The LOEB Fellowship

The House
of Wise Words

The House
of Wise Words

Barbara Epstein
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For ten Loeb Fellows who participated in a “Day of Service” at Ve’et Tu’un Xavi, the House of Wise Words school in Tijuana, the day was a satisfying and personally impactful end to the 2019 Loeb Fall Study trip to San Diego and Tijuana. The work was hands-on: planting, scraping and painting, creating fanciful murals on the ground for children to play on. And yet, it was clear that the school could benefit from a deeper effort to produce a long term plan and design strategy.

Supported by a 2020 grant from the Loeb Alumni Council, organizers Rob Lane ‘09 and Jim Brown ’09 convened a 3-day planning and design workhop workshop, which took place at the school and at Jim’s cultural center Bread and Salt in San Diego over 3 days in February. With a little help from their friends, they developed a comprehensive plan that is both visionary and grounded in the needs, aspirations, and realities of the community.

Ve’et Tu’un Xavi

The House of Wise Words occupies 2 acres of hilly campus a couple of miles south of central Tijuana. Eight structures, 30 years old, serve two elementary schools; 270 students attend in the morning, and another 180 students use the school in the afternoon. Forty percent of the students are Mixteco, one of the many indigenous populations of Mexico, and are taught in both Spanish and Mixtec. The community is well established, and many of the families represent several generations that have lived in Tijuana.

Fellows saw potential for a replicable model through thoughtful landscape restoration and erosion management and opportunities for nutrition and eco-education.

 

The challenges facing the House of Wise Words are characteristic of public schools in Tijuana. The Loeb Fellows saw the potential to create a replicable model that demonstrates thoughtful landscape restoration and erosion management through native planting, along with opportunities for nutrition and eco-education. There could be civic spaces and educational areas for the whole community and revenue-generating entrepreneurial uses. Creative strategies to improve security include landscape interventions and a caretaker living on site. It all could be achieved through a process that engages the community and school to think holistically about their resources.

The team

In addition to the workshop organizers, the Loeb team included Jamie Blosser ’15, Patricia Brown ’10, Kathleen Dorgan ’02, Joanna Gilligan ’18, and Rob Stein ’94, with Surella Segu ’18 advising. As with the Day of Service in 2019, interactions with the school were facilitated by Via International, a trans-border service organization with a decade-long relationship with the school.

To further address the planners’ dilemma of being outsiders, Jim Brown brought in a Tijuana-based colleague, Jorge Gracia, architect and founder of the Escuela Libre de Architectura. Jorge, in turn, was able to recruit key agency representatives and design professionals, including the director of city planning and a representative of the Department of Education. Thus, an important first impact of the initiative was attracting the attention of people whose influence will be needed to move the plan forward.

Elsa’s observations

In keeping with the Fellowship’s goal of meaningful engagement with GSD students, Elsa Mendoza was invited to join the Loeb team. Elsa, an architect in practice for 10 years, is in the Master of Design Studies program in Art, Design, and the Public Domain. With her background growing up in a Mexican border town along the Rio Grande and her particular interest in binational initiatives and cooperation, she was well suited to offer valuable insights in addition to language support.  

 

Elsa talks about the size of the Loeb team and the diversity of skills and perspectives represented. “In practice, I mostly see smaller teams for decision making, and it was for me a good sign that people from different disciplines converged,” she said. “I also liked how the first thing the Loeb team did was ask the teachers and parents what they need and then build the design proposal around that…horizontal communication was important to make everybody engaged.” 

Along with the local designers, Elsa played a significant role as cultural mediator. Although she had never been to Tijuana before, she recognized many of the features of the House of Wise Words and brought the perspective of someone who was educated both in similar schools in Mexico and in the US. At first glance, she observed, the House of Wise Words seemed unfinished, not quite ready for students or teachers, but it was typical of many public schools in Tijuana. As the team suggested dining tables for the children’s meals, Elsa and Jorge pointed out that children eating on the floor is commonplace in Mexican schools.   

“Part of our contribution was to share our own experience. We both grew up eating without dining tables at our schools, and we did not see this as a problem. It was not until very recently that some Mexican schools started to install dining tables.” 

The experience with the Loeb project confirmed Elsa’s approach to her own fieldwork, which she’s conducting among migrants temporarily living in the city of Reynosa, Mexico. “We often have pre-defined ideas of what is needed to improve the situation of others– the outside view. But designers can learn so much when they truly engage and collaborate with all stakeholders and gain an inside view. In this sense, I consider the House of Wise Words project a success in terms of working across borders and enclosing the perspectives of both countries.” 

The plan

The plan that emerged from the workshops is indeed comprehensive, and adheres to the principles of

  • Generating low cost, low tech, low maintenance solutions engaging the skills of the community,
  • Phasing to show early wins and build momentum,
  • Providing opportunities for experiential learning and play by students and community members,
  • Creating a model of sustainable practice in landscape and buildings,
  • Incorporating spaces for entrepreneurship and revenue opportunities for the school and families,
  • Connecting the rich culture of the neighborhood to civic spaces at the school, and
  • Seeking meaningful participation and feedback.

The plan addresses security and safety, a key concern for family members, and then turns its attention to new spaces, including a new kitchen facility that can double as a commercial kitchen and is linked to the nutrition curriculum and community gardening.  Accessibility improvements will make the site more suitable for community use and create an interwoven “City of Learning.” The landscape interventions support curricula, sustainability, and security, with shade gardens and fruit orchards that make for a safer and more inviting environment.

Next steps

The LOEB team intends to remain involved to move the project forward once it has the full support of school leadership, teachers, and parents for the plan. Building on the relationships created during the workshop, a round of presentations to the government agencies will help identify the specific initiatives the City and DOE are willing to fund. At the same time there will be outreach to potential funders.

 

Elsa hopes to be involved in the next phase as well. “This project is very close to my heart, since I’m trying to understand more how it feels to be a migrant, such as my grandfather, who was from an indigenous community in Oaxaca and moved to the border of Northern Mexico. I know he struggled when he needed to integrate with the local community, and it was probably not easy with language. I like this idea of a community space, a place where people can meet local people and make connections.”