Campus & Community

Conversations of a different kind

With a scientist’s background and a designer’s lens, Ayaka Yamashita has found her focus

7 min read
Ayaka Yamashita.

Ayaka Yamashita, M.Des. ’21, is holding a basket from Rwanda.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer

This is one in a series of profiles showcasing some of Harvard’s stellar graduates.

Before enrolling at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), Ayaka Yamashita had earned degrees in agro-informatics and global health, founded a nonprofit in Southeast Asia, published a book, and been named a Fulbright Scholar as well as “an upcoming Japanese woman contributing to the 21st century.” Born deaf in one ear, she had faced disparities in communicating with other students and teachers as a child; from a young age, she grew sensitive to the lived experience of disability and difference.

Studying design, she thought, might be a way to understand human difference through various perspectives and mediums, an opportunity to generate fresh narratives and solutions.

“As a child I was always thinking, ‘How I wish the world could understand differences, or there could be more space for people to talk about and share the experiences of different people,’” Yamashita said.

Yamashita graduates this May from the GSD’s Master in Design Studies (M.Des.) program, in which she concentrated in risk and resilience. Alongside her M.Des. studies, Yamashita pursued a GSD Community Service Fellowship with Refugee Artisans of Worcester (RAW), a nonprofit that helps refugee artisans find outlets for their crafts and greater agency by sharing their work. Yamashita embedded herself in the artisan community, living in Worcester through the pandemic and strategizing new ways to empower and elevate the artisans and their work.

At the heart of Yamashita’s fellowship is a 10-month-long storytelling project — a storytelling experiment, she says — titled “Dear Grandmother,” a series of conversations, workshops, and short films. “Dear Grandmother” centers around the story of two Rwandan refugees in Worcester: Saidati, a high school student, and her grandmother Patricia, an Agaseke-making master who lived through a series of genocides in Rwanda before coming to the U.S. in 2009. “Dear Grandmother,” on view at the GSD this spring, is a work in progress, Yamashita says; by presenting the women’s tale as an open storyboard, she aims to demonstrate conversation as methodology, a deliberate process that can be deconstructed and reshaped. Here, she draws influence from the Theatre of the Oppressed, a movement originating in 1970s Brazil in which the audience explores and engages with the theater setting, inverting the performer-audience hierarchy and fostering co-creation.

Like her other work with RAW, “Dear Grandmother” illustrates Yamashita’s mission: co-creation, community engagement, and the design of novel spaces and methods for conversations that explore difference without exploitation or marginalization. She considers “Dear Grandmother,” as well as an Instagram account she helped create for RAW, an effort to bridge generational differences and the more complex social divides between refugees and non-refugees.

“Food and music are always connecting us to different cultures. Those are some of the senses that are still developing significance in the design fields, sound and touch and taste and smell.”

Ayaka Yamashita, M.Des. ’21

Yamashita studied science and health at the University of Tokyo, where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. In 2012, after receiving her master’s, she founded the nonprofit initiative EDAYA, which works to leverage creative expression and cultural wisdom across Asia — especially through bamboo design and craft — to increase awareness of global issues such as social inequality and climate crises. Yamashita’s original inspiration was to preserve and transmit bamboo-made musical instruments from elders to younger generations; today, EDAYA leads workshops, exhibitions, and site-based research of local bamboo culture.

As EDAYA introduced Yamashita to various Southeast Asian communities and tribes, she grew fascinated by how so much culture and wisdom, accumulated over millennia, could be preserved and transmitted through art, music, and cultural traditions. She also saw how artisans used creative formats or media to share their stories and knowledge. And she grew curious about a generational dynamic: elders sustained much of their tribe’s traditions and wisdom, but younger generations seemed less motivated to carry that forward, and risked losing cultural insight. Therein she found motivation to find new methodologies and languages to give preservable, sensory form to intangible values and qualities.

Part of Yamashita’s EDAYA inspiration lay in her graduate thesis in global health, titled “Survival strategies of small-scale gold miners in Luneta, Benguet, Republic of the Philippines.” Yamashita overlaid different frames of disciplinary expertise — Earth science, medical science, economics, sociology — to tell a holistic story about a local community. By layering different knowledge and disciplines, Yamashita identified a new aspiration: the role of multidisciplinary investigator and storyteller, expanding her agency to chronicle the human condition. Design, in its emphasis on creative experimentation and cross-disciplinary synthesis, emerged as a new focus.

At the GSD, Yamashita sought new approaches to understanding the invisible, liminal spaces between people and communities — in her words, taking on the role of social architect, designing not just physical spaces but social, intercultural experiences and moments. She credits the GSD with inspiring her to layer different types and scales of information and knowledge, especially scales of time and space. With a scientist’s background and a designer’s lens, Yamashita has focused her methodology on conversation and storytelling — engagements that can cut across cultures, geographies, generations, and fields of background or expertise.

Yamashita’s GSD thesis, “Composing Soundscapes for Social Integration: Psychogeography of Bhutanese refugee elders in Worcester, Massachusetts,” examines social isolation and the potential of sound to capture and transmit a sense of place. Part of her research involves soundscape compositions, drawn from refugees’ homes and craft spaces, that convey an understanding of the resettlement experience, seeking to dissolve boundaries between refugees and non-refugees.

Sound has long captivated Yamashita’s imagination as a medium of social connection, owing in part to her experiences as a hearing-impaired child. Over the past academic year, she participated in the Harvard Innovation Lab’s Venture Program to develop a concept she’s been mulling for a while: an audio-based media platform delivering the voices of Southeast Asian musicians and artists without corporate or industry involvement, an effort to provide more-authentic, mutually empowering connections between musicians and audiences. Yamashita is also starting to explore how other physical senses can perform similar connective tasks, especially the senses of taste and smell.

“Food and music are always connecting us to different cultures,” Yamashita says. “Those are some of the senses that are still developing significance in the design fields, sound and touch and taste and smell. It all affects your spatial experience, and therefore our social and global experience.”

If Yamashita’s undergraduate studies encouraged her to conceptualize human society in terms of layers, like the physical strata that form the Earth, then her graduate studies impressed upon her the near-endless nature of those layers, and the constancy of interaction and flux between them. She observes that many of today’s social problems, while urgent, have long histories and span many eras and geographies, and she is now focused on how design might offer new narratives and solutions for persistent questions.

“All of my work is connected to questions of different knowledge, layers, and scales,” Yamashita says. “That is part of why I wanted to study design, to creatively experiment with layering of different knowledge and with different ways of looking at and approaching those layers of knowledge. If we change how we look at time and the Earth, and the layers of culture, history, and time that create global society, we can look at and design for the world in a different way.”