Aira Fusilero Villanueva started the E-Waste Manitoba project last March.
The 20-year-old university student hadn’t been particularity interested in e-waste when she stumbled on the Electronic Recycling Association scholarship, but she saw an opportunity to make a change in her community and help her parents cover the cost of her tuition.
"Everything about who I am is because of my parents," she said. "Paying for my education is difficult for them, I am always looking for different ways to help."
Villanueva was in Grade 5 when she and her parents arrived in Winnipeg from Alcala, Pangasinan, Philippines, 10 years ago. They had little more than the pocket money they had borrowed and hope for a new future. Growing up, Villanueva was involved in Wayfinders, an after-school community mentorship and outreach program in the Seven Oaks School Division. It was through this program that she developed a passion for volunteering in her community, which included volunteer work with the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba and other Filipino outreach groups.
After graduating from high school, Villanueva received a scholarship through Wayfinders, which covered the first two years at the University of Winnipeg, where she is studying with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry. She credits the program and the people she met for mentoring her, and giving her the skills to manage such a big project in her new E-Waste Manitoba venture.
"I was able to have self confidence because of the mentorship I received through these groups. So, when I saw this scholarship, I knew I could do a big initiative like this."
The scholarship competition, which began at the end of February, is open to residents throughout Canada. Entrants must host an e-waste collection event and manage every detail from planning, promoting and executing the event. The first-place winner will win up to $10,000, a MacBook Pro and three laptops for charity.
Villanueva created a Facebook group, which she runs and manages by herself, using a logo that one of her friends designed. She took advantage of the social media platform, putting ads on Facebook marketplace and joining a number of online community Facebook groups where she put a call out to members to donate their broken or unused electronics. Initially, she offered to pick up items from people’s homes, spending her Saturdays driving around the city collecting e-waste people left for her in their yards. However, she had to stop as soon as tighter COVID-19 restrictions came in.
"I couldn’t even go to people’s backyards because of the COVID restrictions," she said.
That didn’t stop her, though. Villanueva has hosted six drive-by e-waste collection events in communities throughout Winnipeg and beyond where people could safely drop off their old electronics. Items that were no longer operational were recycled and electronics that were in working condition were refurbished and donated to local groups.
"I’m an extroverted person, I love meeting people and getting to know them," she said. "I’m not shy to reach out to people and ask for help."
Villanueva reached out to community leaders and politicians including Liberal MLA Cindy Lamoureux and federal NDP candidate for Winnipeg North Melissa Chung-Mowat. She contacted E-Waste Manitoba to see if there was a way they could partner to help reduce the digital divide — which is the gap for those who are to benefit from the digital age and those who do not — for BIPOC students in her community. Together they created an initiative (called AIRAxERA) that donated 20 laptops and 20 computers to BIPOC high school and university students and non-profit organizations in Winnipeg, including IRCOM, Fearless R2W, SEED Winnipeg, the North End Women’s Centre, the Bruce Oake Recovery Centre, RAY Winnipeg, among others.
Since she launched her project, Villanueva has collected thousands of pieces of e-waste: everything from computers and laptops to old stereo equipment, phones, monitors and TVs. She has learned as much as she can about the affect that e-waste has on the environment and has even started advocating for Canada to enact legislation for universal right for repair, which says that products should last longer and be repairable by design.
"It’s difficult to have things repaired, and replacement sometimes isn’t even an option," Villanueva explained. "Many manufacturers purposely make equipment that break or with components built in a way that is very difficult to take apart and repair so that we have to keep buying new things."
She was recently part of the panel for an online E-waste Manitoba event with Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland. During the event she asked Freeland to change legislation in Canada.
"There are (laws) for e-waste that we should have in Canada that we don’t have," she said. Hopefully, after talking to her, things will change."
The deadline for the scholarship competition wrapped up on Sunday. Villanueva is confident and hopeful for the outcome.
She intends to keep working to reduce and repurpose e-waste in Manitoba. She says her dream is to continue to help other students by refurbishing old computers here, and in the Philippines. Villanueva has already lined up meetings with organizations to help make her dreams of doing this a reality. She has also connected with many other young Filipino leaders throughout Canada through a group called Pinoy on Parliament.
"They have really helped me be who I am," she said. "When you meet a lot of inspiring people, you become inspired."
To learn more about E-waste Manitoba go to www.facebook.com/ewastemanitoba.
Columnist, Manager of Reader Bridge project
Shelley Cook is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press and manages the paper's Reader Bridge project, which seeks to expand coverage of underserved communities.