The Oasis Aquaponic Food Production System

This past fall, the trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to Michelle Leach, a recently graduated PhD from the University of Michigan, so that she could continue her development of the aquaponic food production system that she hopes one day to distribute throughout Central America.

Here’s how Leach describes the system: “Food insecurity is the constant companion of the poor,” she says. “Our solution, The Oasis, is a solar-powered inflatable aquaponics system capable of producing at minimum 300 pounds of Tilapia and 600 pounds of tomatoes, or other vegetables, annually. With a projected retail price of $100, and a business model that provides low-interest purchasing credit, our system is radically affordable and accessible.”

oasis color

[above: Artist's conception of the third generation Oasis prototype being built with assistance from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation.]

The following excerpt comes from a recent interview between Leach and A2 Awesome Dean Mark Maynard:

MARK: Would it be fair to say that, while a lot of work has been done in the area of aquaponics, up until now, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research in the field? I mean, a lot of people are building systems, but, to my knowledge, not a lot of trained research scientists, like yourself, have taken on the problem in a systematic way that might yield reproducible results, right?

MICHELLE: Yes, this is one my peeves. There are a ton of backyard hobbyists, who are producing systems that seem to work, but they lack controls. It also seems like a few commercial operations are doing well, but they guard their systems like trade secrets. The few scientists who have done work in the area are using systems which are incredibly complicated/expensive and unsuited for the developing world. No one is doing well-controlled research on SIMPLE systems. This is the hole I’m trying to fill.

MARK: You said this was one of your peeves. Are there others as relates to this new industry you’ve entered?

MICHELLE: Sure, I suppose. The idea that the solution to poverty is a ‘thing’ or device is also somewhat misguided. People aren’t poor because they don’t have an Oasis, or a water filter, or a solar panel. People are poor for a host of other systemic reasons, which include poor infrastructure, corrupt governance, non-functioning legal frameworks, etc, etc, etc. But an Oasis, or a water filter, or a solar panel can make poverty less severe while big systemic changes happen slowly. We can use ‘things’ to chip away at the effects of poverty, and in the process empower the poor to demand systemic change.

MARK: There are other aquaponic systems on the market. How is the Oasis system different?

MICHELLE: The Oasis is designed to be radically affordable and large enough to produce a substantial quantity of food. Other systems are either extremely over-priced or too small to make a dent in a family’s nutritional requirements.

MARK: How is the system being received by those currently using the prototypes in El Salvador? Is it, as you had intended, changing people’s lives for the better? Are they providing useful feedback?

MICHELLE: The systems are being very well received. While everyone to date has received their system free of charge, we only provided alevin (baby fish) and concentrado (fish food) for the first crop cycle. It is up to the families to purchase these items for subsequent crop cycles. So far no systems have been abandoned. We see this as evidence that the families find the systems valuable. We have had some trouble getting ‘straight’ feedback, though… Everyone is super polite to me, and I was getting suspicious that perhaps I wasn’t hearing the whole story. So I recruited a local person to do anonymous interviews. We got some good data, which we are still working to translate and compile, but our preliminary read through suggests everyone is happy with the systems. We did, however, identify some small issues to address that hadn’t been on our radar.

MARK: Can you quantify how impactful a system like this might be in the life of a family in El Salvador? Do you have anecdotal data from those you’ve been working with thus far?

MICHELLE: Very impactful. Whole tilapia sells in the market at $2/lb. Tomatoes are $0.60/lb. A family that produces 300 lbs of fish and 600 pounds of tomatoes, that sold every bit of produce, could cover their costs and still net around $900 a year. In a country where a family is lucky to bring in $500 per person, per year, this can have an enormous impact. (Hard physical labor nets $1 per hour, when you can find it.) And all this from a system which only requires 15 minutes of attention daily.


[above: Michelle Leach and Oasis cofounder Jacquelyn Hernandez Ortiz in El Salvador.]

For the rest of the interview, which goes into more detail as to how the system will be tested and distributed, click here.

Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights teen mural is unveiled in Ypsilanti

This past Saturday, the teen group affiliated with the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR) formally unveiled their mural at 410 West Michigan Avenue, on the side of Dos Hermanos Market. The mural, which was funded in part by a grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, was conceived of, designed and painted by young men and women from mixed immigration status families. According to one of the organizers, the mural contains various symbols intended to convey their “feelings, past experiences, and current struggles.” [The teens who created this mural were assisted by Costa Rican artist Alejandro Chinchilla.]




[The above photos, taken during the November 7, 2015 unveiling, were taken by Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation trustee Johanna Epstein.]

U-M undergrads win A2 Awesome grant to teach American history through the stories of inspirational women

This past weekend, the trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to Virginia Lozano, an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, who, along with her twin sister Beatriz, created an education technology company called Leesta in order to “inspire 8-11 year olds by teaching American History through the stories of women.” The grant will allow the startup to complete an animated module about the work of autistic inventor and activist Temple Grandin, bringing them one step closer to their goal of releasing their first series of interactive modules in 2016.


[above: Beatriz and Virginia Lozano, pictured with representatives of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, after receiving their $1,000 grant.]

The following excerpt comes from a recent interview between Virginia Lozano and A2 Awesome Dean Mark Maynard:

MARK: So, before we talk about Leesta, let’s talk a little about you and Beatriz. Where did you grow up? What were you like a kids? And what made you decide to attend the University of Michigan together?

VIRGINIA: Beatriz and I were born in California, but grew up in Sterling Heights, Michigan. Since childhood we’ve been very close, and have loved collaborating together. We were always curious and enjoyed learning about how things worked. From an early age, art came naturally to us. We also both loved math and science, though. Having similar interests, we were both drawn to Michigan’s engineering program, which is amazing. Our time here at the University, though, has allowed us to find other, and individual, passions, like social justice and storytelling. And, the more time we spent working toward our engineering degrees, the more we realized that we enjoyed figuring out how people work more than we did mechanics.

MARK: Would it be safe to assume that, in your formal education, prior to arriving at the University of Michigan, you probably learned very little about the lives, work and contributions of women… especially women of color… in American history?

VIRGINIA: Absolutely. And that’s one of the main reasons we came up with Leesta. Outside of school, we had strong women as role models. Growing up, we heard stories about the hardships my mom and our grandmothers had overcome as women in Mexico, but we didn’t see that strength reflected in our textbooks, especially when it came to Latinas in America.

MARK: When did the idea for Leesta first occur to you? And what made you decide to invest the considerable time and effort to pursue it?

VIRGINIA: The general idea came from thinking back on our own history education, and trying to name women that we had learned about in school. Beatriz and I could not name one American Latina that we’d learned about. And, after posing similar questions to our friends, who come from different cultural backgrounds, we started hearing the same things from them. Like us, they couldn’t name women in American history that they related to. Then, there was this defining moment when, about two years ago, Beatriz and I came across a beautifully animated ad for Coco Chanel. We thought, “Imagine how engaging traditional education could be if the same multimedia visual tools that companies use to sell their products were used to teach in classrooms.”

MARK: Your plan, as I understand it, is to formally launch Leesta with animated profiles of ten American women. Who are they? And how did you come to choose them?

VIRGINIA: Currently, we’re working on four of the ten profiles. They tell the stories of Bessie Coleman, Dolores Huerta, Temple Grandin, and Grace Lee Boggs. The selection of the other six women is still in the works, but we’re always open to nominations. Our selection process began by gathering nominations from a broad audience, which included teachers, children, and faculty at the University of Michigan. Once we had our list of nominees, our team then began to research these women’s lives. And we also began reaching out to them personally, when possible.

MARK: Can you walk us through one of your first modules… What would a kid encounter, if he or she would open the interactive timeline you’ve created for Dolores Huerta, for instance?

VIRGINIA: Leesta is created to be a supplement to traditional history education, where children will learn about topics they are familiar with, but from new perspectives. In the case Dolores Huerta, children will learn about the Great Depression, but more specifically what that experience was like for a Mexican-American girl growing up during a time of Mexican Repatriation. Each module features an interactive scroll design with an audio narrative, that allows the user to experience the life of the woman from childhood until adulthood. An integrated point-winning system is implemented throughout the site, which allows the users to answer questions to unlock certain activities, like recipes and outfit changes…

For the rest of the interview, which details Leestas plans for the future, and how they intend to use their A2 Awesome grant, click here.


[above: The Leesta team.]

Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awards grant to Ypsilanti’s Festival of the Honey Bee

On the weekend of September 4, Ypsilanti will be celebrating its third annual Festival of the Honey Bee, thanks in part to a grant by the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation. The $1,000 award was given earlier this summer to event founder Jamie Berlin, who will be using the funds not only to grow the collaborative, multi-faceted, city-wide festival, but to produce goods which can be sold during the event, thereby making future festivals more of a possibility. “This grant,” according to Berlin, “will set us on a path to financial independence.” If you would like to know more about the importance of honey bees, how the festival came about, or what you might encounter should you attend this year’s event, check out the recent interview between Mark Maynard, the dean of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, and Jamie Berlin.


Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awards grant to the Washtenaw ID Project for the establishment of an ID Scholarship Fund

Last month, the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to representatives of the Washtenaw ID Project for the establishment of an ID Scholarship Fund that will provide financial assistance to individuals in need of the County ID that cannot afford one. To find out more about the Washtenaw ID, which was created to ensure that all residents of Washtenaw County have meaningful access to a government-issued ID that validates their identity and residency, and why its so incredibly awesome, visit


Pictured above, surrounded by the Trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, are Keta Cowan and Janelle Fa’aola of Synod Community Services, who received the grant on behalf of the Washtenaw ID Project.

[For those seeking more information, an interview with Cowan, conducted by Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation Dean Mark Maynard can be found online.]

Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awards grant to Ypsilanti teen group for immigration mural project


In March, 2015, the trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awarded a $1,000 grant to Melissa Stek, a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Michigan. Stek received the award on behalf of the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights teen group with which she works. The money will fund a public mural, outside Ypsilanti’s Dos Hermanos market, on the subject of immigration.

An interview with Stek on the origins of the project, the timeline for completion, and the awesome young men and women behind the initiative, can be found here.

[If you have an awesome idea as to how you could make our community better with a $1,000 grant, apply to the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation.]

The Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation announces $1,000 grants to Bike Ann Arbor and Abundant Michigan Permaculture Ypsilanti (AMPY)

The Trustees of the micro-philanthropic group A2Awesome today announced the award of their 25th and 26th $1,000 grants toward the creation of awesomeness in the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti area.

The cash awards were given to Krysia Hepatica of Bike Ann Arbor, and and Jesse Tack of Abundant Michigan Permaculture Ypsilanti (AMPY). Bike Ann Arbor, a local cycling advocacy group, will be using their $1,000 grant to create a valet bike parking system which can be used during the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and other local events on an ongoing basis. AMPY will be using their award to establish a permaculture tool library on the grounds on Dawn Farm, a local treatment facility for addiction recovery.

“We’ll be using our Awesome grant to buy equipment so that we can offer free bike valet every Thursday at Sonic Lunch, and during the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Tuesday Bike Nights at Top of the Park,” said Hepatica. “We want to make riding easier for people than taking the car, and, by providing free, easy bike parking, we’re hoping to do that. All people have to do is ride up to our portable racks, give us their contact information, and take a bracelet with a number corresponding to one that we put on their bike. Then, we’ll then lock their bikes and watch them during the course of the event. And, when someone decides it’s time to leave, we just give them their bike back. It’s a simple concept, but we’re hoping that it helps move us along the path a little toward becoming a more bike-friendly city.”

Bike Ann Arbor’s bike valet services will be available at all Thursday Sonic Lunch concerts, beginning June 6, and running through August 28, as well as during the Ann Arbor Summer Festival’s Tuesday Bike Nights (June 17 and 24, and July 1).

AMPY, according to Jesse Tack, will be using their Awesome grant to purchase the tools necessary to transition 7.8 acres of mono-cropped farmland on the property of Dawn Farm into what’s called a Restoration Agriculture model. “We’ve already been planting perennial trees and shrubs with the intention of mixing in annual crops and animal grazing,” says Tack, “and this grant will help us to acquire the items we need to keep everything cared for, like pruners, compost tea sprayers, hand saws, scythes, berry rakes, and other low-tech, human powered tools. And these tools, we hope, won’t just be used on the Dawn Farm property, but by AMPY members who are engaged in similar restoration projects in the area.”

The resilience tool shed will initially be stored in the basement of Dawn Farm. Eventually, AMPY would like to build a few structures on the grounds of the farm to help process and wash harvested produce, host events, as well as hold the tools.


To learn more: Check out Dean Maynard’s interview with Krysia Hepatica.


To learn more: Check out Dean Maynard’s interview with Jesse Tack.

[Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grants are made on a monthly basis. All people with great, inspiring ideas are encouraged to submit their proposals through the Awesome Foundation site.]

The Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 grant to First Fridays Ypsilanti for the expansion of their monthly, multi-venue arts walk


The Trustees of the micro-philanthropic group A2Awesome today announced the award of their 24th $1,000 grant toward the creation of awesomeness in the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti area.

The cash award was given to Kayj Michelle and Elize Jekabson (pictured above) of First Fridays Ypsilanti for the further marketing and development of what has already been an increasingly successful series that brings visual and performing artists into half a dozen different venues in Ypsilanti’s downtown, including Beezy’s Cafe, Bona Sera and the Ugly Mug.

“Last fall, those of us on the First Fridays Ypsilanti (FFY) coordinating committee hit a wall,” said Michelle. “We realized that, if we were going to grow First Fridays into something really special, we were going to need to hire a graphic designer, launch a website, and have posters printed which laid out all of our various venues. Word of mouth has been great, but we’d gotten to point where we needed to formally promote what we’re doing downtown. With this grant, we’ll be able to do that… We’ll be able to better get the word out in the surrounding communities that Ypsi has this free, reoccurring, family-friendly event.”

According to Omari Rush, the Chair of A2Awesome, “The Trustees of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation were impressed with what Kayj and Elize, and the other First Fridays volunteers, had been able to do with no funding whatsoever, and we wanted to given them an opportunity to see what they could accomplish with a little seed capital. They have big plans on growing First Fridays, and we’re enthusiastic about helping them along that path.”

With this grant, A2Awesome has invested a total of $24,000 in the local community since its inception, making possible everything from an elementary education project involving bike-powered lighting systems to the launch of Ypsilanti’s Bona Sera Cafe.

“What’s really cool about this grant,” says A2Awesome Dean Mark Maynard, “is that Bona Sera played such an integral part in getting First Fridays off the ground in Ypsilanti. It demonstrates, I think, the cumulative nature of what it is that we’re doing. In some small way, the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation helped get Bona Sera off the ground, and, right from the start, they proved to be a positive force in downtown Ypsilanti. Among other things, they fought to launch First Fridays, and, now, over a year later, we’re in a position where we’re helping that initiative grow. And, in another year, I’m sure there will be even more awesomeness sprouting forth as a result of this investment. Awesomeness begets awesomeness.”

“What we’ve been able to accomplish with relatively small, targeted investments,” says A2Awesome member Tanya Luz, “is nothing short of amazing. Our community is full of motivated, talented and brilliant people who just need a little financial help to get their visions off the ground, improve our collective quality of life, and help move our community in a really exciting direction.”

Ypsilanti’s next First Friday event, which is scheduled to take place on Friday, March 7, will present art events at six separate locations. The Ugly Mug Cafe will be featuring artwork by Ezra Livingston and music by Avery Feral. Beezy’s Cafe will be hosting 826Michigan’s student creative writings and performances by EMU’s Forensics. Bona Sera Cafe will have artwork by Dan Hussong and music by Nicole P’Simer. B-24’s Espresso Bar will have art by Brad Ruff and Ashley Stamper, and music by Nick Zomparelli. FLY Children’s Art Center will be hosting a Creative Connections presentation by the Arts Alliance. And the Riverside Arts Center’s Off-Center Gallery will be holding a closing reception for their show, “Six Artists,” presented by Ypsi Art Incubator. Along with the closing reception, YAI will also be hosting a series of Pecha Kucha talks. All events, which are free and open to the public, will run between 6:00 PM and 10:00 PM. Performance times will vary by location.

[An interview with this month's winners can be found here.]

[Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation grants are made on a monthly basis. All people with great, inspiring ideas are encouraged to submit their proposals through the Awesome Foundation site.]

A2Awesome awards $1,000 to Ypsilanti’s Rutherford Pool

RutherfordPoolThe Trustees of A2Awesome are pleased to announce the award of their 12th $1,000 grant toward the creation of awesomeness in the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti area. The cash award was handed over to John Weiss, the chairman of Friends of the Rutherford Pool, the Ypsilanti-based volunteer organization responsible for operating and maintaining the City’s only public pool. “The grant,” says Weiss, comes at a critical time, as we’re just entering the final fundraising push replace our community pool, which was closed in 2011.”

The Rutherford Pool, built in 1971, with the expectation that it would last 25 years, was shut down in 2011, after nearly 40 years of service, due to significant structural and mechanical problems. “We only need $51,000 more to reach our goal of $1,020,000,” says Weiss, “and, if we can raise it by the end of April, we are hopeful we will get in part of a swim season this summer”.

At peak season, attendance at Rutherford Pool averages nearly 350 people daily, with some days over 500. Pool visits in 2010 totaled approximately 15,000. Unfortunately, last year, the pool was closed during what was Michigan’s hottest summer on record, leaving many of Ypsilanti’s most vulnerable citizens without a local option for relief.

“We haven’t traditionally contributed toward capital campaigns.” says A2Awesome Co-Chair Linh Song, “But, in this case, we really felt that we had to do it. The Rutherford Pool is vital resource for Ypsilanti. Ann Arbor cannot be awesome without Ypsilanti and this award reflects that.”

Weiss is hopeful that people will note the Awesome Foundation grant, and follow suit. “The timing of this gift came at a critical point, as we’re reaching the home stretch,” said Weiss. “The individuals who make up our area’s Awesome Foundation are some of our area’s most engaged citizens, and their support goes beyond the gift itself. They’re really helping to advocate and promote the Rutherford Pool cause broadly in our area.”

There are three ways to contribute to the Rutherford Pool campaign:

You can donate through Network for Good… By following that link, donors can contribute as little as $10, or as much as they like using their credit card, debit card or Paypal account.

Supporters can also click here to buy a small or large engraved brick, for a contribution of either $125 or $250.

People can also write a checks to the “Rutherford Pool Fund” and send them directly to the Ypsilanti Area Community Fund, which is housed within the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation:

Rutherford Pool Fund
Ypsilanti Area Community Fund
301 N. Main Street
Suite 300
Ann Arbor, MI 48104-1133

[Those seeking more information about the Rutherford Pool project will find an interview with John Weiss here... And, as always, if you have a great, inspiring idea for Washtenaw County of your own that we could help make possible with a $1,000 grant, let us know about it.]

A2Awesome awards grants to support “Small & Mighty” local entrepreneur network, and distribute Michigan Prison Resource Guide

Since we last posted, we’ve awarded two more $1,000 grants toward the creation of awesomeness in the Ann Arbor – Ypsilanti area.

The first of these two cash awards was given to local entrepreneurs Jean Henry (formerly of the Jefferson Market), Lisa Waud (pot & box), and Helen Harding (eat) to help support the continued growth of their grassroots entrepreneur network Small & Mighty. The second was given to Lois DeMott, the co-founder of Citizens for Prison Reform, to assist with the Washtenaw County rollout of their resource guide for individuals entering the Michigan prison system. “With the money that we received from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation,” says DeMott, “we’ll be able to reach out to everyone who will be entering the Michigan prison system from Washtenaw County, with the offer to share our Resource Guide for Families, Friends and Advocates (PDF). It’s our hope that this will help prisoners, and those who care about them, to better understand the complex system they’re entering, and how to navigate it.”

A2AwesomeCitizensForPrisonReformThe Resource Guide for Families, Friends and Advocates is a 36-page handbook produced by prisoner advocacy group Citizens for Prison Reform. Founded in 2011 by Lois DeMott, a Lansing-area citizen and advocate who, upon the arrest of her son, who suffers from Bipolar Disorder, was shocked to realize just how little publicly available information existed concerning the inner workings of the Michigan prison system. Families of prisoners who suffer from mental illness especially needed resources and ways to advocate for humane treatment. This A2Awesome grant is the first to be received by the organization, which, in March, is scheduled to be featured in a documentary on juveniles in solitary confinement being hosted by Ted Koppel for NBC’s Friday evening program, “Rock Center.” This grant will enable the organization to proactively reach out to those individuals in Washtenaw County entering the Michigan correctional system, making them aware of the Resource Guide, and mailing hard copies to those individuals without internet access. The organization plans to expand the program to serve prisoners and their families statewide and hopes to generate interest from additional Board Members and volunteers.

A2AwesomeSmallMightySmall & Mighty, according to the organization’s co-founder, Jean Henry, is “a collaborative, scrappy little nuts-and-bolts support group for entrepreneurs.” Begun in the fall of 2012, the loose collaborative of local entrepreneurs has already grown to 144 members, and hosts frequent events intended to help small business owners exchange ideas and learn from one another. “Within Small and Mighty,” says Henry, “we can comfortably share our ignorance and failures as well as our successes. We talk ‘learning curve’ all the time. I’m not sure that happens at most ‘networking’ events. Someone at a Small and Mighty gathering brought up the term ‘co-opetition.’ We are committed to each other’s success, even when we’re in the same field. We are focussed on positive relationships with each other, our co-workers, our customers, our community. Because it works. It makes our businesses better. Small businesses can harness a kind of reverse economy of scale when they work together — relationships based on trust and goodwill are more efficient — and a lot less expensive.” The $1,000 A2Awesome grant will allow Small and Mighty to build and cultivate an online presence, and to continue hosting events designed to foster collaborative, nurturing relationships between small, local business owners.

“I think these two grants, when looked at together, really demonstrate just how broad our collective interests are,” said Mark Maynard, the Dean of A2Awesome. “The important thing for us is that these small grants of ours can be leveraged to create a disproportionate amount of awesome, and these two projects are perfect examples of that. In one instance, we have highly motivated entrepreneurs who just need a little bit of seed money in order to formalize the incredible work they’ve already been doing to strengthen our local business ecosystem. And, in the other, we’ve chosen to invest in a group of people who are stepping in and filling a critical void that, at least historically, has been easy for people to dismiss.”

With these two grants, A2Awesome has invested a total of $11,000 in the local community since its inception, making possible everything from an elementary education project involving bike-powered lighting systems to be used for the growing of vegetables, to a history project intended to capture and share the images, stories and music of local jazz musicians.

“What we’ve been able to accomplish with relatively small investments,” says A2Awesome’s newly-elected Co-Chair Linh Song, “is really incredible. Our community is full of motivated, talented and brilliant people who just need a little financial help to their visions off the ground, making the lives of people in our communities even better.” (Song and Tanya Luz were elected co-chairs in January, taking over from Lisa Dengiz, who served as the chapter’s founding chair.)

[note: An interview with Small & Mighty founders Jean Henry, Lisa Waud and Helen Harding can be found at here.]