Paint and a Paintbrush Are Rebuilding Community for Austin’s Homeless

Homelessness is on the rise in Austin, Texas. In 2018, more than 7,000 people experienced homeless in Austin, according to the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition (ECHO). On any given day there are over 2,000 individuals living in shelters or unsheltered — a number that’s risen nearly 5% between 2018 and 2019. 
But building a community can play an important role in supporting individuals experiencing homelessness. Since 1990, Art from the Streets has been doing exactly that. 
The organization helps the housing insecure find a greater sense of stability through art. Three times a week, individuals gather at a local Austin church where they can paint for free during an open studio session. There, artists have a refuge from life on the streets while also building a greater sense of community.
“We create a place of safety for people who are on the street to be able to come inside to just be, and be supported to create,” co-founder Heloise Gold told NationSwell. “I don’t refer to this as ‘art therapy’ per se, but it is very therapeutic.”
Art from the Streets also helps its artists get paid for their work. For the past 27 years, it’s hosted an end-of-year show and sale where artists are able to sell their original pieces for 95% of the profits. In more recent years, Art from the Streets has opened an online store to sell reprints and merchandise. Artists earn 60% of the proceeds from reprints, while the remaining 40% goes to support the organization.
Though the sale of artwork is important, Gold maintains that it’s the sense of community instilled that drives Art from the Streets’ mission.
“The heart of the program and what I was wanting in the beginning, that essence is still apart of this program,” said Gold. “We really want people to be apart of the community and to be influenced by each other.”
More: This Website Empowers People in Need to Make Art — and Sell It for Thousands of Dollars

Veterans and Texas Inmates Are Having Their Lives Changed by These Dogs

A prison is the last place you might expect to hear a bark, but in three Texas correctional facilities, you’ll regularly hear barks, commands and the pitter-patter of paws. 
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice partnered with Patriot Paws, a nonprofit that pairs disabled veterans with service dogs. Before the dogs are paired with a vet, incarcerated individuals train them to learn basic service animal skills. 
The pairing between Patriot Paws and prisons is mutually beneficial. The trainers learn valuable life lessons and gain skills that can lead to career opportunities post-release, and the dogs learn how to care for a vet. 
Since starting the partnership in 2008, Patriot Paws has hired two formerly-incarcerated dog trainers. 
Meet one of the trainers and learn how you can get involved with Patriot Paws in the video above. 
More: People in Prisons Are Learning to Code — and It Might Alter the Course of Their Lives

Adobe Houses Are Made of Mud and Straw — and Some Now Cost $1 Million Because of Rising Taxes

Considered one of the earliest building materials known to man, adobe is a mixture of dirt, water and straw first used by natives of the American Southwest. Today, adobe homes remain popular thanks to their ability to regulate climate during blistering summers and cold winters. But in an area of West Texas along the Mexican border, the cost of adobe is skyrocketing.
At the center of the controversy are newcomers to Marfa, Texas — a desert outpost turned arts mecca. As the town continues to gentrify, the wealthy residents moving here have given adobe a new cachet, in the process driving up the cost of the once-affordable material. And in a county where the average median income is just above $29,000, the adobe homes now on the market are going for upward of $1 million. That has forced locals to abandon adobe in favor of cheaper building options like concrete.
Local resident Sandro Canovas is a third-generation brickmaker on a mission to keep the adobe building tradition alive — and to keep the cost of it down. To do so, Canovas has been holding public workshops on building with adobe for free. 
Watch the video above to see how Canovas’s efforts are preserving the historical significance of adobe construction and inspiring a new generation to learn the craft.
More: This Group Is Documenting Ancient Murals in Texas Before They’re Wiped out by Climate Change

This Group Is Documenting Ancient Murals in Texas Before They’re Wiped Out by Climate Change

In Texas’ Lower Pecos Canyonlands, Shumla Archaeological Research & Education Center has been documenting some of the oldest narrative mural paintings in North America. Shumla is racing against time to document these murals, as local rivers that surround them are rising at an alarming rate, due to the changing climate, and are slowly degrading the original artwork.
Because of their location and condition, Shumla hopes that these murals, some of them 4,000 years old, might one day be displayed as 3D models or with the help of VR, in museums around the country, to raise awareness about their degradation.

To learn about the four-year program, called the Alexandria Project, watch the video above.
More: Why Facts Dont Work With Climate Change Deniers

There’s Always Something to Do in Brownsville

“There’s nothing to do in Brownsville.” It was a constant refrain when Eva Garcia was growing up in the midsize Texas city, situated just across the border from Mexico. After college, most of her friends moved away to Austin or other cities perceived as more dynamic and interesting. But Garcia stayed, got a job in city government, and is now part of an initiative to transform her community and neighboring cities. “I want to make Brownsville a place where people want to stay,” she says.
As an employee of the city’s department of planning and development, Garcia is taking an active role in doing just that, helping to organize programs and funding for a network of 17 miles of new multiuse trails in and around Brownsville. She’s also been lobbying to attract new businesses to open alongside these new biking, hiking and paddling trails. She recently attended the Kauffman Foundation’s inaugural ESHIP Summit to connect with other people working to build thriving small business communities and get new ideas for how to improve her own.
The goals of Brownsville’s recent outdoorsy development are nothing less than ambitious: Boost the local economy, improve health outcomes, rescue precious natural resources and encourage the growth of a robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Those are big problems to solve, and Brownsville is trying to tackle them all at once. But the city is aiming to prove that all at once is the best way to take on big issues.
“There’s never enough money to do what you want,” Garcia says. “We’re leveraging resources to attack multiple problems.” For Garcia, the ESHIP Summit was a chance to better understand and imagine the end goal of the development happening in Brownsville. “What I’ve learned is the characteristics of highly functioning systems,” she says, “and how collaboration is essential.”
Turning around an entire community’s idea of itself isn’t exactly easy. Brownsville is behind the curve in developing as a tourist destination, Garcia says. “Right now the challenge seems to be changing the perception of what’s successful, or what could be successful.” Some people believe that in a relatively poor community, building nature trails is a waste of taxpayer money that could be better spent improving public transportation or other services.
But Garcia sees the potential to make her community much stronger — and healthier too. The progress happening today is a steep departure from her experience growing up in Brownsville, which as recently as 2012 was the poorest city in America, with a median income of less than $30,000 a year. The majority of residents are Hispanic, and a CDC study found that the rates of obesity and diabetes were among the highest in the country. Almost 40 percent of residents lack health insurance, according to the most recent census data available. Growing up, Garcia says she had no idea that the health disparities and poverty levels were so severe.
After graduating from the University of Texas at Brownsville (now the University of Texas Rio Grande) with a degree in environmental science, Garcia got an internship with the city and started to learn more about her own community. “I felt like my eyes were opened,” she says. “I started becoming aware of what the issues really were here, and why there were challenges to development.” The city had already started to work on some initiatives to reduce poverty and improve health outcomes, and Garcia decided she wanted to be involved.
Today, Garcia’s department is partnering with Rails to Trails Conservancy to connect 10 local communities with new pathways. The UT School of Public Health in Brownsville has provided grant funding to help promote the new trails and healthy living in general. And the city is taking advantage of a local utility program to dredge and restore tributaries of the Rio Grande that have filled with sediment, organizing new trails around these resacas. The university’s architecture program is designing birding blinds (small shelters that help observers watch birds without startling them) to line the new trails. “Everyone has a role to play,” Garcia says.
That includes entrepreneurs, who are key to making the “active tourism” initiative a success. The city is looking for ways to incentivize small businesses to take advantage of the new walking and biking pathways. “You cannot be active without the [proper] gear,” Garcia says. “Even to go fishing, you need poles and lines, and people to take you out on boats to show you where things are.”
More businesses are needed, she says, to showcase the city’s assets — new companies like outdoor tour operators or kayak and paddleboard rental shops will help market the community as a fun, dynamic place.
“There are constantly things to do now,” Garcia says.


This content was produced in partnership with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which works in entrepreneurship and education to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back to their communities. In June 2017, the foundation hosted its inaugural ESHIP Sumit, convening 435 leaders fighting to help break down barriers for entrepreneurs across the country.

Harsh Sentences for Drug Users Go Up in Smoke

Sure, everything’s bigger in Texas. Except, that is, jail sentences for casual stoners who get caught toking up.
Houston’s newly elected district attorney, Kim Ogg, is issuing the lightest sentence the statute allows for in cases for minor marijuana possession. Instead of being tossed behind bars, most pot smokers can pay $150 fine and take a four-hour-long class on decision-making. Plus, the incident is kept off their record.
Ogg, a Democrat, made the push for leniency the centerpiece of her 2016 campaign for district attorney. It was a bold gamble when running against a Republican incumbent in a red state known for being tough on crime, but Ogg managed to gain conservative votes by pledging to go after “violent criminals, burglars and white-collar thieves,” instead. She won by eight points.
Criminal justice reformers did not see Ogg’s win as new freedom to light up a joint, but as an electoral strategy that could offer a roadmap for changing drug policy in traditionally strict counties across the country. Theoretically, they don’t need to write new laws; they can vote out incumbents that read laws as mandates to incarcerate drug users.

During the campaign for Houston District Attorney, Kim Ogg was a vocal proponent of eliminating jail sentences for minor marijuana possession.

The concept, of course, has its critics. Next door in Montgomery County, District Attorney Brett Ligon told the Houston Chronicle that Ogg was making Houston into a “sanctuary for dope smokers.”
Additionally, it’s unclear if any of the money typically spent misdemeanor marijuana prosecutions will be saved. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner referred to the program as “cost efficient,” but several officials say that taxpayers likely won’t see a dime. Instead, resources will be spent on more dangerous threats to public safety.
“Harris County has spent more than $200 million in the past decade on more than 100,000 cases of misdemeanor marijuana possession,” Ogg said. “The endeavor has had no tangible public safety benefit.” Rather, the marijuana crackdown “has deprived neighborhoods of officers’ time that could be spent patrolling communities, jail beds that could be used for violent criminals, crime lab resources needed for DNA testing and judicial court time that could be spent bringing serious criminals to justice.”
Research shows that lenient drug policies such as this can result in lower recidivism rates. In Houston, it’s too early to tell. A person can retake the class repeatedly, so long as they are eligible. But prosecutors can also label someone a “serial offender” and argue to a judge for a stricter punishment.
For now, the district attorney’s office is riding (ahem) high. Since the program launched on March 1, almost 900 people have avoided jail time and law enforcement is focusing its attention on break-ins and violence assaults instead.
MORE: To Reduce Drug Use, These Members of the Criminal Justice Community Advocate for Legalization, Not Criminalization
Homepage photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Learning to Code Is Vital for Today’s Students. This Nonprofit Helps Schools Teach It

Acerlia Bennet, a 17-year-old New Yorker from the Bronx, likes to read heady political news, often twice, from top to bottom, to make sure she’s fully comprehending the story. But she knows she’s unique: Her peers spend more time sharing memes. So at a local hackathon sponsored by Code/Interactive last summer, Bennet and three other high schoolers built a preliminary website that could translate hard news into more entertaining teen-speak. The algorithm, written with the programming language Python over a 72-hour weekend, extracts text from newspapers and replaces big, confusing words with simpler terms. “That way, they read it and know what’s going on,” Bennet says.
That type of out-of-the-box thinking — and the deep understanding of code to make it a reality — is the end goal of Code/Interactive (C/I), a nonprofit based in New York City. Since 2010, C/I has helped public schools better teach computer science. The program, which currently counts about 5,000 students in six states, is comprehensive: As early as third grade, kids begin experimenting with simple, block-based coding. By the time they reach high school, C/I is preparing them to excel on the Advance Placement (AP) computer science exam.
Besides equipping students with invaluable coding and web development skills, C/I provides teacher training and curricula for the classroom; hosts hackathons and arranges office tours at tech companies for students; and provides a select number of full-ride college scholarships, attracting those teens who otherwise wouldn’t apply for, or couldn’t afford to earn, a computer science degree.
“These computer skills are as fundamental to this generation of students as carpentry was to my father. Back then, not everyone built a home, but they all knew how to hang a picture and how to assemble a table,” says Mike Denton, C/I’s executive director. “The knowledge about tech you interact with is invaluable, and it’s necessary as these technologies become ubiquitous in every industry.”
C/I got its start in 2001 as an arts organization in the Bronx. Back then, the nonprofit was providing basic technology like video cameras, color printers and online-accessible computers to at-risk youth. By 2010, though, as more and more people gained internet access through smartphones, the mission felt outdated. Denton, then a board member, left his consulting work to revamp the agency. Under his leadership, C/I began offering an after-school coding class on JavaScript at a local community center. “We recognized pretty quickly that teaching 20 kids would not solve the problems we knew existed,” Denton says. To scale their vision, C/I turned its focus to integrating programming lessons into the school day.
C/I first works with teachers who don’t have a background in computer science or engineering, offering seminars during professional development days. Over the course of anywhere from six days to six weeks throughout the year, educators come together to talk through the coding coursework, asking questions ranging from the simple, like what HTML stands for (that would be HyperText Markup Language), to wondering if there is a way to learn coding without a computer on hand (there is).
They also learn that C/I’s pedagogical method derives from an unexpected source: foreign language classes. After all, says Denton, “Computer science, more than anything else, is a language.” So like in Spanish or German classes, the teachers coach students in “grammar,” showing how individual units must be strung together, line by line. The new coders then, in turn, put those lessons into practice as they work to build a website or design a mobile app. Later on in their instruction, students participate in the equivalent of an all-immersive study-abroad trip, diving in to collaborative projects at weekend hackathons.
As students master the new language, like Bennet has done, C/I organizes office tours to show the multiplicity of careers in tech. In Austin, Texas, for example, students might visit a cloud-storage company’s offices or an architectural firm, all of which can use the language of coding in different ways. In New York, Bennet has dropped in at Google, BuzzFeed, FourSquare and so many small startups that she can’t remember all of the names.
“A lot of times students say they want to be a lawyer or doctor because they know those are professions where you can make money more easily. But they might not be aware of the other positions that are available to them,” says Julia Barraford-Temel, C/I’s program manager for its Texas program, Coding4TX. “We bring them there so they can visualize their future.”
To be sure, C/I is not a workforce-development program. Students aren’t funneled into entry-level software testing jobs as soon as they complete their coursework. (About 70 percent of graduating seniors from C/I do choose computer science as a major or minor in college.) As a student at an arts high school focused on film, Bennet, for example, likes the idea of pursuing animation at a company like Pixar. But whichever career path she chooses, she credits C/I with strengthening her creative approach to problem-solving. “Computer science is not just a bunch of code,” she says. “It’s more about connecting through software and tech, with everyone building and creating and being more innovative.”
Denton echoes her point. To him, the main goal of C/I is for young people to understand the technology that now dictates so much of our lives. “We’re only at the beginning of the tech revolution,” he says. “By 2025, these kids are genuinely going to make a massive difference in the world.”


This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.

A Green Hardware Store on Every Corner? It’s Not As Far-Fetched As You May Think

The house in Boulder, Colo., was beautiful. The floors were cork, the carpets were made of recycled plastic bottles — the whole place was being redone on sustainable, environmental principles. “It was mind-expanding,” says Jason Ballard, the co-founder and CEO of eco-friendly home improvement retailer TreeHouse. The house belonged to Ballard’s instructor in a wilderness EMT program. Ballard was staying there shortly after college, and he was inspired by his instructor’s efforts to remodel his home to make it more environmentally friendly. “It was such a lovely vision of what was possible,” he says.
But the more Ballard learned about sustainable home improvement, the more he realized how difficult it was to find attractive, well-designed products. That insight — and that vision of what was possible in the home — led Ballard to create TreeHouse, a company that’s aimed at transforming the home improvement market and, with it, the home itself. Among the wares and services available are recycled glass countertops, electric lawn tools and solar-panel installation. Ballard says customers often call his company “the Whole Foods of home improvement  —  and it’s not too far from the truth.”
Ballard has always had an eco-conscious mindset. His grandfather was an early role model. “He wouldn’t have called himself a conservationist,” Ballard says, “but he gave me both a conservation ethic and a tremendous sense of wonder about the natural world.” He studied conservation biology in college, where he started to learn about the enormous impact our homes have on the environment. “All we hear about on TV is gas-guzzling SUVs,” he says, “but the real problem is the buildings we’re living in every day.”
Private residences are the biggest users of energy, the biggest users of renewable and nonrenewable materials, the biggest producers of landfill waste and the second-biggest users of water. Most exposure to toxins also takes place in the home. “I realized that if I wanted to make an impact with regard to these existentially challenging issues, then the best area for me to focus on was, in fact, the home,” says Ballard, who’s currently completing a Social Impact Fellowship with GLG, a membership-based learning platform. Through GLG, Jason and his team have learned about inventory management, retail strategy, in-store user experience and customer data management to help the company implement best practices across multiple locations.

Learn more about the GLG Social Impact Fellowship, including information on applying.

After college, Ballard worked in green building for a while, learning all he could about the market. “What I noticed was that everyone had the same set of problems,” he says. It was hard to find sustainable products, and when he did find them, they were expensive, and only available from a few boutique companies. “The obvious blocker to the whole industry moving forward is access to products at a decent rate, and with some level of curation and education around those products,” Ballard says.
TreeHouse is built on a few core ideas. First, Ballard says, most home improvement products are terrible — poor quality, toxic and unsustainable. Second, most home improvement services aren’t very good, either. Anyone who’s ever embarked on such a project knows that they’re often delayed and routinely run over budget. The industry also hasn’t gone digital yet, making it difficult to get information on the status of your project when you want it. “The whole experience around home improvement needs to be reimagined,” Ballard says. “We are now trying to make not just the products great, but the technology great and the service great.”
TreeHouse aims to make sustainable options appeal to more than just die-hard environmentalists. “If we want healthy and sustainable homes to be the norm, they have to be better than conventional homes. And everything around the process has to be better,” Ballard emphasizes. That’s part of why he decided to start a for-profit company to accomplish his environmental goals. “If you’re in a for-profit business, all of your assumptions are tested all the time,” he says. “It forces you to very quickly arrive at what works to affect change.”
Ballard has ambitious goals for TreeHouse. Today, the company has one brick-and-mortar store in Austin, Texas, and is opening two more this year, including one in Dallas. Within the next two years, he plans on opening still more stores, and expanding beyond Texas. Right now, TreeHouse touches only a tiny fraction of the 80 to 100 million homes in the country, Ballard says. He believes 20 stores — a benchmark he hopes to hit in five years — would drive that figure up to 10 percent. The ultimate goal: Launch 300 stores nationwide to reach 80 percent of all the homes in the U.S.
“Our plan is to run hard at those milestones,” Ballard says. “We don’t have a thousand years to figure this out. We are making decisions in the next hundred years as a species that we will have to live with for the next two thousand years.”


GLG Social Impact is an initiative of GLG to advance learning and decision-making among distinguished nonprofit and social enterprise leaders. The GLG Social Impact Fellowship provides learning resources to a select group of nonprofits and social enterprises, at no cost.
Homepage photo by Kirsten Kaiser

10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016

The most contentious presidential election in modern history offered Americans abundant reasons to shut off the news. But if they looked past the front page’s daily jaw-droppers, our countrymen would see that there’s plenty of inspiring work being done. At NationSwell, we strive to find the nonprofit directors, the social entrepreneurs and the government officials testing new ways to solve America’s most intractable problems. In our reporting this year, we’ve found there’s no shortage of good being done. Here’s a look at our favorite solutions from 2016.

This Woman Has Collected 40,000 Feminine Products to Boost the Self-Esteem of Homeless Women
Already struggling to afford basic necessities, homeless women often forgo bras and menstrual hygiene products. Dana Marlowe, a mother of two in the Washington, D.C., area, restored these ladies’ dignity by distributing over 40,000 feminine products to the homeless before NationSwell met her in February. Since then, her organization Support the Girls has given out 212,000 more.
Why Sleeping in a Former Slave’s Home Will Make You Rethink Race Relations in America
Joseph McGill, a Civil War re-enactor and history consultant for Charleston’s Magnolia Plantation in South Carolina, believes we must not forget the history of slavery and its lasting impact to date. To remind us, he’s slept overnight in 80 dilapidated cabins — sometimes bringing along groups of people interested in the experience — that once held the enslaved.

This Is How You End the Foster Care to Prison Pipeline
Abandoned by an abusive dad and a mentally ill mom, Pamela Bolnick was placed into foster care at 6 years old. For a time, the system worked — that is, until she “aged out” of it. Bolnick sought help from First Place for Youth, an East Bay nonprofit that provides security deposits for emancipated children to transition into stable housing.

Would Your Opinions of Criminals Change if One Cooked and Served You Dinner?
Café Momentum, one of Dallas’s most popular restaurants, is staffed by formerly incarcerated young men without prior culinary experience. Owner Chad Houser says the kitchen jobs have almost entirely eliminated recidivism among his restaurant’s ranks.

This Proven Method Is How You Prevent Sexual Assault on College Campuses
Nearly three decades before Rolling Stone published its incendiary (and factually inaccurate) description of sexual assault at the University of Virginia, a gang rape occurred at the University of New Hampshire in 1987. Choosing the right ways to respond to the crisis, the public college has since become the undisputed leader in ending sex crimes on campus.

This Sustainable ‘Farm of the Future’ Is Changing How Food Is Grown
Once a commercial fisherman, Bren Smith now employs a more sustainable way to draw food from the ocean. Underwater, near Thimble Island, Conn., he’s grown a vertical farm, layered with kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters.

This Former Inmate Fights for Others’ Freedom from Life Sentences
Jason Hernandez was never supposed to leave prison. At age 21, a federal judge sentenced him to life for selling crack cocaine in McKinney, Texas — Hernandez’s first criminal offense. After President Obama granted him clemency in 2013, he’s advocated on behalf of those still behind bars for first-time, nonviolent drug offenses.

Eliminating Food Waste, One Sandwich (and App) at a Time
In 2012, Raj Karmani, a Pakistani immigrant studying computer science at the University of Illinois, built an app to redistribute leftover food to local nonprofits. So far, the nonprofit Zero Percent has delivered 1 million meals from restaurants, bakeries and supermarkets to Chicago’s needy. In recognition of his work, Karmani was awarded a $10,000 grant as part of NationSwell’s and Comcast NBCUniversal’s AllStars program.

Baltimore Explores a Bold Solution to Fight Heroin Addiction
Last year, someone in Baltimore died from an overdose every day: 393 in total, more than the number killed by guns. Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s tireless public health commissioner, issued a blanket prescription for naloxone, which can reverse overdoses, to every citizen — the first step in her ambitious plan to wean 20,000 residents off heroin.

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project
Up until 1974, a streetcar made daily trips from El Paso, Texas, across the Mexican border to Ciudad Juárez. Recently, a public art project depicting fake ads for the trolley inspired locals to call for the line’s comeback, and the artist behind the poster campaign now sits on the city council.

Continue reading “10 Innovative Ideas That Propelled America Forward in 2016”

How a Fake Ad Campaign Led to the Real-Life Launch of a Massive Infrastructure Project

Donald Trump’s call for a “big, beautiful wall” along our southern border hasn’t resonated in the West Texas city of El Paso. Already connected to Mexico by the world’s largest border metroplex, local officials want to further link El Paso to its sister city, Ciudad Juarez. Last January, they started laying tracks for a streetcar line that officials hope eventually will shuttle passengers between the two countries, as it had once done for most of the 20th century.
Notably, and rather unusually, the El Paso streetcar initiative gained steam as a public and performance art project. In 2011, black-and-white portraits of a smiling train conductor started popping up around town, sometimes accompanied by the phrase Sube al futuro: Go to the future. A few months later, a wheat-pasted mosaic on an abandoned brick building featured hundreds of locals’ faces; together, the composite formed an ad for a retro streetcar, which resembled the Art Deco-ish trolley that ran 63 miles between El Paso and Juarez until 1974. At that point, conceptual artist Peter Svarzbein, an El Paso native, introduced himself as the creative mind behind the El Paso Transnational Trolley Project.
In the five years since, an even odder confluence of art and life took place. The fictional ad campaign gave a fresh face to the public transit movement, which helped turn it into a multimillion-dollar construction reality (the first 4.8-mile section is set to open in 2018). Meanwhile, Svarzbein ran for office and now sits on the nine-member city council, which provides direction to the agency responsible for the El Paso’s transit projects.
“Border crossing is what defines us,” Svarzbein says of his city. “It’s in the best interest, for both El Paso and Juarez, to allow these people to cross over. They’re not doing it to take our jobs and our Medicaid, or whatever rhetoric is espoused. We understand our people crossing over symbolize the dreams of what this country has always been about.”
The son of an Argentine-born surgeon and a French-born nurse who moved to El Paso together in 1978, Svarzbein grew up accustomed to a border town’s cross-cultural influence. In high school, he and his friends regularly trekked next door to dine out at restaurants or take advantage of Mexico’s younger drinking age at nightclubs.
But shortly after Svarzbein moved away to attend Franklin & Marshall College, a liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, the tie between the sister cities was snipped. In 2006, the Mexican president Felipe Calderon launched an all-out assault against the country’s powerful drug cartels, an opening salvo that led to turf wars in Juarez and chaos along the border. To respond to the violence, Svarzbein began looking for a way to remind residents of both countries of the connections they shared, despite the brutality.
Researching symbols of unity, he came across pictures of El Paso’s old trolley line. For his master’s thesis at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, he decided to create a series of fake ads for the tram’s revival. Both conceptual and commercial, a historical documentary and a performance piece, the art project blurred genres — not unlike how living on the border can entwine residents’ identities.
In 2012, Svarzbein’s fictional vision for a revitalized streetcar system started to become reality when he discovered the city planned on selling the old, rusting trolleys to San Francisco. “I said, ‘Oh, hell no,’” Svarzbein recalls. He began lobbying city officials to apportion part of a quality-of-life bond to reviving the streetcar, and he gathered over 1,800 signatures. The outpouring of support eventually won a $97 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation.
When the first phase opens, the trolley will make 27 stops along a route from the University of Texas El Paso to the city’s downtown. It’s expected to pick up about 1,480 riders daily, topping 540,000 trips a year. The line will use six vintage Presidents’ Conference Committee cars, a tram design that became popular in 1936, around the time FDR was reelected for a third term; each is being refurbished with Wi-Fi and air-conditioning. “For some people, it taps into nostalgia. They remember when they were kids, riding the streetcar with their abuela, when it was easier to go into Mexico,” Svarzbein says.
The public-works project is a nod to the city’s history, but Svarzbein hopes that it will also create new opportunities on both sides of the border. “We have the ability in this region to not just design an idea, but to build it,” he says. “We need to make sure that people and businesses are able to cross the border in an efficient and safe way.”
That, after all, is the promise of an international streetcar, he adds, especially in a time where inflamed political rhetoric paints the US-Mexico border as an area in need of armed patrols, rather than more ports of entry. “What much of the country doesn’t understand — and what we understand all too well being in these twin cities — is that border security is economic security,” Svarzbein argues. “Providing jobs are how you make this area safe. Jobs are how the cartels don’t have as much power. Jobs are how you grow this region.”

An earlier version of this story suggested Svarsbein was the sole instigator of the project, when he was actually one of several people advocating for it, and that the cartel-related violence in Juarez had reached across the border. We regret the errors.

Homepage photo courtesy of Peter Svarzbein/