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How San Miguel Foundation discovered the power of community in Tondo

Narratives do not change overnight and our commitment to Tondo is deep and for the long-term.

On the last working day of December 2018, a handful of employees from three different offices—San Miguel Properties, the Corporate Affairs Office, and San Miguel Foundation—visited four properties we were permitted to use as community centers. Post-Christmas traffic was so light that we could zigzag across Metro Manila from Balintawak to UP Village, Sampaloc, and Tondo in an entire morning. By the end of the day, we knew that our first community needed to be in Tondo.

The Tondo site was an abandoned beer warehouse on Radial Road 10, just a few hundred meters away from Manila North Harbor, Happyland, and Aromaland, among the most blighted neighborhoods in Metro Manila. Just a few meters away was tenement housing for families who used to work in Smokey Mountain. Their new homes aren't any better. Dank and crowded, we were told there was a lot of drug-related violence. The houses shook when the 18-wheeler trucks and lorries were on the road. In Happyland and Aroma land, the situation is even more bleak. Lack of drainage and proximity to a slaughterhouse and dumpsite meant garbage was everywhere.

Garbage is where many Barangay 101 and 105 residents live, build their shanties, and find food.

In the four months since San Miguel Foundation got the green light to build a community in Tondo, it’s been quite a journey for everyone involved. We call the community Better World Tondo. We tried other names, but none of them stuck, and it’s probably because none of them capture what we are trying to do in Tondo, which is to offer our little community a better life, a safe place for aspiration, and full expression.

We’ve discovered that Barangay 101 and 105 residents are entrepreneurial and resourceful. Their shanties are made of wood, cardboard, tarp, wire, broken crates, and anything they can find. In Barangay Katuparan, there is a bakery right next to the basketball court. Someone is raising a black pig as a pet. The kids of Tondo create their playground wherever there is an open area. It doesn't matter that there are mounds of trash, potholes, or stagnant pools of water. Like their parents, they navigate their little world through trial and error, and the young ones seem fearless.

In the short time we’ve spent in Tondo, we’ve debunk two myths: that the poor have no one to blame but themselves and that they are helpless and victims.

In building our Better World Community in Tondo, we are learning a lot more about how we are meant to help change lives and how best to create impact.

In building our Better World Community in Tondo, we are learning a lot more about how we are meant to help change lives and how best to create impact.

In February, after the roof had been torn down, representatives from San Miguel Foundation, Agila and Rise Against Hunger met to mark the site development progress.

The team from San Miguel, Rise Against Hunger and Agila visited Tondo for the first time in December 2018. Nine months later, the abandoned warehouse is now San Miguel's first Better World community.

But we also know that narratives do not change overnight and our commitment to Tondo is deep and for the long-term. Perhaps another article will talk again about what we learn in Tondo—we are only just starting to discover the kinds of sustained interventions that need to take place. Intergenerational poverty (for this is surely what we are seeing) is a “wicked problem” and it’s going to take a lot of doing to expand employment opportunities, and bolster the social safety net that these families need.

But for now, we want to share what we’ve learned in working with others to help uplift the lives of our community in Tondo.

At San Miguel Foundation, we tend to do things alone. We might partner with NGOs as a grantor, or as a funder, but we rarely work alongside multiple partners for sustained periods. Tondo was a first in this regard. We had four key partners: Rise Against Hunger, who we signed on first because the original objective of Better World Tondo was to be a feeding center; AHA! Learning Center, because we soon realized that education and feeding had to go hand in hand; and our architects, the Agila Group. Agila’s input was crucial to the final look and feel of the center; and fourth, the barangay and our anchor school, Gen. Vicente Lim Elementary School.

That there is value in bringing together diverse groups with diverse areas of talent and great experience in communities struggling with poverty will forever change the way we work as a foundation. Creating successful, self-sustaining partnerships has become a principle of how we work.

By pairing groups whose initial focus was purely on the execution (Rise and Hunger) and a group that focuses intently on values and believes in experimentation (AHA), we were able to reshape how each of the different partners now functions and sees themselves (including ourselves).

Each of our partners has been an important building block. Our collective action has created a sense of community among us that we hope the people of Tondo will mirror. 

In the homestretch to opening our community center, we all pitched in, roping in friends and pulling from other donor ecosystems to help with the funding and help where they can. RAH brought in Capital One who generously donated a water tank worth nearly P1 million pesos and has signed up numerous corporates to help with the feeding program.  AHA! Learning brought together other groups who have worked in Tondo far longer than any of us: Project Pearls, Upskills, ERDA, Young Focus and has marshaled its volunteers to build up our database of families in Tondo. Agila has donated almost a P1 million in unbilled services and added architecture grace notes that will prove to our families that no effort was spared to give them the best. Gen. Vicente Lim continues to mobilize its teachers and Nanays whenever we need to do our profiling. Together, we are a coalition of the willing, a coalition of corporates and not-for-profits who want to change the narrative for the people of Barangays 101 and 105. Together, we are learning our way out of poverty. By changing how we work together and by agreeing to a common agenda: That no one is left behind.

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