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Bridging the Gap

04/14/2017

For this year’s Alternative Spring Break, students collaborated with the National Parks Service on environmental projects at the Delaware Water Gap.

Instead of volunteering in urban communities – as other groups of RISD students have done in the past – the students participating in this year’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) sought to diversify the impact of their service. So in late March, 22 emerging activists traveled to the New Jersey-Pennsylvania border to work in cooperation with the National Parks Service (NPS), applying design thinking to the cause of environmental conservation at the Delaware Water Gap

“We wanted to introduce a different model for contributing our skills to volunteer service,” said Emma Werowinski 18 TX, one of five ASB student leaders. A program spearheaded by the Center for Student Involvement, ASB provides students with frameworks for collective, cross-disciplinary service and reflection on how to build socially conscious art practices. In the past six years, groups have addressed issues such as immigration, homelessness and domestic violence in Providence, NYC, Baltimore and Washington, DC. 

During the weeklong service experience, students worked with staff members at the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area as well as the Peters Valley School of Craft and Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC) to devise strategies for promoting historical and environmental education at the national park. For one of these projects, Werowinski and Sophie Chien BArch 20 led five fellow students in constructing a preservation plan for the JP House Farm, a landmark of the Water Gap’s agricultural history that has fallen into disrepair. Together they proposed cost-effective ways for the NPS to incorporate the farm into their educational programs despite significant budgetary constraints – with the hope that their work would provide a mitigation model for the 700-plus historic structures on the park grounds. 

Similarly, a team led by Jessica Young 18 IL and Stephanie Zhou 19 ID worked with PEEC to transform a once-popular retreat in the Poconos mountains into an asset and example of historical preservation, while Sruti Suryanarayanan 19 FD and her group designed an “art trail” on the Peters Valley campus. Their goal, she says, was to devise an inventive wayfinding system that respects the cultural, historical and natural significance of the areas their work would touch. 

To help achieve their goals for environmental sustainability, before they left campus ASB students consulted with Assistant Professor of Furniture Design Peter Dean BArch 77, cofounder and head of the Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies concentration (NCSS). They also spoke with Assistant Professor of Architecture Aaron Forrest – whose firm Ultramoderne has collaborated with the NPS in the past – about the best ways to approach low-impact interventions in a natural environment. These conversations were crucial in reinforcing the idea that artists and designers “can be really intentional in their making,” Chien says, which is of vital importance to volunteer and activist work. 

ASB also offers welcomed opportunities for cross-disciplinary conversations about how projects like these fit into the larger relationship between art, design and activism. The group is happy to report that given the limitations on wi-fi access at this year’s remote location and their focus on environmentalism, they had many productive conversations about how to make ASB even more effective going forward. 

These conversations, Werowinski says, are just as important to studio practice as they are to collaborative public service efforts. “We won’t leave RISD to work in a white box. We have to be able to interact with people, for people and for a purpose other than just making pretty objects.” Chien concurs, adding that direct service is already an essential part of her design thinking. “My studio work,” she insists, “does not exist without talking to people and engaging with communities.” 

Since their work in the Delaware Water Gap emphasized planning and strategy, Suryanarayanan hopes to build more opportunities for on-site making into future iterations of ASB. Though there’s still room for improvement, she says, in general she’s very enthusiastic about the direction of the program – and what she sees as a growing interest in service learning among students. “There’s a real movement in that direction,” she says. “The entire school is hungry for it.” 

Robert Albanese

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tags: nonprofits, public engagement, social responsibility, students, sustainability

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The façade of the Chace Center, a new multipurpose hub that opened
in 2008, offers an interesting contrast to the historic campus
buildings that surround it.