In this interview, Design Trust Fellow Lizania Cruz, talks about her inspirations and outcomes during the Create Change Residency with The Laundromat Project: We The News (2017-2019) -- a mobile newsstand with a collection of free zines featuring stories that aim to amplify the lived memories and voices of Black im/migrants.
Dhanya: Tell us a bit about yourself. Your inspirations growing up?
Lizania: I was born and raised in Dominican Republic. I would spend my weekends and summers at my grandparent’s house in a beach town called Boca Chica. On my way there, we used to pass this amazing Carlo Cruz-Diez site specific installation that cover the mills for el Molinos Dominicanos. I was mesmerized by it. Now that I think about it, this was my first fascination with public art. The piece has since been dismantled but I will always remember its simplicity and the use of the mills to create a kaleidoscope graphic effect.
For college, I went to Altos de Chavón School of Design in La Romana. There I discovered the work of Tibor Kalman and Martin Margiela who were my first design crushes. Now, as my practice develops I find myself being inspired by the environment I grew up that I took for granted back then; the two sugar mills my grandfather worked at, DR's complex history which I’m relearning with a new perspective, and Dominican artists like Silvano Lora who created radical work in public spaces like La Bienal Marginal.
Dhanya: Can you describe the Create Change Residency fellowship project in your own words? What motivated You to create “We the News” to collect immigrant stories?
Lizania: I was getting frustrated with how the media was portraying immigrants and started to wonder what it would look like if we tell our own stories. What it would look like for us to control the narrative. I also remember the time when newsstands were part of the landscape of NYC. They were part of the city's charm. So I wanted to create a newsstand that will travel and reclaim the public space with our own stories.
With this in mind, I started to look for partner organizations that would collaborate with me on the project. In the process, I came across The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) work. My collaboration with BAJI shaped the project in ways that I couldn’t have imagined. I worked directly with their lead organizer in NYC Albert Saint Jean to organize the story circles. For each story circle around 8-12 people came together to share their story. We open the story circles with a prompt which helped frame the story of each participant. Each participant gets roughly 10 to 15 minutes to respond. I then record, transcribe and edit each story in collaboration with the participants. With the final edits, I design zines that are then distributed through the newsstand at public gatherings on the sidewalk.
D: What was the most surprising/rewarding aspect of this process?
L: The most surprising thing for me was realizing that there weren’t enough spaces where we could share our stories. Especially around the intersection of race and migration. The majority of people who came to the story circles will walk out expressing the need for more spaces like that. I always thought that people didn’t really want to share their stories, but it was more like there weren’t any spaces that people felt comfortable to share. This was also the most rewarding aspect. We were able to build community and in return, it gave me a space to understand my own relation with race as I migrated to the USA.
D: What was the most challenging aspect of this process?
L: Each step of the process presents its own challenges. I would say that the most challenging part is to bring the newsstand into the public space. It’s always a gamble. Sometimes the space is challenging and other times it is the city that challenges the use of the public space.
D: I am curious to know how you mobilized interest towards these story circles? Was it difficult to have them tell their stories especially in the current fear-driven climate?
L: To mobilize people we relied on the community that is part of BAJI; partner organizations and their organizing committee. We worked on selecting spaces that would feel intimate so people feel safe to share their stories -- like a community garden in Bed-Stuy or a public library in Queens. We also break bread and wine to allow participants to know each other and feel like they belong in the community. I think this is key for folks to open up.
D: Who is the audience for this newsstand? How would people who are not aware of immigrant experiences be motivated to get to know more about them?
L: This is a question I get asked a lot. When I started the project I saw the audience as White American citizens that had no direct relationship with let's say a Black immigrant. But as the project developed I realized that white Americans, as much as Black Americans and POC immigrants need to read these stories. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of animosity between communities of color; Black and Brown immigrants and Black Americans. So now, for me, that is the main audience. We can’t dismantle white supremacy if we are not all united.
D: How do you plan on expanding this project? Are there any new ventures you are currently working on?
L: I want to take the newsstand to the west coast and potentially do a story circle in Los Angeles or Oakland. I believe our stories are shaped by the places we live; therefore I’m curious to see how these would change in different cities. Apart from We the News, I’m working on a project titled $200 From… To… -With Love, that looks at the impact that remittances have on our home countries. I am also working on a project that investigates the Dominican racial imaginary.
D: As an immigrant and a designer myself, I am curious to know how you think design disciplines can adapt to foster positive interactions in communities.
L: I see design as a tool that can be used to invite people to participate in their community, in their neighborhood, and to assert their rights. Some simple and obvious aspects are to include more languages, to generate greater accessibility physically as well as virtually during the design process. Design can also be a catalyst to bring people from different views together and engage in conversation. It can become a tool for mediation. That is how I want to see design play a role in this current political climate.
Thank you Lizania, for sharing your ideas and ongoing projects with the Design Trust audience!