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Cross-Cultural Think Tank

06/06/2013

A custom teardrop trailer used as a portable workstation for collecting problems and implementing solutions.

As the battle over US immigration policy reform rages on in Washington, DC, the artists behind Ghana ThinkTank are traveling to US/Mexico border checkpoints in southern California and Arizona to seek input from the people at the heart of the matter: anti-immigrant activists, civilian border militias, migrant workers and recent immigrants. It’s just one of the many First-World problems the think tank has attempted to tackle since its inception in 2006.

New York-based designer Christopher Robbins MFA 07 DM and his cohorts first hatched the idea for Ghana ThinkTank after working for international agencies that expected them to come up with viable solutions to persistent problems plaguing cultures they barely knew or understood. The year before graduating, he teamed up with John Ewing MFA 07 DM and Matey Odonkor MFA 07 DM to turn the tables on well-intentioned but culturally oblivious First-World do-gooders who imagine they can swoop in to developing countries and solve everything. “We’re trying to show our own culture what it feels like to have another culture forced on you,” Robbins explains.

The project started small – while they were at RISD – with a visit to an affluent community in nearby Connecticut with their teardrop trailer, which houses a video booth for recording people who explain pressing problems. Two of the top problems to surface were a barking dog that was causing tension among neighbors and a lack of diversity at social functions.

The next step was to send these problems to an eclectic array of specially formed think tanks around the world comprised of volunteers willing to brainstorm their own solutions. The trick was putting together groups of people with no connection to mainstream US culture – mechanics in Ghana, incarcerated convicts in New York City, a group of teachers in Mexico. “People who are friends on Facebook or listening to NPR are too similar to us,” says Robbins. “We’re looking for voices from outside.”

The proposed solutions are both telling and hilarious – and the team doesn’t allow its own assumptions or discomfort to rule out any ideas. In response to the barking dog problem, neighbors were given free MP3 players to drown out the sound of the barking as well as old shoes to throw at the noisy house. The solution that seemed to gain the most traction was the suggestion to rename the dog Love as a means of diffusing his owner’s anger and frustration and creating a less hostile environment for triggering the bark response. And the diversity dilemma was even simpler to solve: hire immigrant day laborers in nearby cities to attend the social functions in question and happily mix and mingle.

In 2009 Carmen Montoya MFA 07 DM got involved in Ghana ThinkTank, too, and the organization has since solved more serious problems as well. Serbs and Albanians in the town of Mitrovica had been divided by a river – not to mention a history of violent conflict – for more than a decade when Robbins and his team rolled into town in 2011. Instead of gathering ideas from affluent New Englanders, Cubans or Iranians, they went to the least likely source of all: the opposite side of the river. Both sides “quickly wanted to talk directly, which was amazing and kind of scary,” says Robbins. “The Serbs invited the Albanians to cross the river and start a dialogue.”

Ghana ThinkTank – a global experiment funded by a host of museums and foundations, including the Queens Museum of Art and the Rockefeller Foundation – has traveled around the world and evolved with the input of new people. “It’s like Frankenstein,” Robbins quips. “We created it, but it has taken on a life of its own.”

Simone Solondz

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tags: alumni, Digital + Media, global, nonprofits

Digital + Media Foreground Image 1
Andrew Y. Ames, 2008 Digital + Media, Argument, (piece detail)