Teaching Design Process As Youth Empowerment 

Erik van Lennep Hyland

"The programme seeks to weave together the strands of basic design, self knowledge, environmental awareness, conflict resolution skills, community building skills, intercultural communications and the most positive, powerful, basic and lasting of any motivational factors: spirituality.””"  


The Arctic to Amazonia Alliance, a global NGO focused upon cultural and biological diversity issues, is building a new programme to train youth in intercultural communications skills and sustainable design.  Design skills are being taught not only as an end in themselves, but as a means of building self-knowledge and self respect.  Now in its third year of development, the new EarthRoots Programme has attracted significant interest from a number of indigenous nations, from members of the European Community, and nations within Africa and South America .  The first partner sites are planned for Ireland and the states of Vermont and Virginia in the United States .  At this time, the Alliance is seeking local commitments to build a working group to move towards establishment of a series of training sites within Ireland .

Like Bill Roper, I am also from the People's Republic of Vermont !

I would like to thank Terry and Philomena and the Landscape Alliance for making it possible for me to come and speak to you all about this project, which is very exciting to me.

It's also very exciting to me to have the opportunity to stand again on the soil of my ancestors.

This is another one of those papers which is going to use that word 'sustainable', so in your mind you can translate to whatever definition makes you feel best.

I direct a small international NGO which was originally established to help build links among the indigenous nations of the world and also to help link indigenous nations and their organisations with those environmental NGOs which are supposed to be there to protect the environment.

It may or may not come as a surprise to you that for most of our indigenous membership, Ireland is regarded as an indigenous nation. 

But the ‘Earthroots’ Programme which I will be discussing, developed from a desire from our indigenous membership to have more contacts with the Celtic community.  In fact it is becoming very commonplace for native Americans to come over to Ireland and for one reason or another to come back speaking about Irish Indians because they see so many parallels, as victims of colonisation and all of the different subterfuges that go along to keep a people down.

I am also a landscape designer by trade and I have worked since 1983 to use landscape restoration as a means not only to help damaged eco-systems, but to help heal that rift between people and their habitats. 

Over time I have become increasingly aware of the magic which happens when restoration projects are linked with youth, both within a school setting and outside.

Several years ago I began an open-ended conversation with a number of my indigenous colleagues, with environmentalists, landscape designers and architects and educators regarding the power of using design to empower individuals and communities working for social change.   At the same time I became aware that the efforts being made by all of us in the areas addressing environmental problems and cultural diversity, intercultural understanding and troubled youth were very much inter-related, but we were all treating them as if they were completely independent of one another.

So I began to look for ways to teach others the value and the necessity of dealing with these areas as parts of a greater whole.

I eventually came to the idea of creating a series of locally defined training centres where the principles of inter-relatedness could be researched, demonstrated, taught and applied.

When seeking viable alternatives to the destructive patterns of industry and development which plague us all we tend towards the so-called sustainable or maybe biocentric technologies, and it's within the thinking of sustainability that we are most likely to find an understanding that environmental stewardship and cultural integrity are mutually supporting.

Looking for others interested in, or already working along the same lines, I circulated a series of rough proposals a few years ago for the establishment of a centre for sustainable technology, based upon the principles which I have just outlined of inter-relatedness between these topic areas.

Eventually that proposal circulated around the world and what was interesting was that by far the greatest number of interested replies were coming from Ireland .

So I eventually had to come and see for myself the people who I had been corresponding with and I put about 1,500 miles on my rental car in three weeks going between meetings.  I saw just about everything except the very centre of the country. 

Out of these meetings the ideas were continually refined, tossed out, restated, refined again to the point where they now stand as a proposal.

The tools for design, I believe, are some of the most powerful tools to change a person's life.  It certainly has been so for me, in fact when I graduated from my master's programme in Landscape Design several years ago, the overwhelming emotion I had was anger and what I was angry about was that nobody had provided those tools to me as a child because had that been the case I would have designed my way through school, I would have designed my way through life and it seemed really unfair that I had to wait until I was in my thirties to get that.

So I now find myself using design as a way of viewing life itself as well as a tool for dealing with challenges.  It doesn't really matter to me, whether I am designing gardens, habitats, campaigns or programmes, the approach is the same.  It is posing helpful questions, it is learning how to see the world in a new way.  The details, which do vary, happen to be on a second level after you have engaged in the design process.

My experience of working with people of all ages is that once they have experienced success in designing and implementing any project  -  they no longer look at the world quite as blindly as they did previously.  And if that project happens to involve improving their own situation or addressing some sort of pressing community problem they become an overnight activist. 

They then move on to organise others into confronting and dealing with any number of issues, which happen to be plaguing them.

The value in this for a young person struggling to understand themselves and their relation to the world is, I think, incalculable.  I have literally seen it lift people out of the depths of depression and become self-aware, personally motivated and valued contributors to the entire community, and I have seen this a lot, in fact.

Obviously learning to see through the lines of design is an immediate advantage in being able to solve problems, but I think it's less obvious that it can also increase self knowledge and it is self-knowledge which in many ways characterises the quest we all make, but particularly that of youth.

On the other side of the design/self knowledge equation stands another issue which is too frequently ignored and that is that the more a designer understands herself and himself it is easier to get out of your own way, I think and not muddle up the design with your prejudices and the things you want to see happening, especially when that design is supposed to be for the benefit of somebody else or something else.  I think this is very important.

It also increases self knowledge for a person which comes about through entering the design thinking.  There is a flip side of that which is that you can then open yourself up to the intuition which is coming through.  So when you know yourself well enough to know your prejudices, as they slip into your design you can say 'wait a minute, this is telling me something I haven't thought about -  this is coming from a deeper level and I should look at this because it's probably telling me something about this project that I forgot to include'  and so it's very valuable.  

Young people today are growing up in, and desperately trying to make sense of a world which is literally falling to pieces  The speed with which news from around the world comes is very rapid and we can and do hear about critical events and issues literally within hours of their occurrence.  Since much of the news deals with the unravelling of the economy and environment, it's hard to look forward to the coming of adulthood with anything but despair and cynicism.

For myself and I believe it's true for many with whom I work, the world situation is far more bearable if we feel that we are contributing in some way to correcting the ills which surround us.   Although it has so far escaped serious interest on the part of government, sustainable technology or whatever else we wind up calling it, which does sustain sustainable (or whatever else we might call it) design offers the most credible way back towards a healthy planet and healthy societies, cultures and persons.  Industry has not ignored the growing public interest in sustainability even though at this point they are dragging their heels and posturing without any sincerity, you can believe that even now there is quite a lot of research focused upon renewables and other approaches to sustainability which is still behind the scenes.  Only when the old way becomes totally bankrupt will we see them moving out into the light.

But if this is going to happen; maybe we should push it, I don't know.

What it does mean is that there will be jobs in these areas and this is important again for young people.  The more that we, the public, educate ourselves and each other and our governments, then the faster that these alternative ways of doing things are going to come on line. 

So by learning design thinking and building self knowledge and applying that awareness to researching and promoting alternatives young people will not only create for themselves a job but they will be creating for themselves a more secure future.

The ultimate intention of the ‘Earthroots’ programme is to give tools to and to empower young people to become healthy healers, happy, responsible global citizens.  In order to do this the programme seeks to weave together the strands of basic design, self knowledge, environmental awareness, conflict resolution skills, community building skills, intercultural communications and the most positive, powerful, basic and lasting of any motivational factors: spirituality.

I am not talking about religion and I'm not talking about church.  I am talking about the intensely personal and individual relationship each being has with his or her spiritual self.  That to me is sacred in the highest sense of that word.  That's the voice from within which gives meaning and drive to those who speak from the heart and inspire those around them. 

For the indigenous cultures who still live and act with a respect and an awareness once common to all of us, it's that personal connection to spirituality which provides the strongest guidance, something we all hunger for, it's something we all recognise when we see it and it's something we all need in order to be whole.

By including it intentionally, as part of the balance we seek in healing landscapes and persons, we strengthen the rest of our work.

Eventually the ‘Earthroots’ project seeks to develop serious inter-communicating learning sites where those principles I just mentioned through weaving together can be developed by focusing upon learning to design and to promote biocentric alternatives.

So there are several overlays in this programme.  I know it was quite a laundry list that I just delivered.

But if you see them as transparencies or overlays which are happening at different levels at the same time, it is really not that much to ask, in fact we are all very practised in doing a number of things at the same time.  In this case we are talking about working to become self knowledgeable and to open communications with one's personal spirituality - that's an ongoing process.  Teaching of conflict resolution and inter-cultural translation skills become essential tools for international activity.  The appreciation that culture and environmental attitudes are part of a single whole allows far more clarity and understanding in addressing many issues, which will come along in designing environmental cultural and economic repair strategies.

Basic design thinking is a prerequisite for any specific focus, while also developing critical thinking skills and a sense of personal capability.  All these are needed to effectively engage in posing alternatives to the way we are now draining and pulling at our habitat.

Development of leadership and entrepreneurial skills will allow students to create jobs and markets for those skills.  Community organising skills and public education venues provide means to bring the public along in demanding faster conversions to sustainables from industry and government.

Finally the creation of such centres for research and demonstration of sustainables, flips the educational paradigm on its head by turning the students into the teachers.  The young will be educating their elders even as they continue to learn.  As the inheritors of all our folly it seems appropriate to give young people the leadership in creating a saner, healthier world.

At this time we have small working groups developing in the United States in Virginia and in Vermont .  Many others have expressed strong interest in bringing this sort of programme to their own nations, especially here in Ireland .  What's needed most at this time to move the project out of the discussion circle and into a more concrete form, is the establishment of a working group here capable of committing time and energy to the project.  I invite any of you who are interested to speak with me about helping in forming a nucleus which can attract more support and start some sort of pilot programme.

Thank You

Q & A Session

John Ketch:  One theme that has been going through this morning's session and now this one  -   talking about regulation, EIAs and traffic laws were mentioned at one stage.  It's this public ownership which is being examined and even implemented in some places in landscape design, the public ownership, the fact that you actually take control of the laws and the rules and the actual landscapes, this can involve either signing up physically or in some other way if not  to actual ownership of what's happening around you and the developments around you, you integrate and get involved in this kind of a way and I can't think of a better way for starting with young people than from this point.

Dom Hegarty, DOE and Local Government: My question is to Joyce McCormick, I would like to compliment her and the planning service in Northern Ireland for the work they have done in carrying out this series of landscape character surveys, and I wonder, having regard to that work, whether Joyce sees any relevance now for a regional landscape policy.  I know there have been many calls here for a national landscape policy, are you satisfied that what you have done is sufficient for the local development plan mechanism to achieve whatever needs to be done.

Joyce McCormick:  What we need now is what we call a planning policy paper on landscape, though it will to a certain extent be covered in the regional strategy and so on, but we need a policy paper that brings all the different elements of landscape  together in the one framework.   We have it on planning and nature conservation, but we need a planning and landscape type of policy statement.

John Haughton: I would like to congratulate the last speaker on his presentation because it brought in an element, which the conference needed and that was diversity of culture.  Biodiversity we were talking about a lot today and it's really cultural diversity that we need to talk about in addition and the point made in relation to Belfast, the cultural diversity of a local landscape for example in a deprived area. 

Now the destruction of culture (and the American Indian is probably the best example, the devastation of seventy million people, in Vermont and elsewhere) is the greatest tragedy.  But that tragedy is happening today in places like Sudan etc.  I was reading recently about the Cherokee removal to a reservation in America and it is very sad reading indeed, but the same thing is happening in Sudan – with the famine in Sudan .  So I think we should see things in perspective and looking at diversity as the key to the whole thing, not just biological diversity but the richness of cultural diversity, of the inner city community or what have you. 

I would like to congratulate the last two speakers on that, because the two are very much linked, congratulations 

Mairead Ni Drisceoil:  When I was growing up in primary school the children were taught how to grow bluebells and put down potatoes, onions, cabbages.  There is none of that now at all, so we did have what you are talking about from the other side of the Atlantic .  Perhaps if we had that again it might work.  I do not see the Irish National Teachers Organisation here today, but if that happened perhaps we might not have the high incidence of crime because the spirituality would be linked with the wonder of the fall of the leaf and so on.  If teachers were doing that in primary school today they would be considered "way out" or crazy or something.

Also on the subject of city farms, there are children living in deprived parts of large cities and they think potatoes are just out of bags, and milk comes out of a plastic bottle.  So it's good to hear that the Overend sisters in Dundrum , these wonderful ladies have been giving that for the children of Dublin , and we need that very urgently.  And the fantastic work that you do here is not being heard enough at all.  I don't see Gerry Ryan or RTE here reporting on you for the evening news, isn't it about time we asked them to come?

Terry O'Regan:  Just to respond quickly, we sent press releases everywhere we could think of, every local radio and every national programme we could think of, but you actually need a separate P.R. body doing nothing else but chasing them up and there are wheels within wheels within P.R.

I would like to address a question to Erik and one to Dom Hegarty:  Erik, where do you see the programme slotting in within the existing education framework or do you see it completely independent of it, and to Dom Hegarty  - having seen what has happened in Northern Ireland and it's seems to me a classic case of a wheel having been invented, I am interested to know if any discussions to your knowledge taken place in the Department of the Environment on developing a joint discussion group with Northern Ireland to see can we borrow from them and learn from  what they have done so that we can implement something similar here in the south.

Response (Erik van Lennep Hyland):  As far as the existing educational system goes the EarthRoots programme is based on a three-year programme. We are thinking that perhaps the first target group will be high school drop-outs and we will be able to offer in conjunction with the system the high school equivalency for completing the full three years.  In the United States(mainly in Vermont), there are three or four community level colleges very interested in working with us and having us provide what they have already been looking to develop - an international style programme, and in exchange for that they would work with us at different levels from the high school up.  Part of what we could offer then is advanced standing in these participating college systems.  When I came over here I spoke with some representatives from the RTC system and they were also very interested in aligning with us, so I guess the simple answer is using the existing institutions to the point where we can combine programming.  I do think that there are earlier stages, where we are putting together pilot programmes in various locations where you can't do the whole picture.  You have to start small, and trial it and demonstrate it so that others gain confidence in it.  That could even be based around the likes of a summer camp.

Dom Hegarty:  I don't know if discussions have taken place or not. 

We have had discussions with our counterparts in Northern Ireland in relation to their regional strategy.  But in relation to the work that Joyce is doing, they have a much more centralised system.  We have local planning authorities, who are their own masters, they don't have the same situation in the north.  Once we have finished preparing the planning legislation which is going through now and nearing its conclusion and when we start on the landscape guidelines we will welcome discussions with our counterparts in Northern Ireland and we will consult widely with everybody else.  I am here today to listen as well.  I think conferences such as this are a great help in deciding the best way forward.

Stephanie Bolton: Regarding the earlier comment about planting bluebells in the school yard, there is a scheme in existence right now with the Earth Wisdom Foundation where they are looking for a piece of land in the city, in a town and in the country to develop pilot programmes for growing soft fruit and orchards and teaching horticulture to people, especially schoolchildren, if anybody has any interest in that I can give them a contact address.  We would like to see this programme developed across the country.■

“If designing could be taught, all the world would learn; as all the world reads, or calculates. ….

So in this matter of making artists; first you must find your artist in the grain; then you must plant him; and with patience, ground and weather permitting, you may get an artist out of him – not otherwise.”

John Ruskin

         The Limits of Arts Education