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Stanford Fulbright scholars bring attention to marginalized communities

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This year, 21 Stanford alumni were selected as grant recipients for study and research projects as part of the Fulbright U.S. Student Program, which aims to foster cultural exchange and appreciation. The program awards grants for one academic year to students pursuing a project in another country. The Daily interviewed two Stanford alumni, Stephanie Niu B.S. & M.S. ’20 and Erin Semine Kökdil M.F.A. ’18, about how they plan to spend their year with Fulbright.

Chinese mine laborers on Christmas Island

Niu observing the annual red-crab migration (Photo by Tom Schandy)

Niu, who graduated with a bachelor’s in Symbolic Systems and a master’s in Computer Science, will produce a series of digitally guided, augmented-reality tours about the experience of Chinese Mine Laborers on Christmas Island.

Niu said she came up with the idea for the project when she was pursuing a different project on the island in 2018. For two months, Niu had worked on producing a podcast detailing human and animal migration. Specifically, she researched the effects of an annual red-crab migration and the presence of one of Australia’s largest immigration detention centers on the island’s infrastructure. 

While on the island, Niu learned about the history of the Chinese phosphate mine laborers, who, in the early 1900s, were exploited as indentured servants by British colonizers. Niu’s two driving questions for this project: “what life was like for Chinese laborers, and how that legacy of mining affects islanders’ lives today.”

“The reason I wanted to do this project is that there’s a lot of physical structures on the island that … have a lot of rich history that locals know stories about,” Niu said.

These physical structures include mine shafts that were built by hand, locations of old quarries and limestone pinnacles that miners obtained phosphate from and graves of unidentified miners located at the top of the island.

“All of this history is just there in physical structures … and people know stories about them … but it’s not really memorialized or captured in any way,” Niu said.

“It’s a feeling of wanting to capture this history while it’s still possible, and also telling a really important story of these laborers who were paid unfair wages and lived really brutal lives,” she added.

Niu hopes using augmented reality will enhance the experience of those learning about the miners by adding to the physicality of the experience. For example, she hopes learners will gain a better understanding of how tall phosphate pinnacles were and how they were mined painfully by hand. She said that the augmented reality isn’t meant to replace the physical experience, but instead  “[overlay] some information onto reality that enhances it.”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program emphasizes the facilitation of cultural appreciation and understanding. For Niu, that means that another facet of her project will include “creating a model for how [a] community-driven archive can happen.” Oftentimes, Niu said, the way that history is recorded is very “colonial.”

“Giving the people who actually are descended from the workers the chance to tell those stories is something … I want to be a part of,” Niu said. “It can be the words that people from the community have said, not mine.” 

Niu will be collaborating with the University of Sydney and Western Sydney University, along with the Christmas Island Tourism Association, hoping they will take what she builds and make it widely available.

Mayan backstrap weaving

Kökdil, who graduated with an M.F.A. in Documentary Film, will travel to Guatemala to create a documentary film about the traditional art of Mayan backstrap weaving and the threats of erasure it faces today. 

Like Niu, Kökdil was inspired to conduct this project while spending time at the location a few years prior. While an undergraduate at Smith College, Kökdil took a class on the peace accords following the Guatemalan Civil War. Curious about Guatemalan culture and the recovery process for a country that recently underwent this sort of trauma, Kökdil interned with a nonprofit working in development and community aid. 

“I was really turned off by the way in which [the nonprofit was] working with people and creating this dependency model,” Kökdil said. 

Following graduation, Kökdil interned with another nonprofit, one working to support Indigenous communities in non-extractive and non-dependent manners. From 2012 to 2016, she worked with Maya Traditions Foundation to partner with Indigenous Mayan weavers to help sell their products, negotiate a fair price and connect them with international designers. 

Kökdil said this nonprofit was different because it saw development as a “way [to change] the economic structure in which people live and work, and [provide] them sustainable work at a fair price.”

During her time in Guatemala, Kökdil learned about the art of backstrap weaving and the current forces that threaten its existence. Kökdil said that the products of this art can’t be qualified as textiles, even though the global economy sees them as commodities on which to put a price.

“It surpasses that — it takes so much time to make, it’s so intricate,” Kökdil said. “The techniques that they use — it’s really an art form.”

Kökdil says she hopes to shed light on factors that threaten this art, such as globalization, the economy and COVID-19, which have put pressure on these communities to give up their traditional cultures.

“A lot of women and a lot of Indigenous communities are giving up their traditional arts, their traditional languages, moving to cities — essentially seeking work that’s more profitable,” Kökdil said.

She added that, because of structural violence in the government and school systems, a lot of Indigenous people are discriminated against. Additionally, many people are being forced to leave their rural communities due to the pressure of needing to earn a better wage.

“I hope with this film it creates awareness about how these huge things … are affecting small Indigenous communities in such a drastic way,” Kökdil said.

Kökdil is planning on following three different families over six to eight months to understand the unique relationships of these women to their arts. She will be collaborating with the Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing in Guatemala City, who will sponsor her and help connect her to various communities. 

Kökdil said that she wants people to “gain appreciation of the way that these textiles are made and the knowledge and cultural heritage that it takes.” 

Contact Viraj Mehta at viraj28m ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Viraj Mehta is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.