Monday, December 3, 2007

Project Descriptions

This blog post is about our projects. At Project FOCUS we recognize our responsibility to share our progress with the people that have supported us. We apologize for the inexcusable delay in updates. Please stay involved and please keep us accountable; your participation keeps us motivated.

First, let's begin by defining art therapy.

Art therapy is a form of counseling which uses art making as a way to express feelings, emotions, and personal stories.

Unfortunately, the role of art therapy in Uganda has been drowned out by the overwhelming necessity of material needs. In the community of Lyantonde, Uganda, some children need access to clean water, a healthy diet, stable structures to live in, and an education to break the vicious cycle of poverty. At Project FOCUS we do not ignore these needs, but we also do not underestimate the complexity of the problems that underly these circumstances. We do not claim to have answers. All we can offer is an open mind, our skills and resources. Unfortunately, we do not have engineers or economists on our team (yet). Our philosophy and work has resonated specifically with artists, social workers, students and activists who were inspired to travel to Uganda this summer to do what they could, offering a voice to individuals living in a community devastated by HIV/AIDS. Perhaps a fresh water well could have saved hundreds of lives, a new school could have educated a village, or a few thousand dollars could have fortified homes or bought bushels of drought-resistant seeds - we don't know. So we act according to what we do know - that the simple act of creating art can make people feel powerful. Important ideas are expressed, personal stories are shared, and a community can come together to acknowledge and appreciate their own strengths and weaknesses.

What follows are the description of six projects that are currently being carried out by a group of seven committed and capable members of our group. The six projects represent a diversity of voices, art medias, questions, and collaborations with local organizations.

Project 1: Portraits of Resiliency in Lyantonde, Uganda

Using a wide variety of art media, artists from the United States and Uganda will come together to work with 12 individuals from the villages of Lyantonde to create collaborative portraits that explore issues of stigma, poverty, and resiliency to obstacles. These pieces will be compiled and displayed both in Uganda and the United States to raise awareness about the complexity of life in Lyantonde.

Partnering Organization: Participatory Organization for Rural Development Initiative (PARDI) (

Project 2: Common Threads: HIV/AIDS Quilt

In this project, individuals will design and create squares for a quilt that illustrate a collection of stories discussing the personal effects of HIV/AIDS. Facilitators will teach basic skills in textile art and sewing. The intent of this project is to facilitate the growth of self-sustaining art groups and to support grassroots networks in these communities.

Partnering Organization: Participatory Organization for Rural Development Initiative (PARDI)

Project 3: Art Therapy at Prince Primary School

An art therapy program will be developed for middle school students at Prince Primary School. The focus of the program will be recording and preserving oral history and educating the community about local family traditions and life lessons through symbolic stories.

Partnering Organization: Prince Primary School

Project 4: Multi-dimensional Photography Project

This project will give adolescents the opportunity to express their identity through the art of photography. Group members will be asked to document people, places, and objects that are meaningful to them. These photos will be arranged and constructed using other materials into a multi-dimensional collage.

Partnering Organization: Participatory Organization for Rural Development Initiative (PARDI)

Project 5: Pin-Hole Photography Project

This project gives students an opportunity to appreciate non-traditional photography by exploring the art and technique of pin-hole photography. Students will build and take photographs with pinhole cameras made out of tin cans, giant boxes, and matchboxes.

Partnering Organization: In Movement (

Project 6: Recording/Producing/Promoting of Bitone Troupe Album

In this project, the voices and music of the Bitone Troupe will be captured, produced, and promoted as an album to benefit the Bitone Troupe Children's Home in Kampala, Uganda. The Children's Home provides abandoned and orphaned children with a safe environment to live, study, and mature while learning traditional arts from accomplished local artists.

Partnering Organization: Bitone Troupe (

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Photo Stories

Lauren Pond (photographer) and Grant Buhr (sound engineer) spent two weeks in Lyantonde, Uganda this summer to document the sights and sounds of everyday life in the community. Together, they completed four photo/audio stories. The first three stories were focused on vocational training centers that provide essential assistance for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Students at these training centers are taught marketable skills that offer children a sustainable form of financial stability.

The following video was the first one completed. It follows the work of students at a carpentry training center from harvesting wood to finishing a piece of furniture. The other three videos have not been finished. We hope to post the videos as they become available.

If you'd like to support the carpentry training center featured in this story, contact us at Thanks!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Focus Exhibit in Kampala

Project FOCUS initially started with a photography project. In the summer of 2006, Daniel, Harish, and Aura traveled to Uganda with donated cameras and film and were lucky to have found FOCUS Uganda: The Mulago Child Development Project, who let us work with 16 of their students. In an attempt to portray the every day lives of a group of youth living in Kampala, the FOCUS Exhibit was developed. Through it, we were able to see the powerful effects of using art as a tool of expression to communicate unique and delicate stories to people who might not otherwise have chance to experience it. As we began to plan our return trip to Uganda to begin a similar project with another Community-Based Organization in a different region of Uganda, we were imagining ways that we could continue our collaboration with FOCUS. One idea was to bring the actual exhibit back to the youth who took the photographs and allow the students the opportunity to display their work for their own community. We arrived one year later with the photographs in digital form which made them easy to view, compare, and discuss. After the selection of the photographs, we worked alongside the staff and students of FOCUS to make the exhibit a fun and educational event.

We were very excited to be able to bring the photographs back to the youth, and to have the opportunity to show the students how well received their photographs had been in the United States. Unfortunately, the four “Response Banners” that were hung at all of the exhibits in the U.S., where people were able to write or draw their reactions to the photographs, were in luggage that never arrived in Uganda (we finally got them upon returning to Chicago!) Fortunately we were able to have a running slideshow of photographs that had been taken at The FOCUS Exhibit in Chicago. The photographs were able to capture the audience’s reaction to the art work. The students seemed very pleased to see a diverse group of American’s so intrigued by the stories that they told with their cameras.

Another element of the exhibit was a continuation of the Community Art Projects that we began last spring in Chicago. Everyone present at the exhibit was invited to participate in the mural painting, and be a part of the beautiful finished product.

Aside from the photography exhibit and the Community Art Project, there was also wonderful performances the Bitone Troupe, a youth group from Katanga Church, and the students of FOCUS. The entertainment certainly added energy to the day, and seemed to be thoroughly enjoyed by all.

While reflecting on the exhibit, as a group, we were trying to measure its success. As an organization, all of our projects aim to meet the three criteria that we have established: Educate, Inspire, and Empower. If all three are achieved to a relative degree, than we can consider a project or event successful. We assumed that because the exhibit had been a success in Chicago, that it would receive the same appreciation in Uganda. There was a sense of pride coming from the youth, their family members and local community leaders which speaks to the ability of such a project to empower a group of youth. However, it was difficult for us to gauge how much the audience actually learned from the experience. In an exhibit that displays their daily lives, their community, the streets they live on it, we wondered if the exhibit had provided them an opportunity to see their community through a different lens. The inspiration sparked from the exhibit is another concept that was difficult to measure. Project FOCUS can hope that the students, parents, and community leaders found inspiration in seeing that there are individuals across the world as well as in their own community who are committed to bringing change to their community through their youth. Project FOCUS members found inspiration in the photographs, the dancing, the music, and the smiles on everyone’s face as we came together as people from very different worlds and enjoyed the day.

The students and staff of the Mulago Child Development Project also spent time reflecting on the exhibit and sent us a formal evaluation. One very important point that was raised was the oversight of our group to assume that photography in Uganda is revered as an art form, and a tool for expression. It would have been helpful lead a class on photography before handing the students cameras and film with a very vague prompt. Another important observation made by some of the older participants was the inequality or “opportunity gap” that exists between the two worlds and that it is unfair that they are unable to travel to the US and give kids cameras so that they could experience life in the States. The evaluation suggests that “the kids are perceptive enough to locate that gap, and some kind of compensation should take place if the photo exhibition partnership is to continue into the future,” which could take the form of doing a very similar photo project here in the states and brining it to the students of FOCUS.

Not surprisingly, in our reflections of the overall event, we realized that we still have a lot to learn about immersing ourselves into a different culture, and we have to continuously reexamine our actions. Our collaboration with FOCUS has provided us with great teachers, so long as we continue to view ourselves as learners. Madelene, the most recent addition to Project FOCUS arrived in Uganda just one week prior to the Exhibit. In a reflection of the day (and her overall initial impressions of Uganda) she stated, “I am already infinitely impressed by the local Ugandans I have met who commit their time and energy to working with the youth. Their dedication inspires and humbles me. In working with Nelson, Ernest and Audrey (staff of the Mulago Child Development Project) to bring this exhibition to fruition, I was continually struck by the absolute necessity to develop positive collaborative relationships with community-based organizations like FOCUS.” We are fortunate to have met the leaders of FOCUS because they do not hesitate to give us honest and constructive criticism. We, admire their work and their individual characters. Their guidance to us as a young group has been necessary and deeply appreciated.

Originally, we wanted this exhibit to bring a sense of closure to the project so that we can begin focusing all of our energy to launching new projects in Lyantonde, Uganda. However, through discussions with the leaders of FOCUS Uganda, we realized that there is an immense amount of value in continuing the photography project in some capacity with the students of FOCUS. We are not sure exactly what shape it will take, but we are very excited and honored to strengthen our relationship with FOCUS Uganda both through future projects as well as viewing the staff of the Mulago Child Development Project as mentors and advisors.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Waiting for words.

tensions started when our cultures collided

silence (a blank figure)

grew heads of mistrust and misunderstanding.

creativity was oppressed. progress scattered.

in silence, my friends, listen carefully.

wait for thoughts to find its' voice. wrestle the silent tensions.


seek dialogue and find your resolution.

-Daniel Yang

Monday, July 23, 2007

Tension, Confrontation and Resolution

We've made progress in the last few weeks, but not in ways we expected. There won't be any artwork, music or photography in this post but the reflections of a group struggling to understand where we are and where we've come from. Working and living in a foreign country has brought excitement into the smallest activity but has also presented us with difficult challenges and fundamental tensions.

This past week our entire group, recently joined by a social worker (Aura) and two art therapists (Sunny and Meg), traveled to Lyantonde to meet with the staff of PARDI, a community-based organization (CBO) established in 2001 to address the economic and social impact of HIV/AIDS on rural communities. PARDI (Participatory Action for Rural Development Initiative) supports a variety of community initiatives in Lyantonde, Rakai and Sembabule districts. Their activities range from providing school uniforms for children orphaned by AIDS to guidance and counseling for HIV positive parents. Similar to Project FOCUS, PARDI is composed of volunteers who offer their time, their professional skills and a sizable chunk of their salaries to support the organization and the communities it serves.

Our reasons for working with PARDI are two-fold. First, PARDI represents the community's response to a crisis that no one else seemed to care about, or knew how to address. Second, we have no desire to undermine the existing effort of community members who are committed and passionate to creating change in their their environment. We believe a collaboration with a CBO such as PARDI is our best option. Such a partnership will allow us to implement our programs with the guidance of community members who are best equipped to understand the needs and identify the assets of their community.


Every relationship faces challenges and undergoes tension. Unfortunately, our challenges over the last week have been extremely difficult and confusing to understand. Tension resulting from misunderstanding and mistrust have almost led our organization to cut ties with PARDI and move on. Not all relationships work, no matter how perfect they seem upon first impression. Some of these issues are difficult to write about, but we hope that others can learn from our mistakes and experiences. As an organization we have nothing to hide but much to learn. We welcome your comments and questions.

1) Misunderstanding

There was a lot of misunderstanding between Project FOCUS and PARDI concerning art therapy and it's role in the community. We prematurely assumed that the community would understand and embrace the concept of self-expression as a form of therapy without explanation or proof. Should they believe us just because we come from the United States? And what about language? How does their understanding of 'art', 'self-expression' and 'therapy' differ from our definitions informed by western culture and history? And how can we reasonably and ethically address psycho-social needs when survival is constantly challenged by absolute poverty and a lack of material support? What should we offer children orphaned by AIDS -- blankets and clothes or an opportunity to grieve the loss of their parents?

2) Mistrust

Misunderstanding often breeds mistrust. In our case, stereotypical assumptions and a lack of transparency resulted in problems. Foreigners from the United States and other developed countries are often perceived as wealthy donors when they're in Uganda. It's not uncommon for a child to walk up to you, to pull your shirt and ask you to sponsor her school fees. Though it's difficult to say, it's easy to see that in many way Uganda is a country suffering from financial dependency on international NGOs and development agencies. As a non-profit organization coming to work in Uganda, Project FOCUS was immediately targeted for its money. In dealing with an individual that represents PARDI, there's been a lot of confusion and dispute over finances, from 50 cents to $500. We were concerned that we had been taken advantage of and repeatedly lied to. It's important not to assume trust, but to build it. And in working with a community-based organization, it's also important to understand the accountability and decision-making structure of the organization. We've heard too many stories of well-intentioned organizations and victimized communities being robbed by individuals that participate in a culture of corruption. Who's responsible for the system that condones, even encourages, corruption? It may not be who you think it is. Over the last few decades developed countries have given lots of money to Africa, perhaps out of guilt, without following where it's gone. Support meant for millions has too often created millionaires.


In order to address the causes of these growing tensions, we organized a meeting between all of the members of Project FOCUS and the entire staff of PARDI. A total of 10 of us and 10 PARDI staff members met in the courtyard of a small hotel, seated in a large circle after dark. The meeting had two objectives -- to address our previous concerns and misunderstandings and to define the future partnership between PARDI and Project FOCUS.

The meeting was an open dialogue and both groups were encouraged to ask difficult questions and respond honestly. We wanted our relationship to be built on a stable foundation of transparency and accountability. Some moments of the meeting were extremely uncomfortable but afterwards provided us with a sense of relief and deeper understanding of each other's mistakes and intentions.


The process of building trust takes time. Not all of the tensions were resolved in the staff meeting. There are some challenges that may never be resolved, like the issue of finding a balance between meeting psycho-social needs and material needs. The past few week has been a struggle, but it's brought our group closer together. It's challenged us to rethink our philosophy and question our intentions and project ideas. We'll follow-up this post with a more complete discussion of the resolution as it evolves between our organizations. But we're hopeful for a supportive and successful collaboration between Project FOCUS and PARDI.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Introduction to Lyantonde, Uganda

Three of us, Rhea, Lauren and I (Daniel), spent the last four days in Lyantonde, Uganda, a small town located three and half hours southwest of the capital Kampala. Until last year, when district boundaries were modified, Lyantonde was part of Rakai district, notoriously known as the birthplace of AIDS in Uganda.

Introduced by truck drivers from all across East Africa, HIV spread quickly into the surrounding rural community, brought home by young women forced into prostitution by the heavy demands of absolute poverty.

This is the town where Project FOCUS will be working for the next six months. No running water, no internet and unreliable electricity. A region of spectacular natural beauty juxtaposed to the suffering of a community devastated by AIDS.

Prince Primary School

A school of four classrooms constructed by the community in response to an orphan crisis without historical precedence. More than 200 children from the surrounding rural areas attend school daily at Prince Primary. Unfortunately, most of them have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Project FOCUS will be working with the headmaster and school teachers to implement an art curriculum that provides psychosocial therapy and empowers youth with an outlet for creative self-expression and story-telling through different media.

Vocational Training -- (a work in progress...)

Lauren, the photographer of the images in this post, is still in Lyantonde working on a series of photo stories that explore opportunities available for children orphaned by AIDS. The following photographs were taken at a carpentry shop that trains older students with practical skills they can use to support themselves and their families.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Meet the Family

U.S. / Midwest

Chicago, Illinois

Aura is currently a School Social Work
er at Chicago Public Schools but has a secret, yet financially implausible, dream of becoming a pilot. She enjoys working with Chicago’s youth and believes that a well-rounded and positive education is the key to a happy future. She is currently enrolled in Northwestern University’s Art Therapy Certificate Program in a personal attempt to tap into an undiscovered creative side and to have more skills to bring to those that she works with, in CPS as well as with Project FOCUS.

In Uganda, Grant worked as the country director of Project FOCUS for nearly two years. In addition to his work with Project Focus, he has recorded and produced two albums with Ugandan youth from the Bitone Children's Home. He is now in Chicago pursuing a degree in sociology at University of Illinois at Chicago and teaching digital music production through Enlace Chicago's after-school programing.

Rhea Vitalis holds a BS in Marketing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She works in the for-profit world as a marketing and sales coordinator in a shipping logistics company and also runs her own graphic design and marketing company, Idea Sprout Studio. As a member of Project FOCUS, she applies her professional skills in managing the business and marketing aspects of the organization. In the future, she would like to merge her vocation and avocation in the field of social entrepreneurship.

Daniel Yang holds a BS in Biological Sciences from UIC where he is continuing his studies as a medical student. His interests include public health, radio documentary, and anything else that sparks the imagination. Upon finishing his medical degree, he would like to pursue a career in international health, addressing both the physical and psychosocial health needs of vulnerable communities.

Florencia Rojo is a student at DePaul University studying Sociology with a concentration in Health and Human Services. In 2008, she traveled to Nicaragua where she volunteered with a local youth and woman’s advocacy center. Her experience abroad and her work with Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor has sparked an interest in international development and woman’s health issues. She was drawn to Project FOCUS because of its’ strong community in the United States and its’ commitment to community-driven development in Uganda.

Gloria Bernard holds an MA in Art Therapy from the Steinhart School of New York University. Creativity has always been an integral part of Gloria's life since childhood. She is a process-oriented artist who finds meaning in all mediums. She continues to pursue a life of creativity through music, drawing, painting, and photography.

Seva Gandhi recently graduated with her Masters of Social Work from the University of Michigan. Her focus was in management of human services and community organizing. She is currently working within the realm of international development with non-profit based in the US. Seva is interested in resource development within rural areas and is a big advocate of systems thinking.

U.S. / East Coast

Boston, Massachusets

Madelene Pario is an artist and credentialed Registered Art Therapist who received her BA in Visual Arts from Brown University and her MA in Art Therapy from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She describes her art as a way to visually piece together the fragments of her identity. As an art therapist, she helps create an open and safe space for others to weave their stories and express difficult emotions through metaphor and imagination. Her current interests are in facilitating culturally sensitive art therapy in Uganda through coordination with local artists and professionals. She also promotes group art-making as a powerful tool for personal and social change.

U.S. / West Coast

Los Angeles, California

Mary Tims holds a B Arch from the Woodbury University School of Architecture and currently resides in the Los Angeles region where she is pursuing her liscensure in the state of California. Future plans include: graduate school to study Art History and develop an interdisciplinary architectural practice. Mary’s current interests include: feminist theory, minimalism, public art (serra, kapoor), french cuisine, your mom, reflective facades, carved apertures and theatrical cavities.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

About This Blog

Welcome to the Project FOCUS blog! Project FOCUS is a Chicago-based non-profit organization composed of young artists and students bound by a common purpose to educate, inspire and empower youth through art. This summer, members of Project FOCUS are working in Uganda from June to December planning and implementing art projects that serve disadvantaged youth affected by absolute poverty, disease, gender inequality and a lack of educational opportunities. But instead of focusing on what these children lack, we want emphasize their assets -- their skills and stories.

We conceive of this blog as a work of art in itself -- an outlet for creative expression, a space for dialogue and an avenue of exploration.

We also want this blog to be based on a variety of media, presenting a layered and complex view of life in Uganda. this requires patience and thought on our part. We'll try our best to upload images, to present work in progress. But some weeks may be slower than others. We don't know what's possible yet, given our limited access to the internet and our lack of formal expectations.

We'll have to be creative.

We want to ask you to stay involved in our project by offering comments, criticisms, contacts and ideas. We envision this blog to be interactive, a meeting point for a community of the like-minded. For this to work we need your buy in. The more you contribute, the greater motivation we'll have to share. and the more we share, the more you'll have to respond to. Let's keep it natural and informal. respectful, but never boring.

At this point there's no set structure to the blog. We want to keep it flexible, leaving room for growth and creativity. We value your support and we look forward to hearing from you.