Wall Service Award winners producing systemic change in education, environment

Dec. 10, 2019Juan Carlos Pérez Borja ’11, Juan Castaño ’00, and Zoé Strecker ’88 are the recipients of Grinnell College’s 2019 Joseph F. Wall ’41 Alumni Service Awards. Each will use the $35,000 award to further programs driving social change.

During Grinnell College’s sesquicentennial celebration in 1996, the Joseph F. Wall ’41 Service Award was established as a tribute to the College’s 150-year tradition of social commitment. The award was named in honor of Joseph Wall ’41, professor of history and longtime dean of the College, who inspired an ideal of social responsibility in his students.

Each year, a committee composed of alumni, faculty, and a student review 20-40 applications and award the $35,000 prizes to either jump-start or complete a project that shows creativity and commitment to effecting positive social change.

Since 1996, the Wall Service Award has been presented to 53 individuals who have contributed their time and talents to 47 diverse projects throughout the U.S. and in six other countries. The College has given out more than $1 million to the Wall winners over the past 23 years.

Following is a closer look at the projects of this year’s award winners.

Juan Carlos Pérez Borja ’11

Juan Carlos Pérez Borja ’11
   Juan Carlos Pérez Borja ’11

Inspired by Teach for America, Pérez Borja founded Enseña Ecuador (Teach for Ecuador) in 2013 hoping to help solve educational inequality in his home country. In six years, the organization has placed more than 300 fellows into the classroom, where they have taught over 30,000 students.

Enseña Ecuador has become one of the most successful and known educational organizations in the country, Pérez Borja says. One side effect is the organization has started to receive many requests to start training local teachers, those who are not fellows of the regular program.

As a result, Enseña Ecuador decided to launch a new internal venture to develop a training program for local teachers called Conexión Docente. After a small pilot project earlier this year showed promise, Pérez Borja applied for the Wall Service Award to help fund a full year program for Conexión Docente.

“The positive transformation of schools will be achieved in a faster and stronger way if we are able to combine the innovation, youth, and commitment from our regular fellows with the leadership and commitment from local teachers,” Pérez Borja says. “We see Conexión Docente as a natural complement to the regular work of Enseña Ecuador, and we just needed some fuel to help us prove it.”

The Wall Service Award money will help train and support up to 70 local teachers in the Zamora Chinchipe province. The plan is to execute an intensive training curriculum with these teachers, through monthly training sessions, and then complement that work with on-site visits and classroom observations. The project is slated to begin in March and will continue through April 2021.

“By developing local teaching talent in Zamora Chinchipe, education in the Amazon region will reach sustainable, high-quality levels in the long term,” Pérez Borja says. “The plan also includes training for school authorities, who in the end will hopefully become local drivers of innovation and progress.”

Juan Castaño ’00

Juan Castaño ’00
   Juan Castaño’00

Castaño, executive director of Calpulli Mexican Dance Company in New York City, is gearing up to present Monarcas: Stories of Inspired Immigrants, a full-length, professional dance and music performance that will debut in Queens during spring 2021.

Calpulli – founded by Castaño and Alberto Lopez Herrera in 2003 – produces professional performances with an international touring company, designs arts-in-education experiences, and leads community outreach programing on a year-round basis. All of the programs are bilingual in Spanish and English. Monarcas: Stories of Inspired Immigrants will be based on real-life stories of Mexican American immigrants, who inspire with tenacity and perseverance, even in the face of injustice.

“We push artistic boundaries with each production we create, and Monarcas will be no exception as it will be drawn from true, contemporary stories, and will touch on political issues, which is new territory for us,” Castaño says. “It is deeply meaningful to receive this award from my alma mater, where I first started dancing, for a project that incorporates family stories and touches on themes that are personal to nearly all Mexican Americans, regardless of our status.”

The Wall Service Award will help with project expenses, such as space rental for dance and music rehearsals, dancer and musician wages, commissioning fees, wardrobe design and materials, technical and production expenses, lighting design, and marketing. A tour-ready performance work will be ready in late 2021.

Castaño is at work developing one of the four stories, which is about Mexican immigrants who serve in the U.S. military and the tensions they find there. It will address what it means to fight for an adopted country, and how to cope when racism and politics create barriers among soldiers of different races.

“The story is inspired by my father’s time in the U.S. Army,” Castaño says. “He and his family lived for generations in the border area of northern Mexico and, later, when it became Texas, and this brings a unique perspective to questions of where and how borders are drawn. This section will use folk material from northern Mexico and southern Texas, plus folkloric and contemporary dance, and songs that have relevant themes written by Mexican American immigrants and others.”

Zoé Strecker ’88

Zoé Strecker ’88
   Zoé Strecker ’88

Strecker, an associate professor of art at Transylvania University in Kentucky, has been focused on a long-term, social change project called Lavish! The project is a multi-media, sculptural installation on Pine Mountain that invites a deep look into biodiverse, old growth, temperate zone forests. This work celebrates Pine Mountain, in southeastern Kentucky, as a living treasure.

“As an artist, a central goal for my current work is to cultivate an understanding of wilderness as essential to humanity,” Strecker says. “Dealing with the crisis of global climate change in an effective, nimble way requires that we look to natural communities for answers.”

The 22-foot diameter handmade, circular wooden structure includes communally embroidered images of old growth forests on diaphanous walls, sound, aroma, and didactic materials. Hanging on the curved, scrim fabric walls are round photos, printed on silk organza fabric, of the ten most visually and biologically distinct natural communities on the mountain. Smaller panels feature close-up images of individual salamanders, blossoms, spiders, and other organisms.

Strecker mixed a soundtrack – bird songs, insect chatter, wind lisping through leaves, and water tumbling over stone – that plays from audio speakers. Scents of rich humus, pungent mushrooms, wet minerals, sugary blossoms and tangy wild ginger waft from aroma diffusers.

Strecker plans to use the Wall Service Award money to hire two part-time workers, an organizational and research manager and an embroidery assistant, as well as two occasional tech consultants. She also plans to invite local participants for two-day, no-cost workshop retreats in the old growth forest.

Strecker continues to seek exhibition and engagement opportunities for Lavish! The award will help her prepare the finished art for exhibition and develop compelling educational materials to accompany it.

Lavish! creates a way for people to learn more in a deeply contemplative way while creating thoughtful works that draw others into the conversation,” Strecker says. “As a form of activism, it seems gentle to an extreme, but I believe the effect on participants and on viewers of the finished work is powerful and enduring.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

Grinnell College will begin taking applications for the 2020 Wall Service Award in January. Check out the Wall Service Award web page for additional information and a list of recent winners.

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