Robin McDowell


Posted by in Austin, Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans

By All of Us

In 2014, we held the very first Dinner of Small Beginnings in our East Austin home. Since then, four more Small Beginnings events have been held across the country.

Two pivotal events prompted this gathering of radical hospitality. The first event was the small beginning of three years of activist-scholarship (and God-willing, 5-7 more, followed by a lifetime). The second was a book.


In 2013, I began working on my Master’s of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin. My intention for the two-year professional program was to create an archive of historic typography used on commemorative plaques and original hand-painted signage in Texas and Louisiana. I excitedly visited a National Historic Register site in Norco, Louisiana—two cemeteries of enslaved Africans from two sugar plantations.  However, there was no plaque, no sign, no indication of any historically significant material or events. Instead of moving on to the next Historic Register site (with an actual sign), I started looking in to the history of the cemeteries.

The cemeteries had been flooded and plowed under in 1927 to build a militarized Mississippi River control structure. This history was hidden and actively repressed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Efforts by descendants to commemorate the cemeteries and re-inter salvaged remains have gone were silenced. I slowly proceeded down this rabbit hole, encountering descendants, organizers, pastors, archaeologists and government employees. I searched desperately for answers.

My typographic photo album seemed paler and paler. Not to belittle such a project, but I was not ready to encounter state-sanctioned silencing of slavery’s descendants in rural Louisiana. Neither my training nor biography prepared me to research systemic racism in Southeast Louisiana. Yet I was compelled to pursue this path and leave behind slideshows of serif and sans-serif fonts.

When I wasn’t commuting to New Orleans every weekend to track down more documents and more people, I lived in a collective house in East Austin. My roommates were community organizers. Patty Zavala was a fearless fighter for labor justice for immigrant workers. Paige Menking subverted the power of the Mexican Consulate to set up free health services and plans to keep undocumented immigrant families together when a member was hospitalized for serious injury, illness, or surgery.

I shared the cemetery story with them. “What do I do to fix this? What can I make to fix this?” They told me that I wouldn’t fix it, but the work being done was a revelatory awakening to society’s most oppressive systems, and in turn awakening others to the buried stories we can no longer ignore. This was called activist-scholarship.

I wasn’t sold. Patty was leading street blockades in front of the Capitol in two languages! Paige was getting treatment for an 8-year-old undocumented child with brain cancer. I was going to class, hoping to not get kicked out of a Fine Arts program.


The second pivotal life event occurred during a difficult advising session. “I can’t do this! I’m an Asian graphic designer trying to join a struggle for spiritual reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans! I have no right to talk or write about this. Can’t I just go back to fonts?”

My advisor, Gloria Lee, handed me a book. It was called The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the 21st Century written by a woman I had never heard of—Grace Lee Boggs. “I think it will be good for you to read. This is her latest, but if you like it, you ought to check out some of her other books.”

Grace’s words, especially those about dedication to becoming more human human beings, finally clicked with me in a way that design criticism, urban planning and visual rhetoric texts never did. Grace’s challenge to build the world anew through creativity and conversation lifted my spirits and provided a frame for all of this grief work. This work was not about Asian women obtaining a hall pass to narrate black struggle. This was about the power of commitment to a project larger than yourself. A project that does not only tear down, but builds new ways of learning, loving and speaking. Grace’s call for self and structural transformation evolved over the course of her life. This call  gave me courage to forge ahead, keep fighting for commemoration of the cemeteries, keep talking about it, and not let the historical burden become corrosive to my psyche.

A week later I ran in to Glorias’ office. “I have a role! I’m a human human being! We all have a responsibility to evolve into more human human beings!”

She laughed and ran her fingers through her hair, suddenly deep in thought. “Did you hear she entered hospice care last week?” I had just found the words and work of Grace Lee Boggs! How could I say “Thank You?”


I knew exactly what I was going to do for my next project. I was not going to design a poster or create a documentary. I was going to cook an enormous meal for friends, mutual friends, and perhaps complete strangers. We would join together in fellowship to celebrate the life and legacy of Grace Lee Boggs. We might begin to find the shape of a better world together, over food and drink.

My roommates joined the event planning because it was too big to do on my own. We came across a quote from Henry David Thoreau, “For it matters not how small the beginning may seem to be.” I was so nervous that the dinner would be a flop, that no one would attend and no one would share a connection to Grace’s ideas. Regardless, it would be a small beginning. We would serve everyone who came to our door and invite them to conversation. We personally invited about 10 people we knew through school or organizing work.

However, on the night of the event, thirty people arrived at our doorstep. The news of the dinner had spread by word of mouth. Attendees ranged from LGBT filmmakers, the owner of a radical Latin@ bookstore and an archivist of global human rights struggles. We received an unexpected guest —a language justice organizer who had met Grace while traveling all over Texas to translate stories of families trapped in detention centers. He had made a special trip to Austin after hearing about the dinner. A woman attended who had spent time with Grace in Maine.

We ate a generous meal featuring recipes from my grandmother, and then wrote letters to Grace, telling her about small acts of resistance and creativity. The prompt was: “Write a letter to Grace Lee Boggs and share a story of your own small beginning.” While we digested our meal and digested our conversations, we read excerpts from The Next American Revolution and streamed the Grace Lee documentary for more intimate viewing groups. We facilitated discussion on balancing serious commitment to revolutionary politics with maintaining everyday optimism. Guests shared stories of the first time they encountered the teachings of Grace Lee Boggs, or simply events leading to their embrace of activism, activist-scholarship, or community organizing.

Some folks proudly read their finished letters out loud to the group. Others folded theirs up neatly and hung them on the wall. A man told a story about growing up the only gay boy in his small Massachusetts town. Every day his classmates poured the trash bin out on his head because he had finally come out. His small beginning was moving to Austin, a place where he founded an LGBT film festival and never had to be lonely again.  We envisioned these letters reaching Grace’s hospice. We thought she might like to read the thoughts of people so far from Detroit, but to whom her presence was constantly felt. She was with us in the streets, on the road, and in the classroom. I packaged up the letters along with an extra place setting, and sent to The Boggs Center.


Grace and grace had brought us together. To this day, I exchange emails, phone calls, coffee, and surprise visits with some of our guests.

After posting photos from the dinner online, a friend from Philadelphia sent me an email. She was holding a candlelight vigil for Grace, inspired by the Small Beginnings Dinner. She sent us candles from the event in solidarity.

A landscape architect and farm apprentice who attended the dinner brought neighbors from a Austin “food desert” together using the Small Beginnings concept. They hosted a pie walk to get people out of their homes and talking, sharing recipes, and engaging in a healthy competition for the tastiest pie. They shared their experience of the Dinner of Small Beginnings with the neighborhood and invited them to join this second iteration.

At SUNY Buffalo, a new junior faculty member who had attended the dinner during her Ph.D. program in Austin, reached out for permission to use the Small Beginnings graphics for a screening night of “American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs.” She brought the idea of Small Beginnings into the classroom Undergraduate students organized the event.

We never set out to network Small Beginnings around the country. We never set out to write any kind of self-congratulatory reflection.

We know that loving can be our most radical movement. Inviting others to conversation can be our most politicized act. And breaking bread in the midst of struggle to build each other up is part of building the world anew.

Austin, TX (Dinner of Small Beginnings)

Austin, TX (Small Beginnings Pie Walk)

Philadelphia, PA (Small Beginnings Candlelight Vigil)

SUNY Buffalo (Small Beginnings Movie Night)


Case Studies

Posted by in Austin, Reading Seminar, What/So What

Collective Storytelling and Social Creativity in the Virtual Museum: A Case Study (2006)
Old Museum/New Museum structure

The Role of Artists in Sites for Learning (2003)
Relevant topic/content
Context, Cultural Agendas, Creativity/art/education, Contributions, Evaluation and Evidence, Anecdote/quotes, Concluding Questions in Q&A format

Participatory Design in Large-Scale Public Projects: Challenges and Opportunities (2012)
Intro, Case Study, Conclusions
Example – “stakeholder” is never defined?

Off Limits: Cultural Participation and Art Education (2014)
“Written from the direct experience of a practitioner, this is an autobiographic paper by a contemporary ar tist that recounts and explores creative and political activism through contemporary art. This article examines the tensions around status: the status of objects, materials and production methods, and the status of people and their drive to selfdefinition. The text addresses how a hierarchy of values can struggle to catch up with creative practice in education.”

Including excluded perspectives in participatory action research (2007)
PAR = Participatory Action Research
Related content, stiff approach

Recent trends in community design: the eminence of participation (2007)
This is so inane-sounding: “This paper reports a recent study asking current community design practitioners to identify the most influential people and key issue leaders in the community design field and to define the concept itself. The results of the study show that in addition to the continuing concepts such as participation, there are new concepts such as new urbanism and sustainability which are now associated with community design. The most important conclusion, however, is that community design field is in fact in search of new perspectives.”

Community Consensus: Design Beyond Participation (2012)
This is the closest to content and form, but does rely on a structured “study”

Social Interaction Design in Cultural Context: A Case Study of a Traditional Social Activity (2008)
“It is concluded that the cultural characteristics of a society should be a key issue in developing interaction designs.” Interesting idea/concept, cold scientific execution and diagramming. Totally unnerving.

Not even one candle?

Posted by in Austin, Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans

Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 8.49.17 PM

In October, I started dating a black anthropologist and performance studies scholar-activist who became a major force in helping to build confidence in my work, my body, and my mind. It was an incredibly challenging two months. I learned a lot about embodied knowledge, and what it meant to claim an identity. We had the kind of relationship I had always wished for. A lot of take-out, PowerPoints, conference presentation rehearsals, debates over diction and syntax, and learning to rumba, bachata, and salsa. A celebration of dress, expression, and movement. A lot of panic on my end, and a lot of reassurance on his, without condescension. Without didacticism. Just really genuine care for my academic success, full physical health, and confident habitation of my subject matter. We got to talk in great detail about racial issues in Louisiana and Texas and experience a lot of situations together that were entirely new to me, but that I had to address very directly. We had our picture taken a lot, by chance, not choice. I very suddenly became ½ of a poster couple for diversity in Austin and had to deal with what that meant. I got accused by some of “exoticizing my subject.” To others, I gained some kind of “critical race theory cred.” It was, again, very confusing. Publicly discussing Black Studies topics took on an entirely new gravitas. If I date a black guy, I get to carry the Woman of Color banner. If I date a white guy, I get reminded to #checkyrpriv. The whole time, I wondered if I was doing the right thing, if I was still waiting for a man who had left me behind nearly a year ago, or if I was really building something new. My indecision was palpable. We recently spoke of New Orleans. He knew I was moving back, and that I had a history there. He wanted to visit with me this week, and had even applied to a few jobs there. He said that he wanted to “put New Orleans on the table” as a place to live after Austin. At that point, I fully panicked and retreated. And then received a kind of ultimatum. I was told that I was “emotionally sterile” and “beyond cold.” This was the first time in my entire life that anyone called me those things. I was asked to commit to the hard work of opening myself up fully and emotionally or move on alone.

And then I went to Mason, Texas with old friends and no internet, hoping to find some clarity.

And then all I could think to do was write my old love, out of pain and longing.

And then I got a letter from him, asking to try again, across miles, across an ocean, across a year of painful rejection.

So I’m sitting with these thoughts, and these experiences.

I talk about race nearly every day – with my cohort, with undergrads in the African Diaspora Studies department and the Design department. I have the pleasure, some days, of explaining to 18-year-old heterosexual white guys why they can’t call black women “crazy bitches” and how that kind of “violence of naming” also maps on to Asian and Latina women, and maps on to historic precedents. And how, even if they come to understand this problem, why they can’t spearhead their own campaigns to re-sacralize brown bodies. I have to answer to and argue with students who give me laundry lists of all the people they know, or family members they have who were involved in race politics and/or violence. So it’s difficult for me to not snap into a very critical mode.

This semester, I got to work with a group of very young black female students who were discovering black feminist thought for the very first time and coming to understand how their family traditions, their spiritual epistemologies, were stigmatized and marginalized within the university. This was a huge awakening for me. Learning how to relate to these young women, how to take some of my own experiences in St. Charles Parish, and use them productively was a real challenge. I messed up quite a few times. But in the end, we hit a unique stride. A few of the students cried several times. I did, too. It was, all in all, a very special semester.

This is why I don’t think I can be just a graphic designer any more. I have a lot more to say, and I think that in certain circles, I may be the right, yet unexpected person to say them. A mentor at the University of Texas, Dr. Eric Tang, an amazing and inspiring scholar-activist, keeps telling me to stop being so hard on myself, and to keep writing about love and uncertainty.

In St. Charles Parish, I am helping to launch a public information campaign in 2015 about the African American Spillway cemeteries, and trying to get more descendants to come forward. The event and conference in February for the Louisiana Public History Forum will be the start of that campaign. There are an estimated 900 living descendants. Less than 30 are known. Even the most vocal have been relegated or silenced. I went to the Spillway this summer on a fellowship to study “commemorative signage in fragmented communities” and ended up on a wild goose chase that re-ignited an organizing effort. For that, I am glad, and also committed to help in what ways I can to see these efforts through to a more noble fate than they had been assigned in 2012. I write a lot about this experience, for an audience of “socially engaged designers” working with a very limited set of definitions and case studies. Incidentally, much of my work, both the practical and the critical, provides a foil to the Scandinavian-centric canon of participatory design practice. Rapid prototyping and brainstorming workshops don’t map so well to spiritual communities of the African diaspora in Southeast Louisiana. The crazy and heinous part is that I am finding that these thoughts are very new to a lot of intelligent and respected designers.

So I am writing and reading with feverish rapacity. And speaking to diverse audiences with frequency. And taking my classmates to marches at the Texas Capitol. One of my favorite new first year students told me, sheepishly, after the Ferguson solidarity march two weeks ago, that it was his first “real protest,” but he felt safe going with me. This was a major reflexive moment and one I will not soon forget. I want my friends and students and future friends and students to feel safe speaking out for what they believe in or are learning about. I want to be a very meaningful educator who teaches students how to suck the marrow out of life, not just follow rules.

This Fall, before one of my best friend’s weddings, I was in New Orleans for more research meetings regarding the Spillway Cemeteries. In the midst of my busy schedule, I found some time to visit a spiritual healer of espiritismo (Cuban version of Vodou). I told him that I was in love with someone who could not be with me, and that my love threatened to, at worst, consume me entirely, and at best, distract me from my duties. I told him that I was scared I could never be in New Orleans without carrying this burden around with me. I expected some interesting candles and Florida water. Perhaps a custom incantation. Instead, I got a very firm talking-to. He showed me a yellowed, crumpled photograph of his children in Cuba, who he sent money to every month. He told me that he had a vision for what he wanted his life to be – he wanted to have a space where people could come for healing. AND he wanted to support his children, their lives and education in the country in which they were born. He told me that in order to accomplish this, he worked his ass off every day, working toward his vision. He asked me for my vision for my life. Not complaints about my unrequited love, but what I wanted to do with my life. I told him I wanted to be educated to the fullest extent of my abilities and resources, and to teach, and to teach things that really mattered to all humans, not just how to design posters. He told me to do whatever it took to accomplish those things, unrelentingly, and to not let my focus waver from that goal. If I did that, everything else, self-love and the love of others, would fall into balance.

I was disappointed at the time. Not even one candle?


10.20.14 – BAILAMOS!

Posted by in Austin, New Orleans, Reading Seminar



Personal Experiences with Dance

  • community transformation
  • self/internal transformation
  • spatial transformation


  • What makes dance spiritual?
  • Dance at church, club, party can be full of spirit
  • Not the WHAT but the HOW
  • p.280 “Content-wise, any dance can capture the spirit…”
  • Extension, taking up space! “I’m here beyond my normal capacity.”
  • Torso articulation
  • Direction of gaze: Eyes look upward, out beyond horizon, to the earth (acknowledging ancestors), to the other dances

Orisha oshun ceremony (Haiti/Brazil)

  • White with yellow accents (Oshun’s color)
  • All kinds of people participating, all ages, unchoreographed

Alvin Ailey “Wade In The Water” (Concert stage)

  • White and long skirts Yemaya and Oshun (blue, yellow, water deities)
  • Music, drawing on a text that is recognizable from worship setting
  • Looking up to heaven, gaze
  • Chest movements, presenting of the heart upward
  • References/ties to nature
  • Very choreographed, done by specialists

Mother’s Day Praise Dance @ Baptist Church

  • Choreographed to be inclusive of different body types, ages, skill levels
  • Interaction between mothers and daughters, intergenerational respect
  • Lifting, elongation

Heaven dances on Ellen DeGeneres Show

Something I Learned: The Violence of Naming

Posted by in Austin, New Orleans, Reading Seminar

Penn Alumni Coursera:  History of the Slave South

Week 1 Response Question from Prof. Stephanie McCurry:

You have now heard and read a lot about Thomas Jefferson and his ideas of liberty, race, and slavery. When he said “all men are created equal,” do you think he meant only white men?

In short, the answer would be NO, Jefferson did not just mean white men. To complete a response in this manner would be a regurgitation of the lecture content, so a closer look/critique of Jefferson’s writings…

I am less interested in the Eurocentric philosophical underpins of Jefferson’s rhetoric, and more interested in a subtlety that colors not only Jefferson’s writing, but many pieces of contemporary journalism, popular reading, and academic writing. That subtlety is the act of naming.

Use of the words “black,” “negro,” and “slave” makes Jefferson complicit in a degradative paradigm of naming an entire people by a single characteristic deemed salient by a dominant culture. In other words, using “slave” to refer to a captive people or enslaved persons is the equivalent of calling homosexual persons “gays” or undocumented immigrants “illegals.”

All men are free, under the jurisdiction of the proposed government, so long as their skin exhibits the color of citizen that the state wishes to govern. “Black,” “Negro,” and “Slave” are categorical schema created by the dominant and governing culture to which Jefferson belonged (males of Anglo-Saxon/Welsh descent). Enslaved persons of African descent were taken from their own sophisticated urban infrastructures and diverse cultural practices.

I recently observed a stirring undergraduate lecture at The University of Texas at Austin in African Diaspora Studies. The professor pointed out:

“You might identify yourself as any number of things – your spiritual beliefs, tribe, family, geographic region. But when you are shackled and beaten and told you are ‘black’… then you’re ‘black.’”

Championing philosophical universal equality amongst humans, yet engaging in acts of naming, has been a contradictory and embarrassing right exercised by those in power throughout the whole of U.S. history. Does “separate but equal” ring a bell?



Afro-Caribbean Weekend & Orishas

Posted by in Austin, Reading Seminar

I want to discuss:
Slaves vs. Enslaved peoples vs. A Captive People

Apply this subtlety to several articles, including: and online course “History of the Slave South”


Research Folder: February 2014

Posted by in Austin, New Orleans, Research Folder

Things I Read + Notes
Lauren Berlant – Desire Love EBook
Manuel de Landa – Deleuze, Diagrams, and the Genesis of Form
Herman and Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent – A Propaganda Model – 2002
Herman and Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent – Conclusions and Notes – 2002
Herman and Chomsky – Manufacturing Consent – Introduction and Preface – 2002
Make It Right-self-guided-site-tour
Notes: 2.5.14
Notes: 2.12.14
Notes: 2.19.14
Notes: 2.26.14

Things I Wrote
Research Presentation
Research Proposal
Research Proposal R2
Show and Tell – Museum Der Dinge
Show and Tell – Voluntourism
Voluntourism Presentation

Things I Watched

Who I Met/Talked To
Professor Ann Reynolds
Stella Cziment

Standing Questions
Gutenberg or Tourism?
Should I be letterpressing?