Into Their Culture, Helina He Yuheng, BFA ID 2023
Into Their Culture
I was out of quarantine. I was excited since I was finally able to enjoy the other half of my program in person. On the same day, I drove non-stop from Chengdu to Sêrtar County, to find Zhou Ba, the coordinator of LDONGTSOG. Sêrtar County is remotely located on the border of Qinghai Province and Sichuan Province, with an altitude of around 4,100 meters above sea level. However, Sêrtar is still a five-hour drive away from Kehe Village, where the base of LDONGTSOG is.
In the following two weeks, I will be living with Zhou and his family. I will make use of this chance to observe their lives and learn some Tibetan language. Thanks to the seminars I held, I already had a basic understanding of the culture that I was going to enter: their religion, their history, their customs, etc.
On the night that I arrived, I was welcomed with a cleaning ritual by Zhou Ba and his wife Mu.
Tibetans believe the smoke of birth leaves can clean away the dirt.
As a gift of exchange, I brought them the book Everest from the United States. It is illustrated by Lisk Feng, a former professor at RISD.
Two days later, Zhou Ba took me to the Sertar Larung Five Science Buddhist Academy (色达五明佛学院，གསེར་རྟ་བླ་རུང་ལྔ་རིག་ནང་བསྟན་སློབ་གླིང་). The main entrance is closed for outcomers due to COVID, so Zhou Ba guided me to bypass the examination spot by climbing the hill. What an unusual way to greet this splendid architectural complex!
After we climbed over the hill, I saw thousands of red wooden huts packed in the valley. According to unofficial data, the academy grew to 20,000 students, despite the government’s efforts to reduce the number in recent years. I saw Buddhist temples with gilded roofs amidst the red ocean, flashing against the sunshine. Monks and nuns walked about in maroon robes, chattering in Mandarin and Tibetan.
It was only then that I realized when I was visiting the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute in the world.
The Buddhist academy is modernized though. I bought Zhou Ba a cafe chat, and asked him some questions about LDONGTSOG. He shared both his expectations of me and the difficulties that LDONGTSOG has faced. During the conversation, I saw Zhou’s deep compassion on animals and the environment.
I was grateful that Zhou Ba took me to this Buddhist Academy when I first came to Sertar. Because it wasn’t until I visited here that I realized the importance of Tibetan Buddhism to the locals. Only with sincere religious beliefs can Tibetans build a school spanning across the valley in just 40 years.
Suddenly, the argument I mentioned in my last post has its reason: the best way to educate traditional Tibetans about the environment is through religion.
Then Go to Their Nature
One week later, I begged Zhou Ba to take me to the forest at Kehe Village. As Dr. Losang Rabgey, the founder of a Tibetan cultural NGO, advised me, “Your design will be different even if you breathed the air in Tibet.” I wanted to see the vegetation, animals, and cultural life of LDONGTSOG in person.
I met other group members of LDONGTSOG at the village. They took me to the primeval forest. The forest was a place signified by its biodiversity. At the foot of the mountain, it was the typical scene of a temperate monsoon climate. Tall trees and wild strawberries were visible. The landscape transformed into rocks and grass resembling those on a plateau as we ascended the mountain. At the top, we held a worship ritual for the mountain god Dongge. Zhou Ba said it always rained after the ritual was performed.
At night, I saw the most brilliant starry night I have ever seen in China. I used to believe that city pollution had caused the stars to fade, but now I see that they still shine where there is nature. Protecting this pristine region from the consequences of human civilization became spontaneous for me.
LDONGTSOG is going to host an eco-trip in August. I intend to write some instructions for the tourists coming to Kehe. Additionally, I will design pamphlets and maps that tell the story of LDONGTSOG. I am driven to use my writing and design so that visitors to Kehe will value the local nature and culture just as much as I do.
Physical Connections and Developments — Lucia Li, BFA ID ’24
Physical Connections and Developments — Lucia Li, BFA ID ’24
I’ve settled into a comfortable rhythm between the two different sides of my work with Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), and have been able to exercise some familiar designer muscles while also pushing myself to experiment with designing for education, outreach, and advocacy. So far, I’ve worked to develop digital materials for organizational development to bolster and consolidate LEJ’s public image. Also, I’ve continued to commute in person to southeast San Francisco to tag along with some of the programming that LEJ hosts for their resident “Eco-Apprentices,” a workforce-development program that trains young adults for future green careers.
As I learned more about LEJ and its operations, I started consolidating this knowledge into physical products to help with outreach for their programs. This was something we had discussed from the beginning — my directors were incredibly excited to have physical materials that they could use while tabling at community events or when networking with SFUSD school teachers and administration. The first of these materials is a simple brochure that highlights some of the environmental education opportunities LEJ offers for inner-city youth, for whom the chance to recreate in nature is a rare treat. By bringing these programs into a physical, visual and easily-accessible medium, I hope to help bridge the technological gaps present in the local community and bring opportunities to access green space to more local youths.
Additionally, I recently worked alongside both LEJ and representatives from CA State Parks to help bring a several-year-ongoing interpretive board project to a close. The boards will highlight green infrastructure in the community garden and provide enduring information about LEJ — a part of a new stage of revitalization to Candlestick Point after closures and roadblocks that had been inflicted by the pandemic. If all proceeds according to plan, the boards should be installed by the end of August, and hopefully I’ll be able to see them before returning to RISD in the fall.
I briefly mentioned the Eco-Apprentice program before, but to elaborate: the EAs learn a wide variety of workforce-development skills to prepare them for future careers in education, advocacy, and stewardship. Among other things they conduct field experiments at sites of environmental and historical note, restore native coastal wetland habitat, and lead interpretive nature programming — all brought together by immersive, collaborative programs with other community organizations and the youth they serve. Over the summer, I’ve grown quite close to, and have learned so much from this cohort of Eco-Apprentices — and am so grateful for all the wonderful experiences and knowledge they’ve shared with me.
Throughout a lot of this process as I’ve been thinking about the outreach side of my work, a similar theme has come up again and again — access.
When speaking with LEJ’s executive director Dr. Hollis Pierce-Jenkins, she mentioned that an issue she’s noticed when working to expand LEJ’s outreach efforts is that a lot of the lower-income, BIPOC members of the local Bayview Hunters Point community are very “old school” — relying largely on word of mouth and physical notices to communicate about community happenings. In an era where social media marketing is king and in person events of all sorts have been so heavily impacted by COVID-19, how do you appeal to both young people interested in environmental issues but also the local community with limited tech access? Even broader, who is your target audience — tech-savvy young people who might be from the broader SF community, or the people right next door? LEJ has grappled with this conflict for quite some time, Dr. Hollis said to me, especially when trying to draw in more involvement from the latter group of people. As such, I had to pivot to focus a lot more on analog — paper materials and connecting face-to-face — at community events.
Witness history in your footsteps- Pei-Yu, 2024, ID
For the past two weeks, alongside continuing to make the website and mapping the historical event, I have been interviewing people who have previously worked with the organization with walking tours about the massacre. Due to geographical constraints and timing, some were online, and some were in-person.
The purpose behind these interviews was to gain an insight into how these researchers and tour guides organize and develop the route. In addition, I want to hear their thoughts on this issue. They are the medium for us to look into the past.
I was fortunate to participate in the walking tours for some of the lecturers I’m interviewing. Learning history by foot was a different experience than in the books. This experience inspired me to create this project where I interviewed these tour guides. At first, they were hesitant about why I would be interested in their story. They have always been the ones telling others people’s stories. I explained that I feel the stories being passed down might encounter alteration due to the people telling the story. I want to know their thoughts and why they are passionate about the issue. Their story is very much part of the narrative of historical memorization than the stories of victims or their descendants.
Walking tours, I believe, are very much a process of mapping. And active mapping where visitors and audience are forced to be in the landscape while imagining the past. While these routes are carefully designed considering time, geographical constraints, and storytelling, every tour is unique due to the people participating, the weather, and other unforeseeable circumstances. It is a device to the past through the people telling the story. It is also a pathway of the present.
The main thing I have taken away from these interviews is that knowing the history of the massacre is only part of these walking tours. The core purpose is to learn the city’s history. In the process of knowing where you are from, telling the story of the massacre is inevitable. Due to the nature of this historical event, the accounts of the massacre are embedded in the bricks of architecture, roads, and waterways.
For example, in one city, Tam Sui, the tour guide I interviewed, said that she didn’t care about this part of the history until her late 40s (she is now in her 60s). When she was little, she would hear from the elders that the Tam Sui River was once dyed red with blood. Ports were places one should not go, for many spirits resided there in the past. She didn’t believe what the elders said. “How is it possible that the whole river was dyed of blood? That is impossible!” It was not until she started reading more about the city’s history that she connected what her elders told her and what was documented. The port, they said, was a place where all those captured in the name of treason were excuted. Hundreds were killed, thrown into the river, reding the river with terror.
Emotionally, it was hard to process all these stories. Older generations I’ve interviewed were much more emotional and passionate about the issue. They were closer to this part of history. All of them heard stories from elders, and the terror of knowing became a passion for sharing. When I asked why it is essential to learn about the massacre and continue advocating on this issue, they said it was for the truth to be seen.
“When I was talking to the descendants of victims, they don’t want the compensation or reparation. They just want to know why. “Why was my father taken one night and never came back? “
In a text chain I had with the historian, he said,
“We must not give up the pursuit of the truth in history. The connection and emotions through the process are personal, humanitarian, and societal.”
“This is very true. Thank you so much for what you are doing. 228 is about the history of the land, but it is also the scar and pain of the land.”張文義 (Writer of Kavalan 228, oral history historian of Kavalan region, tour guide of 2022 Kavalan tour)
I am very grateful that I have this opportunity to keep their story alive.
Younger generations, like me, had little understanding of this issue until we were much older (high school or university). Most of them are passionate about this issue not because of pain but because of the unjust. There is a diaspora of identity due to the change in education. We were not taught much about the massacre in our educational system, and most of us are fortunate not to be related directly to this massacre.
When asked the same question, “Why is it important that we, the younger generation, remember and learn about this part of history?”
One answered, “It’s about justice. Why is it that the descendent of one of the generals in charge of the massacre in Kaoshiung was able to be a famous architect and have something out of him? At the same time, the descendants of the victims suffer mental disorders and societal trauma?”
Another thinks that knowing the history of your city, country, and land is important because it ties to other social justice issues such as human rights, environmental, and other political issues.
It was fascinating hearing from both sides of the generation. I started with this project wanting to know the thought process of organizing walking tours and the opinions of these historians and tour guides. I ended up with a more in-depth understanding of the gap between generations and the importance of this issue. For the older generations passionate about this issue, it is a matter of survival. Talking about this puts a light on this part of the history that is vanishing.
It is to keep this story alive, for these stories die with them.
On the other hand, for the younger generation, it is a choice. It is a choice of personal growth in learning about your history. It is recommended to choose to recognize the land and care about this humanitarian issue.
“Ms. Hung, this is a very traumatizing story for me. If it were twenty years ago, I wouldn’t have accepted your interview request.”
For me, I’m touched by their love for the land. It was hard emotionally to hear such a traumatic story. Like a boulder in my heart, I often feel unbearable emotionally. Sadness is inevitable in this process.
The Power of Dialogues and Citizenship
In the kitchen of one of the organization’s members, I sat and had a touching conversation with Araminta McIntosh, a long-time associate of the Liberian Community Association of Rhode Island. We dove into her experience fleeing Liberia to the United States and her journey to becoming a citizen. Then we touched on her narrative of being a Liberian immigrant in the ’70-the ’80s in Providence. In this 10-minute clip, the abundance of information is dense, poetic, and heart-warmly yet unimaginable.
I was shocked to learn how distant our narratives were due to the big gap between my experience and hers in Providence. What staggered me in our conversation was her struggles of working tirelessly in jewelry factories in Oneyville. She was making little to no wages and hiding from the “Grey Suit Boys,”; who were immigration officers disguised in suits looking to find undocumented immigrants working and imprison them for working undocumented. At that moment, all I can imagine is the constant fear and anxiety that encaged in Liberian immigrants’ souls at the time, who yearned for a better life for themselves in this foreign place. Also, I ponder the nervousness of using another person’s name to find a job, and manipulation of employers taking advantage of immigrants for their own profitable gain.
Nevertheless, I can envision how potent and fearless Araminta remained in those times and while filing for her citizenship. The politics and atmosphere during those times were remarkably distinct in how things operated, and how long until you received status did not matter to her as long as she was a citizen. These conversations remind me of how critical being engaged in America is; citizenship doesn’t just involve the ‘others’ in politics; instead, it opens up the room for financial freedom and better job opportunities and protects people from being deported.
The following conversation I had was with Emmanuel Nyema, a humorous, charismatic fellow. Before the camera was on, we had a compelling debate on the pros and cons of being here (United States) rather than in Liberia and the improvements that are happening back home in Liberia. That little moment taught me about the current political environment of Liberia and how certain things are distant and similar to America. As we got into the conversation of his narrative, I was intrigued by his demeanor and eagerness. He was coming to a new world and had an abundance of expectations of how things would be. However, even with preparation, things still surprised him upon his arrival, from the foods he ate to the site of rapid homelessness in his new environment. This is prevalent in the Liberian culture back in Liberia, which they expect America to be the holy grail. But unfortunately, as I realize from Emmanuel, it is not. Only those who have been here and experienced America can understand this misconception.
I found it interesting how influential the church is; Emmanuel’s fare to come to America was funded by his church, which, even though he never paid it back in total, oriented me about how the church took care of those in the congregation and the significance of community. It also highlights the church’s culture as a symbol of personal development. Another thing was his eagerness to become a citizen to participate in voting, and have his voice heard on policies and things he feels need to be changed in his community and state.
A trend I noticed quickly from multiple conversations with the Liberian organization members was how factory employment was the cornerstone of opportunity for refugees from Liberia upon arrival. However, it was not the best in terms of conditions and well-being. These stories exhibited the intersections of an outsider effect and the hope of a better future.
The last conversation I had was with a member that goes by the name of Shadrack Gaytee. His experiences and approach to the similar questions I have asked were different. I learned from him through his unique narrative that he had a preconceived notion about America before he came. But this surprise, the laws were very different, things had a structure, and the rules were strategic. I find it interesting how he explained his expectations and how he had more support back home than in the U.S. He advised other Liberians to be vigilant and respectful, given that the law in the United States is forceful and very harshly enforced.
We then explored his hardship and struggle of not receiving funding for college and not having a vehicle or a job, given he was not a permanent resident when he came to the United States. He had all these goals, and things were on hold for countless months, given he was waiting to upgrade his immigrant status and get driver’s and worker’s permits. His constant routine of coming home, watching t.v, and not being able to support himself devasted him. Even the low-entree jobs he had to endure when he did get a job lowered his self-esteem. His anticipation of coming here and having a dignified job like an office job was unrealistic when he arrived. A common thread I realized between each intervee was the long wait period; Shadrack mentioned ten years before he got his citizenship because he lacked a mentor for guidance on the process. This issue is too common within the Liberian immigrant community; we lack the power just to start or ask a question. This stems from the fear of deportation given the year you came, fear of not knowing how the process may go, or even financial issues.
Seminar as Method, Helina Yuheng He, BFA ID 2023 ￼
Week 2-4: hosting online seminars
This summer, I am exploring different innovative techniques to help sustain a grassroot Sino-Tibetan environmental group, LDONGTSOG, located in Kehe village, Sichuan. Public education is one of my main focuses.
I once asked a volunteer from LDONGTSOG for her advice on entering the Tibetan community. She answered, acknowledging two different cultures and keeping your gesture low are the key. Keeping the gestures low, I invite you, dear audience, to do the same with me. To set aside all existing judgments, because “environmental protection,” “Tibetans,” “indigenous people,” and “nonprofits’’… these concepts are not equivalent in PCR discourses as they are in the US.
Towards the end of the Spring semester, I attended a dinner at RISD to discuss community engagement. At dinner, one of the students talked about her idea when one enters a community that he or she is not familiar with. That is not doing “research for them” but doing “research with them“. Following that, I contemplated the implications.
To “research with them” means making it clear to my research subjects that the research will have an impact on both sides, rather than hiding my purpose from the subjects. Taking this notion in mind, I came up with the idea of holding a public online seminar targeted at Chinese youth. This seminar fulfills two purposes: 1. For the Sino-Tibetan community, it is to highlight the efforts of Tibetans (such as LDONGTSOG), who have always been underrepresented in the mainstream, creating a shared space to help people understand them; 2. For me, as the researcher, it is to widen my research scope and to learn more about their culture.
Seminar as Method
From July 10th-July 24th, I have been hosting public online seminars related to the Tibetan environment and its cultural heritage. My guest speakers include normal travelers, environmentalists, anthropologists, artists, and educators. My starting point was intuitive and simple: to let more people know about the Sichuan-Tibetan nature and culture, represented by LDONGTSOG, the organization I am helping. Nevertheless, the seminar has been developed to a level that I never imagined before. I personally gained friendship and trust through the seminars. And new ideas burst out of the process.
I became the host, the organizer, the communicator, and the designer of my seminars, which left me a ton of work. Thankfully, I have found three other friends who are willing to collaborate and help. We all share the same interest in Chinese ethnic knowledge and mythology. They are: Yiwei Chen (INTAR ‘22), Chenxi Wang (Ceramics ‘23), and Yiqing Lei (Sculpture ‘23). They helped me organize meeting notes and host the panels.
It is through hosting seminars did I realize that it can be an anthropological research method. I titled it, “Seminar as Method”. This notion is borrowed from Xiang Biao （向飙）, the Chinese academic celebrity in social anthropology. He published a book called Self as Method in 2020, and tells Chinese youths “to think for themselves and through their own experiences in making sense of the contradictions around them” as if doing scholarly research1. Xiang’s idea inspired me to look at the medium of online seminars, which grew popular thanks to covid. The online seminar has become a medium for me to approach and observe my research subject.
I have found seminars a way to bond communities together, which suits the principle of “Research with them”. On the one hand, holding seminars spreads the influence of my guest speakers, who share an affinity with the Tibetan community in China. On the other hand, hosting seminars forces me to absorb knowledge in a short amount of time. By hosting the first two events (the last seminar will be happening soon), I felt such a sense of satisfaction by doing things for the Tibetan group. Also, I gained general trust from the Sino-Tibetan community and made new friends, since they saw my efforts and respect for their culture.
Holding seminars is different from holding personal interviews. In one-on-one interviews, I post questions for myself, and the only audience at that moment is the interviewer. By contrast, the seminar is a performance for the audience, and I play the role of the host. In this case, I do not ask questions for myself but for the audience. Thus, the seminar has created a safe space to ask critical questions that seem embarrassing to post during interviews. The guest speakers answer questions in a more articulate and informative way. Besides, I can ask guest speakers to make in-depth presentations for the audience, which will be hard to request in one-on-one interviews.
It is through these seminars that I gained a deeper understanding of not only LDONGTSOG, but also the relationship between nature and the culture in Tibet.
Takeaways from the First Two Seminars:
the Twinning Relationship between Nature and Culture
As I mentioned before, it is through my seminars that I understand what LDONGTSOG(玛荣峒格) really is. LDONGTSOG is a grassroots organization located in Kehe Village (柯河村). Kehe(柯河) is the name given by the PCR after the cultural revolution. However, all elderly Tibetans refer to it as Dmar-rong (玛荣, དམར་རོང་), which is where the first two characters of its name, LDONGTSOG, originate. Dmar-rong is its own center, its own world before it is called Kehe Village. Dmar-rong’s relatively remote location has allowed Bon (བོན), the indegenous Tibetan religion, to grow there.
In my opinion, Dmar-rong has one of the most breath-taking natural views. However, this hidden gem is under threat at any time. The government is building a new road, which produces slope debris flow. Debris flow reflects the surface problems; the disease of local animals reveals the rooted illness in the environment. This results in Zhou Ba, the founder of LDONGTSOG, approaching the moss disease of local animals. The approaches that LDONGTSOG took include making documentaries, building the botanical garden, and educating local citizens.
During the seminars, I asked Zhou Ba, “Why do you focus on cultural protection if LDONGTSOG is an environmental protection organization?”. Then I realized that the traditional Tibetan culture provides a deep insight into how humans interact with nature. In fact, the most efficient way to educate environmental protection in Tibet is not through scientific data but through lamas’ lectures2. It is the religion that supports Tibetan environmentalists like Zhou Ba to insist on their causes.
In my first seminar, I interviewed a Chinese theater student as well as an avid hiker called Zhuo Xue. Xue has been teaching Shakespeare in China since he graduated from Oberlin College. He attempted to combine culture with nature. In 2019, he has organized a hiking event in Yunnan Tibet with Chaofan Han. They hiked in the daytime and read Shakespeare in the evening. After that, he entered Tibet several times, and he was mentally surprised by the Tibetan worshippers along the way.
Xue argued in his lecture that Tibet is one of his favorite sites so far. Unlike the modern-day practice that separates nature from society manually, the nature in Tibet is its culture. Sacred mountain gods live in the caves and on the cliffs. Because of the belief, the Tibetans put prayer flags in even the most dangerous spots in the yard, summoning their respects to their nature gods. Xue’s lecture showed that living in harmony with nature has been an integral part of Tibetan Buddhism. The present-day global concerns for sustainable development and conservation of natural resources are suggested by traditional values in Tibet.
Thanks to the first two lectures, I decided to look into the traditional values and practices of Kehe Tibetans. Because culture plays a big supporting role in Tibetan environmental protection. A path to civic engagement is opening up in front of me…
- David Ownby, Xiang Biao, Excerpts from Self as Method, Reading the China Dream. https://www.readingthechinadream.com/xiang-biao-excerpts-from-self-as-method.html#:~:text=Self%20as%20Method%20essentially%20tells,how%20one%20scholar%20did%20so.
- See 《守山：我与白马雪山的三十五年》, 肖林 & 王蕾, 北京联合出版公司, 2019。 Xiao, Lin & Wang, Lei. Guarding the Mountain: My thirty-five years with Baima Snow Mountain. Beijing United Publishing Company, 2019. Xiao is one of the first environmentalists in China. In this book, he demonstrates his life-long practices of environmental education as a Tibetan.
- S.M. Nair, Cultural Traditions of Nature Consevation in India, http://ccrtindia.gov.in/readingroom/nscd/ch/ch11.php
Navigating urban narratives and green alternatives, Ruth Wondimu, MARCH, 2023￼
Navigating Urban narratives and Green alternatives, Ruth Wondimu, MARCH, 2023
Hello everyone! I would like to start this blog by stating that the journey so far has been an insightful and wonderful experience. Having been away from Ethiopia for almost four years, I knew that there has been so much change in the social and economical fabric of Addis Ababa, the city I grew up in. Therefore, I knew that going back to Addis Ababa to work on a sustainability project required learning about the various architectural, environmental, political, real-estate, and other groups who have been actively working here. Although one of my main objectives with this project was to create or develop the awareness behind the green industry and sustainability topics, making sure that I don’t go into this project with assumptions was very important to me.
My first two weeks in Addis Ababa had been a time of forming relationships and learning about what already exists. Addis Ababa being the capital city of Ethiopia as well as the headquarters of the African Union, is one of the oldest and biggest growing cities. I was startled by how fast the city had grown even since my last time here. With a change of government back in 2018, the new administration has shown a more significant interest in urban development specifically within the green industry. Therefore, the city has shown a greater number of architectural projects with green certifications such as LEED.
Sustainability being a very wide topic, I looked through various topics of development. At an urban scale, I noticed that there are common issues such as clean water shortage, frequent power outage, and inefficient waste control systems: all topics that are highly relevant to sustainability. Therefore, identifying a specific topic and scale was very important to me.
During a team meeting, I was able to sit down and explain my process within these early stages. Even before coming to Ethiopia, we had discussed the best ways of cultivating a shared sense of awareness through a discussion in the form of a panel. That only solidified as I continued to learn about the different groups of professionals and inhabitants within the city. Therefore, my first written task was to write up a panel proposal under the title “Navigating urban Narratives and Green Alternatives” with a specific focus on the building scale. Our ideal panelists are a list of architects, urban developers, real-estate owners, lecturers, construction workers, and a community member. The panel will be in person with a diverse set of attendees. We are planning on having it taped and hopefully streamed in some of the national tv stations.
In the next few weeks, my first goal is to finalize the content, scope, location, and marketing of the panel. Alongside the work on the panel, I will be working on developing content on green architecture that will be mainly used on the website and social media platforms. I invite you to follow me on this journey as I plan to share my development through a series of posts on this channel.
Wholesome Encounters – Abena Otema Danquah, BArch 2023
A GUIDE – FRED OKO
The past few weeks have been nothing short of nourishing – this is me trying not to repeat the word wholesome, but honestly nothing else can describe my experience so far. I started my journey slightly earlier than my comrades (Fellows) as I got to Ghana shortly after the school semester ended, deciding to do some exploring of my own before my internship officially started. My dad being extremely excited about my proposal, as someone also passionate about local artistry especially in the wood and metal industries, connected me with one of his classmates Fred Oko Mate.
Fred has been an artist for as long as he can remember. He is actually a sculptor, with his works ranging from large sculptures to miniature carvings on wooden canvases he’d create. I met with Fred on a Thursday morning at his home studio where he had some of his works up on display. We spoke about his journey as a sculptor in Ghana from his education to his establishing himself as a sculptor, his market base and the community of artists and artisans he engages with.
Prior to starting this experience, I had specific questions about the local artisan community in Accra ranging from the impact of their individual cultures (per tribes or ethnic groups) on their work if applicable, support of their respective crafts both from locals and the diaspora, the government or even expatriates and tourists, how they navigate the industry and if there’s a network or association that some of these artisans connect through. When speaking to Fred, a lot of my questions were naturally answered in our conversation. Interestingly his work is largely supported, not surprisingly by the Lebanese community in Ghana as we both acknowledged how investing in art or supporting artists and artisans financially is still a culture more and more Ghanaians from the older and now more, younger Ghanaian are warming up to. A large group of his market also are in the diaspora interestingly! More so the middle aged to older diaspora, among also certain ministries in the government, hotels, restaurants and banks. We conversed about the value of his work, the accessibility it sort of opened him up to market-wise and the legacy he is leaving. He actually trains younger sculptors and his son works alongside him also, establishing his own crowd of supporters and patrons! I could go on and on about my time with Fred, but my biggest take aways from this meeting was how he urged me to continue engaging more with local artists and artisans, even giving me contacts of fellow artists and crafts workers in his network to connect with. Engaging with him was truly a blessing! He was so passionate about his work, and learning how he was encouraged by his family to pursue his craft, while also passing it along to his son was even more heart warming. We spent almost 4 hours engaging and I’m dedicating so much of this first blog to my encounter with him because so far it has been super helpful and resourceful in shaping my experience!
Shortly after meeting with Fred, I officially started my internship on the 12th of June. I met with my direct supervisor and the head of the Diaspora Affairs Office. We discussed how we would be working together officially and be of best service to each other during the journey. I shared some of my insights from my meeting with Fred, alongside running some ideas I had following my first engagement experience and we had a fruitful conversation as they also shared some ideas also concerning how we would be working together from adding to their database, getting familiar with the office and meeting other members of the team officially. Since then, I have been working closely with my supervisor, updating him on some of engagements while also figuring out our database and how we will be proceeding with that, one of the most important parts of the project.
JOURNEY SO FAR
I’ve crossed paths with a number of artisans, some who I met randomly by passing by their shops and others through word of mouth or recommendations. “Crossed Paths” because we’ve mostly just been in contact, setting and scheduling times where we can meet to engage properly. With the rainy season, a few arrangements have had to be rescheduled among personal scheduling differences on both ends. I’d say between the weather and personally getting Covid for a bit, there’ve been slight delays in my engagements. However I was able to connect with a few people still, especially two other amazing artisans – one I was connected with through Fred and another I actually met 2 years ago and have been able to reconnect with!
I was given Happy’s contact through Fred, and when we scheduled a meeting for me to visit his studio, it turns out I’d actually already visited his workspace with my cousin two years before when she was looking for some ceramics. Happy shared his ceramic journey with me, also encouraged by family to go into this trade. I was glad to hear how although his support started of largely from non – Ghanaian support, more recently a lot of local and diasporic Ghanaians have actually been engaging with his work. He was excited to connect with me, clearly passionate about his work and the opportunities and impact that would come out of being included in the office’s database. This was a very heart warming connection for me because he confirmed how necessary this process is, connecting with artists and artisans, sharing their work and pushing support is. We spent another afternoon with his son and they gave me a pottery class (a service he also provides aside making Ceramics with his wife). As we were working together, we spoke more about how he actually wanted to be an architect but fell in love with ceramics in university, the impact of first 9/11 and then Covid on his business, his personal influences in his work and how he went from partnering with a group of ceramists under the renowned Unique Ceramics group and branching out to managing it on his own. He’s super cool!
Patrick and I had to connect over the phone because he had a number of orders he was working on, and he lives outside the city so meeting in person hasn’t been possible so far. I’m mostly documenting my interaction with him because he was actually one of the people who inspired my interests in engaging and learning more about and from local artisans. I met him once in traffic, he was selling bags he’d woven and they literally caught my attention, I had to buy one on the spot because I had never seen anything so exquisite. We had been in touch since then but business was pretty slow for him. Although we haven’t been able to meet in person since, I’m glad his work has gathered such large orders for him in this period ( to the point where he hasn’t been in the city in weeks because he’s been over booked)! He shared how he’s been getting a lot of local support recently, and we talked over the potential of him being a direct contact for diaspora and local interested in his work which he thought would be amazing! He currently has a few people working with him, whereas when I first encountered him 2 years ago he was working alone. He is self taught, making these bags he shared with me from his personal influences and inspiration from his akan background. I personally have one of his works and I was so drawn to it because his bags are so authentic to his style, something I’d almost describe as an Afro-modern take to oversized multi purpose bags. I’m excited for the potential being connected to more people through this experience could have for him!
Material Methods, Mapping Home – Derek Russell, B.ARCH 2022
They searched for the ancient path, the old road that led to Quito when all others were lost. Dirt roads through Musua, mountaintop farms and sleeping cattle watch with starry eyes in a race against the clock. We heard news of an opening, a single gateway that could lead us back to security – one that was closing. Strung somewhere between, I heard silent prayers for restitution; wanting nothing more than to go home, wanting nothing more than to pass.A trail beneath Bamboo temples
We didn’t make it. The single entrance back to the capital city sealed merely minutes before we arrived. “No paso” the woman at the toll gate said with an apologetic sigh. While we questioned her about the nature of the situation, trucks full of goods also trying to make the tenuous passage piled up; the lifeblood to the palpitating heart of Ecuador stalled. Circling back on a three hour journey, we sought a safe house in Santo Domingo, a farm of massive bamboo stalks used for CAEMBA construction. In this forest, weary travelers could find some respite from their fruitless voyage, some place to hide.Safe House
Settling in between bouts of radio static tuning into the daily news, the fog of morning dew finally resting, I couldn’t help but contain a bit of strange excitement to learn about the sustainability initiatives that CAEMBA employs here at the farm. I had planned to visit at some point during my grant, circumstance however gave me that opportunity sooner. The bamboo farm was only bought by Fundacion Raiz five years prior, many of the bamboo plants growing there part of a much older agricultural endeavor. Manuel took me on a tour of the massive property, educating me about the material benefits of using bamboo for climate resilient construction. It truly is one of the most impressive plants in the world, able to grow up to three feet in a day. They say if you sit and watch, you can see it growing. Every morning I would wake up to new toddler sized shoots peaking out from the bundles, as thick as a bowl. Chris mentioned that the water contained inside the bamboo also contains many healing properties that are good for skin repair and making tea. Close up of healthy young bamboo shoots
There are other considerations however that go into the harvesting process. Bamboo is an important carbon sink that fixes atmospheric CO2 within its trunk, however, after about 5 years a shoot will begin to die and return that carbon back into the air. To optimize the amount of carbon storage before the plant withers is a precarious game. Another obstacle is that when the plant grows, it grows in concentric rings that emanate from the center. This means that more mature bamboo can be found at the center of a large grove. To harvest it can sometimes require the sacrifice of younger, healthier plants.Boron salt bath
Here at the farm, is also what’s known as “the factory,” or the place where CAEMBA prefabricates all the bamboo panels that they eventually use in construction. Manuel also referred to this as the “Mad Max part of the operation,” as we watched local harvesters ride out on fortified tractors and climb high into the canopy. This process is incredibly important in ensuring both the safety of the bamboo buildings but also the equity for the many inhabitants of these structures. Built in panels, CAEMBA’s houses are designed to be easily constructed by real people. This ensures that in the wake of disaster, many repairs can be made without significant costs to the homeowner. It also allows for flexibility in the design, which allows folks to rearrange and personalize to their home as they see fit. To build one of these panels without the aid of the premade wall templates would be incredibly difficult, so consolidating resources into this one factory is pivotal. To ensure the longevity of the bamboo, all shoots are soaked in Boron salts for five days. The salts are nontoxic to mammals and sustainable. It effectively serves as pest control, most insects unable to tolerate the chemical treatment. Especially in a tropical climate, invasion by cockroaches, termites, and other pests cause incredible amounts of damage to homes each year. With nuanced design decisions, CAEMBA has streamlined the process from farm to construction in a way that is healthy for the environment, supports local labor, and gives agency to homeowners who have never owned property. Prefabricated panel template
The Beauty of Urban Nature — Lucia Li, BFA ID 2024
Hello, my name is Lucia, and I’m a rising junior in Industrial Design with a concentration in Nature, Culture, and Sustainability Studies. This summer, I will be working as an outreach and educational development intern with Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), a youth-centered eco-education non-profit based out of southeast San Francisco.
These first few weeks have been filled with much excitement, adjustment, and learning. When I first stepped into Bayview-Hunters Point, the industrial southeast sector of San Francisco, I was immediately struck by how different these neighborhoods were from the rest of the city. Of course SF’s signature steep hills and streets are largely the same, but instead of bustling streets of tourists, shops, upscale restaurants, and dense urban infrastructure, the streets were lined with depots and warehouses — semis and pickup trucks parked haphazardly on cracked asphalt surrounded by concrete barriers and discarded wooden pallets. What little green space I saw was actually yellow — patches of grass and weeds on top of what I later learned to be converted parking lots and brownfields.
Once I oriented myself with LEJ’s facilities, located just down the road from the Candlestick Point State Recreation Area (CPSRA), I stepped into the role of student alongside the organization’s regular eco-education interns, the Eco-Apprentices. Here, I was immersed in the story of San Francisco’s southside — a history of environmental injustice that had taken place right in my backyard.
Bayview-Hunters Point was once a bustling naval shipyard that brought in a massive wave of largely African American blue-collar workers. Post-WWII, residential zoning pushed more African American residents out of other neighborhoods and into Bayview-Hunters Point. Around this time, the neighborhood saw the operation of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory (NRDL), a nuclear research facility that decontaminated ships damaged by nuclear weaponry while also researching the effect of radiation on living organisms. The NRDL was decommissioned in 1967 and the shipyard closed in 1994, but they left rippling waves in the community that can still be felt today. Because of the extensive radiological and heavy metal contamination, the area was declared a Superfund site in 1989. Today, Bayview-Hunters Point is largely isolated from the rest of San Francisco, and with some light industry still running around the neighborhoods, the infrastructure is noticeably older and more run-down than other areas in the city. Currently, environmental activists in the area are working to acquire remediation funds for the areas affected by contamination while also spreading awareness about how communities can protect themselves. Additionally, organizations like LEJ hope to provide community healing by giving local families and marginalized youth the opportunity to engage with green spaces, enjoy outdoor recreation, and just experience the natural world through a lens of care and stewardship.
I’ve also had the pleasure of visiting Candlestick Point — CA’s first urban state park. When thinking of nature, people often picture National Parks like Yosemite, Grand Canyon — grand vistas of wilderness whose appeal lies in their promised escape from everyday city life. We often overlook the importance of urban nature. Urban parks provide an easily accessible place for city-dwellers to enjoy the outdoors, and human-nature interaction is something we will have to increasingly consider if we want to forge a sustainable future for cities. Candlestick is one of the areas that LEJ primarily operates out of, and where they will often hold community events alongside park stewardship and habitat restoration volunteer events.
As someone who is not from San Francisco, much less Bayview-Hunters Point, I took the backseat for much of this early learning period. With each passing day, I’m continually struck with such awe and appreciation that I was lucky enough to step into this experience — it’s been so different from anything I’ve done before, and yet uniquely rewarding. Additionally, it was nice to turn off my “designer brain” for a time and just approach the beauty of urban nature with the same wide-eyed wonder that a child would. There’s also something so incredibly fulfilling about working with your hands — seeing the effect that just genuine physical labor can have on a weed-riddled hillside over the course of a single afternoon. In such moments, I can truly appreciate the work and impact of environmental educators and advocates.
Shifting a community in a new light – Abenda Sohn, BFA Illustration 2022
Today was filled with a lot of information, from dates of events to explaining the duties of each member and checking the list of who was present at the last meetings. I met everyone on a gloomy and humid Monday on the back porch of one of the members of the Liberian Organization. The sun was shy as the hours winded down. There was a prayer at the start of the meeting, and then they would discuss and go over their plans for Liberia’s independent day event. This event happens every year; this event will showcase all the organization has done, highlighting the past and enlightening others on what is new and emerging. Also, they have been planning this event since January, so it was vital for me to ask questions about where our project fit into all of this.
Given that the Liberian immigration experience is so diverse, beautiful, and critical, we wanted to display it in a manner that would be more personal and compelling yet natural. We all agreed on doing short personal videos rather than artworks, One that could showcase cultural pride, community engagement, and the beautiful Liberian life in the normal and incidental. I was inspirited that they all understood what would be easy for them and what would make them feel more comfortable. I was not into having a giant camera in my hand for weeks, so it worked perfectly.
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