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June 30, 2016

Leading by Design -Chris Cohoon ’16, TLAD

by chriscohoon

The climate here is hot.  Since my arrival on June 15, the temperature and humidity have rarely dipped into the mid-eighties.  Okinawa is a magical emerald mountaintop breaching the aquamarine canvas where the East China Sea meets the Pacific Ocean.  Its history and culture are rich.  It is the birthplace of karate, the site of one of the fiercest battles in World War II, and boasts the world’s largest population of centenarians per capita.

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Due to Okinawa’s location halfway between Taiwan and Kyushu, Japan, it has served as a crossroad of commerce, culture, and conflict.  The ancient Ryukyu Kingdom payed tribute to China even after they were annexed by Japan in the 1600s.  Their remote location allowed them to maintain a degree of political freedom and preserve their native language and culture.  During WW II, local people were pressed into service to build air fields and defensive structures, boys as young as middle school were put on the front lines and many of the girls served as nurses for the impending U.S. invasion.  When the battle was over, some estimates claim as many as 140,000 (about 1/3 of the population) civilians were killed or missing.

America held onto the island after the war, until 1972, when it was handed back over to Japan.  One of the conditions of the post-war treaty with Japan is that they cannot have their own military.  They are allowed to maintain a small self-defense force, but the U.S. is largely responsible for defending Japan.  Okinawa has remained a strategic location for the U.S. presence in Asia, playing key roles in Korea, Vietnam, and even recent conflicts.  Some of the outer Okinawan islands have been in the news in the past couple of years because of  China’s claim of sovereignty over them.  Tensions have risen in the region with China, North Korea, and Russia all rattling their sabres.  When North Korea test fired its medium-range missile, last year, one of my friends was able to see the contrail on the horizon from a block away from my apartment.

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Because of these factors, America maintains upwards of 50,000 military personnel on island, along with 45,000 family members and civilian support personnel.  The vast majority of those troops and family members rotate within 3-years, many sooner.  One can imagine that, with a population of 95,000 at any one time (or likely close to 150,000 individuals/calendar year due to rotation), there are some bad apples that come through.  A hand-full of violent crimes have been perpetrated by Americans since 1995.  The local political climate has heated up a little more with each incident until it seems to have finally matched Okinawa’s subtropical weather.

The week after I arrived on the island, reportedly 65,000 people turned up for a rally to voice their concerns about the U.S. military presence.  The rally was centered around a recent murder and the controversial decision to move a Marine air field to a base on the north end of the island.  As I have talked with my Okinawan neighbors, they express that their anger is not so much with the U.S. presence, but with the Japanese government for treating them as other, and for not including the local people in the discussions about decisions which greatly effect them.  Nearly 50% of U.S. personnel are housed on an island that makes up .6% of Japan’s land mass.  U.S. bases use 20% of Okinawa’s land mass.  The question, for many of my neighbors, is why there was no consideration to move the air field to the mainland.

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So why does all of this history matter to my project?  Because the undergirding principle for any design project is empathy.  And to adequately empathize with someone, you need to understand the context.  In fact, you can likely guess what my lesson covered for the first design as leadership classes on Saturday…EMPATHY!

Now I get to tell you the exciting news about my classes!  We meet for 3 hours each, every Saturday.  In the mornings, I have a group of Marines, and in the afternoon, a group of high school students.  Because of the week’s work schedule, the marine class was smaller, with 2 marines, an Air Force airman, a chaplain, and his daughter.  We have 3 more marines confirmed for next week, which is exciting.  The chaplain grew up surfing and often commutes the 3 or 4 miles across the bay to work on his paddle board!  He said he’s excited to learn the leading by design program so he can start one on his base down south with marines in the fall!  Our high school crew reached 9, including one dad – who is a Navy dentist on the Marine Corps base.

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To provide a framework for our experiential learning program, we are designing and building a stand up paddle board for each class.  I was a little concerned when I arrived on island and learned that the goals of the class might have been miscommunicated and people were expecting to all build their own boards.  I braced for the worst when I told them that I have never built a board, but that design is a collaborative learning process.  To my surprise, all of the students left excited to learn design thinking skills, whether we successfully build a usable board or not!

So, how does one introduce a paddle board design project with little-to-no expertise about paddle boards?  If you have tired of my droning and skipped directly ahead to the pictures, you know the answer.  You go to the beach!!  The first step in the design process is research!  So, after an introduction to design thinking, students took one for the team and hit the water to try out a few different types of boards.  You could tell they were gritting their teeth and gutting it out as they laboriously plodded through the tedious research.  Sometimes it’s hard to get any work done when you live in paradise.  But, with great resolve, the students pushed through to the end.

After the water session, we all piled into our workshop to talk about the importance of empathy as research.  Okinawa (as demonstrated above) is a rich context in which to learn such a valuable skill.  The two young marines arrived on island in February and new very little local history, or why there is so much talk about protests and demonstrations.  This was also their first chance to venture off base and were timid to try anything but the local McDonalds to eat (consequently, after each class, we will eat lunch at a different momasan & popasan restaurant – they don’t know what world-class treats they’re in for)!  I hope to incorporate some Okinawans into the class, as well.  In fact, I’m just about to head to a local surf shop to meet some of the local experts while students are busy conducting surveys, interviews, and just getting to know people.

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Until next time, get out and get to know your neighbors!


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