Seniors win Labouisse Prize for projects in Colombia, Himalayas

Feb. 24, 2015 11:10 a.m.
Pyne_Martinez

Yessica Martinez

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Damaris Miller

Photos by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications

Two Princeton University seniors have been awarded the Henry Richardson Labouisse '26 Prize to spend one year pursuing international civic engagement projects after graduation. The $30,000 prize will support a project by Yessica Martinez in Colombia and Damaris Miller in Nepal and India.  

The award to Martinez will help her use poetry to empower a community in her native Colombia that faces a moment of transition and change. Miller's award will assist her work to assess the environmental efforts of monasteries and help the institutions' residents identify ways to increase their environmental sustainability.

The Labouisse Prize enables graduating seniors to engage in a project that exemplifies the life and work of Henry Richardson Labouisse, a 1926 Princeton graduate who was a diplomat, international public servant and champion for the causes of international justice and international development. The prize was established in 1984 by Labouisse's daughter and son-in-law, Anne and Martin Peretz. It is administered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies.

Martinez, of Medellín, Colombia, is majoring in comparative literature and pursuing certificates in creative writing and Latin American studies. She was recently named a co-winner of the University's 2015 Moses Taylor Pyne Honor Prize, the highest general distinction conferred on an undergraduate.

Martinez, who came to the United States with her family at age 10, said her interest in the political dimensions of art emerged through her involvement with the immigrant youth movement.

"My participation in the movement involved a process of self-empowerment," she said. "It both opened my eyes to complex, entrenched injustices, while empowering me to recognize the power within myself and within my community to dismantle them. I believe art is an equally powerful and honest mechanism to trigger these processes."

Martinez plans to work with a community organization in the historically marginalized neighborhood of Santa Cruz in Medellín, developing creative poetry workshops for residents centered on the exploration of the urban environment. She said she hopes the workshops will shed light on the ways creative forms of expression can inform urban interventions — an important goal in an area where the government has been working to strengthen infrastructure and public spaces as a mechanism for social inclusion.

"The model of social change that has been implemented in Medellín has become an example of success for cities around the world," Martinez said. "I am excited to learn more about these initiatives as I explore the academic field of urban studies while contributing to a vision of change I believe in."

Martinez hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in literature or urban studies.

Jorge Blandon, a representative of the community group, Corporacion Cultural Nuestra Gente, said the group is confident Martinez's project "will be very helpful for children, teenagers and adults to achieve understanding … of communal life and how they are the center of development of our city."

Tracy K. Smith, a professor of creative writing and a senior thesis adviser for Martinez, said she is uniquely qualified to develop the workshops.

"Her belief in the power of the human voice, along with her discipline and sensitivity, will produce lasting results," Smith said.

Miller, of Northampton, Massachusetts, is majoring in anthropology and pursuing a certificate in environmental studies. Miller, who participated in the Bridge Year Program in India before her freshman year at Princeton, has placed her academic focus on the intersections of religion and the environment, paying particular attention to Buddhism and the environment. 

Her senior thesis examines the shortcomings of environmental education at a monastery and an exploration of how the monks there can have environmental practices that combine science and Tibetan Buddhism. Miller said her thesis represents a starting point for her Labouisse project. 

She will travel to two clusters of Himalayan monasteries, one in India and one in Nepal. She will assess environmental practices at the monasteries and then work with monks to create strategies to improve those practices. Finally, she plans to help residents identify projects that are important to them and identify ways to make them successful. 

"My greatest aspiration for both this fellowship and my career is to actively engage communities on environmental issues they find important through practices, religious or otherwise, which they find significant and helpful," Miller said. "I hope to pursue this goal while all the while learning, adapting and improving my own approach to environmental advocacy." 

Miller will partner with Sacred Earth and Khoryug, two nonprofits working to build environmental sustainability through faith-based organizations. Dekila Chungyalpa, director of the groups, said Miller has already provided important data for the project through her earlier research and is well-suited for the project given her experience in the region.

"Damaris is passionate about her work, and has demonstrated a consistent commitment to the environmental issues that concern her," said Matthew Weiner, associate dean in the Office of Religious Life, who cited Miller's key role in planning aspects of the visit to campus of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama in the fall and other activities on campus.