Monday, September 18, 2017

Reflection and other good stuff

Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship and IDIN has meant a great deal for me. It is one of the few experiences in my college years where I felt like I was creating impact, and allowed me to do so "long - term" (longer than a semester). The opportunity to continue my team's work during the summer just shows how dedicated the ADE and IDIN team are to my learning. If not for ADE, I would not have learned how to:
  • rent a truck & tow a trailer
  • gather hundred of survey responses
  • write & obtain grants
  • develop & test curriculum with youth
  • build a guitar
  • evaluate social impact
  • communicate among multiple community stakeholders
  • document decisions with video, images, & text
  • manage & measure team progress & health
  • build a business model
  • design, present, & share data
This summer, I was able to:
  • Individually meet with over 20 community members
  • Make 15 diddley bows with 15 students
  • Present at the iRise Educational Conference Conference
  • Host a 3 day STEM camp at Coahoma Community College with 35 1st-6th graders
  • Make 2 electric guitars with 2 (full-time) students
  • Help the team obtain the Tiny Fellowship, $10,000 + year-long mentorship for the pilot program
  • Help the team obtain the Ford Grant ($25,000)
  • Help the team obtain a Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi Grant ($7,000)
  • Support two other partner organizations: Crossroads Cultural Arts Center & Clarksdale's Virtual Reality Center
Not only were the experiences rewarding, the class and the network gave proof that it is possible to do impactful design work without having to compromise my values. ADE carries many parallels to life. The pillars of the class--humility, people, impact, and justice--are also ones I carry in my life. For both, I have to acknowledge and prepare for my impermanence. I know that I will need to leave, so I need to learn how to create net positive impact.

During my last semester, Irene (teammate) and I found a general 'angst' among our team. We were all ping - ponging back and forth between tasks, which left us feeling like we never actually made any progress. Do we focus on developing our business model or applying for grants or branding our program? We were stressed, annoyed, and overworked yet cared so much. Irene and I coined this, "ADE angst" and defined it as the perpetually overwhelming existential crisis experienced by students of the Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship program, caused by a fear that there is so much important work to do and never enough time to get it all done. Which is basically life.

And even though it was rough at time, I am glad for the practice run. Observing my progress and reflecting upon my accomplishments give me hope that I will be able to do good during the rest of my time on this planet.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Climbing Back Into Student Life

          My previous post mentioned a lot of differences about life in Uganda vs life in the US. While I noticed those differences I never really noticed how those differences changed me. This is a window into my experience getting back into the swing of American life and discovering just how much I had gotten used to the Ugandan culture.

          Let's start at the airport. I was flying from Entebbe, Uganda to Nairobi, Kenya to visit my brother who was working for a stove manufacturing business. We arrived at the airport 5 hours early. Before my stay in Uganda, that would have been a vast amount of time. I would need to bring something to do, check emails, solve Rubik's cubes, play games on my phone, anything to fill the time with countless activities. 

          Now, I wasn't thinking of any of that. I was just glad we made it to the airport before my plane left. My phone had stopped working, and I didn't have the parts to fix it since there aren't any iPhone parts where I was in Uganda. But even without my gadgets to constantly occupy my mind, I was content. The wait didn't seem too long. I was used to letting time slip by, and just experiencing what was happening around me. In Uganda, there could have been any number of things that would cause a wrinkle in our schedule, and have us arrive at the airport too late. There, time is fluid.

          I met my brother Ben at the Nairobi airport and immediately noticed a change in tone. The air was less humid. There were more cars, more people walking with purpose instead of strolling around the street. It felt as if I was no longer wading in water and my legs could once again move quickly - almost too quickly. We arrived at the house Ben was staying at after everyone had already gone to bed.

          The next morning, I got up at 7 to leave for the stove factory at 7:30. The first person I met was a bright-eyed college design grad from Michigan. He was bustling about his morning making a tropical fruit smoothie for breakfast (The mangoes are really impressive in East Africa). I noticed a few things. He reminded me instantly of what I imagined all working class people were like. In about two minutes he had made himself breakfast, introduced himself, had a conversation with me about Uganda, sent a few text messages, gotten ready for work, and started to drink his smoothie. This guy radiated productivity--much in contrast to everyone else I had met in my last two months. Where I had been in Uganda it took two minutes to get the water to wash your hands for breakfast. 
          This was a similar theme throughout my gradual acceleration into american culture again. I felt slow. My mind didn't make connections as fast as it used to. Yes, some of it may have been that I was just used to conversing with people who learned English as a second language, and was overwhelmed with the speed conversations were going. But I still felt like a spectator witnessing all of the cool action going on around me.

          There were other aspects of american culture that I was less excited for. My distance from American culture gave me a good vantage point to view American Capitalism. Maybe we don't need another product for every tiny discomfort that will just get thrown out at the end of the day.
          People here get worried about the littlest things! Coming through security, there was someone at the airport who was complaining about everything he could possibly complain about. The line, the people, the temperature, his bags. When the security official asked him to examine his bag, he replied "I think you've given me enough trouble already." While this is an extreme case, it does expose that developed worlds don't usually embrace humble values.

I think the most important change that I noticed in myself while returning is my understanding of my personal values. Personal connections with people around me are now much higher on that list than they were last spring, and productivity much lower.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Building Guitars With Youth

By August, I was scrambling to find people to build guitars with. The youth in Bobo never showed up, despite showing interest and enthusiasm. Maybe the summer had more interesting things to offer. So after several weeks of trying to make it work, Tarra, Coahoma County's Culture and Arts Coordinator, and I decided to try to gather some youth in Rena Lara instead. Rena Lara is a small community about 20 mins southwest of Clarksdale, Mississippi.


Four girls showed up interested, which was comforting. I was in a rush to build the electric guitars since I only had two more weeks in town, but a part of me was uncomfortable. The girls were not in our target audience. All of them were under the age of 14 (we are trying to reach high school aged students), they were pretty well off, and two of them were not local. I knew I would not be able to rally any more young people, so we jumped right in.

The first day, they broke off into two teams. One team for cutting out the body of one guitar and the other team for drilling holes on the other. They enjoyed the activity, and we planned out the meeting times for the upcoming days. I was a bit naive. I learned a big lesson the following day.


Only two of the four students showed up the next day. The two who showed up were sisters. I learned that the others quit because they did not know where the guitars would end up. It seemed unfair to just give it to someone else. I propose we try to auction one and give the other to the library. That did not seem to sit well with the sisters, but they agreed that the activity was fun on its own and decided to continue forward.

The two sisters were self-driven and focused. No matter the task, they were confident that they could complete it. I found that confidence incredibly soothing since there were moments when I was uncertain of how to finish the guitars. They learned to solder, spray paint, drill, saw, and sand. Each day, they asked to stay longer. They really liked building the guitars, and proclaimed that if the workshop did not exist, they would be at home watching TV.


Their father was a huge supporter. He was responsive, and brought them in each day. On the first day, I made sure to get his contact information, and we agreed phone calls and texting were the best way to reach other. He also had some extra tools, like a jigsaw and drill, that he let us borrow.


After Jodie and Marria finished soldering and painting, all that was left was assembling the guitar. The activity lasted a week, approximately 30 hours, a bit faster than expected. Given, the necks were pre-fretted which took away about 80 hours.

I have always been bad at photographing, but this time I made sure that I took photos of everything. Every time Jodie or Marria were moving to the next step, I took a photo and a video. It felt obscene. But looking back, I am really grateful. Having so many action photos makes it 10X easier when I show other people what I did for this summer than if I tried to explain it to them. I also took video interviews of Marria and Jodie separately about their learning goals and feelings about this curriculum. Not only is it incredibly useful to have user feedback and insights that the team can show others, Marria and Jodie also felt special being asked to do interviews.

Right now, Jodie and Marria are back in Texas with their mother. They definitely wanted to come back next summer to do it again, or even teach others. One guitar is with them, and the other one is on display at the Carnegie Public Library. There is still a lot to learn and iterate on, but it is a good place to start.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Transitioning Back

I’ve been having difficulty writing this final blog for a while now. It’s been about a month since I’ve returned from my home in Soroti, Uganda. As the days pass by, I wait for passively for a solution for all the problems in the world to appear. But unfortunately or maybe fortunately, the world is not black and white. There is no simple revelation from my time abroad, no easy epiphany that will rid the world of problems.

Our last day in Soroti

When I first got off the plane from Kampala, Uganda and entered the Amsterdam airport, I immediately thought that everything was so clean- from the sparkly white floor, to the plethora of lights making impossible to tell whether its day or night, to the rows of stores begging passersby to buy the highest brand purse or watch. The first store on the right had a red sign declaring that Lola by Dior was being sold for only one hundred and fifteen euros – more than Betty’s sheet metal workers make in a year.

Despite my efforts, I couldn’t help being disgusted. As I walked by each high end boutique with advertisements designed to propagate insecurities and create unnecessary desires all in the interest of making money, I wasn’t sure if I was in a dream. A toddler was crying about not being able to play on his dad’s iphone, a young teenage girl was pouting to her mom, two men tried to make their way to the front of the security line by cutting anyone they could. Voyagers looked tired, parents had a short temper, and children wanted more. I don’t mean any of this with reproach – traveling is very tiring.

But the combination of stores telling me to buy, buy, buy and families with Gucci bags and Swiss watches complaining about waiting for their plane, really emphasized that the disproportionate wealth distribution is a terrible problem and one that is so difficult to solve. That’s definitely one of the worst part about culture shock- really realizing that you are living in excess wealth but that you can’t just throw money at a problem. Now I don’t even think that throwing time and education will solve anything either.

There is no simple solution to helping underprivileged communities in Boston, or in the United States or around the world – I think everyone can attest to that. In fact sometimes I now think that helping people around the world is not a solution, which is very difficult for me to accept. But this does not mean I think we should allow ignorance to be our bliss. We should be very aware of all the privileges that we all have. But other than that, I have no idea what we should all do.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Untold Stories

As I end my journey in Uganda (eet), I wanted to share some fictional stories of the lives of people here. Even if these stories are not necessarily true, they are the truth.

       Upon hearing the rustling in the mango tree I was climbing one day, I turn to see a young girl, no older than nine, perched on a very thin branch. She smiles mischievously, plucks a mango, and says hello. After one bite, she throws it down onto the ground. That’s when I hear a young girl sighing in very good English, “These children always waste.” Right below my feet, stands a young girl. As she climbs up, I climb down to meet her. With ease, she introduces herself and begins asking me so many questions about my life. We interrogate each other, cautious in the beginning, but gaining confidence with each answer, both curious about the other’s world. She stops the conversation at one point stating, “You people, you people are very good. Africans are very bad.” My mind struggled to find the right words. How could explain that all humans can be bad or good? And that white people have been especially cruel and conniving to the Africans? Should I delve into basic morality? I think I managed something along the lines of no no no, we are not good. We are both bad and good just like Africans.
      At one point, I’m pulled away from our conversation to play a game of football and I say goodbye to Mary, the girl from the mango tree. As I attempt to play against my highly skilled coworkers, she goes back to her grass hut, only a couple hundred feet away. She starts cooking her family dinner at 5:30 p.m. – Thursdays are her night to cook dinner ever since her mom was sent to the hospital. As she lights the charcoal in her cook stove, her mind wanders, joining the smoke from the fire. She thinks about her dad, and how if the jealous men had not shot him down, then maybe her mom would not be in the hospital. Maybe she would be able to go to school past the end of the week, because his knack for selling cars kept their family well off. But as she adds the cassava flour to the boiling water to make atapa, the local bread, she knows that these thoughts will not get her anywhere. She leaves the cook stove and goes to where the people who make cook stoves play football and watches. As Juma easily takes the ball away from me, I catch a glimpse of her. I wave, she waves back. After the game when I go to talk to her, she has already gone back to finish making dinner.

      You can hear Ochieng before you can see him. His laugh penetrates your entire body, to which you instinctively join him, shaking with laughter. His skill with sheet metal – he works in the cook stove industry- and his willingness to help anyone, made him loved by his fellow coworkers. As he spends his days hammering, cutting, and bending, he makes his comrades laugh by teasing them incessantly. At only nineteen years old, he was already making the best cook stoves at the factory.
Ever since he was about eight years old, Ochieng had been working with sheet metal. His dad, too poor to feed him and his other children, told him to work. He learned how to cut keys from his father, then quickly moved from trade to trade, picking up skills as he went. He went from being a pool connoisseur, to a welder, to a cook stove maker. When he was young he went to school, and even got a scholarship from the school for three years for his talent for long jump. But eventually the school fees were taxing, and he stopped going to school.
     Not going to school changed his life. He knew that he would always need to make money by trade, so he decided to always do his best at no matter what job he did. He wanted to be rich. He had a dream of being a pilot, but needed money in order to get there. Without a high school diploma, he would have to start saving up for a long time. He spent little on himself, never buying things in excess, eating little. But when times were hard, he always gave what he had saved to his mom or dad, so that they could use it to feed themselves.
     When you talk with Ochieng, you could never imagine the pain that he hid. You could never imagine that when he was seventeen years old, his childhood friend got pregnant. And that when she went into labor, there were medical complications that required a lot of money. You would not be able to tell that Ochieng spent days and nights finding that money, selling off his mattress and clothes and anything he could. That he resorted to begging, despite having promised himself that he would never do that. And you would not be able to know that a couple months after his girlfriend got better, he would walk home to an empty house, no traces of his girlfriend or his son anywhere.
     Ochieng hid his pain away, focusing instead on his goal of becoming rich. He no longer talks to girls. When a girl says hi to him on the street, he will not respond. One girl told him that she loved him, and he told her to never say that again. If he wanted to give his son a better life and to get out a poverty, he could not be distracted by women.
     Yet, even fixated on this goal, Ochieng always gives more than he has to everyone else. He forgoes dinner several nights a week in order to save enough money to give to the starving woman down the street. He offers his time to help the cook stove newbies, allowing them to catch up with the rest of the workers. He’ll watch his neighbor’s kids when they need him to. And at night, when he has time to himself, he goes on walks, reflecting on his life. He sits on his favorite log, looks up at an airplane flying above, and wonders what life is like in other parts of the world.

     Emma was twenty six years old when he finished college. He was the third youngest in his class; most students took time off between semesters, since they could not afford to go every term. He had been sick with malaria while taking his final exams, so he waited in fear to learn whether or not he passed.
     While he waited for about a year, he needed to find some way to make a living. So he ran into debt with a motorcycle dealership, and became a boda-boda. Life was fair; he was grateful for the steady income that trickled in every day, but he was restless. Waiting for hours at the boda-boda stand for a customer to come was tedious. Sometimes he would drive around looking for someone to pick up, but he always had to find a balance between aimlessly driving around for customers and not wasting too much gas. Mondays were always the worst. After the weekend, people were refreshed and often did not spend money on a boda-boda. Them saving money, meant him losing money.
     But he always made sure to look his best for his customers. He kept his clothes very clean and his hair short. He cleaned his motorcycle every other day. At nights when the day was over, Emma would go back to his rented home, bathe, and go to the neighborhood restaurant. He goes to the same restaurant every day owned by a forty three year old women named Helen. He gets the usual of atapa and beans, winks at Helen, and compliments either her hair, her clothes, or her cooking. After dinner he always walks around with his friends that come from the same district as him, listening to whatever new song someone might have downloaded.
      But June 31 was a different day - Emma will learn whether or not he passed his exams. As usual Emma started his day at six, taking his motorcycle along the usual route. But instead of stopping at the boda-boda stand, he continued straight towards his college. When he arrived to the Ugandan College of Commerce, he already saw a line of people waiting to hear their news. He parked his motorcycle, walked up to the end of the line, and did what one tends to do in Uganda: he waited. As hours passed by, he finally reached the beginning of the line, where a young woman smiled pitifully and handed him an envelope. Too nervous to open it in at the front of the line, he walked back to his motorcycle, his hands shaking. He carefully opened the seal, pulled out the piece of paper, and read the first few sentences. His shoulders relaxed, his hands unclenched, his spine stretched. He was a certified accountant of Uganda.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Testing The Guitar Curriculum

I am currently in Clarksdale, Mississippi working with youth to build guitars from scratch. When locals hear that response, they raise their eyebrows and nod their heads because, while it may seem a bit unconventional, it also makes sense. Coahoma County is a rich artistic community. People are building and creating all the time. It is normal to hear a young person improvise a song about getting out of bed, or meet elders who perform at juke joints they built themselves, or see families singing and celebrating every Sunday at church. So, building musical instruments with community members is understandable.

The most exciting part about being here is that I am working on a project I've been a part of since January 2016. For almost two years, I've been learning about Coahoma County, collaborating with community members, and designing with youth through my Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship class. During those semesters, I had the opportunity to visit the county five times, and engage with hundreds of high schoolers. We asked them what they would like to learn through hands-on education, and music, performing and visual arts, technology, and entrepreneurship were the top voted areas. We developed a guitar curriculum to include all those parts. 

Since May, I been testing the curriculum. I have worked with 15 middle and high schoolers who built 12 diddley bows, led a 3-day STEM camp for 35 youth, and hosted a pop-up activity with 10 kids. It's been great!
2 min video of the ADE Community Dev project

Building diddley bows has definitely been a highlight of my time here. It's funny because when we start out, most of them are pretty confused. They follow the steps, build the body, put in the pick-ups, and once we start planning the design for the neck, the light bulb turns on and they get really excited. Last month when I was with 3 youth in Bobo, I ask them if they needed a break after working 3 hours straight, they all shook their heads and proclaimed they wanted to continue. Seeing that reaction was rewarding, and I hope in the future, our program will generate the same energy.  

Youth in Bobo celebrating their finished instruments

In early June, I partnered with the Coahoma Community College to host a 3-day STEM camp. I asked for a cap of 15 students, and within a day, 35 students were signed up. I hadn't led a camp in years, and definitely was out of practice, but luckily the college staff was there to support me. During those three days, the group of 1st to 6th graders participated in a paper tower challenge, boat design challenge, and team building activities. They made collages, bottle rockets, and even tried coding. From what I heard, most of the youth enjoyed it, especially the bottle rockets, which gives me hope I did something right.

Building paper towers under time and resource constraints

The next few weeks here, I will be building a guitar with 3 youth from Bobo, and I will keep you updated on our progress in future posts. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, July 6, 2017


I'm writing from beautiful Fusagasugรก, (say it five times fast) Colombia, where IDDS Climate Change Adaptation is being held at the University of Cundinamarca's sports center. There's a lot of high quality content about the summit being put out on U de C's youtube channel ( and on Facebook and Instagram (, so I'm just going to focus on my perspective on the summit and on life here. Some photos of the campus to get us started:

The horse who lives here, whom I have dubbed Campus Horse. He's not really concerned about rules or boundaries and just sort of wanders as he pleases. There are also two cows, but they mostly stay in their field.
Participants hard at work on their design challenge outside of the gym-turned-workshop.

A very big palm tree outside the dining hall.

Life here is really good. Showers are cold, wifi is limited, and bugs are rampant (currently having a bit of a strange allergic reaction), but I really don't mind any of that. I'm living in a double room with another girl from the organizing team, and we share a bathroom with one other roommate pair. My time is mostly spent in the workshop, teaching participants to use tools, documenting projects, and doing odd jobs. My hands are always covered in small cuts, and at this point I'm sure my nails will never be clean again, but it's some of the most fulfilling work I've ever done. In the mornings, I often have the opportunity to go for a short run on the concrete track, but breakfast starts at 7am and organizer meetings and nighttime hanging out sometimes run until midnight, so I'm trying to live a balanced lifestyle and prioritize sleep. 

The workshop (my second home).

The track and soccer field, complete with forested mountain backdrop.
Speaking of breakfast, the food here is absolutely incredible. Meals rarely happen on time (this is still Colombia), but the kitchen is very aware of the presence of foreigners and seems to be really stepping it up. We also get to drink amazing coffee from local farms, and I've completely abandoned my tea-drinking roots. We all eat together, and mealtimes have been a great opportunity to get to know some participants. They're from near and far, and work in many different fields, but they all care deeply about solving the challenges of climate change. The accents from different parts of Latin America sometimes confound me (sorry Uruguay), but everyone is friendly, patient, and involved in really cool work. I'm also one of the younger people around, so hearing about people's paths is also really interesting and inspiring.

Watching the execution of the summit itself has also been really cool given my background. The material that the summit covers is basically the second part of UOCD (mandatory Olin human-centered design class) with the addition of maybe one prototyping cycle, but packed into three weeks. It's intense, hard to execute in a culture without punctuality, and definitely not perfect, but participants get to work in very close contact with local communities. There are unique challenges here. What do you do when community members aren't as engaged as you thought they would be? When the project direction you've been planning for months falls through? We're also getting to the point in the summit where participants are starting to have complaints and criticism, which is super interesting from an Olin perspective. Going to a small college with experimental classes and an emphasis on feedback makes think I've heard every complaint that there is to complain about design curriculum, but I thought wrong. I feel like having experience with how students react to design curriculum gives me more of an insight into what are actual problems with the class and what are parts of the process that students just need to accept, but it's still difficult to distinguish. I don't think I would be ready to be a design facilitator in charge of a team, so I'm glad that I just get to help out and be along for the ride. 

I'm trying to get as much out of the opportunity to be here as I can. I've learned some new techniques for problem framing and insights into team formation, and there are many more lectures for me to sit in the back of and conversations with talented designers to be had. I've also been able to visit some of the communities that we're working with, which has been incredible. I spent the 4th of July at three different farms, and found myself in a blackberry field at the top of a mountain at sunset, which was absolutely transcendent. I only took two photos, and they don't even begin to capture the moment, but I still want to close with one of them. Your coffee comes from a magical place.
The tourism board here doesn't have to lie.