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Ancient Traditions, Modern Reincarnations – Derek Russell, B.ARCH 2022

One morning, walking past Manuel and into the kitchen, he asked simply, “do you want to go to the Amazon?” And so it was written.

Sunset over the Aguarico

In the distance between Quito and Ecuador’s Amazon, altitude abruptly changes over 5,000 feet. To voyage from the capital city in the clouds to the eastern lowlands requires both patience and a sturdy stomach, lurching over curves at mountain passes with sheer vertical drops deep into the valleys below. The journey takes approximately five hours to complete, three if Pablo is behind the wheel.

That drizzling 5 A.M. journey, a time just cresting the city’s hustle and bustle, greeted us with a plethora of landslides as Pachamama’s arms opened deep into the ravines below. Newly formed waterfalls punched holes through what I thought were solid roadways, collapsing concrete in an instant. We somehow managed to brush past fallen boulders through a narrow impasse, the determination to complete a journey that had already been stalled for weeks in the protests seemed to pave a path forward. It wasn’t until weeks later that I discovered we were some of only few travelers to successfully venture out of the Andes that day, that week even. And so it went that the distance between fallen highways and Shushufindi collapsed beneath our rubber tires, and in just a few hours we arrived at our destination.

A totem watches over Shushufindi in the oil province of Sucumbios

Pulling into the central hub of the city at the edge of the Amazon, my heart sank. Truly, to me, it felt like one of the worst cities in the world. One distinct phrase emerged at the forefront of my mind, “there is no vernacular here.” This is the oil province, Miguel told me amid disheveled scrap yards and burning torches in the distance, the smell of petrol eking from the pavement. Shushufindi, he told me, a name deriving from the indiginous Cofan word for ‘paddle,’ is a new city. Built quickly and cheaply on the oil industry’s capital to house the working population, to clear cut forests and replace them instead with a concrete jungle. Really, it was only a few years old. Strange public art installations attempt to detract from the cheaply constructed double decker homes of concrete and steel mesh. Staring into their windows, I couldn’t help but think of the rubble I saw on the coast of Esmeraldas that I knew had at one point looked identical. That is, before the earthquake. So it was with our indigenous guides, Yadira and her two sisters Ruth and Naidaline, members of a nation known as the Siekopai, that we escaped through the boundaries of this portal city into the depths of palm oil plantations where the Amazon lay hidden.

Palm oil plantations that stretch on for miles

Siekoya Remolino, the settlement of the Ecuadorian Siekopai, was only the first stop on a long journey ahead, for my true destination was the port city of Guahoya far away in the Peruvian Amazon. To get there would require a nearly 15 hour canoe ride through the snakelike waterways of the rainforest. I was told that time works differently here when I asked what hour I should expect for us to depart. There are no schedules, instead things simply happen when they happen, unfold as they should. So with an eager, and mildly unnerved, spirit, I set myself to sleep in the hammock my coworkers provided me knowing that the most difficult part of the journey was yet to come.

The morning proved to be far less than ideal, the heavens above opening, pouring rain into our hydroscape. To my surprise, the water did not pool over the soil the way it does back in Providence, here it flows swiftly and precisely down river, towards our destination, and eventually as far as the Atlantic ocean; tears for a continent. There is something to be said about the pace of life in the jungle, it is truly something unmatched anywhere else that I have encountered. Extreme bouts of boredom interspersed with spontaneous bursts of excitement as we weave our way through the largest undisturbed ecosystem in the world. No cars or bridges, signs of sprawling civilization, crossed our vision. Just a sightline of tropical forests and expanding cavities over water cutting through, and the logs of course.

The same rainstorm that nearly delayed our trip from Quito, the same water that nearly flooded the village on the even of our trip downstream, had all aggregated here in the Aguarico. A high tide meant that we would move more swiftly than normal, but at a cost. Detritus that once littered the forest floor now littered our path, really it felt like we were in a simulation of the old arcade game Crossy Road, meagerly attempting to pass between one obstacle and the next. I quickly learned the hand signs seated next to Robinson at the bow: a fist to cut the engine, a release to bring it back to life. After many hours of this game of chicken, multiple bathroom breaks along the shoreline, a stop with the Peruvian border patrol so as not to evoke the wrath of their two-person police dinghy, we had crossed into foreign territory. I will never forget watching the sun set on the Rio Napo, the most beautiful colors I have ever witnessed in the sky. An in an instant we are plunged into darkness, left with nothing but a spotlight roving like the lantern atop a lighthouse past vines and an impenetrable fog. We search without eyes, another few hours, until suddenly, a spark in the distance.

The Siekopai, also known as the Many Colored People, are an indigenous community that has called the Amazon home for hundreds of years. They are a vibrant craftspeople who create multicolored garments and speak a unique language. Following a border dispute in the 1940s between Peru and Ecuador, the population was splintered, causing some of the community to flee deep into Ecuador and lose contact with their families. For nearly sixty years, the two groups remained separated until they were finally reunited. As a result of globalization and oil drilling in the Amazon, many indigenous practices are being lost as locals are assimilated into a capitalist system, relying less on subsistence living and more on working class jobs within the petroleum refineries and palm oil plantations. Distance between the two groups has made collaboration strenuous, and as these communities modernize, the ability to share and preserve knowledge becomes increasingly more difficult.

Pictured here are images I had the pleasure of taking for a historic workshop conducted by the Siekopai peoples in the Peruvian Amazon. Many women from various communities all across the jungle gathered in a the village of Guahoya to reunite and share ancestral knowledge of their traditional pottery making to the young generation. This pottery workshop is the first of its kind to be conducted since the recent reunification of the tribespeople. It is important to understand that the implementation of ancestral knowledge is a modern practice, and by creating spaces for community, there is hope that craft can once again incite sovereignty and agency for these struggling communities. I was lucky enough to be invited to help document the process. What I witnessed on this journey was an incredibly knowledgeable and generous community. With workshops like these, a new life has been injected into the Siekopai as they are able to reconnect with their families and strengthen historic bonds that have been fractured. The mending process is slow, but very much alive and thriving.

Weeks later I was given the opportunity to return to the Siekopai community in Ecuador to continue the work that began in the pottery workshop. Here, a guest speaker conducts an entrepreneurial workshop with the women of Siekoya Remolino, who made the ultimate decision to create a women’s collective to help brand and sell their crafts. The drive of these women was truly stunning, in mere weeks they had constructed an entirely new workshop dedicated to pottery making. With so much energy and excitement, I saw them take many steps towards becoming business leaders in their community.

They had asked me to help them create an official logo for their new brand, and so for the last part of the entrepreneurial workshop we had a session on logos, branding, as well as time to brainstorm together how they wanted to represent themselves moving forward. The organization is to be called Kenao, the Paicoca name for a particular ant species that is very small yet lifts immense loads. While the women had many symbols that they wished to incorporate into their logo, we narrowed down a few that particularly represented the ideas their organization stood for: a shamanic baton native only to their tribe, their pottery adorned with a symbol that is specifically used to represent women, and of course, the Kenao.

Sketches for the final logo design

While at many times I felt withdrawn from the prospect of helping to monetize artifacts of cultural importance, the reality is that these communities are a part of the global economy. Often, especially in more developed countries, we tell ourselves many myths, particularly related to indigenous peoples. Somehow a way of life in tune with the land is seen as something that is primitive, communities stuck in a time beyond time. But although they use ancient technology, perfected over a thousand years, they are modern people who desire a livable income and a safe community to live in. If their cultural practice can in some way give back in a system that has made subsistence living nearly impossible to sustain, then that is the path forward. Until sovereignty, until palm oil plantations are returned to the earth, until petrochemical industries stop extraction, these indigenous communities live with the rules that another society has imposed upon them. Customary practices have been disappearing, but here we have a chance to not only relearn what has been lost, but prove that these artisans can create work that is viable and modern and beautiful.

A digital illustration I created at the request of the Siekopai women, Yadira playing an Ocarina

Science and Social Justice — Lucia, ID, 2024

Hello everyone, hope you all have had a lovely summer so far, full of plenty of learning, fulfillment, rest, or relaxation — whatever you were looking forward to. Since my previous update, I’ve been able to forge some incredibly valuable connections and understand more about the intersection between environmental science, justice, and design. 

Connections Made

An unexpected gem of my internship experience this summer has been meeting some truly incredible people who do amazing organizing and advocacy work. It’s been a privilege to learn from such a diverse group of talented, dedicated, and hard-working people. 

As an organization, we had the pleasure of working with Jim from the East Bay Academy for Young Scientists (EBAYS) on a community soil monitoring project. Jim is an incredible person — after moving to San Francisco as a young adult during the peak of the AIDs crisis, he has dedicated his adult life to advocacy and teaching underserved students how to use social justice to uplift and direct scientific data-collection. During our discussions, I recalled the principles of human-centered design research I had been trying to introduce into the Eco-App’s curriculum as well. 

Under Jim’s guidance, throughout the course of several weeks, we collected 180+ soil samples around San Francisco. We focused on collecting surface soil from areas around the local Bayview Hunters Point community (i.e. community playgrounds, lower-income housing) as well as around Noe Valley, one of SF’s historically wealthier districts for comparison. 

Going into the study, we wanted to establish a clear purpose or direction — to both inform our methodology while also giving the analysis some kind of social application and direction. See, we couldn’t just go into an already struggling community, say “your homes are poisonous” and leave. A big part of equitable pollution monitoring is to provide meaningful and actionable next steps and resources after presenting data — community agency, if you will. With this in mind, we decided on an objective: 

We will collect lead level data from surface level soil around local Bayview Hunters Point community areas and map the data to inform the community on where it is safe for their children to play and live. 

To analyze the samples, we used an XRF gun to scan for the atomic signatures of materials like lead, arsenic, mercury, and thorium. Then, using the GPS coordinates we collected alongside the soil samples, we placed all of our lead findings on EBAYS’s existing map that compiles all the lead collection data they have — which was originally around the East Bay in Western Oakland.

A map of San Francisco plotted with lead concentration data points. The first region, Noe Valley, has the highest concentration of "high" and "very high" points, while McLaren Park, Hunters Point, and Candlestick Point has data points more in the "very low" to "high" range.
A map of our soil sampling, grouped and labelled by region.

We analyzed our data based on the CA Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) standard of 80 ppm as “acceptable.” We were surprised to find that many of the areas around Bayview Hunters Point (BVHP) — where we had initially expected to see high levels of lead contamination from the history of industrial activity — had more data points in the “acceptable” concentration range than Noe Valley, which tended to land more in the yellow range, under the guideline “restrict access to children.” This was a bit concerning for the latter, considering some of these observations were taken near a local park with groups of children and around residential streets. The highest data points were taken from paint chips we had directly collected from peeling houses, so we hypothesize that the high lead levels in the soil were due to runoff from these historic, lead-painted houses. Ultimately, these findings are somewhat promising for what they suggest about the efficacy of environmental advocacy in areas under tight public scrutiny (on the part of BVHP) and of sweeping, large-scale developmental overhauls — and shows just what good properly maintained green spaces can do for historical contamination. A more concrete resolution requires further investigation, though. This week, we will prepare to present our findings at a local environmental justice task force meeting. 

Aside from the work we’ve done with Jim, LEJ has also served as a catalyst for many other kinds of connections. We recently tabled at the California Academy of Science’s Teen Science Night, where we were able to talk about our projects and speak about environmental justice in BVHP — all the while making connections with the youth who were interested in joining future cohorts of Eco-Apprentices.

 Additionally, I was personally able to connect to Dan Fiske from the Coalition of Concerned Legal Professionals (CCLP) through the recommendation of another staff member at LEJ. CCLP works on providing direct and specific legal advice and policy understanding to local underserved communities in Bayview — which connects wonderfully with my original goal of increasing access to environmental justice. Recently, they have focused on the ongoing lawsuit against TetraTech, the company who was originally responsible for cleaning up after the Hunters Point shipyard closed down and was allegedly found to have falsified clean soil analyses. CCLP needs help with layout and design work for their publications and outreach materials. On top of these, I’ve also been able to connect with various other community-based organizations and even SF government organizations working to build up community resilience to climate change-related issues — helping to set the groundwork for community surveying projects that will extend far beyond the end of my internship here. 

To end off, I’d just like to share a quote that Jim shared with us all when he came to speak — a bit of a mantra that he says has kept him going through difficult times, and which I’ve taken to heart when thinking about my own role and future as a designer and artist. 

If you pursue fixing something important to you as your career, you will wake each day excited to pursue your goals.”


Legends, Curating, Material – Abena Otema Danquah, BArch 23′


I got the opportunity to meet with THE Wiz Kudowor. I don’t even have the words to capture the greatness and impact of his artistry, but he’s one of the legendary Contemporary Artists to come out of Ghana, West Africa and beyond. Wiz and I met on a Wednesday afternoon in his studio and spent almost 3 hours going over his work, his journey as a contemporary artist, Pan-Africanism and identity through our work/ vice versa. I was literally all smiles through the meeting, so excited to be in the same room as this pioneer in the industry who had so much wisdom to share. We bonded over our shared love for painting as he showed me his various works, our thoughts on some of the newer artists and the amazing work they were doing and how much the Ghanaian art world keeps evolving. Particularly in West Africa, it was interesting to hear how when he was starting off in his career, most of his work was either exhibited in the US, Asia and within the African continent, Nigeria. Focusing on Nigeria in particular, we acknowledged how impressive the Nigerian art culture and appreciation was and still is, to the point where Ghanaian artists were so valued in Nigeria during the earlier days in his career because the Ghanaian art market itself was still growing. Interestingly, to this day Nigerian art markets and culture still continues to evolve so beautifully, and we conversed about how good it is to be seeing some of that energy reflected in the growing Ghanaian art world also.

I think something that really stood out to me during our conversation was how important it was to have representation from curators, dealers, gallerists and even admirers coming from the region (Ghana and West Africa). Conversations about exploitation of local artists and artisans are not had enough. Even with more and more local curators starting shop and setting up their galleries and offices in Accra and other parts of Ghana, there are still some notable Gallerists and galleries that are taking advantage of the “African Art” (a tag we both expressed funny thoughts about haha) excitement in the art world and making more profit than the artists who are underexposed and super excited to share their work. I mean business is business in the industry, but there is also an element of care and hopefulness that comes from curators and dealers of the same culture as the artists wanting to share the works for the passion, sweat, relatability and connection of and to the work. Regardless, I personally am glad to see more galleries like Artists Alliance by Professor Ablade Glover, The Noldor Residency and the woman run ADA Gallery sharing the works of the artists they have in residence while also uplifting their lifestyles and potential! I think this was important to document in my journey because a huge aspect of this project is not only to give a few artisans the opportunity to have access to larger markets through the diaspora and locals. It’s also to highlight how important and beautiful it is to support their work, engage willingly and purely with their talent and stories and to share and love the work because it is a representation and documentation of our collective pasts, presents and future through their talent.


I also took a trip outside town to the mountains in Aburi because I’d heard a number of artisans usually set up their work stations along the roads. I met one especially cool man, Mr Joshua Ohene, who shared had a variety of works from large scale drums to stools, all carved by him. He is Akuapem, a tribe from the Eastern Region and a lot of his work captures tales and narratives passed on generationally. He actually learnt how to carve from his father! I was intrigued by the process that goes into his carving, from having to get a permit to go into the forest to chop the wood, the process of preparing the wood before its carved to how they now go about deciding what narratives to tell in their work. ‘Struggle Woman’ was one of the works he described to me, where he was capturing the life of many women he saw around him in his community. Carrying her child on her hip and a basket on her head to sell in the market (not with the intention to glamorize her struggle I think, but rather to acknowledge the sacrifice and hard work of a lot of the women in the community, being care takers and bread winners also ). Most of our conversation was in Twi so the direct translations can be interpreted a little differently. I was very drawn to his narratives and work generally, and being one of the first artisans I had to communicate throughout in Twi, it almost felt like I was really just learning from an elder or grandparent about our art culture – more specific to the Akuapem region of course – but it was really cool seeing how narratives that you’d typically hear in our oral histories are being inscribed and detailed into these pieces.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how while I’m learning so much from some of the people and artisans I’m meeting along this journey, it would be interesting to see how their work could be brought together in a space or an event to promote not just their market bases, but the lessons, educating and just warmth and knowledge that comes from encountering these creators and their works. Also, I think moving forward another direction I’d like to take is perhaps meeting with people already doing curatorial work and learning how they not only gather information form their experiences (related to this project), but also how to intentionally create impact through their curating, be it from the artists to spectators/ consumers or just in the work gathered (still figuring out my thoughts on this but basically, some guidance from people already in this line of work or doing similar projects might be really cool in shaping the experience)!


Initially I had wanted to add a study on local architecture in this experience (largely for personal reasons relating to my architecture experience + general growing interest in local architecture). I decided to focus on the artisans and artists this summer, however I still got the opportunity to visit a few sites in the Dodowa area where a lot of building techniques and old buildings have been preserved for some time. I’m glad I got to explore these sites as I got to see how people in the area were. still practicing what i would describe as rammed earth methods of building coupled with the now typical cement support to almost achieve some sort of balance either in starting off to build or in terms of building maintenance. Super cool! Especially seeing how these methods transcended between building home like structures to even cooking ovens and shelters for gardening. I’d love to explore more of that in the future I think.


Walking out for conversation, Pei-Yu, 2024, ID

Stay out of the conversation. 

Twenty to forty years ago, speaking of this massacre was not only prohibited but many were also executed for even mentioning it. I’d never heard of the stories as a kid. What I have observed throughout my journey, there was a definite fear of remembering the past. Although it has been thirty-plus years since lifting more than half a century of martial law, terror and miscommunications exist. 

“We don’t talk about politics” or “Keep politics out of this” was what I got a lot of times when starting conversations about the massacre. 

Starting conversation 

For one of my past projects with Kiong Seng, we made a poke-a-present game filled with stories of the massacre and had the public interact with it. The game was laid out like the map of Taiwan. We walked out into the streets and invited passersby to participate and “win a prize.” When they poke through the map, they will find stickers and a letter. In the letter, we wrote the stories of the massacre in that region. Then, we encouraged the participant to write their thoughts on a post-it note and cover up the hole they had just made. 

The purpose behind the game was not only to spread awareness of this historical event but also to start a conversation. We saw many parents telling their children about this historical event and many elders willing to share their stories with us. However, there were still many that refused to write anything. Some think we were bending the truth, and few told us not to dwell in the past. Despite the mixed results, this activity presents the current situation of transitional justice and remembrance of the massacre. 

A pop sound is made when they poke through the map, made of heavy-weighted paper. It is an aggressive and nerve-wracking action of breaking something that looks perfect and well-sealed. Similar to the process of uncovering injustices in the past. The participants read the stories of the past. Some stayed silent while they absorbed the pain in the letters, while others were in awe that they had no idea of a story so close to them. When they choose to write on the post-it note, they are in conversation with the past and themselves. It perpetuates the constant revisions, understanding, and reimagining of history, thereby preserving it. In the end, the map was filled with colorful post-its representing the beauty of diverse opinions and people on this land. Even though some holes are not poked through or covered up, it also shows the continuation of working through and discovering more stories and more conversation. 

Keeping the conversation going

For this recent mapping project, I was interested in the act of remembering and memorial. There are many ways to remember a historical event. Though in recent years, the government has made 228, February 28th, a national remembrance day of the massacre, I realized that many still don’t know what that day is for. 

photo of the 228 Memorial Park in Tainan, Taiwan

I begin by thinking of how to map the act of remembrance. The first thought that came into my mind was the few memorial statues and sculptures in each city. Upon further research, most of these sculptures had misinformation or that it had a lack of maintenance. Conversely, we also have a lot of statues of the past dictator in almost all public schools. This dichotomy of historical sculpture and statue preserving two different ideologies interested me. 

This roundabout in my city had a statue of the “founding father” who never set foot in Taiwan and was used as political idolatry during the martial law period. It was also the same roundabout where lawyer Tang Te-chang was executed publicly, whose corpse was left exposed for a week as a warning during the 228 Massacre. Now the statue of the “founding father” has been taken down after a protest. A new statue not related to the massacre was installed. 

I began to invest in different memorial sculptures and designs, trying to understand why people don’t know about them or don’t care. I organized and collected all the other monument places on a spreadsheet. I wanted to apprehend how younger people, like me, think about this issue. Therefore, I planned a road trip, inviting many to join my conversation on the 228 massacre. Many were students like me. Most of them had little to no knowledge of this historical event. I started the road trip by introducing the historical event in the city we were in, encouraging them to ask questions and share their thoughts. 

I was really surprised by how a lot of the conversations turned into. One of the participants, whose political stance was more towards the party involved in the massacre revealed that their relatives were political victims. Though they understand the historical trauma, they still believe in their political views. While I traveled to the different cities, telling stories and talking to people, I kept reflecting on the purpose of this trip. 

After the conversation – now what?

Why is it essential that we talk about the past? 

This is a question I asked all my interviewees and myself. 

History is not about the past. It is the present and the future.

From the tour guide for GinSan 228 

It’s important to talk about it because we can now. Being able to speak freely and have conversations about it, whether pleasant or not, is a privilege. 

one of the interviewees as we drove through the city of Pingtung

To me, the current conclusion I have, talking about the past, is human nature. We like to remind ourselves of what happened yesterday. When the elders speak about the past, they are not just talking about the horrendous past, but also about their past. The history they lived through. Just like how in some of the historical tours, the purpose was to learn about the city’s past.

Learning about the collective past is a way through personal history. Regardless of what side of the story you are on, active learning and listening are love. Love to the land. 

This is similar to those whose loved ones were lost during the massacre. Preserving history was an act of preserving their loved ones. Giving their stories truth was a way that we, who were fortunate to not have to go through the same trauma, can respect their love.

Remembrance of the traumatic past of this land is to remember it was once loved. 

Remember the land. 

Love the land.

Sidenote: There have been dramatic political changes recently with the visit of US Congress Representative Nancy Pelosi. Broadcasts of China’s aircraft and military drills around the island report non-stop. 

Regardless of what happens, life goes on. There will be hope as long as we’re alive. 


Navigating urban narratives and green alternatives #2, Ruth Wondimu, MARCH, 2023

Navigating urban narratives and green alternatives #2, Ruth Wondimu, MARCH, 2023

This past month in Ethiopia has been a time of reflection, learning, and asking many questions for me. My conversations with many architects, family members, and the community have often been my method for getting to know my home again. Although I was hoping that everything I continue to learn about would be something positive, I have been able to learn about the difficulties people live through on a daily basis. For some time, I had found the outreach work challenging because it had been difficult to securely book some time to talk to the organizations that I had believed were highly relevant. However, my work gained a positive trajectory when I was able to attend the annual conference for the Ethiopian Architecture Association on July 23, 2022.

The Ethiopian Architecture Association hosts a panel discussion and an election ceremony annually. However, this panel was happening after three years of discontinuation due to impacts of war and Covid. Therefore, this panel was also a time of reflection for the community. The panel started with a moment of silence and prayer for the victims of war that’s still happening across Ethiopia. From the way everyone immediately stood up, it was easy to see that there was this moment of collective grievance and pain. That became one of the points of conversation for the conference. 

This conference was a very eye-opening experience for me because I went in with the hope of making connections and sharing ideas on sustainability topics. However, that was only a small portion of what I was able to attain and learn from. The first topic of the conference was post war construction. In the hope and belief that one day, this war will come to an end, the discussion was on how architecture can play a role in reconstructing and building new health care facilities, schools, residential places and more. For me, it was a reminder that it is a time of grievance as a country and that people were actively looking for ways to contribute to the better future.

Although there were a variety of topics that were mentioned such as architecture’s role at a time of covid and what the association has done, a project that caught my attention more deeply was called The Ethiopian New School Project. It is a project on developing design prototypes for over 1200 new public schools based on the latest technological advances and environmental considerations. Therefore, the designs were a variety of prototypes developed based on their climatic and locational conditions with heavy considerations of water systems, energy access, and comfort. I was immediately excited to figure out who was responsible for the environmental consulting aspect of it. I was later informed that there aren’t many groups responsibly dedicated to the environmental aspect of the project.  However, I was able to obtain the contact information of the few groups that could be of significant value in discussing environmentally conscious projects.

Ethiopian New Schools Proposal

Following the conference, I have been able to connect with two groups that have been pioneering discussions surrounding architecture and urban development. One of them is Architecture Werhawi (Architecture Monthly) and the other one is The Urban Center. The two groups also often collaborate on a variety of projects. I was able to send my proposal where teams from each group will be able to review my proposal and hopefully collaborate. 

On a personal reflection, I believe that this experience has taught me that circumstances on ground have been and continue to be difficult for people. The consequences of war impacts people on the daily through personal stories, inflation, and unattainable living expenses. The unemployment rate and low wages have been discouraging for many recent graduates. That, however, makes me believe that there is a role for the green industry to play here. The fact that a new type of industry might create new employment opportunities, encourage utilization of local resources on a more industrial level, and make water and electricity more easily and widely accessible is a good enough reason to discuss this topic. Therefore, this experience has empowered me to facilitate this conversation further.


Unlearning and Relearning Design Pedagogy: Mei Zheng BFA ID 23’ and Carmen Belmonte Sandoval BFA ID 23’

Unlearning and Relearning Design Pedagogy

Mei: Hello, everyone! My name is Mei [they/them]. I’m a rising senior in Industrial Design with double minors in Nature, Culture, Sustainability Studies, and History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences: Scientific Inquiry at the Rhode Island School of Design.

For our Follow the Fellows, my partner, Carmen Belmonte Sandoval, and I will be taking turns each to share our own perspectives throughout this Maharam Fellowship.

Introducing The Pathways Program


This summer, we are working with HYPOTHEkids [a K-12, STEAM-education non-profit located in West Harlem, NYC] and Beam Center [Brooklyn, NYC] teams to redefine design pedagogy through the Biomedical Engineering and Design Thinking lens. In addition, the Pathways Program [a 6-week accelerated program collaboration between HYPOTHEkids, Beam Center, and SolarOne NYC] has already kickstarted and had our 2-week portion for July 5th, where we redesigned educational materials with considerations of students who’ve newly immigrated to the United States and are in the process of getting their GEDs. In this program, we’ve developed a multilingual curriculum to make heart rate monitors through guided activities, presentations, workshops, and celebrations for these hands-on experiences.

As we began our Maharam Fellowship, we centered, firstly, on the experiences of these students through empowerment in understanding the many different ways of communication to inspire co-creation and collaboration.

6/13 Starting Adjustments, Virtual Programming 

For our Maharam Fellowship, we are collaborating with HYPOTHEkids. When we started, the first couple of weeks were mostly us getting adjusted to moving, getting acquainted with learning materials, and meeting our vibrant internship advisor and Bioforce Program Director at HYPOTHEkids, Liv, along with HYPOTHEkids staff members! In this process, both virtual and transitioning to in-person, we understood the limitations of our proposal, which included the engagement of public space [i.e., collaborating with NYC public parks and NYCHA], and that plans do change as time goes on. 

During these virtual meetings with Liv, we discussed further the planning of the expected weeks along with the existing Biomedical Engineering Design materials to construct learning lessons to be flexible and interactive. Carmen and I recognized that though these processes are similar, the effectiveness remains in how the content is made accessible in context. The question that came up for both of us was,

  • how might we develop these multilingual materials visually to align both content to context? How can we utilize design to inspire joyful and accessible experiences?
HYPOTHEkids Biomedical Engineering Design Notes
Double Diamond Implementation by Meret Götschel

Our main goal for this collaboration is to introduce and engage new design thinking tools to inspire hands-on, intergenerational learning amongst all. Even with the change, we noticed that the connections to our initial proposal remained centered with the Pathways Program, as it asks us all [students, educators, facilitators] the question of,

  • how do we intend to arrange “with” and not “for” marginalized students to create spaces of empowerment, agency, and accessibility that are expansive?

We are prepared to be flexible as this experience emerges, with pursuing these initial activities and goals as discussed:

  1. Interacting with staff members [i.e., Curriculum Specialists, Directors, Coordinators, etc.] in re-formulating pilot lessons about STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Design, and Mathematics] and inviting collaboration between other local non-profit organizations.
  2. Participating in these workshops’ planning and assembling process and the on-site presence of HYPOTHEkids.
  3. Researching and assessing successes in the engagement and cost-effectiveness of developing this new intergenerational educational curricula.
  4. Developing educational and accessible engagement artifacts/skills to continue memorable learning experiences.

Truthfully, we both arrived and started our Maharam Fellowship a bit earlier than most of our cohort in late June and wanted to take some time to sit with and reflect on our insights before we shared them, as these moments are ones to remember. 

6/18 – Mei: With my suitcase and duffle bags in hand, traveling by train from Providence, Rhode Island, to New York City, I felt this readiness to undergo a series of transformations and the willingness to “not know.” Such acknowledgment of this gem of “not knowing” was shared through the knowledge of Alexx Temeña, founder of the School of Embodied Praxis, and the 2022 breath fellowship, a virtual eight-week residency collaboration between the School of Embodied Praxis x The Haus of Glitter strengthening the art and practice of care in rest to which I’m so grateful to have been a part of, to recognize that rest practice allows the embodiment of fluidity in design learning, design learning is not linear, hence: to know is to “not know”; to rest is to protest; to learn is to practice. So when I finally found myself in the abundance of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, I knew there was much to learn from my surrounding community and what could emerge from this experience. 

Captured what emerged from exposed film moving in, showing powerful stillness through the lens of this window to transformation crucial to my experience beginning this Maharam Fellowship [thank you, Radhika, for sharing this gem, “The Window of Transformation” by Kai Cheng Thom].

Thank you for the warm welcomes from my fellow roommates, Noah [RISD Arch 21’], Marc [RISD Furn 19’], and Sruti [RISD Furn 19’] [always felt your presence here], for creating such a space for slowness and kindness, even when I got the entrance key stuck the first day.

The Window of Transformation by Kai Cheng Thom

6/20Planning In-Person, Seeing HYPOTHEkids

Upon arrival at HYPOTHEkids, it was exciting for us both to see how lesson plans were developed on-site by staff and distributed through assembled kits. In addition, we met Christine Kovich, Executive Director of HYPOTHEkids, and Liv Newkirk, Bioforce Program Director and Internship Advisor, for the first time in person! 

Supplies used for assembling kits & lesson plans.
Meeting with Liv to discuss questions, thoughts, and more about curriculum development.

We began our mornings brainstorming ideas, writing notes, and sharing feedback through Miro. This helped us construct goals, deliverables, and methods to redesign this curriculum. Within this week, Carmen and I referred to visual learning methods from our past studio experiences at RISD, which inspired us to experiment with programming. Miro helped us define our core questions, to then we were able to prompt conversations that needed to happen about access to equipment, language, and space.

Planning notes through Miro: activities, materials, timing, review, etc.

Unlearning and Relearning Design Pedagogy

The Social Change Ecosystem Map by Deepa Iyer, Building Movement Project, 2018

Mei: This fellowship experience will significantly impact my social practice, as it’ll engage, firstly, why we designers are integral and essential in co-creating these opportunities that offer expansive ways of design thinking. In exploring these vast methods of teaching and learning with the community, I spent these initial weeks reading into and practicing more profound mutual aid and rest. I like to imagine a future where we: the critical experimenters, visionaries, healers, and more [who care and engage in these collaborative settings for equity, liberation, justice, and solidarity] co-creating spaces of mutual aid and solidarity as to accessibility and social justice [refer to Deepa Iyer’s, The Social Change Ecosystem Map, 2018]: co-liberation. In redesigning even this curriculum around materials on Biomedical Engineering Design, that is digestible and slow, we unlearn harm in the ways that design teaches us to move linear/fast, and we relearn that this process is emergent/slow. Celebrating each other through this joy is what I find in a community that holds you and others tenderly. 

“If you think that this work is like programming a microwave, where an input leads to immediate output, that’s capitalism speaking.”

[Rehearsing Solidarity: Learning from Mutual Aid, 117]
Art reminds us of the presence of history in visual storytelling, deeply embedded in the social fabric of a community – a mural spotted across the street from HYPOTHEkids in Harlem, NYC.

What’s Next?

In the upcoming weeks to share, we’ve continued designing the curricula through experiential learning [i.e., by practicing Arduino at Columbia’s Biomedical Engineering Department] and met the creative and passionate students at Beam Center. We also began teaching the first week of the Pathways Program! We continued to follow the goals of accessibility to language and collaboration between all students to offer these many pathways to understanding.

Thank you for finding time to come along with the beginnings of this journey in unlearning and relearning design pedagogy.