In the Dominican Republic, “Que lo que” (pronounced Ko-lo-KAY) is an informal way to ask a close friend, “How’s it going?”
But developing that deep level of familiarity and friendship — what some would refer to as the colloquial level of interaction — can’t happen overnight. That’s why Brian Gaudio, a sophomore bachelor of environmental design in architecture major in the College of Design at NC State University, has decided to take his time.
As a recipient of an Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) International Academic Collaborative grant, Gaudio and five other NC State students have the opportunity to visit the Dominican Republic twice this year to get to know a village of 200 people better than most Westerners would. They’ve given themselves a name and started a website (www.que-lo-que.com), expecting QLQ to be a long-term project.
At NC State, Gaudio is a Park Scholar, a scholarship given to students with a proven interest in public service. The Pittsburgh native’s first trip to DR happened in 2007 when he was still in high school. In Spring, 2010, in partnership with a shoe charity called Soles4Souls, Gaudio helped gather 2,000 pairs of shoes to send to Haiti in the wake of the calamitous earthquake there. In return, his group received 200 pairs of black school shoes to take to Cienfuegos, an environmentally distressed community on the outskirts of Santiago, D.R.
Then in Summer 2010, Gaudio was part of a diverse team that went to the small village of Lajas on a short fact-finding mission. He stayed for five days. The town of 200 has a high percentage of school-age children, making it a young village with a lot of energy.
While he was in Lajas, Gaudio and the team converged on the village to paint its school. Trying to make conversation, Gaudio asked an elder what he thought about the stream of volunteers who found their way to Lajas year-round.
What the man said, Gaudio will never forget.
“The man said, ‘It’s good that people are getting cement floors, but we don’t know who you are.’”
Gaudio was stunned at the obvious disconnect. Social ties are very important in the Dominican Republic, as the villager had indicated. “He said, ‘We want you to become family, to sit at our table and meet our sons and daughters.’” It turned out that coming to Lajas to do projects really wasn’t that meaningful to the people whom Westerners were trying to help.
As a Park Scholar, Gaudio has seen the power of community service. (A group of Park Scholars, for example, founded the Krispy Kreme Challenge, which raised $100,000 for UNC Children’s Hospital in February, 2010, the event’s eighth year.) But Gaudio has also seen the kind of help that doesn’t really help. During that first visit to DR (Bonao, a smaller city between mountains in east-central D.R.), his high school handed out food to the local population, only learning much later that the practice was culturally insensitive.
Having learned so much on the past several trips, Gaudio’s work in Lajas this year will be different. First, he’ll make a trip during his spring break to lay groundwork for an extended summer visit of two months, his longest stay by far in the country. He’ll apply the lessons he’s learned from previous visits and from a course he took at the College of Design called “Design in Difference.” In the course, Gaudio and his classmates learned to apply techniques from the cultural anthropology field to the design process.
QLQ team member Sarah Mann will be creating a literature review this spring comparing the methodologies of architecture firms, nonprofits, and organizations that do community development work.
“By researching precedent groups that follow this model, we hope to incorporate design into this strategy and improve our approach in Lajas,” says Mann.
The QLQ team — which also includes design student Drew Brisley (BID 2011) — will work hard to see things from the perspective of the locals. To do that, the group members will shadow villagers to school and to work, as well as pitch in on house chores and just hang out with their neighbors. Then they’ll conduct dozens of interviews and try to map out the community in terms of skills and assets, which will help the team ti connect the dots if and when it comes time to working on a project together.
“With this project, we’re trying to find out how the community functions, the value systems of Lajas,” says Gaudio. “We’re not bringing things. We’re bringing ourselves and some research methodologies to understand how the community works.”
Gaudio doesn’t know how the project will go, but he has a hunch he can apply what he’s learning about community development to a career in architecture. Conversely, he thinks there are ways of architectural thinking that can help in community development. “I’m trying to blend what I think is interesting.”
And there’s another facet. What they learn in Lajas, the team members want to bring back to NC State. Why? It turns out the Dominican Republic ranks very high on the Happy Planet Index. Those in the United States, observes Gaudio, could stand to have their happiness level raised.
Says Gaudio: “Hopefully we can bring some of those cultural strengths back to the United States in creative ways. Many organizations take resources. Not many try to reverse the cycle.”