Reflections on a cross-country road trip: A lesson in the potential of the human spirit



“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
– Martin Luther King Jr.

THE year 2017 was a historic year. From global political shifts to continued ebbs and flows on Dr. King’s moral arc of progress, we were left with a lot of uncertainty about the future.

People always go back to the youth as a source of inspiration during times like these. The old adage that “the youth are the future” somehow helps the rest of us—maybe less young biologically, but still young-minded— remain inspired and curious about the potential of the years to come.

For two months last year, from November to December, six of us embarked on a journey across the United States to harness the power of that youth—quite literally—by teaching them how to build simple, repairable, and sustainable lighting solutions using their own two hands.

We came from different backgrounds and countries, with diverse aspirations and goals. But we came together with one mission: to build solar lights for marginalized communities around the world, including here in the Philippines, and to raise awareness for sustainable energy for all.

Liter of Light’s “Journey of Light: The Great American Expedition,” traversed thousands of kilometers on our mission as part of our work with Unesco and a host of other partnerships. Along the way, we saw the best and brightest points of light—from the students in Chicago who came from refugee communities; to children in Pennsylvania who mastered our solar lighting techniques even with severe learning disabilities; to the technical students in Massachussetts who wanted to develop even simpler ways of empowering those who still live in darkness; to the 95-year-old Filipino war veteran from Marawi who wanted to give the gift of light to his kababayan in this time of need; to the Philippine Consulate staff across the US who came together to build lights to bring back this holiday season. As friends old and new hosted us while we traveled through their hometowns, we also experienced a true testament to the kindness and generosity of the human spirit.

Liter of Light founder Illac Diaz teaches three students from the AIM Academy in Pennsylvania how to build one of Liter of Light’s solar technologies.

We now count over 30 countries as part of Liter of Light’s mission to empower off-grid communities around the world. While those who we taught in the US would not benefit directly from the lights that they built, they remained incredibly enthusiastic about their endeavor, knowing that the lights would go to communities in need. Because the US is a nation of immigrants, many of the students we worked with had friends or relatives from the countries where the lights would be heading. They are even exploring if they can organize service trips to give the lights themselves.

Popular culture has glamorized roadtrips like ours. From Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to Ernesto Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, there is this notion that by crossing vast swathes of land, you can somehow prove your mettle by conquering new terrain.

None of us had done a roadtrip like this before, especially not in the US, where the myth of Route 66 romanticizes the cross-country journey. While we anticipated that there might be some challenges along the way – from weather to ensuring that we had enough anti-freeze to sustain us as we made our way to the East Coast in time for winter – I don’t think any of us realized just how inspiring it would be to organize thousands of people in our mission. I’d like to believe it made the hours of driving, late nights preparing training materials, and early mornings worth it to catch those proverbial “light bulb” moments when the students, volunteers, and community members turned their lights on and not just witnessed, but experienced, what each of them was capable of.

The American cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade once said that we should never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. While she wasn’t on the road trip with us, I’d like to think her spirit and words carried us through our travels and enabled our success.

Six travelers. Thirteen states. Over 4,000 lights built for off-grid communities around the world.

As we enter into 2018, I carry this spirit of hope and the capacity for human ingenuity and kindness with me. We still don’t know what the future holds, but I’ve caught a glimpse of our potential, and it makes me hopeful for what’s to come.

Ami Valdemoro sits on the board of Liter of Light USA, an organization focused on educating and training youth about sustainable lighting solutions for communities in need. She earned her master’s in public policy from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2013.


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