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Demonstration block initial project!

This is a post that is overdue.  This is a post that is timely because of its relevance to my architectural thesis work which is beginning now.

All of the research, meetings, talking, etc. that I did in Detroit this summer will surely continue now that I am gone.   It will continue with others in Detroit furthering their projects and a lot of the work started.  I’ve also carried the work and thoughts back to Rhode Island with me.  Throughout the end of the summer I focused a lot of energy into developing some ideas, schematics, and images for initial projects on the demonstration block site.  Now, I am immersed in the Fall semester of my final year in the M. Architecture program at RISD.  My work on Mack Avenue in Detroit is not over.  It will continue to inform my work throughout this final year at RISD where I will propose and execute an architectural thesis project.I fully intend for the work that I am doing throughout this year to be directly relevant to the work that was done this past summer with LEAP and the Mack Avenue Green T project.  It may not be specific to the same site, but I am focusing on similar issues with vacant land in Detroit.  This type of research is then applicable to other areas within the city as well as other post-industrial urban landscapes with similar conditions throughout the American Rust Belt and beyond.

Backtracking a little…

The Mack Avenue Green T project fits within the framework of the Detroit Future City plan.  It fits within the neighborhood development plan for the entire LEAP district.  One thing it lacked for quite a while this summer was a comprehensive conceptual approach for itself.  Alongside my manager, Jackie, I helped develop that plan toward the end of the summer.  I’ve mentioned the Detroit Future City Plan previously, but I may not have mentioned that the grassroots organization that put the plan together published a graphically beautiful book that outlines the entire thing.  They are promoting free access to the information for anyone who is interested in working within Detroit and the framework of the Future City.  To me, the book has become a religious document that outlines the framework in which my creativity can roam wild.  I was able to pick up two copies of the book over the summer.  One I intend to keep and cherish, the other I’m donating to the RISD Fleet library.  The RISD community deserves to have a copy of this book to keep in their archive that is accessible to everyone.

future city book

detroit future city book

The concept plan for the Green T is very simple.  Blocks will be planted with pennycress plants for biodiesel harvest.  The strips between the road and sidewalks will be converted into bioswales that will help capture water runoff from the road as well as the crop.  This in turn, alleviates water treatment pressure in the treatment facilities across Detroit.  Several locations throughout the Mack Avenue strip were selected to develop as sites for public art installations.  They will be attractive locations that allow people to experience the new agricultural intervention along Mack Ave.  Each location has a concept material for the public art specific to that site.  Creating a plan that allows for each site to have a separate visual identity, not only provides diversity to the project, but it allows the nearby residents to help identify with the location.  Having the ability to identify your home alongside landmarks within a neighborhood, begins to develop a place as an identifiable neighborhood.  It can provide residents with a sense of place and sometimes a sense of pride for where they live.  The following images outline a basic plan for the Green T public art projects as well as two prominent landmarks that have been identified by community members and LEAP as worth preserving.

2013.8.15 concept masterplan

2013.8.15 concept masterplan

2013.8.15 concept masterplan

I was fortunate enough to have the time to implement a small installation on the Green T strip.  It is the first intervention within the entire project and is located on the demonstration block site.  Drawing from the idea of material themed public art, I chose to use tires.  We chose the location adjacent to the telephone pole at the center of the site.  The installation serves two major purposes.  It acts as a relocated bus stop and a location for informational signage related to the Green T project.  The bus stop is being relocated from the adjacent block to the East where there is no longer bus stop signage.  Therefore, we proposed to relocate the stop to the demonstration block where a new sign could be mounted on the telephone pole and draw more eyes to what is happening on the site.

bus stop study

Bus stops on Mack Avenue and throughout most of the city lack any type of shelter or even a bench.  It gets worse.  The buses are so incredibly inefficient and inconsistent that it could take nearly an hour past the scheduled time for a bus to arrive.  There are also stories of individuals waiting for the last bus home at night only to realize that it is never going to come.  Why?  Sometimes the reason is just because the driver didn’t feel like making the last run.  One day when I was out documenting the area with my camera, I watched a woman and her son walking to a bus stop, carrying a milk crate to sit on.  I approached them and we had a friendly conversation about the bus system and the lack of benches throughout the city.  After that conversation, advocating for the installation of benches throughout the Green T project, became a personal priority for me.


2013.8.1 _ Quinn and Manuel waiting for the bus on Mack

Throughout the summer I’d been taking notes about where there were piles of dumped tires throughout the neighborhood.  Even before solidifying a plan for implementation, one day was spent returning to those locations and collecting tires.  This was a learning experience all on its own.  Initially I thought I’d just stop, pick up the tires, and then leave.  However, when I stopped and began collecting them, neighbors took notice.  Over a dozen people stopped to ask what I was doing.  They all thanked me for helping to clean up some of the garbage.  Several offered to help, including a young boy on rollerblades with a broken arm.  I politely declined his help because that just seemed like a recipe for disaster.   A few people asked if I was collecting or dumping for fear that I was adding to the piles of trash.  Although most people were a bit confused as to why I wanted so many tires, most just shook my hand and thanked me for helping out.  These simple actions can go a long way in neighborhoods which are mostly ignored by outsiders.


2013.8.14 _ tire dumping site on the Eastside


2013.8.14 _ a bad flat


2013.8.14 _ helping clean up some rubber


2013.8.14 _ demonstration block site with the collection

Upon returning to the demonstration block site, I neatly stacked the tires in the middle of the block.  Overnight, a few of the stacks tipped over.  Only a few days later I returned to see all of the stacks upright with some graffiti on them.  We were actually hoping that the tires would serve as a blank canvas for graffiti artists, but we didn’t expect it would begin so soon!


2013.8.18 _ “art is a lie…?”

These two concept collages depict the intention of the tire intervention.  Low tires, rising out of the ground, serve as seating for people waiting for buses.  Stacks serve as an infrastructure for vegetation to climb on.  Signage is arranged within the space to allow for historical references, information about green infrastructure, and to explain the process of converting pennycress into biodiesel.  Creating an arch that signifies a gateway to the project was the preferred direction.  However, it was decided against because there could be liability issues if someone were to climb on it and fall.

demonstration block_ render ARCH

demonstration block_ render TOWER

When the came time to start working on the tire installation, it proved incredible difficult to dig into the site and sink the tires as much as I wanted to.  It was not because of the hard nutrient deficient soil or the high levels of clay.  Many of these empty sites across Detroit are deceivingly empty.  It’s not uncommon to dig and find piles of trash and remnants of the buildings that once stood on a particular site.  Digging at this site, was like digging into a stack of bricks.  Given the amount of time available to complete an installation, I had to modify the approach tread lightly on the site.  Here is the result.

2013.8.16 _ staking the installation area

2013.8.16 _ staking the installation area for grass removal


2013.8.24 _ clearing the grass


2013.8.24 _ rebar support in the stacks


2013.8.24 _ end of bench


2013.8.24 _ contemplating the new landscape

It’s not yet clear exactly what the neighborhood reaction is to the initial phase of the Green T project.  I do know that it is generally positive.  Once the rest of the project is underway and all of the pieces become tied together, I know that people will be very excited about the Green T.   The once vibrant urban corridor that once existed along Mack Avenue is likely to never return.  As designers and artists, we must consider and test new approaches to utilizing these vacant and unproductive spaces.

Mack ave historic photos_ burton collection-3

1921 _ Mack Avenue _ Wayne State collection


date unknown _ Mack Avenue _ Wayne State collection


date unknown _ Mack Avenue _ Wayne State collection


date unknown _ Mack Avenue _ Wayne State collection

My manager, who I worked with throughout the summer, recently told me that people have begun dumping their unwanted tires on the demonstration block.  It is as if they are hoping to see more tire installations happen.  Incredible!  And they’re in luck, because we are hoping to find a few people to do more tire installations on the site.  This way, we won’t even need to haul used tires to the site.   This process shows one way in which communities in Detroit operate.  When something positive, out of the ordinary, and potentially beneficial to the neighborhood happens, it doesn’t go unnoticed.  Nearby residents begin to mimic what has been done and hope that it will work to their benefit.  That is what happened with the Heidelberg Project.  It is a neighborhood art piece started by Tyree Guyton that attempted to draw attention to and change the face of blight.   I remember visiting Heidelberg for a field trip during my 8th grad accelerated art class.  The project was not only noticed, but it drew enough attention that crime in the area went down.  Others began adding their own pieces to the area.   Now the project is a full blown non-profit organization that, among other things, advocates the arts in Detroit.  Yes!  Similar things happen with vegetable gardens and blotting projects throughout the city.  When someone plants tomatoes on a vacant lot next door, it often inspires others to do the same.  We hope that the projects LEAP is working on will have similar catalytic effects across the neighborhood and citywide.

The summer work I did with LEAP and the Eastside community went far beyond my expectations.  I was able to further some of the work that LEAP is already doing and implement a small, self-directed, public art installation.  My intention to use the experience as the beginning of my thesis research has been fully realized.  Therefore, my work on the Eastside will continue.  I am not working directly alongside LEAP or producing work for one of their projects this school year.  However,  I still intend to produce work that can be integrated and informative for anyone involved with community urban design on Detroit’s Eastside.  Throughout the future, I fully intend to stay in touch with LEAP and becoming involved where I can and when it might make sense.

Work on the demonstration block continues [Model D article about the Green T].  From the most recent update, I learned that they are going to develop the bioswale at the edge of the site this fall.  There is also still hope they will be planting pennycress this fall.  The graphic design for informational signage is not yet complete.  However, I was able to help enlist one of my former classmates from Lawrence Tech University to complete the signage design.  Installation of the signage is planned for the spring.  Over the winter, a flowering vine will be selected for the tire planters as well.  It didn’t make sense to plant that vegetation this fall because we were advised the plants might not survive their first winter at this point.  The next step is to enlist someone to begin painting murals on the cow building and others to begin designing more public art installations.  Anyone else from RISD interested in taking a trip to Detroit?

2013.8.24 _ locals fishing on Belle Isle

2013.8.24 _ locals fishing on Belle Isle


Until This Winter

We are excited to announce that Graphic Design professor, Ben Shaykin, will be teaching a multidisciplinary studio this Wintersession titled Votelab. Kelsey and I have been meeting with Ben throughout the summer months to help organize the studio, and we are thrilled our research will be used as a point of reference for it. We have identified 3 places of need (polling place signage, election materials, and technology + systems), and it is these focus areas that will be the base of many design solutions created by fellow students.

Kelsey and I will be conducting some poll worker research this November with the Center for Civic Design (the project is funded by the National Science Foundation) and will continue to stay in touch with our beloved election experts.

A few weeks ago at A Better World by Design, closing keynote speaker Sarah Drummond spoke about her service design work in Scotland, “It’s not about design, it’s about critical services.” She closed with a beautiful quote by Ivan Illich, “Give people the tools that guarantee them the right to success.” This is exactly what Kelsey and I hope we can accomplish.

See you around!



The summer has ended, but my project continues. My project was one of the few, if not only, Maharam STEAM projects proposed that has a longer timeframe than just the summer. I will be updating here every month on my progress.

Since the summer, a lot has happened. On September 30th I was invited to give a talk at the Village Leadership Academy about youth incarceration on behalf of Project NIA. I was nervous to accept, because I’ve only just started my journey in learning about this, and wondered how could begin to explain it to children? That is the core of my project, however, and I knew I had to say yes. I was also comforted by the fact that part of Project NIA’s mission is to empower diverse community members to take leadership in addressing issues faced by youth impacted by the juvenile justice system. I am a member of the community, and so I can share what I have been learning. It was as simple as that, and I tried to share that idea with the kids of the VLA, as they will soon begin learning about their own communities and creating their own grassroots campaigns to address an issue of their choice.

When I arrived for the talk, the children were running around and practicing Capoiera. The walls were brightly decorated with drawings the children had done of themselves in their neighborhoods, with writings alongside about who they are and what they like. It seemed like a great, progressive school in downtown Chicago. When the 4-7th graders filed in and sat down, it was time for me to start. I was very nervous. I talked to them about how in Illinois, you can be put in jail at the age of 10. And at age 13, you can become a part of the juvenile justice system. I showed them a video made by photographer Richard Ross, who spent 24 hours in isolation and set his camera up to take a picture every 7 seconds. They saw what a cell looked like, what his clothes looked like, and what he did to pass the time. Much of it was spent reading.

I tried to explain the emotional aspect of it to the students. I asked them to imagine what it would feel like to be separated from their mothers, their fathers, their friends, their school, everything, with nothing to do and no one to talk to. I also showed the students a video where a young man talked about his experience with being targetted by the cops because of the color of his skin. That was at the heart of my talk. I tried to explain in the simplest words I could what racial profiling was, the school to prison pipeline, zero tolerance policies, and restorative and transformative justice. This was really not easy. I had been learning about those things for the past three months, but always using the same terms.

So when I explained peace circles, I thought it might help me explain it to ask them a question. Do you think a kid who gets in a fight at school should be sent to jail and go to court? Or do you think they should talk to the teachers and the person they harmed, and other people from the school and community, and figure out what can be done so that everyone feels healed from what happened? This was an oversimplification, but I only realized how oversimplifed it was after the talk. I talked to two groups of students that day, K-3rd and 4-7th graders. At the end of both talks, I asked the students to imagine what it would feel like to be a child sent to prison or jail, and to respond with a drawing. Those drawings can all be seen here:
When everyone was getting ready to leave and I was collecting the drawings from the 4-7th group, four young girls crowded around me to talk to me about what was in their drawings. I listened intently, excited to hear what they had to say. I asked them if they learned anything, and most said yes, one girl began to explain what, while one girl, emphatically and almost defiantly, clearly said no. I asked her why not, and she said that a man is in prison for killing my daddy, and that’s not right. All I could say was no, that’s not right.

How could you explain to a child or anyone that a peace circle can help people heal from even the worst tragedy? How can you explain restorative justice? In my talk, this is what I tried to say:


Restorative justice is a different way of thinking about what justice means altogether.  It is a way of thinking about how we deal with harm. When we think about justice, we think about good guys and bad guys, the police who arrest them, and the judge who decides what’s fair. We have all kinds of laws set in place that say what is and what isn’t fair, and what kind of punishment you deserve for what you did. The victim of the crime is never involved. It’s the bad guy vs. the state. In restorative justice, the victim, meaning the person who was harmed, the offender, meaning the person who did something wrong, and the community are all involved. This might mean the families of the offender and victim, people from a local church who are willing to help, and anyone else who can help both people feel healed from the harm that was done.

In a peacemaking circle, everyone involved gets a chance to tell their truth and to be heard. It only works if everyone is commited to sitting down and talking about it though. Sometimes it can take hours, and planning has to be done beforehand so that there are people from the community there who are willing to step up and help guide the victim and the offender to healing and reconciliation. Sometimes this means the victim has to do community service. All of this happens with the intention of allowing people to know eachother, the different realities they face, and the community becomes stronger as a whole.


It sounds implausible, and I’ve never done one myself, so it’s impossible to speak from personal experience, but Mariame Kaba, founder of Project NIA, once told me an incredible story about how a peacemaking circle helped her in a terrible situation. Two of her students were dating. One day, that young man killed that young woman. It is incredible to believe that anyone would have wanted anything other than for the boy to be locked away, but that wasn’t the case when Mariame sat down with the two families. In the coming month, I hope to be able to provide an interview with Mariame  about this situation. I also plan on being trained within the coming months on leading peace circles. to gain a greater understanding of what will become a part of my book.

This past week I also conducted a workshop with women who participated in the Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) group CLAIM, or, Chicago Legal Advocacy for Incarcerated Mothers. These mothers were supported by LSSI throughout their stay in prison. For example, they were able to see their children once a month thanks to a bus service that was organized, and a bus driver who volunteered their time.

The women I met at this workshop were warm, kind, thoughtful, and so strong. I couldn’t even imagine how strong they truly were. And they said some very surprising things. One woman, we’ll call her Claire, was early to the meeting and I thought she worked there. She was beautiful and charming and said it herself, “you wouldn’t even know I was in prison unless I told you.” Before anyone else arrived and the workshop began, we talked about what it was like for her at Lincoln Correctional Center, and it was completely not what I was expecting. She was in for five and a half years, and in that time, she got her GED. She braided hair and did nails. She spent much of her time at the church. She read, a lot. She got to speak to the warden face to face. I was amazed, and I wondered if this was an anomaly.

When another woman showed up, we’ll call her Jamie, she too had similar things to say. The walls of Decatur Correctional Center were brightly decorated. In a lot of ways, she said, it was almost better being in prison than it was being out. Now she has her children with her in a transitional home. They were moved from the stability of a friends home who took them in when they needed it most. She struggles to find a job. Both women talked about struggling to find a job. Claire, whose voice had held so much optimism thus far, began to cry when she said she couldn’t even get a job at Target. A lot of the work that the women had to do upon being released and going home wasn’t just finding a job, it was reconnecting with their families. Hearing this made me realize that a big part of the book should be about what happens before, during, and after a mother’s incarceration. Claire, who had been out of prison for two or three years was living with her sons at her mothers house, and making money by singing at churches. She has a record deal in the works. She sang for us, and it gave me goosebumps, she was so powerful.

Meeting these women complicated my idea of what this children’s book should say. Do you explain to a child why it could ever be better to be in prison than in the real world? How do you do that? How do you explain all the outside forces acting on a person’s life that alter their existence? How much does a child need to know in order to begin to heal? Everything?

It was hard to see them talk about the obstacles they’ve had to overcome, and the feeling of wanting to just give up. There were interns of LSSI present at the workshop, for which I was so thankful. They were supportive and encouraging, and able to empathize with these women in a way that they both knew what the struggle was really like. I don’t know what that struggle is like. But I do know how to draw, and I do know how to tell stories, and I love to teach art. And I want people to hear every voice of their communities, not just the ones with the most access to the microphone. I want to hear those voices too, and learn from them.

“And if I no longer continue to do this work after this project is done?” I continue to ask myself. Am I an imposter? A thief? I don’t think of myself as an activist. For a while I thought I wanted to be, but I realize that I am an artist, first and foremost. Art is the language I speak best. And everything that I learn can’t be unlearned. I might not organize a protest, but I will make a painting, a story, a book that tries to speak as true to the voices I’ve heard and my own voice in response, or in solidarity, as long as I live. That is my passion.  And in that way, I don’t think that the work ever stops. It continues if you let it breathe in what you make.

To wrap up this post, I will mention that on November 9th I will be leading another workshop at an event called “Explaining Jail & Prison to Children with Incarcerated Loved Ones”. Here is the invitation:

Workshop #1 — Things I Wish I’d Said To My Children: A Workshop for Formerly Incarcerated Parents

Join Bianca Diaz, a Project NIA volunteer, in a workshop that asks parents to share their hopes, fears, and dreams for the children they left behind. Through letter writing and art making, we will share and discuss what formerly incarcerated parents would have wanted their children to know while they were gone. How did you explain to your child what was happening? How did you stay connected? Do you wish you could have explained things better? What did you want them to know?


Until next time,



The Story of Gender … Our final blog post.

It has been over a month now since Nupur and I left Delhi.  The distance of time and space has given us the opportunity to really reflect on the project – the decisions that we made, where we succeeded, where we failed and what we finally achieved.

Initially, we were motivated by the gang rape of a woman that took place on 16 December 2012 in Delhi. We were also motivated by the mass activism and dialogue that ensued as a result of the rape. Nupur and I were determined to be part of it. We wanted our work to contribute to the dialogue and we wanted to create work that was truly meaningful. We left for Delhi inspired and motivated.

And when we got there we very quickly realized that making work that meaningfully responded to sexual violence was a lot more complicated than we had anticipated. Making this sort of work required a deep understanding of the underpinning complexities. If the work was to be really meaningful it had to consider amongst many things class, caste, tradition, religion, family, patriarchy, masculinity, femininity, social norms, education, cultural norms and so forth.

Through the Integrated Development Education Association (IDEA) NGO we met journalists, activists and NGO representatives working on human rights, masculinities, sexuality education and gender. These meetings reinforced our insight about the complexities involved. And with each meeting, the ideas that we had for our project became more and more daunting and overwhelming.

Then something happened. As we considered all these terms and constructs (social norms, masculinity, caste, etc) they started to flatten, their meanings started to collapse. They started to appear as forces in themselves as though they weren’t linked to or about people. I don’t think at the time we really articulated this ‘flatness’ of the terms but it is only now in hindsight that we are able to express that this is what we were responding to.

On reflection, we think it was this ‘flatness’ that was the catalyst in helping us define what the project was going to be about. We knew it was not going to be about finding solutions. And we knew it was not going to be about demonstrating our understanding of the underpinning drivers of sexual violence. What we wanted was for the project to be a record of how the complexities of gender (a complexity that underpins sexual violence) had been internalized in men and women’s lives. We wanted the record to act as an accurate reflection of who we are as a collective.

We decided then that we were just going to listen, record and discover.

So we started collecting stories from men and women within the urban middle class of Delhi. The narratives we collected were not opinions or analysis or ideas about gender, they were stories and memories about lived experiences that contributed to the constructions of gender.

We collected stories from men and women from the urban middle class. We decided on the urban middle class for a number of reasons, the primary reasons being that although sexual violence occurred across class and caste, the responses to it were primarily targeted towards people in the lower classes. And given the short amount of time and limited resources we decided to reach out to communities that we were able to access with reasonable ease. We hope in the future to broaden our scope of focus to reach across India and beyond.

When we started to log the stories we were collecting, we continuously bumped against the terms and constructs that overwhelmed us initially. Except now they had a particular dimension that we could see and understand; they were now attached to people and their values, hopes and anxieties.

We then decided to edit the stories into 1 – 1.5 minute mini narratives. We mapped these mini-narratives along certain threads and themes. By doing so we were able to illustrate how certain abstractions are reified and experienced. For example when we looked at the idea of protection, we found that men were encouraged to assume the role of the protector of women (sisters, mothers, daughters, Aunts) and women are encouraged to assume that they needed to be protected by men. This idea is reflected in individual behaviours, in social constructions and even at the institutional level (an example of this is in an earlier post where I wrote about the Women’s Only car on the Delhi subway). So in mapping the mini-narratives along themes like ‘protection’ the listener can hear how protection is experienced from various perspectives: enforcement, reception, and observation.

We will be developing an online platform to act as a repository for these mini narratives. We will meta-tag the mini narratives in a number of ways to allow the listener to curate them so that they get only the stories that they want to hear. For instance if they would like to hear a seamless stream of stories across age groups and genders along a specific theme, they will be able to get it. An example of this is if the listener would like to only hear about the first sexual experience of women and men aged 28 that is what will be played to them. The listener will have the opportunity to save what they curated so others have a chance to listen to it as well. The online platform will also give the listener the opportunity to contribute to the repository of mini-narratives so that their lived experiences can be heard alongside those of others.

We believe that when experienced as a whole, the repository of stories will show us the ways in which we have come to internalize constructions of gender with both harmful as well as beautiful consequences.

We are very keen to expand the collection of stories in the repository so that they are more reflective of the diversity of India. Additionally, our aim is to continue to collect stories, but to reach beyond India into other cultures and regions around the world.


We new that the collection of stories and the construction of an online repository for the stories would be a long-term endeavour and we wanted to do something as well that was a little more immediate and that referenced our observations.

One of our observations (as mentioned in an earlier post) is that we felt that men largely occupy the public spaces in Delhi. We saw men hanging-out on the streets together chatting, drinking tea, and watching the street. We rarely saw women doing the same. The women we saw appeared to be heading to a destination, they appeared to always be en-route to somewhere else and we seldom saw them ‘hanging-out’ or drinking a tea or having a chat on the street.

So we decided that our intervention would be a comment (or gentle confrontation) of what we saw as the male public face of Delhi. We photographed women in the middle of innocuous gestures and pasted these photographs in predominantly male dominated spaces in a particular neighbourhood of Delhi. We named this project Adda Baazi which when translated from Hindi means making a habit of hanging out.

The responses to our intervention were really affirming. A number of people (both men and women) felt that we were bringing to attention a norm that they hadn’t noticed. The most affirming response we received was from a group of young women who upon looking at the documentation of the intervention, went to a male dominated teashop and sat down and had tea. They felt supported in doing so.

We have created a website for our final report for the Maharam Fellowship. We will share that with you shortly.

Nupur and Bathsheba.


Not So Final Blog Post


It’s been a while since I last posted here, but that doesn’t mean Keela and I’s work has ended, nor slowed down. In fact, the end of the summer only signals the beginning of a new phase in our work, a project that has an indefinite end point. I will catch you up on the latter portion of our summer research, then delve further into what lies ahead for this project…

Keela traveled back home to Minnesota for the bulk of August, but we stayed in touch to continue our plans and research. When she returned in early September we jumped right back into work mode, starting with a meeting with Danny Chapman. Danny Chapman is a government design and usability expert who is “passionate about web standards, open government, and improving citizen to government interactions online.” He was also selected as a Presidential Innovation Fellow for Project MyGov as part of the new White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program. Currently he works with NIC, an eGovernment provider that has contracts with thirty states and is responsible for the redesign of, Rhode Island’s official government web portal. As you can see, he was an ideal person for us to have a discussion with!

Once we sat down, Danny told us about his work and what he does for NIC and we filled him in on our project. The realm of technology within our research has been the one we were most unsure of, in terms of how feasible or reasonable it would be for us to try to get involved. There are many bureaucratic and security issues that surround voting technology, which can be intimidating for two college students. After talking to Danny, however, we discovered that there are some possibilities for change within reach (though I can’t go into details at this time). No solid plans were made, but we all promised to stay in touch as Keela and I look forward to the design portion of our project. Danny may prove to be an invaluable resource, asset and mentor to us, and we are very grateful that we were able to meet with him!

In September Keela and I also reached out to Oregon and Washington, two states that — through our research on best practices — have proved to be leaders in election design and innovation. Besides Illinois, which is where Marcia Lausen worked post-hanging chad, Oregon and Washington are the only two states that have ever had real living and breathing graphic designers working in their election offices. These Election Design Fellows were placed by AIGA (the professional association for design) through their Design for Democracy program. In an email from Don DeFord from the Oregon’s Elections Division, he told us that “we have really enjoyed having the benefits of having professional designers involved with our elections team.” We were able to chat with Tami Davis, Washington’s Voter Education and Outreach Manager, on the phone, where she shared her enthusiasm for having designers on staff. Washington’s first Design Fellow arrived in 2009 and while they currently don’t have one, they are seeking another in addition to pursuing the ability to have a designer positioned permanently.

Washington is a leader in best election design practices and Keela and I were blown away by their progressive practices. Not only do all of their thirty-nine counties have the Adobe Creative Suite, but the state also purchased the font-family Univers for use on their election materials!  The state also has MyVote, an online tool for citizens to look up their personal as well as general voting information. The state’s counties have a shared drive of election document templates and a forum where they can ask each other questions and share information, and there seems to be an overall attitude of forward and open thinking in Washington’s elections offices. As for their future endeavors, Davis shared the state’s desire for an elections result app, a MyVote phone app, an online voter handbook and mobile app. Our phone conversation left Keela and I impressed and excited by the potential for Rhode Island and other states if led by Washington’s example.

Keela and I are currently working on compiling all of our summer research into a book format, which we will present to the Board of Elections and Elections Division once completed. Our research is still not fully finished, however, and the book will be used as a resource for the next phase of our project, which Keela will go into in her blog post…

to be continued


Final Report from Perú (but not the end!)

Eliza Squibb: Shipibo Textiles in Perú

Although I’ve enjoyed the exercise of writing blog posts during my Maharam fellowship, rounding everything up into a “final report” has proved to be slightly more challenging. First of all this experience is anything but “final” since I am continuing my work in Peru. The process of these first three months has involved a gradual building of momentum. I began by growing my confidence speaking Spanish, learning how to get around the overwhelmingly chaotic capital, and establishing relationship and contacts amongst an incredible range of people. These processes are never finished: my Spanish could still use plenty of improvement, I just recently discovered an alley in Lima where one could buy live peacocks and stingrays (if one so desired), and just last night a taxi driver gave me his email and told me about all the different social development projects he works on in his spare time… This country is charging towards the future at full speed, and I’ve been made to feel that my presence as a North American designer is a welcome addition.

Over the course of my fellowship, I have learned an incredible amount from people all over the country that I have been able to meet, work and discuss with. My thinking processes on the topic of art and design in development work have been challenged, and have evolved significantly over the past three months. Although I had done many different things to prepare for this experience, nothing so much as the actual time spent living here could have prepared me as well. Now I feel prepared. And now I am beginning. Thank you Maharam!

To better organize these various processes and explain how my thoughts and actions have evolved over the course of my experience, I will describe the past three months in five different parts.

CANTAGALLO: working within the Shipibo-Conibo native community in Lima.

My primary contact upon my arrival in Lima was el Grupo Interdisciplinario Amazonia (GIA), a lively group of university students from a variety of disciplines (hence the name), who work with the Shipibo community of Cantagallo. Their main project at the moment involves designing new housing, because the municipality wants to relocate the entire community within a year. GIA introduced me to the community, and in particular, Señora Luz Linda Franco Ahuanari, the president of Ashé, an artisan collective of eighteen women. I introduced myself officially to the group and explained that I was interested in researching how textile craft serves as the main economic resource for the community and also raises awareness about the Shipibo-Conibo ethnic group. In Peru’s vast diversity of over 65 ethnicities indigenous to the Amazon region, I was interested in how the Shipibo had made themselves one of the better known groups with their textiles and traditional medicine. Also, I wanted to know more about the specific challenges faced by this community who had relocated to the city from their native territory on the Ucayali river. Since one of the main challenges faced by indigenous people today is the battle for native territory, it is important to point out that by moving to the city, this community had essentially relocated the site of this issue from the rural to the urban environment.

Although I presented myself to Ashé as a researcher who had studied textiles and was available to exchange techniques or help out in any way possible, I had little idea of what this could actually mean. Since I had barely graduated from school a month ago, it was hard for me to imagine what skills I had that would be interesting to the collective, and since GIA did not contain any artists, they couldn’t have adequately prepared me either. The only solution was to show up, listen directly to the group, and gain a better understanding of their situation. By participating in group meetings, I was able to come up with plans for how our interactions could be beneficial to both my research and the needs of the collective. In the beginning, they were reluctant to engage because they had experienced so much failure and abandonment on the part of NGOs or individuals who had proposed projects in the past. Very clearly they told me, “People have come to us before wanting to learn our techniques, we show them our work and they take pictures of everything, but these people leave without completing their promises. We see their pictures of our work on the internet, but what good does that do us?”. The only way to resolve the issue of trust was for me to be very careful about what I proposed to the group, to communicate as clearly as possible, and make sure that if I suggested something, there was a way for me to follow through.

Because of the collective’s interest in learning new techniques, I organized a needle-felting workshop. This specific technique was a very careful choice because not only is it a portable technique, relatively new to Perú, but it combines elements of painting and embroidery which are the two techniques traditionally used by Shipibo artisans. The goal of the workshop was to provide the collective with a new material and tool for expressing their traditional patterns. Potentially, this new material (wool) could also be a way of adapting to life in the city where the climate is significantly different from the rainforest. In addition to providing the materials, I made sure that all supplies were locally available to the artisans and that they knew where to find them. The workshop was a big success, and it was very impressive to see how quickly and easily these talented artisans picked up the new technique. The tools and materials remain in their possession for future experimentation, and the ultimate test will be to see how successful new products are in the market. ImageSilvia, Nimia, and Fidelia working on their needle felting projects.ImageDiana Belén showing off her project, with her mother, Zoila, in the background

The second project that we worked on together was to apply to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. The collective’s main problem is lack of a secure location to sell their art, and most artisans spend entire days walking the city and selling as ambulantes, street vendors. A variation of the Shipibo traditional pattern has been copied, industrially produced, and is available at any fabric store. This is disheartening for many artisans, but with all the other economic challenges they face, it is difficult for them to seek legal advice and patenting for their traditional art. They already participate in numerous craft fairs, sometimes in other South American countries, so they asked me about the possibility of finding such a fair in the US. The application to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market was extensive, requiring photographs, a CD, and a lot of written descriptions. The act of completing the application together was a way for me to learn more about the history of Shipibo art and culture, as well as an exercise for the collective in how to formulate and express their traditions to the public. One funny moment in the application process came as we were completing the last written question of the financial aid form. “What are the collective’s reasons for seeking financial assistance?”, I translated for Señora Luz. “Because Shipibos are poor”, she answered promptly, and we both cracked up into slightly hysterical giggles. After writing persuasively about the rich wealth of Shipibo art and culture for page after page (and because our brains were a bit fried at this point), we couldn’t help laughing at the irony. The sad truth of the matter, however, is that cultural wealth does not translate to economic wealth for Peru’s indigenous population. While the natural environments that historically provided for all their needs are depleted by mining, logging, fishing, and petroleum companies, the communities themselves are forced to participate in a cash economy for which they have no precedent. The artisans of Cantagallo continue making their traditional textiles because that is their main economic resource, and often each artisan is supporting not only her family, but the education of her younger siblings and children, and the medical care of older relatives. Not only is it interesting that there is an economic incentive to continue creating traditional art, but also the community in Cantagallo works hard to preserve their culture and language so that it is not lost as the generation grows up in the city.

ImageLuz working on an embroidery at her sister Fidelia’s house

I hope that my work with Cantagallo is far from over. We succeeded in constructing strong ties, and depending on the results of the application, we might even be traveling to New Mexico next year!Image

PUCALLPA: learning textile techniques in the central Amazonian basin

I was able to join a GIA member on a three week research trip to Pucallpa, a city on the banks of the Ucayali river. Living with a Shipibo family and learning textile techniques in the native community of San Francisco made me realize just how fundamentally Shipibo art is linked to the surrounding environment. Not only do all dye materials, such as bark and clay, come from the local area, but these elements have an chemical interaction with the climate. After being dyed, fabric must be laid flat on the grass to dry and darken in the sun, and this process is repeated eight times over two days to achieve the desired shade. I began to realize how challenging it is for the artisans of Cantagallo to make their traditional art given their lack of space, distance from materials, and the fact that the sun never comes out during the four months of Lima’s winter.  While it is very economically advantageous for the artisans in rural communities to make beaded jewelry from seeds that grow in their surrounding environment, this “traditional” jewelry is no longer so easy or cheap to make once the artisans have relocated to the city. ImageLearning how to paint patterns with bark dye with Teresa on the porch of her house

There are additional differences on a social level as well. I found that often, in Pucallpa, women didn’t consider themselves professionals, even though they were highly skilled and creative textile artists. They thought of their art as their only option because they hadn’t had the opportunity to complete their education, and although they continued to pass these skills on to their children, they wanted their children to study and have careers as professionals. In Lima however, due to the budding national and international interest in Shipibo art, the artisans of Cantagallo seem to have a different concept of themselves as artists, and their status is the community is elevated. Both the artisans of Pucallpa and Lima are anxious to access the international market to increase their income. However, while the artisans in Pucallpa want commissions from international companies, the artisans in Lima want to introduce their art to a broader audience. There is a distinction in the way that the different communities conceive of themselves as artists and artisans in the world that is due to their different histories of access to opportunity.

Although it was hard to return to the weather and traffic of Lima after three weeks on the banks of the Ucayali, this trip gave me a better understanding of challenges and advantages Shipibo artisans face in both locations.

SIERRA: learning how textiles are used to encode and share culture in the mountains

Peru’s Andean textile traditions are known throughout the world while Amazonian textiles remain relatively under-researched and undocumented. This imbalance exists in scholarship as well in the level of aid and development projects that have been offered to the different regions. While an effort have been made in the past few decades to help rural communities in the sierra, mountains, little attention has been directed at the selva, jungle, which makes up 60% of Perú’s territory.

Traveling from the historical capital of Cusco to the city of Puno on lake Titicaca and visiting island communities on the lake, I was able to learn about how other groups have developed their textile traditions. In many instances, it was disappointing to see that the majority of product sold were industrialized. What surprised me the most was that even ambulates, street vendors, sell industrialized rather than handmade products. Although everyone seems to know how to knit, and ambulantes are often working on projects, it must be cheaper to buy and resell products rather than invest the time and materials into making traditional crafts. This is probably due to the fact that tourists are interested in the cheapest possible souvenir, and don’t seem to differentiate between the handmade or the industrialized. (I noticed that tourists were constantly comparing prices with each other and gloating over the fact that they bought their “alpaca” mittens for 6 soles/2 dollars). When I did see handmade textiles they showed an incredible level of technical skill and knowledge of natural dyeing, but the only way to encourage the continuation of such skills would require an education of the consumer so that they would understand the value and higher price of a handmade product.

There are institutions, for example, the Centro de Textiles Tradicionales in Cusco, that are making the effort to support the rich history of textile arts made in this region. The artisans who work with the Centro weave using back-strap looms and naturally dyed alpaca and wool yarns. Each woven shawl comes with a tag that shows a picture of the artisan, their work is highly priced, and sold at a few of the museums in Cusco. There are also many stores in Cusco that sell very high quality, very expensive handmade textiles, often created as replicas from Peru’s rich history of Pre-Colombian (and Pre-Incan) art. The workshops that produce these pieces are located in the city’s suburbs and surrounding rural area, so unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to visit and learn more about the artisans relationship with these shops and institutions.

On the floating islands of the Uros in lake Titicaca, tourism is not only the main economic resource, but also the only motivation for the islanders to continue living on their islands constructed of reeds (a generation ago, before tours to the island became popular, most residents had relocated to Puno, the closest city on the mainland). Now, half a million people visit this region every year, and islanders make distinct embroidered textiles and woven mobiles that they use to narrate their lifestyle to tourists. To make this cultural transaction effective, the symbols used are very straightforward and recognizable, sometimes borrowing from Incan iconography. It seems similar to the way that Shipibo textiles are now beginning to incorporate images of anaconda snakes and ayahuasca vines because these symbols are easier to explain to tourists than the more abstract Shipibo art. ImageUros Islander working on an embroidery

On the island of Taquile however, weaving traditions and traditional symbols used to be so secretive that in the past, women would hide their looms from any visitors. While this island is also heavily visited by tourists now, the traditional island textiles are available for sale only in the cooperative store, crafts are never hawked, and all income from tourism is equally distributed among the community. The community’s autonomy, control over tourism, and commitment to traditional dress and lifestyle make it a fascinating and unique place to visit. It was an especially fruitful experience for me because we got to spend three days living with one of the island’s most talented textile artists, Señor Alejandro Flores Huatta.

ImageSeñor Alejandro Flores Huatta working on a knit hat.ImageSeñor Alejandro’s wife, Rosa, and granddaughter, Saidy, in the courtyard or their house

Click to access Textiles-Taquile-Island-Peru.pdf

LIMA: life in the capital and contacts

I have had to good fortune of meeting a wide variety of people during the past three months. Many people here, and at home, generously connected me up with their own friends and contacts, and I have tried to follow up on every possible meeting. This led the discovery of many people who shared my interests or were working in the same field. As a rule, everyone has been incredibly welcoming and happy to meet up and talk. Not only friends, but also random strangers have showed me around the city, looked out for me, pointed me in the right direction, and been the best possible hosts in every way. I have met with artists, designers, students, anthropologists, teachers, architects, researchers, and more. Discussions with this incredible range of people has helped me refine my ideas and have a clearer understanding of Peru’s unique context. I was able to participate in an event recently that was especially informative: Two discussions that were organized to bring together many different representatives of Peruvian cultural diversity from the sierra and selva, together with Robert Martin, president of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Luci Tapahonso, renown poet and teacher from the Navajo Nation, both visiting from Santa Fe, New Mexico. These discussions were held at the Ministry of Education and CHIRAPAQ, a center for indigenous culture, an focused on the subject of social inclusion, and multicultural and bilingual education for indigenous communities. It was very powerful to hear directly from such a great diversity of people who were all eager to listen to each other and share their experiences. Both discussions helped me reevaluate my experiences thus far in Peru and think through elements of my upcoming plans.


I wrote my grant proposal around a question that seemed interesting to me: “how can craft accomplish two things at once: raise money and raise awareness”. This phenomenon is constantly visible in our everyday life: a card table set up on the sidewalk where hopeful young activist sell small embroideries for flood victims in Pakistan or beaded necklaces for AIDs victims in Rwanda. I was interested in investigating a situation where an indigenous community was acting with the agency to make this connection for themselves; surviving by continuing to make their traditional crafts, and at the same time, making the public aware of their existence in the diverse ethnic landscape of Perú. In a rather off-handed manner, I hoped that my research might serve as a case study for other indigenous groups who wanted to start producing or marketing their art in an effort to increase their income and raise public awareness. I had given only minimal thought as to what might be the best way to share the information I would collect; a pamphlet, blog, or talk were all possibilities, but none of these are very adequate ways of sharing information with rural and, often very remote, communities. I just assumed I could consult my anthropologists contacts about this matter once I got to Peru. It turns out that the most convenient vehicle for the sharing the information I have collected is… me. One surprising thing that I noticed over the past three months is that other projects focused on developing traditional crafts use almost exactly the same language as my grant proposal: craft as economic resource and cultural awareness.  There seems to be a consistent formula for how these projects are developed:

  1. Rural/remote communities want to participate in development projects, they want to make money, they want to export their traditional crafts.
  2. Anthropologists, psychologists, economists, etc.. write up projects to support the desires of the community.
  3. Funding is found through various public/private sources.
  4. Designers/artists/art students are hired to come to the community to help the project reach its goals: creating new craft prototypes or improving on older models, teaching community members how to use sewing machines, etc…

These project are frequent, and so there is a relatively high demand for formally trained artists to work as “design consultants” for rural communities. Some projects stress the idea of cultural heritage more than others and put a great deal of emphasis on how to revalue or reactivate traditional knowledge and techniques that are currently being forgotten and lost.

Within the next few days, we will be leaving on a month long trip to Candungos, a Wampis community (sometimes called “Shuar” or “Huampisa” by the government) on the Santiago River in Peru’s Northern Amazon basin (close to the border with Ecuador). I will be traveling with an anthropologist friend who is completing a study for UNICEF. On his previous trip to the community, he explained the research I was planning on doing in Perú, and they requested that I accompany him on the next trip to assist in developing a craft production to increase the community’s income. This will involve extensive research into what is made in the community, what natural materials are available, and what elements of Shuar culture they would like to share with the potential consumer of their craft. In preparation for this, I have been photographing any Shuar artifacts I can find in Lima’s museums, and having discussions with a member of the community who has been working in the city about what art was made in the past, what continues to be made, and what tools we need to bring with us. In addition to this, we are setting up a partnership between the community and a middle school in Lima. This partnership will involve an exchange of educational materials that will help students in Lima to gain an expanded idea of Peru’s cultural diversity, and give the community a better idea of what life is like in the city.

Immediately after that trip, I will be leaving for a job I have been offered with a Yine Yami community in Peru’s Southern Amazon basin (within region of Cusco, and not too far from Vilcabamba, the last Incan stronghold). I will be living in the community for three months and running workshops on sewing and finishing techniques. The artisans already produce their own textiles on back-strap looms, painted with intricate patterns specific to their ethnic group, but they have requested to learn more about making completed projects, for example, putting a zipper or a lining into a bag. It will be an opportunity for me to learn about their culture and art, while at the same time sharing skills that I have with them.

Everything I have learned, and the information I have gathered during the past three months will be put instantly to use, and I am beginning these new projects with the advantage of my experiences with Shipibo artisans. As a general rule, the “once bitten, twice shy” experience I had with the artisans of Cantagallo applies to many communities. They have seen many projects begin with shining promises, handshakes, signatures, and smiles for the camera. They have let their hopes get raised, and then they have been left disappointed when each of these proposed projects/visitors/NGOs left without completing their promises. This makes the daunting task of launching a project even more difficult because trust has been worn thin and patience has run out. The only way to rebuild this trust is to complete a project as promised, and the only way to do that is to be completely clear in communicating what one can provide, what the time frame is, and making sure that the expectations of the community coincide with what can be provided through the project. This mutual understanding is especially crucial when all parties are communicating using a foreign language!

To be perfectly honest, I thought I had given myself a pretty easy job for this summer internship (although it has been winter here in Peru!). In my mind, all I had to do was go to Peru, ask some questions, take some pictures, write about it on a blog, then go home and tell everyone about my great adventure.

Awesome, right?

Until I took my first step in Cantagallo and I realized this was for real, people were serious, and I had work hard to earn their trust and respect.

Now I am planning out every material I will need to run six workshops a week for the next three months in a remote Amazonian community and trying to memorize every part of a sewing machine in Spanish. Not to mention packing my bug spray, mosquito net, rubber boots and antibiotics in preparation for rainy season in the rainforest…

It will be anything but easy, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I plan to keep posting on the blog, when I come into contact with internet, and possibly posting photos, depending on the consent of others. My grant period from the Maharam company is over, but the spreading out of networks, ideas, contacts, and possible future projects is only just beginning….


On We Go

Lizzie Kripke   Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, MA

It’s kind of chilly out.  It’s October.  Summer is over.  Summer has been over.  I was supposed to post my “final report” to this blog over a month ago.

But over a month ago, on the last official day of my fellowship, I simply could not tap into my sense of finality because, well, it just didn’t exist.  And it still doesn’t exist.  But that’s just the nature of this art+science game.  Let me explain…

I’ve discussed in previous blog posts that my goal this summer was to trace specific nerves embedded in the skin of squid.  I started by looking at microscope images (data) that had been previously collected by others in my lab.  While these images were pretty good approximations of what I was trying to see, they did not get down to the level of detail that I really needed in order to resolve my scientific questions.  At that point, my project could have gone in two directions: (1) While the pre-existing data might not have been useful for scientific analysis, I could still glean enough information from it to develop a more artistic, educational visualization of the nerves in squid skin, or (2) I could generate new, more detailed data through scientific experimentation.  After trying to do both of these things for the first half of the summer, my boss decided that I needed to focus on executing just one of these things.  He, very reasonably, wanted to ensure a product would come out of my time in the lab.  So he urged me to work on the first of these options – an artistic visualization.  The second option, scientific experimentation, often results in failure, and because my time was limited, the risk would be too big that I would come away from my experimentation with nothing to show for myself at the end of the day

And that’s when I decided to take a risk.  Against my boss’s wishes, but with the support of my scientific mentor (who works under the same boss), I decided to continue experimentation.  While I would also continue developing my visualization, I would only devote part of my time toward it.

After a few weeks, it was the last official day of my fellowship, and I was pretty sure that my risk was not going to pay off.  The visualization simply wasn’t as finished as I wanted it to be – the clear result of me not focusing on what I was supposed to.  And my scientific experiment?  Well, that was the one thing that could save me.  And since it was an imaging experiment, I wouldn’t know if the experiment was a success or not until the very last hours, when I would finally be able to see my results through a microscope.

I’ll never forget those last few hours.  I was walking with my mentor to the microscope imaging room, totally absorbed in the relative gravity of the situation (‘Lizzie, this is it.  This is the difference between piteous head-nods goodbye or giddy, uncoordinated scientists toppling off their chairs in a radiant fluster of high fives.   This.  Is.  It.’) that I blatantly stomped into the wrong room.

“Oh whoops, that’s not the microscope room.  That’s the creepy old hallway with the out-of-place golden Confucius statue.”


And when I went to turn around, my mentor stopped me.  “Hang on,” he said, and, knowingly, plucked two pennies from his pocket.  He placed the pennies in the shiny, willing hands of ol’ Confucius, and then, swiftly, guided me once more to our real destination, the imaging room.

Moments later, the results of the experiment came in.

It was in that instant, for the first time in my life, that I found myself a befuddled, ecstatic, hands-clapping, shoes-untied scientist.  The experiment worked.  The experiment worked!

The experiment aimed at labeling and tracing nerves that ran along certain muscles.  So, if successful, we would look through the microscope and see blue lines running along muscle fibres.  What we actually saw when we looked through the microscope was a glowing network of blue lights, like stars strung together, flowing through microscopic space.  Nerves, in stunning clarity, as they effortlessly wove around each other, splitting and spiraling across the garden of cellular components that comprises squid skin.


Results from my experiment. Squid skin. Individual nerves labeled in blue.

This data answered some of my original questions coming into the summer, but what’s more, it laid the groundwork for further scientific experimentation, as well as for further refinement of my visualization (the thing I was supposed to be focusing on the whole time).  Instead of talking about how to wrap things up, we were talking about how to keep things going.  Could I keep visiting the lab throughout the semester?  What journals, scientific and artistic, should we start thinking about submitting to?  How close can we really get to shrinking ourselves down to one tenth of a micron and walking around inside the skin of a cephalopod?

It’s a curious pursuit, confronting  the limits of human knowledge and experience, but it’s just that – a pursuit.  And you just can’t write a “final report” for that sort of thing.

Oh!  By the way, Golden Confucius?  Here’s his plaque:

confucius plaque_edited

“This is a statue of Confucius, a gift to the Laboratory from Charles R Crane (1858-1939) who was Minister to China (1920)… and was presented by Charles R Cane in 1913… There is a Laboratory tradition to the effect that if one occasionally leaves a penny in Confucius’ hands for children to find, one’s experiment will be rewarding. If one offends Confucius, one’s work will only be fit for THE JOURNAL OF NEGATIVE RESULTS.”


Plans for Multicultural and Bilingual Education in Peru

Eliza Squibb: Shipibo textiles

September 23: Ministry of Education: “Round table discussion with officials working on education and social inclusions issues for indigenous populations. What is the situation of Native American education and what support does the government provide?”

September 24: CHIRAPAQ, Centro de Culturas Indigenas del Perú: “Discussion on indigenous culture”


Photo from CHIRAPAQ’s facebook page

I was lucky enough to sit in on both of these discussions which were organized to bring together many different representatives of Peruvian cultural diversity from the sierra (mountains) and selva (jungle): poets, writers, architects, teachers, anthropologists, activists, and more, together with Robert Martin, president of the Institute of American Indian Arts, and Luci Tapahonso, renown poet and teacher from the Navajo Nation, both visiting from Santa Fe, New Mexico. This potent mix of cultures led to very animated discussions as everyone was eager to learn about the experiences and history of the other. Everyone started by introducing themselves in their own language, Quechua, Aymara, English or Spanish, and the fact that the discussions took place through translation was very appropriate as one of the main subjects was intercultural and bilingual education.

Luci and Robert talked about the experience of American tribal nations, the concept of tribal sovereignty, and how the different tribal nations have created their own educational institutions and developed bilingual curricula for their schools. They described the process of creating educational materials by bringing together teachers, healers, tribal elders, story tellers, and how classroom education is supplemented by these visitors who share elements of tribal culture. All children are taught how to cook traditional food, traditional arts, stories, songs, seasonal knowlegde. Tribal knowledge is taught alongside typical Western education, and children are shown the points of intersection between the two. All this is accomplished through an extensive effort to train teachers in multicultural and bilingual education. There have also been studies to prove that when children are helped to gain a strong sense of confidence in their cultural identity, they succeed better in school.

This is quite a different picture from how education was employed only a few generations ago in an attempt to violently separate Native Americans from their culture and language. Luci talked about her experience in boarding school where her hair was cut, and she was prohibited from wearing Navajo jewelry, clothes, or speaking in her language. In her parents’ generation, these boarding schools were even more extreme, severely punishing children who spoke in Navajo and forcing everyone to perform military marches with wooden guns. After living through such a trauma, it is perfectly understandable that parents would rather have their children grow up speaking only English in an effort to protect them from this torture. Luckily, the tides have turned, and and instead of being lost, now all children in the Navajo nation learn to not only speak Navajo, but also write their language.

This historical perspective resonated strongly with the Peruvians, many of whom had also experienced traumatic separations from their culture and language. For the past few decades, Andean Peruvians have been migrating towards urban centers in search of better economic opportunities or to escape terrorism and violence in their rural communities. Once in the city, they find themselves without the community support they had in their villages, without land and natural resources, forced to exist in a cash economy, and faced by discrimination for speaking Spanish as a second language (or not at all). After such a struggle, they have little motivation to teach their children Quechua, and native language tends to be lost only one generation after migration to the city.

In a country where over 40% of the population identify with one or multiple indigenous groups, and there are over a hundred distinct languages, Peru has only recently made an effort to recognized that every child has a right to an education in her native language and respect for her cultural identity. While linguists are still working with indigenous communities to alphabetize many of the languages, the ministry of education is starting to create educational materials in seven of the most widely spoken languages, and identify communities that most need bilingual curricula. They are also trying to provide 800 scholarships to incentivize teachers to become bilingual educators, because at the moment, there are only a fraction of the teachers needed.

While both Native Americans and indigenous Peruvian communities have suffered immense psychological and physical violence against their cultures, each community has had to deal with its own distinct history of trauma: a unique equation of violences that have affected each group differently. In Peru, these distinct factors have included colonialism, terrorism, the rubber era during which Amazonian communities were enslaved and forced to collect rubber, Petroleum companies built in “uninhabited” territories that have polluted land and cause illnesses in many communities, forced government relocation, logging, mining, overfishing, evangelization, and even today, racism and discrimination. Each of these factors have affected different communities to different degrees, and over all, they have caused loss of land, natural resources, language, art, culture, and traditional knowledge of the natural environment, plants and medicine.

The Peruvian government recognizes this debt, and at least, that it owes its citizens a better system for bilingual and multicultural education. Hopefully, the future will contain more respect and safeguarding of indigenous cultures and less loss of cultural diversity. It was a very emotionally charged two days of discussions, and it was obvious that everyone present felt very honored to participate. It was wonderful to spend some time with Luci and Robert, and also the NGO CHIRAPAQ was also incredibly welcoming and invited me to future events.

Both discussions helped me re-evalute my experiences thus far in Peru, as well as think about my future projects.