With a background in environmental and indigenous issues, Rachel Tso’s decision to pursue NAU’s master of arts in sustainable communities just made sense.
“The program gave me a lot of freedom to design what I wanted to learn and take classes from multiple disciplines like history, anthropology and communication,” Tso said. “The required classes that I wasn’t as excited about turned out to be the most meaningful of all—they really opened up my eyes to new ideas which then snowballed into my thesis.”
Her unconventional thesis is actually a film documenting a “place-based media arts” demonstration project—a film documenting the making of a film—showing how to put technology in the hands of youth for them to use it to learn more about their communities and the environment. An accompanying handbook shows educators how to implement “Place- Based Media Arts” into their curriculum.
“Placed–based media arts” is a term coined by Tso to describe her process of working with students to create media arts that help to “generate and sustain community histories, address language loss and build intergenerational relationships.”
But for her thesis, Tso decided to bring the project even closer to home. She gave her then 13-year-old home-schooled daughter Camille an assignment—to interview a community elder and create a media project about what she learned.
Camille decided to interview her grandmother and to make a film for her project. After listening to her grandmother, she was taken with the story of her great-great-great grandmother Yellow Woman who was forced on the Long Walk in 1864—when Navajos were forced at gunpoint to walk for 18 days into an area of New Mexico.
Camille spent a year writing and polishing her script and recruiting family members to star in her movie, In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman. Her film debuted in the fall of 2009 and has since been in 38 film festivals around the world. Because of her film, Camille also earned a scholarship to Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, an elite boarding school for talented high school students where she now attends.
“The best part of getting my graduate degree was having the opportunity to do a meaningful project with my family,” Tso said. “The best part of the program was the support that I received. Sandra Lubarsky, the director of the program, believed in me and kept rooting for me. Her encouragement was key.”
Tso continues to put her theories to the test at work as a teacher at the Star School, a completely solar-powered school located 30 miles east of Flagstaff.
“Media engages kids naturally,” Tso said. “In studying sustainable communities, sometimes you come across the belief that technology is harmful. But I believe it’s better to teach our kids to harness the tools needed to navigate through the corporate-sponsored world that surrounds us.”
Her work with the students there has been so successful that the school is planning to build a Center for Placed-Based Media Arts in the next year.
“Rachel’s instruction in filmmaking is giving these kids a powerful voice that allows them to express what they love about themselves and their culture,” said Mark Sorenson, director of the Star School.
View some of the Star students videos here.