Tag Archives: Individualism

The Power of the Image: Youth Design Takes Action

30 Aug

I’m not sure if all of you are familiar with the Culture Shock U Curve, but, to explain, it represents what inevitably happens upon trying to integrate yourself into a new culture.  And, believe it or not, it’s something that happens when you’ve spent a lot of time outside of your own country and then return home.  I was very much anticipating my reaction to the different stages of my reverse culture shock, which is where the idea for this blog came from; I wanted to share my journey.  As you can see on this diagram, the first step on this journey is the honeymoon phase; you are high off of the initial euphoria and excitement.  I was at this stage my first four weeks back and loving life.  Well, about a week ago, I had a disappointing setback in my job search and was pushed over the edge into the next phase.  I fell head-first into the crisis and frustration phase and I fell hard.  I was experiencing everything you are expected to experience during this period: anxiety, confusion, self-doubt, and rejection of your new (or I guess in my case, old) culture. I had been anticipating this period and had already made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t immediately succumb to my gut-reaction to flee and avoid it.  This is all part of the process and I had to remind myself that I would get through it.  I tried using all the tools I had set myself up with.  I tried running.  I tried yoga.  I tried meditating.  I tried reading.  I tried surrounding myself with friends and family.  Nothing.  I was suffocating in my own depression.

I did not see how I was going to pull myself out, but I knew that it was going to take something powerful.  And then my childhood friend Kathryn invited me to help out at an event that she thought would “inspire” me (Kathryn’s mantra) and inspiration was only one of the gifts I left with that day.  Last Thursday, I was reawakened, reenergized, reanimated, and brought back to life.  I was reminded of why I came home and what I wanted to accomplish and was reassured that there are like-minded people in Boston and that they are doing great things.


My very talented friend Kathryn works for Korn Design, a brand strategy and design firm headed by Denise Korn.  Ten years ago, Korn started a design internship program for students from Boston public schools called Youth Design.  Kathryn invited me to help out at Youth Design’s 2012 Graduation held at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and there I was able to see first-hand what an exciting program it is.  To give you a bit of background, ten years ago Korn had the idea to create a summer mentorship program that would pair some of the most artistic, skilled, motivated, and mature Boston high school students with designers in some of the best firms and organizations in Boston.  There were two important criteria.  Firstly, it was critical that these be paid internships, since many students need a summer job in order to contribute to their family’s needs.  And secondly, this needed to be more than a pencil-pushing, coffee-fetching internship.  In these days when school budget cuts mean the disappearance of more creative focused programs, the idea behind Korn’s program was to foster these students’ raw talent and teach them how to translate that talent into real world career possibilities.  And with those ideas in mind, Youth Design began.

Youth Design 2012 Graduation

It was an honor to meet the students from this year’s program and hear them articulate all they learned from the mentors at their separate firms and from the weekly trips they took as a group to varying design companies around Boston.  Many of the students spoke about being humbled by the experience.  Seeing their work first hand, I can say with confidence that these are very talented students.  Throughout the summer, however, many of them learned how to take criticism and interpret feedback and realized that having those skills brought their designs to the next level.  And more so than just nurturing their natural artistic talents, these students learned how to work in a professional environment and how to present and defend their ideas and perspectives to colleagues and superiors.  These students were poised and self-assured and it was not difficult to see them working among experienced designers.

There was a strong sense that the mentor-mentee relationship was equally valued on both sides.  The excitement and pride of the students was palpable and inspiring to me, a non-designer, so I can see how these relationships can affect the mentors of the program.  In 2006, Youth Design was profiled in the Boston Globe, highlighting the “two-way traffic in ideas” between this relationship.  Dean Whitney, a mentor from Continuum, sums it up nicely while speaking of his intern Carlos Cardoso, when he says,

“Carlos came to us without all the baggage about what can and can’t be done in design.  He inspired me to look at things differently, too.”

I’m sure the fresh eyes and young ideas of these students are more than valuable to the organizations involved and have reminded many of these seasoned designers where their passion began.

What left the biggest impression on me, however, was the strong sense of community among all the people involved in Youth Design.  I recently wrote a post where I mentioned that one of my least favourite parts of US culture is the exaltation of individualism.  One of the most heart-breaking parts of my move home has been leaving my community in Barcelona.  But seeing an organization like Youth Design in action has quelled any fear I had about the lack of community ideals in Boston.  Korn herself puts it best in this interview for HOWdesign.com.

“[Creating Youth Design] was my way of using what I knew as a designer to propel impactful change to the next generation of designers in our communities… Youth Design is a labor of love and commitment to the next generation.”

The program strives to inspire urban kids to attend college and pursue majors in creative fields, while at the same time building community and business awareness of the value of design and its importance to the regional economy.  The mentors, design firms, board members, and volunteers are making an investment in the next generation and I have no doubt that many of the students in the program will return to one day foster the talents of those coming up behind them.

2011 Design by Marietta Esquerdo

Another important element that cannot be overlooked is Youth Design’s focus to create diversity in the creative workforce.  It was something that board member Robert Lewis, Jr. spoke about in his speech at the graduation and a goal Korn discussed in a 2011 article in Stuff Magazine.

“It’s a diverse group of kids, and one of my goals is to change the face of design and add to the diversity of designers.”

This diversity translated impressively into a variety of ideas present in the 2012 competition, “Take Action.”  The purpose of the competition was to create a design that would inspire and move people to, as the title states, take action.  The entries ranged from such social issues as HIV, xenophobia, domestic violence, bullying, economic inequality, and homophobia.  (click on images to enlarge)

2012 Design by Daisy Mejia

2011 Design by Ena Kantardzic

2012 Design by Malcolm Davidson

The images are powerful and all the more impressive when you remind yourself they were created by teenagers.  As a non-designer, until this day I had never really reflected specifically on the importance of design in terms of motivating and inspiring people.  There are many social issues that are important to me and being a person of words and of discourse I tend to gravitate towards those forms of expression.  But seeing the work of the Youth Designers I was reminded just how much certain visuals and symbols have resonated with me without me even consciously thinking of their power.  I thought of my old favourite, Rosie the Riveter, and all that she meant to me as I formed my identity as a woman and a feminist.  And I reflected on the Obama “Hope” image that I began to see splashed in random places around Barcelona in 2008.  I was a disillusioned young American who had left her home country in 2006 and was struggling with what being an American meant to me.  Seeing that image evoked a surge of a pride in my nationality that I had not felt for many years.

Kathryn was right- I was inspired.  The excitement and ambition of these talented young people has reignited my own drive.  Seeing the support and empowerment that the volunteers, mentors, and all others involved with Youth Design are giving to the next generation has introduced me to a side of Boston that is focused on community and collectivism.  I don’t think I’m out of the woods yet with my culture shock, but I think I’m at least one step closer to feeling at home.

Visit Youth Design’s website at www.youthdesign.org to learn more about mentoring, sponsorship, donations, and volunteer opportunities.


Lessons on Happiness (part 1)

25 Jul

I wrote the other day that I’m grateful to be walking away from Spain with the knowledge of how to live simply.  Though, as I thought more about it, I realized more so than that, they were lessons on what I need for happiness.  I learned that happiness is something you have to constantly work to maintain.  I think Hollywood has really messed us up.  I think it’s similar to the way formulaic romantic comedies have made young girls expect to find their one true soul mate and that once they find him- cue the music- it’s heaven from here on out.  As a girl it never even occurred to me to think about what happened once it faded to black.  I remember having the same epiphany about happiness in my early twenties.  (Is that embarrassingly late to realize something like that?)  I always kind of thought that happiness was something you worked towards and that once you achieved it, it was like ascending to this special club of happy people that you could never be ejected from.  “Good job on attaining the perfect job, the gorgeous and caring husband, and the suburban house with the big yard.  Here’s your lifetime membership card.”  I had never quite realized how cyclical things are and that sometimes it really takes an effort to own your life and make it what you want.  A huge part of it is what you make of your life day to day.  But, obviously, a lot of it is the bigger things, as well.

So these are the big lessons that I learned during my time in Spain about what I need personally.  You may relate to some of them and some of them no.  But that’s okay.  We all need to create our own worlds.  I should mention, though, that while some of these lessons I found in the Spanish culture, many had to do more with my specific situation.  For example, one of the biggest lessons I learned was about materialism, which is certainly not something that doesn’t exist in Spain; especially in Barcelona which prides itself on being one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the country.  (Though, it’s something that has been visibly reined in with Spain’s economic future uncertain in these days of 24.6% unemployment, bank bailouts, taxes on the rise, and more than half of Spaniards under the age of 25 without jobs.)  I guess you could say these ideas evolved during the starving, idealistic phase of my life (I’d always wanted one of those).  They changed my viewpoint quite a bit, though I’m not naïve enough to think these ideas won’t continue to evolve and change.


I went to college at Fairfield University in Connecticut.  It is preppy central- or full of pijos for my Spanish readers.  It

Fairfiled University 2004
Fish Fest on the Point

was my first taste of Keepin’ Up with the Joneses; or I guess, Keepin’ Up with the Jessicas, in this case.  My love of designer brands really blossomed there (and has since almost completely died away, thank God).  I spent all my free time that wasn’t occupied by a full time class schedule, school work, and partying- of course- babysitting so that I could make enough money to fund the buying of things like $300 Dior sunglasses (which I broke six months later).  I just cannot imagine willfully spending that amount of money on something like that nowadays.  I would be mentally calculating how much more I would need to buy a plane ticket to somewhere I’ve really wanted to visit.

When I moved to Barcelona, I could no longer go shopping three times a week or buy a new outfit for every night out.  At the beginning, before I had established myself professionally, I could barely buy things that I really needed.  I remember rocking an embarrassingly shabby winter jacket for a really long time.  But after a few bumps in the road and a few calls home to Mom (what would we all do without our Moms?), I finally started to figure it all out.  I learned to budget and prioritize.  I learned to cook instead of ordering take-out.  I have to give a shout out to my friend Annie for teaching me the correct way to cut different vegetables.  I was really starting from square-one with the cooking.  And as time went by, that little gnawing urge to go on shopping sprees or eat out like I used to finally went away.  And when that initial feeling of disappointment over having my life change so much disappeared, I realized that I was not left with depression or longing like I had expected.  I was left with happiness, because so many other positive changes had happened at the same time.

The idea that stuff- clothes, gadgets, cars, houses- equals success and happiness does not solely exist in the States, but I think Americans have especially embraced it.    We are a culture of excess, accumulation, and clutter.  There’s a New York Times article from 2009 that has always stuck with me called The Self-Storage SelfStorage units began appearing in the ‘60s and really took off beginning in the ‘90s.  By the early ‘90s, Americans had twice the amount of possessions as they did 25 years earlier.  Today, 1 in 10 US households rent a storage unit.  They were originally created to be transitional spaces; for short term storage due to moving, marriage, divorce, or death.  But by 2007, 50% of Americans renting storage spaces were using them as extra storage in addition to their houses, despite the fact that the average US household had doubled to 2,300 square feet in the previous 50 years.  Since the recession, statistics have changed slightly as many people are renting space due to the loss of their homes.  But that 50% of Americans renting for extra space has not changed that drastically.  Why do we feel we need so much stuff?  And it is stuff, as the majority of things kept in these units are furniture, old appliances, toys, and books.

One of the most enthralling, can’t-look-away-even-though-I’m-disgusted reality programs I’ve discovered recently (though I think it’s been around for awhile now) is Hoarders.  Now, I understand that the situations for many of the people featured on Hoarders are much more complicated and that hoarding is a psychological condition.  But I’ve watched it with a few people who have commented, “I can kind of relate to not wanting to throw some of those things away- on a much smaller scale, of course.  I have a lot of trouble parting with things.”

How did this happen?  I’ve always heard from my grandparents’ generation that anyone who grew up in the Great Depression had a learned propensity to hoarding since they were afraid of once again being left with nothing.  It’s undeniably something different with my parents’ generation on, however.  America has admittedly been self-aware, with commentaries on the excess and greed of the ‘80s personified in such characters as Gordon Gekko, Sherman McCoy, and Frank Cross (from the films Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Scrooged respectively).  Some would argue that America’s attitude is changing during the current recession.  The image of success so many struggled to maintain has crumbled to reveal a falseness, as we realize the astonishing amount of debt that has been shoved behind closed doors for many families.  My generation is realizing that the American promise of upward mobility we’ve had instilled in us since we were children will likely not be fulfilled for many of us.  I would like to think that the recent recession has taught us all a lesson and I do feel like it has made the people of my generation realize some important truths early enough for us to make different choices in our lives.  But I can’t help feeling skeptical and pessimistic that when, or if, things start to pick up again, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief, be lulled into another false sense of invincibility, and push all these lessons to the back of their minds.

I read an interesting blog article the other day, which you should all check out if you have the time, called 10 Things Most Americans Don’t Know About AmericaWhile I don’t necessarily agree with all that author’s viewpoints, much of it did ring true for me.  I especially loved number 10- “We Mistake Comfort for Happiness.”  Mr. Manson comments,

The United States is a country built on the exaltation of economic growth and personal ingenuity. Small businesses and constant growth are celebrated and supported above all else — above affordable health care, above respectable education, above everything. Americans believe it’s your responsibility to take care of yourself and make something of yourself, not the state’s, not your community’s, not even your friend’s or family’s in some instances.

It saddens me that individualism has been placed above community in the States.  I experienced a true sense of community with my group of expat friends in Spain, though it was on a small scale.  Our shared priorities were very clear.  We were a community of people who placed learning and experiences above all else.  We were choosing a life where we were trading in certain comforts we may have been used to in our own countries in exchange for a life of constantly meeting new people from different cultures, learning new languages, exchanging ideas with people who had had very different experiences from us, travelling, and living off the high of being outside of your comfort zone.

I’ve said it before, but within this community we honestly only had each other.  So, if someone was struggling financially or needed a place to crash for a few weeks (or even a few months) or was looking for work, the people within that community were immediately there to help you out.  And there was no sense of embarrassment asking for help, because you knew that when another person within that community needed something you would pay it forward.  I’m not saying I don’t have that in the States, because I am so incredibly grateful to all my friends and family here.  Everyone is helping me to get on my feet and the love I’ve felt has been so overwhelming.  But, there is a certain amount of urgency I feel so that I can keep my pride intact that I never really felt in Spain.  This sense of urgency is certainly not coming from any of my friends or family; it comes from the culture here and my fear that if my situation is told to someone who doesn’t know me, there will be that little bit of judgment- the uninformed judgment that I spent the last six years in Spain partying it up only to return home as an unemployed 28 year old lazily living with my Mom. (Well, and obviously the urgency also comes from seeing my savings slowly diminish).  That American need to maintain a certain image has obviously not left me, though it seems to only return when I’m in the States.

Hopefully I will find a job soon.  Hopefully that sense of urgency will be gone and I’ll be able to settle in and establish a new identity and a new community here.  And hopefully I will still be able to hold onto all the lessons I learned about materialism, even in this environment.  I am grateful, however, that even if I do decide to get the house and the car and some of the expensive gadgets, if I one day lose them all I will be okay.  I know that I don’t need possessions to define me or make me happy and that some of my happiest years so far were defined by other things.  Of course, it’s easier to think this way as a young, single woman with no children to care for.  But, I will always have the knowledge that it is possible to start a new life and I will always remember just how quickly you can adjust.  I’ve learned, for me, the things that are truly important.

Tomorrow I’ll post part 2- lessons on Education, Health, Balance, & Family