important and innovative work of world-changers at the grassroots. Here is where the passion and the color and the sazon of the Latino people finds its nexus with what's been called the most urgent issue of our time: remaking society in a way that will avert an ecological catastrophe.

Citizens of the Global South have too often been portrayed as victims, villains and bit characters in the global narrative playing out around us. We see the images of the distressed and dismayed, buffeted by yet another catastrophe. We hear about the druglords and narcotraffickers, the swine flu outbreaks and the hordes of undocumented immigrants besieging our borders.

What I have seen in my travels in the Global South is a sharp contrast. Yes, there is suffering, but as Salopek also noted, there is great joy. He describes Africa, with all its entrenched poverty, as one of the happiest places he's been. Paradoxical, yes; but paradox is the great crucible of the soul, and therein lies the story I am about to tell.

My Global South is peopled with heroes and heroines, men and women who face down their fears and the formidable challenges that stand in their way to produce meaningful change. It's also peopled with ordinary folks who are tackling the same challenges we are, but from a different angle.

My Global South is working quietly to create a model for a future that is ultimately more sustainable than the one that we here in the overdeveloped world have created, and we have barely noticed.

In the year ahead, as humanity wrestles with what may be the greatest challenge of our times - re-creating a society and a sustainable way of life that is consistent with long-term planetary survival - I will be giving voice to some of these unsung world-changers in the pages of The Esperanza Project, a green bilingual (and ultimately, multilingual) news portal for the Americas.

Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope - a commodity seemingly in short supply these days. With the rapidly approaching Copenhagen conference, climate leadership is hard to find - unless one looks south, where Brazil, the world's fourth-largest carbon producer, is pledging to cut emissions by a third; Cuba, which has turned crisis to opportunity with one of the hemisphere's most sustainable infrastructures; and mega-metropolises like Mexico City and Bogota, with green initiatives that go far beyond what most U.S. cities have attempted.
I've already begun the reporting on this project with an October trip to Mexico, where young professionals in Guadalajara are putting their bodies on the line for a more sustainable city, and in Mexico City where a sprawling, 30,000-person complex is making the conversion to an ecovillage.

In Cuba, I'll witness the creative responses to the crisis that followed the fall of the Soviet Union and the loss of its main source of petroleum. The country was forced to rapidly rethink its agricultural, energy, transportation and health care systems with a fraction of its previous oil supply, and in a process borne of necessity, created some of the world's most sustainable cities.

And in January, after packing up my belongings into a storage locker and saying goodbye to my family, I'll be hitting the road on a yearlong southward journey seeking and training collaborators for a new media project.

On this news network, Latin Americans are the protagonists of their own narrative, and one that we here in the North would do well to follow, as there is much to be learned from them. We'll be using all the tools of the digital age to tell their stories: video, photography, the new social media and, yes, the good old-fashioned written word.

Jorge Luis Sierra, an award-winning investigative journalist from Mexico City and a pioneer in online media himself, has signed on as The Esperanza Project's Spanish-language editor, giving the project greater depth and an exciting edge. Patricia Martinez, an environmental journalist from Guadalajara, Alejandro Manrique, an investigative journalist from Colombia, and Tami Brunk, an environmental writer based in New Mexico, are also among our collaborators.

We are looking for contributors from all over, and you can be one of them. You can follow us on Facebook or Twitter, subscribe to our RSS feed or receive updates in your e-mail. You can post relevant stories in the newsfeed, contribute to the discussion in the comment fields or even write stories of your own, if you feel so inspired.

I hope you will join the hemispheric conversation that is about to begin at TheEsperanzaProject.org. Click around the site, share your thoughts, forward it to your friends. This is how a new online media project is born, and you can be a part of it.

Tracy L. Barnett, www.tracybarnettonline.com, is an independent journalist based in Houston. She is a blogger at The Huffington Post and founder of The Esperanza Project.
Paul Salopek's inspiring speech, delivered last month upon receipt of the Elijah Lovejoy Award, is available in podcast here.