When you think of Puerto Rico, what do you see, feel, or hear? Is it the millions of citizens left without power or unable to feed themselves? Or, is it the flooding, damage, and destruction left behind after Hurricane Maria?
For founders of ExplorEquity, they felt, heard, and saw an opportunity to connect with the local community and experts to taste, connect and discover Puerto Rico years after the Hurricane Maria Disaster.
Through a one-week immersion experience, Catarina Rivera and Remi Oguntoye explore Puerto Rico through food, travel, and social impact. I learn more about Catarina & Remi’s mission and vision ExplorEquity.
How did ExplorEquity get started?
For me, the story of ExplorEquity started with my life journey. I have always desired to make a meaningful difference with my work. My first job was as a bilingual teacher in the Bronx as part of Teach for America. I became passionate about health when I observed my students eating processed junk food and candy—I started to learn about why this was happening and what I could do about it.
I quit teaching 4 years later to start a grassroots community health program. I entered this work with the mindset that people needed to be educated, and I ended up learning about the policy, systems, and environmental factors affecting our food systems and what we eat. I returned to full-time work in the non-profit space and earned a masters degree in public health. I have been engaged in food justice work for the past 3.5 years, and I had been looking for new ways to do this work.
What’s the story behind creating this organization?
The idea for ExplorEquity came from my partner Remi Oguntoye and I both loving travel and having experienced the transformative impacts of travel on our lives. We started dreaming up a venture around travel, and I immediately thought, “How can we incorporate food? How can we be values-driven?”
We ended up deciding to create a social impact travel company and launch our first trip exploring food systems in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. We started working on the idea in October 2018 by researching organizations working in food sovereignty and food systems and holding phone calls with them.
In January 2019, we went to Puerto Rico on a research trip, met with partners and started building out our experience. We looked only for locally-owned partners and organizations so that the experience directly benefits the Puerto Rican economy. In March 2019, we officially launched as a company and started recruiting participants. And now, our trip is launching with 8 participants from June 23-20, 2019.
Yay! That’s an amazing journey! So, tell us what is an “immersive experience”?
An immersive experience is one where you’re participating and are fully engaged. For us, we knew conversations had to be at the core. Many times when we travel, we might take tours and look around, but we’re not actually a part of the experience. Focusing this trip on a common theme makes it immersive: for the whole week, our Explorers are learning about food systems in Puerto Rico and are learning directly from locals. The conversation continues from one day to next. Furthermore, the Explorers themselves are individuals with deep knowledge and interest in sustainability and food systems. Sharing this experience in the community makes it even more engaging and powerful.
Why did you choose Puerto Rico as the first immersive destination and experience?
I felt called to launch in Puerto Rico. It felt right, it felt true. My father is Puerto Rican and my mother is Cuban. I have always felt closer to my Cuban side and did not feel like I knew enough about Puerto Rico.
When Hurricane Maria happened, I learned a lot about Puerto Rico and learned that 85% of the food was imported even though they have a year-round growing season. I wanted to launch in Puerto Rico to support local Puerto Ricans and learn more about my roots. It was also somewhere we felt people could make travel plans to visit on a shorter timeline.
It’s commendable the work you’re doing surrounding community work and service learning. So I’m curious while there have been numerous catastrophic Hurricanes that have passed through and devastated communities in the Caribbean and the U.S., why did you focus on Post-Maria devastation?
When we decided to focus on Puerto Rico, it became natural to focus on the Post-Maria context because while many organizations and activities have been working on food sovereignty and agroecology for a long time, Hurricane Maria illuminated this issue to people on a wide scale. The fact that there was only enough food for a week on the archipelago was a wake-up call. The idea that Puerto Rico should be able to feed itself has now found new attention and support.
It certainly did. Now, take us through your immersive experience. What would we, as an explorer, feel, see, do, hear, and taste?
Our experience in Puerto Rico is centered around LEARNING, CULTURE, and ADVENTURE. We’ll spend time in the mountains with an educational farm. You will hear the river run as we tour their farm and learn about how they’re educating farmers across PR on ways to grow in harmony with the earth.
You will taste the history of Puerto Rican cuisine through time as we visit a culinary farm lodge and have a private dining experience with a menu designed by a local chef and an expert food historian.
You will feel the drum beat in your soul as we learn the traditional bomba y plena dance and music. You will connect with nature, feeling your feet pressing into the soil as we walk to gorgeous rushing waterfalls with a local guide.
You’ll see the history of Puerto Rico come alive as we tour Old San Juan and learn from a local author about the political history and the history of agroecology.
You will feel connected to a like-minded community with your fellow Explorers. The impact of this experience will reverberate in your life for years to come.
OMG! This experience sounds so exciting, yet so educational and informative. Oh, I can’t wait to share this with others. So, who should join ExplorEquity’s experiences? Why?
The challenges facing our world can seem insurmountable. It can be hard to know how to help, what you can do. When we focus on connecting directly with communities at the local level, we can discover what our role can be in creating social change. Do you love to travel? Do you desire a meaningful experience that actually gives back to the local economy? Then you should travel with us.
Our experiences are for people who care about the world and their place in the world. Those who are curious about social issues and want to learn directly from locals. After our experiences, you’ll feel knowledgeable about a social issue and how it’s affecting a community. You will have a defined personal commitment of what actions you want to take back home. You will feel part of a community that cares about their impact as a traveler.
What should someone who wants to join an experience know before signing up? Before the first day of the experience? How should they prepare for it?
A person that wants to become one of our Explorers should know that we are curating a unique experience that you can’t find anywhere else or build yourself without months of work. They also should know that the group they’ll be traveling with will be diverse and that they’ll probably learn a lot from them.
We send out pre-reading resources and are available to talk with our Explorers to answer all of their questions. Our experiences involve moderate activity levels and are not strenuous. We accommodate all dietary restrictions. I think the best way to prepare is to review our pre-trip resources, do some reading, pack well, and get excited. We take care of everything else!
Although Puerto Rico is part of the US, what advice would you give to someone who hasn’t traveled outside of the Continental US?
Any time you travel somewhere that has a different culture than your own, I recommend respecting the local culture and trying not to have an American experience there. If you go to Puerto Rico, try to have a Puerto Rican experience. Go beyond your comfort zone. Talk to locals that are not serving you, in contexts outside of the tourism industry.
For example, I love salsa dancing so when I travel I try to look up salsa dancing events and I show up and dance. I meet people and feel like I’m actually part of the place. Many big cities now have groups offering free walking tours that are led by locals. I think these are great ways to get your bearings and start your trip.
Yes! Respect the local culture! I’ve been humbled by this and take this seriously. Ok, so this will sound like a basic and dumb question, but I think people really don’t grasp the concept of caring for our world. So, why should people care about your mission? And, why should they care about the world and their place in it?
This is actually a big picture question and I will attempt to articulate an argument that addresses this huge question. We did not choose to be born to our parents. We did not choose, often times, the places where we grew up and the schools we attended.
Most of us did not choose to be in the United States. It’s an arbitrary roll of the dice that lands you here. Same for other people around the world. We’re all part of the messiness of being a human being. Our world is full of beauty that should be protected.
Our world is full of disparities that are wrong. Our Earth is at risk due to climate change. If you’re a person with compassion and ethics, you should care about our world and the people in it. And in trying to be a more self-aware person and taking action on an issue you care about, you will grow.
I believe we have a responsibility that comes with our privilege to actually do something with it.
You just mentioned the word that today has a negative connotation, “privilege.” Why use that word and how does it relate to ExplorEquity’s mission? Why is it such a critical part of our vocabulary?
To me, privilege should not have a negative connotation. It just exists. And it should be acknowledged and recognized. The problem is that many people don’t believe their privilege exists or they deny it. When we travel, we have tremendous privileges just because we are Americans. The fact that our money is worth more than someone else’s is privilege. The fact that we don’t need to apply for a visa to travel outside of our country (in most cases) is privilege. The fact that we speak English and our language is learned by people around the world is privilege. We use the word because we are a company with “Equity” in our name and we must walk the walk. In using the word and articulating our values, we intend to make it clear that our experiences are rooted in self-awareness and having an understanding and interest in concepts like social justice, systemic oppression, equity, and racism.
One of your core values is “Positively impacting the local economy by partnering with locally-owned businesses.” Why is it important that you/we partner with locally-owned businesses?
Partnering with locally-owned businesses and organizations is critically important because we want to ensure we are actually supporting the local economy with our experiences.
We don’t want the dollars generated by our group going to a global hotel conglomerate or a foreign owner. We have heard statistics about how little of the money generated by tourism actually goes to the community being visited. In partnering with locally-owned businesses, and organizations we are supporting their work and their vision.
It also creates a deeper relationship, where our group can learn from the business owner and connect with their story.
What do you hope to accomplish within the next year? And, how could we help you achieve it?
Our vision for the next year is to offer more trips to Puerto Rico and improve our experience. We may offer the same theme or variations. We also want to host shorter trips domestically, such as a 3-5 day experience exploring a theme. Recently, we held a community conversation pop-up event in Boston about the impact of travel, and we want to expand on this event and offer it to more cities. This conversation is so important and we are hoping to spread awareness about sustainable travel as well. The event could also be structured as a panel, as we recently held a panel on sustainable travel in New York City. In future years, we will build out more international experiences.
You could help us achieve our goals by reaching out to us if you have an idea for a trip or event. We always want to highlight local experts and we position ourselves as the curators, not the experts. We look forward to building more partnerships.
Also, if you are a company that is aligned with our values, we are accepting charitable donations to fund scholarships for low-income Explorers so that they may access our experiences. These donations are tax-deductible as they are handled by a nonprofit partner.
Do you have any final words or thoughts about ExplorEquity and how it will impact future travelers?
If you haven’t traveled, travel. And if you have traveled, travel better and more often. Consider your impact as a traveler and try to spend your money in ways that will benefit locals.
If we want to know and learn more, how could we connect with you?
And, that’s all until this Sunday! Please follow Catarina and Remi on their immersive program to Puerto Rico starting this Sunday, June 23rd until June 30th on their Instagram and Facebook pages.
If you want to learn more about food sustainability and any upcoming trips, sign up for their newsletter! Please let me know what questions you have about ExplorEquity and their mission in the comments below 🙂