On Tuesday, May 5th, we honored our local heroes at University Settlement for our second annual LES Community Heroes Awards. Though each hero’s inspiration spans cultures, causes, and generations, we asked a select few to share their stories in introduction of each hero. We will be posting those speeches here.

Risa Shoup, Executive Director of FABnyc, had the honor to present local hero Paul Garrin. Paul Garrin, a longtime LES resident, is founder of WiFi-NY, a wind and solar-powered WiFi network. He was awarded for working daily to make communications, data, and information accessible and affordable for all, and building on our community resilience.

Paul Garrin has been living in – and for – the Lower East Side community for more than 30 years. At his work’s heart is social justice and collective good, but what makes him unique is his drive for social and technological innovation.

In 2001, Paul, together with Frank Morales and Cristine Wang, founded Free.The.Media!, a non-profit member supported autonomous network and cultural think tank exploring and explaining how to reclaim public space on the net and preserve free expression, privacy and access for all, through education, community ownership of media infrastructure and the development of open source software.

In 2003, Paul launched WiFi-NY, an independent and cooperative community broadband network. In 2006, he initiated a project to raise funds for WiFi-NY’s expansion as a wind and solar-powered network, and to include even more of New York City’s public spaces, combining his technological and social creativity with resilient practices. This would soon become extremely important.

After Hurricane Sandy hit, Paul designed a solar-powered product that can simultaneously provide public wireless Internet, emergency lighting, and a charging station for computers or cell phones to enhance post-disaster community resilience. WiFi-NY then evolved into the idea for a “People’s Emergency Network” that could be deployed by the community to enhance both fair-weather and crisis communications.

Supported by LES Ready, the project has since grown into a wide-scale effort to integrate sustainable and efficient power and communications networks. Eventually, these networks could fund a community-owned energy and communications collective that would then return profits to the community.

Those kinds of multilayered community initiatives are exactly why Paul is so important for the Lower East Side community. His mind works in incredible and innovative ways, relentlessly working to build the infrastructure needed for a strong, independent, and inclusive community. He has the imagination of an artist, the skills of a technician, and the ambition of a true community leader. The Awards Committee is very proud to honor him here today.

Paul Garrin’s early photography work is now on display, through September 2015.