Q & A with David Priest '86, founder of Green Village Zero Rubbish Project

Alumus: David Priest ’86
Age: 44
College: Bachelor’s degree, anthropology, Harvard University; professional degree M.D.
Family: Partner, Eric Nefstead, a hospital chaplain in San Francisco and an Episcopal priest
Current home: San Francisco, Calif., spent about four weeks in 2012 in India launching Green Village Zero Rubbish Project

What is your current job? Medical doctor, neuroradiologist. I co-founded my medical group in 2006.

What made you decide to launch the Green Village Zero Rubbish Project in India? This project came about out of a tourist visit to northeast India in January 2012, traveling along the river Ganges, stopping in remote villages along the way. There were beautiful towns and scenery, but severely marred by the extreme rubbish pollution. After discussion with an Indian businessman friend of mine, we decided to try an experiment: pay the villagers a bit of money to bring us the garbage.

About the program: After the trip, I returned home deeply troubled by the state of extreme rubbish pollution we observed. In response, I founded GVZR to examine whether or not it might be effective to incentivize the pick-up, recycling, and proper distribution of rubbish at the individual level in the village. After fleshing out the concept over several months — which included setting up the U.S. arm of the charity, developing the accounting procedures, and filing the 501(c)3 application — I returned to the village of Oriup in May 2012. There I met with local governmental, business and religious leaders and explained the concept. I was keen to obtain their buy-in and cooperation as a prerequisite before commencing the project and was delighted to gain their enthusiastic support. While there, we laid the groundwork for the project, selected our local staff, and generally kicked things off. The GVZR incentivizes garbage pick-up at the individual level in the village by commoditizing garbage, transforming it into material with intrinsic value. We hold frequent “cash-for-trash” events, during which we receive, weigh and sort material the villagers bring us. We include recycling, re-use, and composting components, which have given rise to a new local industry in selling and repurposing garbage. The project blends a public health effort, an environmental program, and an economic development project. We have experienced amazing early success in our first six months, receiving more than 18 tons of garbage in our first 20 Sundays. Of that material, we have sold nearly two-thirds of it to recyclers. The project includes a strong educational component to prevent the re-accumulation of garbage, focused on women and children, including frequent classroom lectures and periodic essay competitions at the village school. The mayor, village physician, school principal, religious leaders, and business leaders are participants and supporters. Participation in the project is voluntary, and the villagers gain “admission” to the project by pledging to plant five trees at their home or school. We believe that this concept could be highly scalable, owing to its simplicity and low-tech nature. Our hope is that the experience gained and lessons learned in Bihar, India, could eventually be applied throughout the developing world.

Do you think Blake played a role in getting you where you are today? Blake helped me understand that those who benefit in life from the support and assistance of family, school and society, in return owe a greater measure of responsibility to the good of society.

Do you do much international travel outside of visiting India for the project? Lots. International travel is my favorite pastime. I've been to 85 countries, all for fun. No work travel.

Have you ever lived overseas? Childhood in Japan (1-5 years of age); Italy, (summers during college, on archaeology digs); St. Gallen, Switzerland (three months during med school, doing a medical elective); and Tanzania (two months during my radiology residency in January and February 2000, volunteering at Kilimanjaro Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania; I've been back there two other times over the years, most recently 2011)

Where do you stay while in India? In India, when I visit the project, I stay in hotels in the state capital (Patna, state of Bihar). When at the village, I stay in an inn in Kahalgoan, the nearest town to the village.

What are some things you do during your free time in India? Visit the markets and temples; take in the images of river scenes and village life

What’s a typical day like in India? It’s a fascinating blend of astonishing beauty and horrible ugliness, all at once. And all on top of itself, a constant barrage of unbelievable images, one after the next, after the next.

What are some of your favorite things about traveling there? It’s one of the most colorful, wonderful and awful places on the planet. Indians are warm and cheerful, despite the many challenges life poses for most of them.

How do you stay in touch with family and friends in the States while you are in India? The Internet is ubiquitous. To give you an idea of how well connected we are India-to-U.S., here’s a great example: We run our project in the village on Sundays. While there, my team takes hundreds of photos of each event and generates a couple of Excel spreadsheets with the day’s data (participants, quantity of garbage received, amount of money paid out, etc). My team returns to our offices Monday and uploads all of the preceding day’s photos and spreadsheets to the “cloud.” Then when I get up Monday morning, I can view all the photos from the day before and review the statistics. It's really cool, since the village is so remote and yet so accessible.

Do you have a network of friends in India who are also from the U.S., or is your primary circle of friends native to India or from elsewhere in the world? It’s a mix of all of the above. I have a local team that runs the project on the ground.

This Q & A is part of the "Alumni At Home Abroad" series featuring Blake alumni living as expats across the globe. Their stories will be published in future issues of the Bulletin as well as posted on the school's website.

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