Academic journal article Visible Language

The New School Collaborates: Organization and Communication in Immersive International Field Programs with Artisan Communities

Academic journal article Visible Language

The New School Collaborates: Organization and Communication in Immersive International Field Programs with Artisan Communities

Article excerpt


Under the umbrella terms of "humanitarian design," "social design" and "social responsibility," educational institutions and specifically design programs are more and more searching for opportunities to engage their students in critical and hands-on learning via collaborations between students, faculty, communities in need and non-profit organizations. Such active learning is rich and meaningful for all parties involved, but the challenges are rarely discussed and yet compromise the collaborations' sustainability and potential for activating local change and development. This article uses the first two years of "The New School Collaborates," (TNSC) an ongoing project between The New School's divisions of Parsons (design), Milano (non-profit management and urban development) and General Studies (international affairs) in New York, several external partners and groups of Mayan artisan women in Guatemala, as the central case study for the abovementioned type of work. Of particular interest is the central role that organization and communication play in immersive international field programs. This article argues that the key to a successful collaborative process includes a clear and transparent partnership upfront, with a clear understanding of the roles and opportunities for each organization involved and a communication infrastructure that is sensitive to participants' skills and resources. The article refers to, and includes, documentation from specific experiences from two years of courses on campus as well as in Guatemala and the overall process and evaluation of this particular case. Of particular interest is a reflection on challenges faced and how an active and thoughtful analysis of them can lead to a more appropriate, and in the long-term more sustainable structure for this type of work.


The "Design for the Other 90%" exhibition website states that "...of the world's total population of 6.5 billion."90% have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted" (Design for the Other 90%, 2009). This statistic offers a responsibility and an opportunity for educational institutions to specifically engage students in collaborations that will ameliorate this percentage. There has been much engagement from social science disciplines, particularly around economic development and designers have been considering the positive impact their work can have since the 1980s (Papanek, 1984); but projects that bring together design and the social sciences are less common. Case studies, such as those documented by UNESCO, have demonstrated that design can play " important role in encouraging environmentally sustainable and economically viable models...of marginalized groups" (Designers Meet Artisans, 200J, 6). Furthermore, Ovidio Morales, Dean of the School of Architecture and Design in the Guatemalan Universidad Rafael Landivar, confirms that " professionals should be potential agents of change in society, to make it more human, more just, and more democratic" (Morales, 2009, 47).

These opportunities framed the creation of "The New School Collaborates" (TNSC), a cross-divisional and interdisciplinary faculty research group at The New School (TNS), a university in New York City, interested in how socio-economic and urban development can be achieved through design. Of particular interest is how students, through interdisciplinary on-campus courses followed by intensive international fieldwork experiences learn skills that would never be possible in a standard on-campus classroom setting and how interdisciplinary groups of students can holistically approach development work with artisan groups with the long-term goals of culture preservation and income generation see figure 1).

What distinguishes TNSC from similar initiatives such as Designmatters at Art Center College of Design ( and Design 4 Development at University of Florida in Gainsville (http://designshares. …

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