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Guest Opinion

Summer internship in the Navajo Nation a lesson in community design


I am a 5th year undergraduate in the architecture department at the Rhode Island School of Design. As I embark upon my final year at RISD, I am pushed to consider architecture and design in the real world as it relates to community engagement and development.

Working with the Navajo Nation in the Capital Projects Management Department (CPMD) is a unique opportunity that I am excited and fortunate to pursue this summer as an architectural intern. I am grateful to be welcomed by the Nation with open arms and recognize the trust each community member has entrusted me with.

Thank you to my professor Angelo Baca for entrusting me with a connection to the Nation and providing me continuous support in my academics and student organizations.

I’d also like to mention that I received a RISD Discovery Grant to fund my internship.

The driving factor of my internship program stems from my own desire to pursue community design and the ongoing process of building collective engagement, specifically with underrepresented communities. Especially in the sense of breaking away from stereotypes and misunderstood ways of life on reservations.

It is essential that architects and designers acknowledge the diverse spectrum of backgrounds, cultures, languages, and ways of living on reservations as mainstream media tends to paint false representations of Native communities.

I hope to establish a deeper understanding of blending traditional knowledge systems with contemporary design practices as I work with various members of the CPMD, community chapter committees, and directly working with community members themselves.

Beyond a desire to support, uplift and work with underrepresented communities, we must acknowledge the right to self determination and developing projects on a community’s terms.

As an Indigenous Mexican-American designer, I hope that everything I will learn this summer will guide my ability to work with my homelands in Oaxaca, Mexico in the near future.

My goal is to not only understand architecture as a means of building, but to also help create and foster the stories of the communities that inhabit the spaces we build.

Sophia Francesco is from New Hope. She is spending the summer in the Navajo Nation, which occupies portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It is the largest land area held by a Native American tribe in the United States.

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