Benjamin Rushwald plays an important role at City Light; he’s the Interim Director of Technology Innovation, a division that is preparing the utility for the future. Ben has both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering (from the University of Colorado and University of Washington, respectively), so he has plenty of know-how to back his career in technological innovation.
Ben has also spent lots of time putting his knowledge to good use some 4,000 miles away from Seattle in Nicaragua, where he has been organizing communities and volunteering his time for over a decade. In this week’s Seattle City (spot)Light, we talk with Ben about how his volunteerism led him to find his passion and a family to call his own.
Ben Rushwald working on reforestation in Nicaragua
“The ex-pat community is small in Nicaragua, and on my second trip to the country I met a Scottish woman who was living in a small community there. They were suffering under significant drought. They had lost a lot of livestock and people were getting sick from a lack of clean water. She had a goal and a plan to put in a water system, but needed to build infrastructure and a system for it. The community was also off the electric grid, which made things even more challenging.”
“She had a vision, but she didn’t have any technical knowledge. She reached out to me and said “hey, you’re an engineer…” and when I told her I am not a civil engineer, she said “but you’re an engineer, c’mon!” so I agreed to take part in the plan. I worked with a retired Canadian engineer who lived in Managua, the capital, and he played a key role in supporting me during the design of a solar powered water distribution system. I worked with the community to build the system and the community politics around how they would run their own water utility. I was only planning to be in Nicaragua for year, but one year quickly turned into two when I met my future wife.”
“I was staying in the town of Achuapa, which is a village of about 4,000 people in the department of Leon. I was the only American there, and nobody in the community spoke English. That was part of my goal. I didn’t want to be lost in the big city; I wanted to be somewhere small where I could assimilate and be part of the community, which would force me to speak Spanish,” said Ben.
“I met my wife in Achuapa. My Spanish was already improving, but my romantic interest in her provided a big incentive towards learning the language. She’s an amazing person. She was the first in her community to go to college, and she did it on her own. She came from a very rural, farm-based setting. Her parents didn’t understand why a woman would need to go to college. She fought tooth and nail to educate and support herself.”
“Family is very important in Nicaraguan culture, and we go back all the time. The time I spend working on even small projects brings me so much satisfaction… I just love doing it and it has become my passion.”
“My wife and I also started a nonprofit called the Nicaragua Educational Scholarship Fund. Education through high school in Nicaragua is free, but there are still a lot of barriers, particularly for people from rural areas. It can take hours to walk to get to the nearest school. The cost of travel, food for the day, things like that are barriers that can stop kids from attending class.”
“We provide the financial means to overcome those barriers for rural Nicaraguans. We ask the students who receive support from the organization to give back to their community through reforestation projects, and support the elderly with things like washing their clothes by hand on rocks as washing machines are not available.”
“In some ways, you could say volunteering in Nicaragua is a thing I am doing for myself. I enjoy the interactions and the warmth of the people in the community. Those bonds, those relationships with people, are what matter and what has made me the person I am today.”