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)



“Opening Day”

Posted by in Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans


2nd Louisiana Reconstruction Conference

Posted by in Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans

2.28.15 – 2nd Louisiana Reconstruction Conference

Mishio Yamanaka

Fillmore School (1877)
“Transfer to colored school” designation for schoolchildren
Address data for map visualization (556 records) – online (where?)
Ambiguity/political complexity of “passing”

After re-segregation, where did the students go?
Private schools
Re-admitted some? (5 students in 1878)
“Crossing the color line”
Currently McDonough No. 16 School
1962-1963 re-admitted black students

Today…similar to issues with charter school system?

  • Race was at the center of 1877 struggle
  • Used tax problems and security (from white students) as logic behind re-segregation

At what point did “separate but equal” become codified by state level law?
1870’s…Plessy vs. Ferguson

State Level

  • Bertaneau (sp?) case 1878
  • Delandes (sp?) case 1878
  • Many many pre-cursors to Plessy v. Ferguson (important to contextualize)

How do you view the segregation and treatment of blacks from the perspective of Japanese culture?

  • Automobile workers in hometown
  • Korean/Japanese in Kyoto, separate schools
  • Provokes awareness of injustice in the world
  • Deliver research outside of New Orleans

NEXT: How NOLA public school system was received/discussed on the national level…

Lt. Col. Curtis J. Johnson

Glimpses of Black Life Along Bayou Lafourche
(“Quad Parishes”)
How We Know It Was Us (unpublished work, Ascension Parish)
Family history book – recipes, folklore, memoirs
Ascension, Assumption, St. James, Lafouche Parishes


December 19, 2012 first publication of Glimpses
Part 3: Hometown Heroes
“The 3 R’s and Secondhand Books”
The Peace ____?
Main support element of arches (stone)

Educational communities in 4 Parishes

  • James
    • Early schools – black Baptist church , benevolent societies used as schools
    • 1 teacher for 7 grades
    • 6-7 month school year (Black children started at end of October and closed end of April to do work, White children had a 9 month school year)
    • “We never knew what it was like to receive new books…there were no desks…we knelt down and wrote on the benches”
  • Assumption
    • Israel Academy – 1890, 2 story wooden building (later 1 story) with 8 classes, separated by partitions
    • Buses for white students, none for black students
  • Ascension (Donaldsonville)
    • 1871 – Modeste (sp?) School established
    • Leland University (1870) in the basement of Tulane Avenue Baptist Church – training to be preachers and teachers
    • Leland Academy (Donaldsonville, 1872) – Lt. Col. Family members attended this school
    • Laurie Training School

Schools in the 1930’s

  • Thibodaux and Donaldsonville had the only high schools
  • 1 desk, 1 stove, benches, and hand-me-downs
  • Hand-me-down supply system for books, equipment, furniture, sometimes supplies
  • Desks refinished in woodshops to make usable
  • Mostly female teachers (principal, shop, agriculture, phys ed teachers were sometimes male)
  • Teachers had room and board situations with community members, children ran errands/chores

De-Segregation of Public Schools

  • Brown vs. Board of Ed
  • In Louisiana, did not begin until 1968 following 2 decades of protest/demonstration
  • “Education: The Bad Side of Integration”
  • De-segregation in quad parishes…
    • Demotions and firings
    • Boycotts
    • Integration of Laurie High School
    • Fights between black/white boys, especially after athletic events]
    • Laurie High School teachers had more credentials than Donaldsonville Elementary teachers (certified by state)

“We learned enough to know we needed to know more.”
“Young people need to know that we came through the storms and rain, but we made it.”

People I Met
Misho Yamanaka (PhD Student, UNC Chapel Hill)
Tiffany Powell (Member, Louisiana Public History Forum)
Malcolm Suber (Activist, Co-founder of Hidden History tours)
Ernest L. Jones, esq. (Board Member, Louisiana Civil Rights Museum)
Fermin E. Eaton, esq. (Activist-Lawyer, St. Francisville, LA)
Allen Yhorst Kimble, Jr. (Archivist, Writer, Descendant of Founders of Colored Waif’s home)

Louisiana Reconstruction Conference
Constance Milton
Learning to be free

“Dangerous arts of reading and writing”
WPA slave narratives
Self-education during slavery
Children going to school and bringing lessons home to parents
Civil war soldiers taxed themselves to pay teachers
African Americans demanded public education (vs. poor whites seeing it as a privilege?) web du bois
“Native Schools”
Public schools and police districts
The Louisiana educational relief foundation
Privately owned free schools

Jari Honora
Institutional MEMORY
1. Ecclesiastical Records
A. Episcopal polities
B. Presbyteral/Congregational polities
1. Methodist/Baptist Churches – hardest to document
Annual Conference Journals (state) of Methodist Church
Southwestern Christian Advocate
“Lost Friends Column” – formerly enslaved persons looking for family
Memoirs of clergy and spouses –
Virtual Historical Register – synopsis of Louisiana congregations

Centenary College

History of Louisiana Negro Baptists (1915, William Hicks)
Online at UNC Chapel Hill

Conveyance/Mortgage Records (purchase, donation)
Building contracts
Articles of incorporation and amendments

Freedmen’s  Bank Records
Municipal and civil parish records (parish council/parish police bureau) transcribed by WPA available at Hill Library at LSU

Woods’ Directory (business director late 1800s-early 1900s)
Who’s Who in Colored Louisiana? (1930)
Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive, Rising (1887)
The Louisiana Weekly
Documenting the American South Project (UNC Chapel Hill)
Documenting and preserving

Leon A. Waters
The Lone Ranger was black!
We did not have the freedom to write our own stories
You have to be careful when researching
4 Buildings that represent a huge tradition and legacy
Good Hope Missionary Baptist- Norco
Providence Baptist Church – LaPlace
Mt Zion – St.Rose

75-100 Africans on each plantation up the river
7-8000 enslaved Africans on plantations in st. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes
Transporting goods up/down the river, got to know slaves on other plantations
Maroon colonies outside of city of New Orleans (only FQ surrounded by forts)
Maroons developing relationships with native peoples

Good Hope Missionary
1881 – Sgt. Harrison Roe (tombstone in front of church)
1938 – Ruben Waters

Corps d’Afrique renamed 10th Regiment US Colored Heavy Artillery
Nat’l Archives in DC (military, medical, and pension records)
Ermaline McCutcheon applies for late Harrison’s pension

Hannibal waters, Benjamin Hawkins, et al (in Harrison roe’s regiment)
Delhommer plantation – montz
Charles deslondes met at this plantation before 1811 revolt

Sanders Royal (James brown/roseland plantation) documented in pension interview and in corps d’Afrique

Malcolm Suber
Dr. Clyde Robinson
Dr. Michael Blakey – African Burial Ground in NYC
Bonnet Carré spillway archaeology with schoolchildren

Providence Baptist Church No.1
John hall
Red bud cemetery
Descendant of 1811 rebels and civil war soldier

Mt. Zion Baptist church (1874)
Meuillion plantation
John Anderson (treasurer)
31 regiment of colored infantry

Liberty Monument in New Orleans – former oppressors attempt to return to power

Cornerstones similar on West Bank
145 monuments in New Orleans of thieves, criminals, murderers
Names of schools and public parks

Cornerstones are monuments to heroes

Beecher Memorial united church of Christ – New Orleans (Harriet Beecher Stowe)
Lawless and Phillips
Norman smith – “footprints of black Louisiana”
Central church

Not only incorrect public art in New Orleans, kept intact by white supremacy and the corrupt rich, but Important sites up and down the river are under attack.


Winter Break in Louisiana

Posted by in Bonnet Carré Spillway, New Orleans

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?