Lighting the Way to Another Reality

In the Cañada Real, the will of the neighborhood and the solidarity initiative power a motor of change to lift hundreds of homes out of energy poverty. United Way Spain is there to promote it. 

Cañada Real, a settlement on the outskirts of Madrid, often appears in the media as a rare example of chaos amid the supposed order that the first world prides itself on. In November 2021 we wanted to see first-hand how much truth there was in that image. We found a population woven as in the past, family by family, arrival by arrival, growing in an exercise of arbitrariness until time had confined it to what it seems: a place where many people live in inadmissible precarious conditions. People outside the administrative machinery and political stigma whose needs require a response every day.

While Madrid was preparing for its illuminated holiday as the European capital of Christmas, in La Cañada we confirmed two realities as true as the sun: half of its inhabitants are minors and all of them have been living without electricity since the beginning of 2020. There are many hypotheses about the causes of this problem and, above all, about the possible ways of solving it, but there seems to be no solution being implemented to put an immediate tangible end to the problems. These people do not have light, cannot fight the cold, cannot illuminate a family gathering, cannot do homework, nor send a resume, nor make an appointment to get vaccinated. These are circumstances that directly impact their survival. For example, for sick people who depend on an electrical device to breathe. In a society full of good institutional and corporate intentions, hundreds of people live by saving themselves as best they can from an instability whose origin is derived from a lack of consensus that hinders opportunities for progress. For the population of La Cañada —especially the youngest— this causes an unjust social hinderance that we cannot allow.

Fortunately, there are also people in La Cañada who fight against the lack of motivation for change from the street —with or without light— and who, with their initiative, attract others who, together, can create an even stronger push for change. This is the case of Rahma Hitach, a woman who fights to dignify the living conditions of La Cañada by leading a neighborhood activism association. Rahma told us about the Cañada Solar program, which consists of the installation of photovoltaic panels —with the active participation of the neighborhood itself in training activities— to give electricity to houses and replace gasoline generators that cause all kinds of problems (environmental, among others). It seemed to us that the project had extraordinary potential because, in addition to light and heat, it provides opportunities for professional training around renewable energy and instills a non-welfare spirit in the community allowing them to be the architects of their own solutions. Cañada Solar has both technical and economic solutions that allow these families to commit to paying the costs.

In short, it is not about providing energy, but about enabling the population of La Cañada to install it and pay for it in a self-sufficient and sustainable way, and acquiring learning along the way. Behind Cañada Solar is the social entity Light Humanity, which has carried out similar projects in other countries and had already provided solar energy to some homes in La Cañada when United Way Spain first learned of the project. “Rahma was the first brave person to bet on sunlight. The situation in La Cañada is, in some way, worse than in other places in the world where we have worked, because the lack of energy generates greater social differences. The people who live there, for the most part, cannot live anywhere else. In Spain, the problem of extreme energy poverty has not been internalized. It is something difficult to accept, but it exists. In addition, the issue of relocation is unclear. There are many cases that can take ten or fifteen years to resolve.” These are the words of Eugenio García-Calderón, founder of Light Humanity, who gave us the keys to define the precise point at which United Way could enhance the impact of its work.

How can we contribute to changing the fortunes of so many families? Structural issues aside, the precariousness due to the lack of electricity supply is an inadmissible situation that we cannot allow to grow. We put into operation our particular form of synergy with the certainty that it would cause the multiplier effect that we have promoted so many times.

Taking advantage of the pre-Christmas temporality, we designed a campaign called The Other Lottery, centered on a solidarity raffle that was, above all, a call to examine the reality of La Cañada without prejudice. People did not hesitate to join Impact Hub —following their core commitment to society— and a series of brands donated products which attracted the hundreds of altruistic people who participated in the draw. With the money raised (more than 7,000 euros), Light Humanity was able to reduce the cost of installing solar panels in 20 of the homes with the greatest difficulties, which the entity categorized as “group 1,” based on a detailed field study carried out by specialists in social intervention.

We broadcast the message through the media and social networks until it reached the ears of other companies that joined the cause. But this time with the extraordinary added value of a long-term perspective. The agency We The Root made a report that includes an exposition of the problem and our proposed solution; the video caught the attention of Enertis, one of the leading companies in the renewable energy sector, with whom we designed a corporate volunteer project to provide knowledge and human resources to Cañada Solar. Enertis’ commitment is being extended to other organizations such as the Spanish Photovoltaic Union which has used their communications machinery to expand support for the project.

And this is just the beginning. During 2022 we will continue working so that more households can afford the initial cost of their solar panels, thus eliminating the bottleneck that prevents them from improving their energy situation. In that “group 1” of homes with extreme difficulties there are still 120 without access to electricity.

But our synergy goes further: it is not just about raising money and encouraging words, but about reinforcing a path towards another reality, one in which the population of Cañada Real, by their own strength and with a little help, achieves the equality of life of a proud country. A reality in which the younger generations feel that the associative strength of their community helps them get out of the shadows. Where the technical and social project of Light Humanity brings them light, heat and something else: a reality in which citizen’s solidarity with organizations such as The Other Lottery is real and effective. A reality where companies and their volunteer staff help them redefine their professional and, therefore, life itinerary.

At United Way Spain we will continue working to prevent marginalization from being passed from one generation to another in Cañada Real, because we know that it is not a matter of luck, but of will. We will continue to illuminate the lines of connection between agents whose coordinated effort can reduce inequalities. In the words of the founder of Light Humanity: “We live in the age of normalization of organic settlements, but the norm hasn’t done its job this time. The situation in Cañada Real demonstrates our failure as a society and, therefore, the need for a common commitment to find solutions.

No change is as possible as the one built by joining forces. 

Do you want to join the project?

Help us get 120 homes in Cañada Real out of energy poverty.