Maharam STEAM Fellowship
The Maharam STEAM Fellowship in Applied Art and Design, generously funded by the textiles company Maharam, grants $5,000 to select students with projects that "highlight and strengthen the role of visually acute critical thinkers and problem solvers in helping to improve public policy and tackle large social issues." This program allows students to work "in arenas not typically associated with art and design students and have the opportunity to effect real change in policy and practice in local and global organizations and communities." I had the great fortune of being awarded a Fellowship for the summer of 2016 during which I partnered with Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island (DIIRI), a Providence-based resettlement agency that works with refugees and immigrants to aid the transition into a new home.
Stage 1 | Research
DIIRI “empower(s) individuals and families, especially the underserved, immigrants, and refugees, to become self-sufficient and fully participating members of our diverse community through innovative programs and advocacy that promote education, training, and cultural understanding”. My initial project aimed to complement the services already offered by DIIRI by conducting art “empowerment” sessions with their female clients specifically. The project would allow DIIRI to address the emotional needs of their clients (through the cathartic act of art-making), introduce the arts as a part of their wide array of services, and promote participation in the local arts culture through the use of strategic partnerships. All of these things contribute to successful resettlement which, if well-received by the community, could result in future legislation and funding to better support refugee/immigrant needs. This project addressed DIIRI’s lack of art education and intended to demonstrate to our new community members the value our society places on the arts as both an entertainment and economic tool.
Stage 2 | Ideation
Twice a week, I met with a group of women who came to DIIRI from a number of countries (including Morocco, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and who represent a number of different identities and cultures. Together, and with guest teachers, we learned new artistry skills and made work about the process of resettlement. I designed the curriculum based off of what I learned about design-thinking at RISD: learn a skill, make a piece using that technique and following a prompt, and then share your work and talk about your experience and concept. The prompts that I originally chose were all centered around the process of resettlement, covering topics like "Expectations of Providence" or "Home Culture", and the guest teachers were my friends (and one professor) from RISD who study a range of disciplines.
It became pretty clear early on in the project that what I expected to happen was not realistic. Many of my students said that they wanted to join the class to learn new skills, to improve their English, and to meet new people, although most of them had not done very much art before this point. Their level of proficiency in English varied widely, but even though I had an interpreter present, my first hurdle was restructuring my lesson plans to focus less on talking. Using lots of body language and hand motions, drawing pictures and words on the whiteboard, and doing the activity alongside them made things clearer no matter how slowly I talked. Likewise, when they shared the ideas behind their pieces and their feelings about their lives, the most that could be managed despite cultural and language barriers were a few simple sentences. Show, not tell turned out to be quite the mantra of my summer as I grew to depend more on my creative visual side to communicate.
Stage 3 | Results
Over the course of a summer, we covered printmaking, puppet-making, pillow-making, embroidery, ceramics, and sketchbooking. The women grew more comfortable with time and loved working with their hands, but we shared less stories than I anticipated — or is it enough emotional catharsis to only create art and not talk about it openly? In addition to our lessons, we had two field trips to community arts organizations: the Providence Children's Museum and Providence CityArts for Youth. I wanted to open up new relationships between DIIRI and the Providence art scene, offer the women the opportunity to visit some organizations that they might not encounter with DIIRI’s usual services, and shake up their usual environment by playing. These excursions went over very well; there was a lot of laughter and even conversations about their resettlement experiences with our hosts. Lastly, my Maharam project ended with an exhibition called "Gifts of Diversity" in the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts that "feature[d] members of Rhode Island's vibrant artistic community, featuring local artists who represent a range of visible and nonvisible diversity".
A goal I had coming into the project was sustainability: to create a program that is valuable enough to become a lasting member of the DIIRI services. Fortunately, this is the case: my project is currently being carried on by other RISD students, albeit for a different audience. There is a growing population of unaccompanied minors at DIIRI that are 14-17 years old and oftentimes arriving in this country to meet family that they have never met before. DIIRI has had difficulty communicating with them but has found more success after handing them some crayons and paper. This class could be a crucial part of their resettlement process. I am very happy to hear that my model could feasibly continue and be adapted within DIIRI!
March - September 2016
designer; project manager; leader
refugees; resettlement; women; social design; art empowerment; community arts; community building