From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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Morning illustration by Lauren Iida

“Morning” illustration (by Laruen Iida, hand-cut paper, 2014) from In My Village, a book created by The Antipodes Collective to help teach English to Cambodian youth: “In my village, the morning always comes. / It is bright and noisy . . .”

The people of Prasot village have had the same way of life for hundreds of years. Families turn the fields with handmade wooden plows dragged behind water buffalo and cut each stalk of rice by hand. Despite their poverty, they take great pride in their close ties with nature and subsistence farming lifestyle.

There are just over 200 children enrolled at the Prasot village public school, where they learn basic Khmer subjects and some very rudimentary English language skills. The school’s programs are extremely limited due to Cambodia’s severe lack of public education funding. Because quality education is unavailable, most parents take their children out of school to help on the farm. Teens end up working long hours for minimal pay, often forced to relocate to the capital city of Phnom Penh or take a job in a garment factory where occupational hazards and risk of human trafficking are high.

The ability to speak English in Cambodia many times means the difference between a lifetime of poverty and opportunities to prosper financially. Employees with English language skills are highly sought after to work in the growing industries of tourism and foreign development, at non-profits and more. Starting salaries for English-speakers are often two- to three-times higher than for those who don’t speak English.

cambodian children

Friends style each other's hair in a village home. Photo by Lauren Iida.

cambodian child with water buffalo

Fourteen-year-old Davit tends his water buffalo after class. Photo by Lauren Iida.

Visiting my friends in Prasot village, they have often shared their goals for providing literacy education for their children in hopes of decreasing poverty for future generations. As I finished up my BFA at Cornish College of the Arts, I decided to start an organization that could teach English literacy in Prasot village through an innovative, arts-based curriculum. I founded The Antipodes Collective in June 2014 with a three-point mission: establish a children’s library, teach ESL for young artists and publish quality, culturally relevant books to supplement their learning.

Right away the Prasot community offered the second floor of a village home to house the children’s library. Through the generosity of Seattle families, we have gathered 1,000 gently used children’s books to fill it. This library is the first of its kind in the area and will be free and available for use by all.

In January 2015, classes will commence in the village specifically focused on English language literacy, supplemented daily by fine arts projects. Weekly themes will connect the literacy classes, taught by an ESL teacher, with the visual art projects in the classes I teach. The basics of the language will be put into practice through creative kinesthetic learning, forming an experiential learning environment.

Because the Khmer Rouge regime of the 1970s devastated Cambodia’s artistic and literary community, very few children’s books are available which have content relevant to rural Cambodian life. Our first publication, In My Village, is a collaboration between nine Cornish-affiliated artists illustrating in various mediums, including woodblock printing, cut paper, paint and match smoke. I wrote the book with Cornish professor and writing consultant, Carolyn R. Hall, and it will be published later this year. The Antipodes Collective continues our work to create and make available books for Cambodian children that reflect their own culture through relevant storytelling and creative learning.

Pond by Heather Elder

“Water buffalo wade in the cool mud. / The water twinkles in the morning and is still at night. / In my village, there is a pond where the children fish.” From In My Village. “Pond,” gouache, by Heather Elder, 2014.

The Antipodes Collective is the culmination of my love for Cambodia, my desire to contribute positively to the lives and prosperity of the people of Prasot village and my goal to collaborate with artists from around the world to create effective, quality arts-based curri­cula and learning materials.