Wisconsin Idea Fellowships: Female Empowerment Through Environmental Sustainability

Visit to Earth University
The UpTica Team along with UW-Madison students visited EARTH University during their most recent trip to Costa Rica this last August

For recent UW-Madison graduate Maria Castillo, finding the intersection between gender inequality and environmental sustainability was the key to helping solve a complicated community problem across the world.

During a study abroad with Semester at Sea in 2015, Castillo teamed up with two other students, Nicol Chinchilla and Sasha Drumm, to participate in the Resolution Social Venture Challenge, an entrepreneurial competition to try to solve the world’s most pressing issues. Castillo and her partners were one of two winning teams, granting them funding, training from advisors and a supportive community of entrepreneurs that would help them jumpstart their idea.

Today, their idea is called UpTica, a now fully operational 501c3 nonprofit in Perez Zeledon, Costa Rica that centers around economic development, environmental sustainability and female empowerment. Through the upcycling of waste into new, more sustainable products for sale and the use of more natural materials in their product production, UpTica provides jobs and economic development for women in rural communities.

Going into a community with traditional gender roles and giving jobs to women is difficult, however. Castillo and her partners knew they had to go somewhere where they wouldn’t be complete outsiders as they wanted to understand local customs as to not completely disrupt the women and their families.

“It’s very hard to enter a community that is not our own so we decided to go where we already knew people as one of my partners is originally from the area,” Castillo said. “Otherwise it would be impossible because of the social norms. You have to slowly change the mentality that women can work and men are not just going to let them do that from one day to the other.”

Turning to the environment, Castillo and her partners not only found a way for the women to work flexibly out of their homes and still take care of their families, but a way to address a severe problem in their community: what to do with all the trash.

“We were thinking about helping collect the recyclable materials, but what we saw was that the biggest problem is with the trash as they were burning it,” Castillo said. “Yeah we need to collect the recyclables, but we also need to do something about the trash, which is pretty complicated as landfills are already full.”

After talking with women in the community, UpTica decided to start tackling the issue of all the fabric and plastic bags that were plaguing landfills and community streets. By reusing fabric and using sewing skills many of the women already possessed, they created a variety of handmade, reusable bags ranging from drawstring backpacks to shoulder bags to larger totes that they successfully sold at the local farmer’s market.

Community member and UpTica partner Rita teaches women how to repurpose materials

“I think it’s really rewarding to see these ladies and how they are so happy working and how much they have realized that they can actually work… that they can be on their own and have an income and they can be an example for other ladies in the community and for their girls and boys as well,” Castillo said. “It is just very satisfactory to see how much they can learn and I have also learned a ton myself and have a lot of ideas of how I would like the business to grow.”

After transferring to UW-Madison and with the help from her mentors (Rob Beattie, a faculty associate of the Nelson Institute; Cathy Middlecamp, a Nelson Institute professor; and Natalie Rudolph, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering), Castillo applied for and received a 2016-17 Wisconsin Idea Fellowship from the Morgridge Center for Public Service, providing her with funding she needed to help her upcycling business grow even more.

Wisconsin Idea Fellowships are awarded annually to undergraduate student projects working towards solving a challenge identified along with a local or global community partner, ensuring that education and research at UW-Madison benefits communities beyond campus borders, from Madison all the way to rural Costa Rica.

“It’s great to be a part of a cohort and see what other projects are being done through the Wisconsin Idea Fellowship because all of the projects are really, really different,” Castillo said. “It was very interesting to see the challenges they were facing and how they overcame those. It was very inspiring and very supportive.”

While Castillo herself recently graduated, three other UW-Madison students, Kyle Powers, Anna Ostermeier and Brooke Nelson, are continuing her work. The trio recently received another Wisconsin Idea Fellowship for the 2017-18 school year to continue building a waste framework to produce upcycling resources, engage local youth around sustainability leadership opportunities and grow local wealth using discarded materials.

UW-Madison students discuss upcycling techniques with Rita in her home during their visit last August

As for Castillo’s future with UpTica, she hopes to continue to grow the business and further tackle the waste problem by purchasing a plastic recycling machine for the community. She also hopes one day to build a facility for the women to safely work in that has childcare included, allowing them to work more without having to worry about the care of their children.

“When I applied for the Wisconsin Idea Fellowship I had to think ‘okay are we moving in the right direction with this?’ but we have received nothing but support and the community has become very hopeful for the future,” Castillo said. “We have been very lucky with who we have been given the chance to work with and I’m very humbled by the whole experience.”

By Lauren Lewandowski