One College Senior Teaches Us How to Be Awesome at Everything

In Tanzania learning traditional drum on a Trail of Seeds project
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Your college years are the best time to experiment. And sure, for some people that means seeing if you can rock a pink mohawk or a pierced eyebrow, but some students use this time to travel, volunteer, and even start their own non-profits.

In Shannon Smith’s case, college has been a time to travel the world, seek out meaningful experiences, and work towards the causes that are most important to her, such as culturally sustainable development and climate justice. We catch up with this current senior Anthropology major at Reed College to learn about what motivates her, how she funds her projects, and what she’s got cooking after she graduates in May.

What have been your most significant travel experiences to date? Where have you gone and what have you done there?

In total, I have traveled to Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, St. Kitts, Cuba, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Brazil, Haiti, Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Poland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, and Tanzania.

The first time I traveled by myself internationally, I was 14 years old. I went to Denmark to stay with different family friends for six weeks. I paid for the entire trip with babysitting money. It was empowering to know that I could have a crazy idea like “I want to go to Denmark,” and actually make it happen on my own. My parents were really encouraging and excited that I would be going to stay with their old friends (they met because they both studied abroad in Denmark).

I attended the international boarding school United World College (UWC). Their mission statement is “United World College makes education a force to unite people, nations and cultures for peace and a sustainable future.” I was introduced to really important concepts and ideas of what it means to be a global citizen and my classmates were amazing people from over 80 countries. I feel extremely lucky to have gotten a full scholarship to attend this incredible school.

I went to Guatemala by myself during the winter break of my freshman year of college. It was a really spontaneous decision to go. I wanted to do an intensive Spanish language program at Lago Atitlan because a few friends had recommended it to me.

I wasn’t working at the time, so my dad helped me pay for it. He’s always been really supportive. He taught me how to value autonomy and interdependence and I’m really grateful for that. I had an amazing trip in Guatemala—sometimes I just feel the need to travel by myself and afterwards I always understand why because I meet so many inspiring people.

Me walking the streets of Havana, Cuba

The streets of Havana.

My semester abroad in Cuba was really intellectually stimulating. There are so many preconceived notions about Cuba that North Americans hold without really knowing what life is like there. The Cubans I lived with and studied with were both proud and critical, and it was amazing to see how vibrant their culture is and how strong their social programs are despite a widespread level of poverty.

I worked with a Cuban professor to write an independent research paper on local development initiatives around Havana, and I got to interview many development practitioners as part of my research. I feel really lucky to have had this unique opportunity to have intimate conversations with Cuban professionals about their work. One of the other great parts in studying abroad was making friends with the other North American students that I lived with.

At first, I thought that I was only going to speak Spanish and hang out with Cubans, but throughout the course of the semester I realized that it’s actually hard to make friends with Cubans my age in just a semester for a lot of different reasons including a history of institutional separation of Cubans and foreigners. I realized that it actually wasn’t my place to expect Cubans to want to be my friend and that in wishing that I had a more “authentic” Cuban experience, I was both denying my privilege and failing to recognize what great friends I had made with the students in my program.

You’re also very involved with volunteering. What are some of the causes that are most important to you and what work have you done with them?

In high school I started volunteering with a local mental health hospital that hosted long-term residents with really severe mental diseases. This was really healing for me because I had dealt with severe mental health problems in my close family and friends. Instead of trying to run away from the issue, I wanted to confront it more directly by befriending people who had been deemed “mentally unhealthy.” I really enjoyed my time doing crafts, playing music, and planting a garden with the vast diversity of residents at that hospital.

I also served as a peer mentor to underage sex offenders. That title—“underage sex offenders”—makes them sound sort of deranged or something, but they weren’t like that. They were really nice boys who probably had had traumatic experiences in their pasts, but we didn’t really talk about that very much. We mostly played games and chatted about our daily lives.

In college I started to act on my anxieties surrounding climate change. In my fresh(wo)man year, I sought out Reed’s environmental group and started to get involved. In my first year of involvement, I made activist friends who helped empower me to plan protests against coal exports in the Pacific Northwest.

This year I have been working to increase the leadership capacity of Reed student-activists by recruiting them to the climate conference PowerShift, which took place in October; planning a workshop and action series next semester that will give people fundamental tools to be effective organizers and activists; and organizing with several active campaigns in the Pacific Northwest, including divestment and resisting fossil fuel exports. Being a volunteer climate justice organizer is hard sometimes because there’s a ton of work that goes into it and I feel sometimes like I don’t get a lot of credit or appreciation for my work, but the small victories make it all worth it.

You were involved with founding a non-profit, Trail of Seeds. What was the process like for getting this project off the ground, what is Trail of Seeds up to currently, and what are its goals for the future?

My good friend Sal Lavallo first conceived of Trail of Seeds as part of his self-made major of “culturally sustainable development.” Sal had the foresight to apply for 501(c)(3) status before we even began any projects, and so anyone who donated to us could use their donation as a tax write-off. Sal and I went to the international boarding school United World College together.

Throughout our high school experience and into college, we would always have long conversations about the ethics of development work, culture, and diversity. So even though Sal was in New York and I was in Portland during college, we continued to cross-pollinate our ideas a lot.

When he first asked me to join him for the Trail of Seeds pilot project in Mangula, Tanzania in 2011, I was hesitant because it seemed scary to create our own program without the guidance of another organization. However, a month or so beforehand, I decided to put my fear aside and jump on board. Sal had received a few grants in preparation for the trip, and I paid for my plane ticket by asking my friends and families for donations. (Thank you everyone!!)

In Tanzania with friends Rhamadhan and Omary on a Trail of Seeds Project

Shannon in Tanzania with friends Rhamadhan and Omary.

In Tanzania, we promoted “culturally sustainable development” by first spending time with people to understand their cultural values in creative ways (this included joining a traditional drum and dance troupe, hosting media workshops with schoolchildren, teaching English classes, conducting interviews, going to church and mosque services, chopping firewood, and cooking and doing laundry in the traditional style with women on a regular basis).

After getting a feel for the cultural values of people in Mangula, we then gave out small micro-grants to activists and community groups that were doing work that seemed very much in line with the cultural values we had witnessed. We supported a local drum and dance group, a cooperative called Kilombero Youth Movement Against Poverty, and an elementary school focused on sustainable agriculture (see our website for more information).

In Tanzania with Sal and Mbrisho on a Trail of Seeds Project

Sal, Mbrisho, and Shannon on a Trail of Seeds project.

Since then, we have completed two more projects, one in Santa Elena de Uairén, Venezuela in 2012, and one in St. Kitts in 2013.

You raised funds via Kickstarter to help finance a documentary film in Santa Elena, Venezuela. What was this process like and how did the project turn out?

This was part of our second Trail of Seeds project. This time, we had a crew of seven people: myself (Vice President and Director of Projects) Sal (President), a Director of Grants, a Director of Outreach, and three interns. As Director of Projects, I worked with the other directors and interns to help them develop workshops that would lead participants through processes of deep cultural introspection in creative ways.

One of these workshops, which I developed along with the Director of Outreach, was a participatory documentary filmmaking workshop. Since I fundraised for my personal travel expenses for this trip in part through the crowdsourcing site Kickstarter, I only talked about this aspect of the larger Trail of Seeds project because Kickstarter only accepts “creative” projects on their website. Our other funding for this trip came from a $10,000 Davis Projects for Peace grant that Sal was awarded through his school, NYU.

In the Participatory Documentary Filmmaking workshop, we worked with over 14 community members from a wide age range including both indigenous and criollo (Venezuelans who are not indigenous) participants. Participatory Documentary is a process of local media production that has the potential to resolve issues of a community and support social justice.

It is participatory because the process of filming, editing, and showing the final work include all of the participants of the workshop and other members of the community. The theme of the documentary was the inaccessibility of the famous tepui (a land formation like a tabletop mesa) called Roraima to the indigenous and criollo people who identify with it as part of their culture, and the need to connect with this cultural heritage in order to better take care of the environment and promote cultural pride.

The documentary film, called “Los tepuyes: Alma de una cultura,” (Tepuis: Soul of a Culture), was produced in a participatory fashion and screened at a community event with over 70 attendees. The reception was filled with pride and excitement. As one of our microgrants, we left a local cultural center with all of the equipment necessary for people interested in filmmaking to rent out cameras and edit videos. (You can watch the film here.)

Film can be such a powerful tool to connect people and spread ideas. Having hosted this workshop once was a great learning experience. There are definitely things I would do differently a second time around, but in general I was amazed at how well the project turned out.

In St. Kitts being _attacked_ by a monkey in a diaper during a Trail of Seeds project

Shannon being attacked by a monkey on a Trail of Seeds project in St. Kitts.

What are your plans after graduation? How does your major relate to what you hope to do?

My plans for after graduation are not set in stone yet, but I am so excited for the many opportunities available to me. One option is to go back to Haiti to work with the organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), who I worked with for two months over the summer of 2013.

In Haiti with SOIL staff

Shannon in Haiti with SOIL staff.

They transform wastes into resources, particularly by making feces into compost using dry compost toilets. They are a wonderful organization committed to social and ecological justice. It would feel really good to continue building relationships in a place where I’ve already spent a considerable amount of time, rather than going to new countries all of the time.

I think there’s value to both, but on my projects abroad people always ask “so when are you coming back?” and it hurts to always say “I don’t know.” I like the idea of making more solid relationships so that I can more fully commit to fighting ongoing struggles in solidarity with my international friends.

Right now I am writing my senior thesis on how waste and waste workers are conceptualized in Haiti and how this relates to power in international development. Haiti is a place where so many development workers have unintentionally caused more harm than good, and so studying the root causes of this failure will help me to engage in solidarity with Haitians as an ally.

Another option that I might take is to continue working to make Trail of Seeds a more active organization. In the long run, I would like to go to graduate school or law school, but at this point, there are so many enticing options and I don’t feel prepared to settle on one.

What were some of the best parts and some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with fundraising, travel abroad, and volunteer work?

Some of the best parts of my various forms of international engagement are:

  • Making friends from all over the world, because this helps me to realize that my perspective is only one out of many valid perspectives.
  • Witnessing the amazing creativity of leaders and activists in various communities is so inspiring. When I’m organizing for social and climate justice in Portland, Oregon, it’s really great to think of all the people around the world who are fighting similar fights. It helps me to keep going when I’m getting discouraged at the slow rate of change.

 Biggest challenges:

  • I was born with a lot of privilege because I am white, from the U.S., able bodied, straight, and cis-gendered. One of the biggest challenges for me has been continually unpacking this privilege and looking back on my travels and engagements from years ago and cringing a little bit. There was a period of time when I thought that I was doing a good thing by “helping poor people,” without realizing that my good intentions were not enough to have an understanding of the interconnectedness of all forms of systemic oppression and my place within that. My education at United World College and Reed helped me to gain an awareness of the systemic nature of oppression, and traveling around the world has helped me to experience that as a reality, not as something abstract.
  • There have been times where I’ve been robbed at knifepoint, ripped off, harassed, and unable to communicate with anyone around me. Traveling, especially as a young woman, presents many challenges. I try my best to be smart and to be safe, but if you put yourself out there, certain things like that are sort of inevitable.

What advice would you give to other students who would like to get involved with similar projects?

Be aware that you will learn by doing and that you will make mistakes. It’s really important to approach international work or any type of work with marginalized groups with an awareness of your own privileges and a willingness to be humble and listen to criticisms.

Good intentions are not enough, and unfortunately, a lot of times programs that are trying to “help” end up perpetuating oppressive cultures.

Figure out what solidarity means to you and how you can promote the initiatives of people you’re trying to work with rather than promoting disempowering aid.

Talk to people about issues of race, class, gender, oppression, and privilege. Be willing to disagree and accept multiple truths. Be aware that most causes worth fighting for mean that you’re in it for the long haul—so be patient and don’t expect fast victories because social change is slow and difficult.

Also though, working with other committed activists and change-makers is one of the most fulfilling and challenging things I feel that I could be doing with my life.

Homework time! What do Shannon’s stories and experiences inspire you to do? Learn another language? Start volunteering for a particular organization or cause? Travel to a new part of the globe? Whatever it is, think about what you need to do next in order to make it happen!

P.S. Do you know any college students who are doing something special? Let us know and we might feature them here! Drop us a line at blog AT aftercollege DOT com.

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