Earthship: A sustainable building with emotional mission for Philly youth

 Rashida Ali-Campbell stands next to the Earthship sign in West Philly (Katie Hiler for NewsWorks)

Rashida Ali-Campbell stands next to the Earthship sign in West Philly (Katie Hiler for NewsWorks)

Once a week Rashida Ali-Campbell visits a vacant lot at 675 N. 41st St. in West Philadelphia. It’s the future site of an Earthship — a 100 percent sustainable building.

Right now the lot is home to more than 300 tires and 60 bags of recycled cans Campbell has collected; it looks like a dump. Even the new hand-carved wooden sign Campbell posted near the street has been tagged with graffiti. Seeing this, Campbell laughs, undeterred.

“Some kid wanted to write his name on there — Marcus. God bless Marcus.”

It’s that kind of positivity that Campbell hopes will have an impact on the youth in this neighborhood, which endures drug and gang activity.

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“We found a great deal of heroin needles and drug bags, we heard information from the police that there was a rape around the corner. So we knew the kind of neighborhood we were in,” said Campbell. “However, it was perfect for me because our desire is to serve this type of community.”

Campbell describes the escalating violence among Philly teens as a having reached a crisis point. Her plan is to turn the Earthship into a community “de-escalation room” for troubled youth.

“You know the kids have a saying. They say ‘I can go from 0 to 100 real quick’, meaning ‘I can get mad at the drop of a hat. It don’t take much,'” she said.

“We’re trying to teach the children that not only is that the fastest way into a grave, but there’s ways you can de-escalate the situation so that it doesn’t even have to get to that point.”

Campbell says teachers, parents and police are quick to label these violent teens “bad kids.” But Campbell thinks they act out for far less sinister reasons — because of things like hunger, embarrassment, and stress. She knows this because she used to be one of those kids.

“I was homeless; I was in foster care. People did not understand my home life, so I hookied class,” said Campbell. “Things I was supposed to do I didn’t do because of the nature of what was happening home. I was in the shelter and I missed breakfast. I don’t smell good and I’m embarrassed to come to class today,” she said.

Campbell envisioned a place where kids like her could go to get their physical and emotional needs met: a place with soothing music, fresh fruits and vegetables, toiletries — even extra socks — and someone available to talk.

She tried setting up these “de-escalation rooms” in three Philadelphia area schools, but quickly ran into funding troubles. Campbell had to figure out a way to make her program work on a very small budget. Enter, the Earthship.

Standing among the tall grass of the vacant lot, Campbell holds up two brown beer bottles to describe how this “junk” will be used to build her sustainable building.

“Take two bottles that are the same. Get a wet saw, saw the bottles. And then you tape them together to make a brick. And with those bricks you can create a beautiful stained glass window.”

Campbell says the building will be constructed from inexpensive or recycled building materials and will be powered year-round by solar and wind energy. There will be an organic garden and a space for outdoor exercises, like tai chi. With any luck, Campbell says, construction on the building will be complete by next spring.

The real hurdle continues to be getting neighborhood residents on board with the project. Campbell is spreading the word about the Earthship with free giveaways, events and community meetings. But the hardest part will be getting people to understand the principles behind the de-escalation room.

“You think about somebody [who does] something wrong, you punish them and you hurt them. And I say consider now not hurting that person,” said Campbell. “I’m asking you to change your whole outlook on life. I’m asking you to have a concept change and a perception change on life and that’s going to take some time.”

Campbell hopes to one day get back into Philadelphia schools and see her de-escalation room program replicated across the city. But that doesn’t mean she will abandon the Earthship.

“This house is going to be here long after I’m gone. It’s like leaving a legacy.”

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