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Last December at AIGA/NY's “Cause/Effect” conference, Alan
Jacobson, proprietor of the Philadelphia-based consulting and
design firm ex;it, spoke of an incredible
community-building initiative in Rwanda, a country still recovering
from the ravages of a horrific civil war almost 14 years ago.
Jacobson's firsthand account of his work with the Rugerero Genocide
Survivors Village, how he became actively involved and has applied
his skills in design as a vehicle for positive social change, could
not help but move those of us in the audience who have found it
difficult to disrupt our comforts—who, despite our best wishes,
have not sacrificed our own security for the benefit of others.
Inspired by his activism and that of his collaborators in this
grassroots effort, I took the opportunity to interview him just
before he returned for another extended stay in Rwanda.
Residents of the Rugerero Genocide Survivors Village stand
before a community-created memorial mural.
Heller: How did you become involved in the Rwanda Healing Project?
Jacobson: I chaired an SEGD design conference in Philadelphia in 2004,
which I named “The Power of the Individual.” My goal was to inspire
a discussion about our responsibility as designers and our capacity
to create positive change in the world. It was also important to
send a message to young designers early in their careers that
everyone can do something.
Heller: Didn't you also meet someone there who would become
deeply involved in the project with you?
Jacobson: My search for people who exemplified the
message, who are creating change through design, or designers who
are creating change through other means, led me to Lily Yeh, an artist and creator of the Village of Arts
and Humanities in Philadelphia. After a powerful talk about her
18-year project in North Philadelphia, she sat down next to me and
I asked her if I could help. We became friends over the next few
months, meeting for breakfast every three weeks, exploring how we
would work together. One day we met after she had returned from
speaking at a conference in Barcelona, where a Rwandan Red Cross
worker asked her if she would come to a genocide survivors' village
to design and build a memorial to house the bones of loved ones
killed in the 1994 genocide. Lily asked me if I want to be her
partner on the project, and after six months of discussion and
planning, we left for Rwanda.
Heller: This was not some tourist trip to sites in Africa.
You put yourself in a challenging position in a nation where only a
decade earlier the worst genocide in recent history occurred. What
did you believe your efforts would accomplish?
Completed village murals.
Jacobson: I truly entered this project not knowing what
the result would be. Our goal was to build the memorial, bury the
bones and create a place of healing for genocide survivors in the
village and surrounding communities. After intensive reading about
the genocide and about the country of Rwanda, I realized it was not
possible [for me] to understand the people of Rwanda, their needs
or their struggles. The horror of genocide mixed with the brutality
of deep poverty was beyond my comprehension. The more I read, the
more fear and apprehension I had about going. Family, friends and
those in my professional world expressed their concern. Most of the
time I wasn't sure what was driving me, but I knew somehow that I
had been preparing for this for my entire life.
Heller: Can you discuss the role of design in the Rwanda
Jacobson: Design is big word. The most obvious role of
design in the visual sense was the design of the memorial.
Environmental design would be the best bucket to carry this
project. The undulating walls contain and define the space. The
designed landscape formalizes the approach to the tomb and creates
space for gathering and contemplation. The tomb, above and below,
was designed to accommodate the vision and traditions of the
survivors and mourners; on top, a bright and hopeful mosaic, and
underground, the quiet blue green painted wall and shelves that
carry the purple draped caskets of many gathered bones. The murals
that were painted on the mud-brick homes in the village were
designed from drawings created by adults and children in the
village after simple workshops were given.
(clockwise from top) Rugerero Genocide Memorial monument
designed by Lily Yeh and sponsored by
Barefoot Artists Inc.; the memorial close-up; inside the burial
vault; children painting; and a painting workshop.
Heller: Was there a design process?
Jacobson: The process of design and implementing the
vision that emerged from that process was the essence of the
project. The building of the memorial and the painting of the homes
was a conversation between us and the Rwandans that worked with us,
and it sparked a new conversation between themselves. The process
became a serious, and emotional, conversation between Lily, myself,
Terry [Tempest Williams] and Meghan [Morris]. Whose project was
this anyway—ours or theirs? How much of the design should be
controlled and how much must be let go?
Villagers working on a sunflower mural.
Pride of creation is a powerful driver. The process of designing
and implementing the idea and plan sparked an energy that we
learned later was manifest for the first time since these people
had been randomly gathered to live in this village. For the first
time, they had begun to work together as a team—some emerging as
leaders, some as artists, some as workers—each learning what they
had to offer the project. I could feel the pride in the air and see
it in their faces. Together we were creating something unique.
Together we were finding what was special about each of us through
the process. I was learning that his was not a project to build a
memorial or to paint a village, but the beginning of a new hope for
a better future that could carry forward—but how?
Heller: How were your skills and talents marshaled for this
Jacobson: My skills, our skills, are often defined by the
ones that people buy from us. As a designer I apply graphic design,
environmental graphic design, some research techniques, a strategic
thinking process and business acumen. Yes, all of these came in
handy on the project—from space planning the memorial [to]
designing the murals and providing leadership. But most of all,
what was most handy is not a skill at all. It is my respect and
appreciation for the uniqueness in all of us and a genuine desire
to learn and gain understanding along the way. In a place where the
nature of things was so foreign to my paradigm and my experience, I
understood quickly that while leadership was expected, my ability
to listen and my desire to understand their realities was paramount
to develop trusting and loving relationships in order to work
together to make change.
Heller: How have you changed?
Alan (center left) and the sunflower oil cooperative.
Jacobson: Much has changed for me personally over the
last two years. I have recalibrated what is most important in my
life, and the decisions I make are clearer. My gratitude for the
luck of my random landing place on earth has been heightened
because of what my friends in the village have unknowingly taught
Heller: In the presentation you gave at AIGA NY's
“Cause/Effect,” you spoke of relationships with the adults and
children of the Rwandan village. How have these relationships
manifest in your life?
Jacobson: The relationships are the reward, as we are
helping each other grow and thrive. I have come to love the
children and adults I have met in the village as a family of sorts.
The dichotomy they live—of poverty and hardship with hope, faith
and joy—is confounding. I don't claim to fully understand how the
people I know in the village really feel about things. I do know
that I feel unconditionally loved and appreciated for just coming
to the village and caring about them. I know they feel my
unconditional love and respect for them.
Heller: Has this project quantifiably changed others?
Children in art class.
Jacobson: There are many children in the village I see
growing over the last two years. We do art together and play
together when I return. Some things have changed for them, but the
hope for a productive future is a far off horizon that is elusive.
The adults have little hope for change, and daily life is
experienced in survival mode. They know I, and others, will return
and that we are working to find new ways of helping them improve
their daily lives and hope for the future. They are all with me
every day now. Not much happens in my life where they don't help
shape my decisions.
Heller: Whenever Westerners descend on a third world nation,
even to bring aid and comfort, there is a sense of cultural
colonialism at play. How did you reconcile the need to help with
Villagers and their murals.
Jacobson: This concept wasn't clear to me until I
experienced the reality firsthand. The complexity of it all
requires huge energy and discipline to understand the ramifications
of what you are doing there. The given power we have when we arrive
to do this work must be placed in check quickly. Having money,
being white and American, and carrying a plan to improve the human
condition can be a license to build and destroy at the same time.
I found by exposing my naiveté and by working hard to understand
what is really needed, instead of pushing the plan as we brought
it, helped to bridge the conflict between imposing our ideas and
working together to create a cooperative and sustainable solution.
More time is required to better understand how well we are doing in
Heller: In offering to help design and build a memorial to
the murdered you must have had to learn essential aspects of
Rwandan life so as not to misstep. What was involved in that
Jacobson: Misstepping comes with the territory. There is
a big difference in misstepping due to arrogance and misstepping
due to ignorance. When our ignorance becomes apparent through an
act of love and we are open to listening and learning, then it is
forgiven and we become students. I do think that we moved too
quickly at times without understanding the realities of the people
in the village. I felt at times that the project was setting
expectations and hopes that we could not meet. The survivors in the
village could not have understood what our vision was in the
beginning, but they engaged fully with us. I still wonder what they
hope for as a result of the work.
Heller: What was the biggest error you made?
Jacobson: The memorial design included mosaic mountains
behind some flowers that were misinterpreted as snakes—a
slang/derogative name for Tutsis during the genocide. Those that
expressed the similarity knew our intentions were innocent.
Heller: The big question is, how did the people you
encountered reconcile their own tragedy? Were fear, bitterness and
anger tangible in their being? And how did you navigate through
Faces of genocide.
Jacobson: “Reconciliation” is a word often heard in
Rwanda. It may be the most difficult concept to digest. The main
thrust centers around the relationship between Hutus, who were the
genocide perpetuators, and the Tutsis, the victims. While
generations of intermarriage make this a gray issue, there is a
huge undercurrent of anger, fear and pain tempered with a mandate
from the government to forgive and reconcile. People do understand
that in order for Rwanda to heal and thrive, there must be
forgiveness. This is true, but I believe a generation must
Heller: You must have heard about a lot of horrors. .
Jacobson: The many personal horror stories I have heard
and the unspeakable violence and hatred that they have witnessed
makes forgiveness inconceivable to me. Since my first days in
Rwanda I have daydreamed my way into the time and place of the
genocide and imagined scenarios where my family and I were victims
of the violence. I have tried to feel the fear, the terror and the
pain that they experienced. It is horrifying. I remain unsure as
to how they live with the memory and the pain, but they do. There
is joy in their souls as we work together. They have great faith in
God and I have seen them muster hope. But I have also cried with
them as they shared their wounds. It is a very dark place. In the
early days I was overwhelmed by the hardship of Rwanda, but as I
have come to know her better, and as I experience the beauty of the
people and my new friends and family, I now feel more joy than
sadness. I know we are making progress together.
Heller: What was the physical manifestation of the Healing
Jacobson: The genocide memorial and the painting of the
village was the original project goal. April 5, 2007 marked the
completion and dedication of the memorial. Many bones of genocide
have been buried there, some of which were family members of those
in Rugerrero Survivors Village. It is a beautiful outdoor healing
space built collaboratively and now cared for by those in the
Alan and Mugakatari.
We painted a series of mud-brick homes in the center of the
village after leading workshops to collect ideas and visions of the
adults and children living in the village. There is now color and a
new sense of unique identity in the village. Mugakatari, a woman
who lost six of her seven children in the genocide, told me this
year that the Rugerero Village had always been a sort of temporary
place for everyone. It has been a place where homeless refugees
were gathered and provided shelter after the genocide. She told me
that our presence and cooperative painting of the village has
helped them make this home.
Heller: Was this all best suited the community?
Jacobson: The attention and love we have offered has
given the people of the village a feeling of being special and that
someone cares. The initial goals of the project do not provide the
community what it needs to build a better future, but it is a great
start to a long conversation. As we came to better understand the
needs of the community and our relationships deepened, many other
initiatives have begun.
Heller: For instance?
Jacobson: Two teams of medical students from Jefferson
University in Philadelphia have visited the village to gain a
better understanding of health conditions and have begun general
hygiene training. After learning that the children are frequently
ill with malaria, I raised money and sent 500 mosquito nets
resulting in only two documented cases in the following six months.
Many other basic supplies have been provided as a short-term
relief. Lily Yeh has set up a sewing cooperative with six machines
and training. I have begun a cooperative to produce sunflower
cooking oil to sell in markets to provide an income stream in the
village. It is in the early stages and the obstacles are many, but
we will continue. A rainwater capture system was installed to
gather water. A Saturday art program was established and continues.
Conversations with the young women have begun to help them
establish a support group to talk about AIDS and other personal
(From left) Women cleaning seeds outside the renovated coop; and
a sunflower cooperative celebration.
Heller: After seeing your documentation, I can't imagine this
as simply a design problem. Is it an ongoing project for
Jacobson: I would not want this to end as an art or
design project but an exploration and collaboration to create
opportunity for sustainable change and progress, as they define
it... I see no end in sight.
I will continue to support and work with the Saturday art
program, one of my great pleasures when I go there. [We will]
continue to learn about each other, play together and work together
to make a better future. And maybe there is a great leader waiting
to emerge from the village someday. I believe that is true.
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