They met the weekend they all moved into third floor Bolt. After graduation, during graduate school, they took summer hiking and camping trips together and talked about what they wanted to do with their educations.
“We thought, why not try to do something together?” said Paul Christians ’03.
“We knew that, whatever we did, we wanted it to rely on and build strong relationships, because that’s what transformed us at Calvin,” added Craig Mulder ’02.
But what’s the common, relationship-building work of an engineer (Mulder), a historian/anthropologist (Christians) and a filmmaker (Jeff DeKock ’01)? A novel nonprofit that unites those specialized professions.
Open Hand Studios (OHS), Christians explained, “is like a node: It uses our various skills to connect people in developing and developed locations for social justice.”
Here’s what that looks like in Jordan: OHS has joined Calvin history professor Bert de Vries at his research site at Umm el-Jimal, where since 1972 he’s been uncovering and mapping the Roman and Byzantine ruins [see more on Bert de Vries' page]. Open Hand’s work is a virtual reconstruction of the ruins and an online museum and archive (www.ummeljimal.org) to spread de Vries’ research beyond academics to the public. For the actual on-site museum and cultural center planned by the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, OHS will design photo and video exhibits. Partnering with Jordan’s Ministry of Education, de Vries and OHS are also recording oral histories of the residents of the modern town of Umm el-Jimal in order to tell the story of the site in school materials for both Jordanian and American students.
Open Hand’s work doesn’t end with creating media extensions of de Vries’ research. “We’re interested in cultures and their preservation,” Christians said, “but we don’t want to do any project unless the proceeds can return to the people of a community and improve their quality of life. Only they can decide what that return should be.”
“In Umm el-Jimal,” Mulder continued, “there’s been a drought in an already arid place. As we talked to people, they told us, ‘What we need is water.’ We saw there was an ancient water system that had supported life there for 800 years and asked, ‘Could that piece of their actual cultural heritage meet their modern needs?’”
OHS is writing grants to fund the repair of basalt channels and reservoirs that used to supply water to Umm el-Jimal. Excited about the possibilities, local residents have begun the work, with their ownhands, already. During the last rainy season the reservoirs filled for the first time in 25 years. Eventually income from the cultural heritage center and on-site museum, as well as OHS-produced films and a traveling photo exhibit, will help fund the water system’s maintenance.
In all parts of the work—engineering, photography, archaeology, oral histories—Open Hand is following de Vries’ lead in engaging Calvin students, too, in the project.
Besides Umm el-Jimal, Open Hand Studios is working on projects where cultural preservation generates and sustains community development in a half a dozen locations, from India to Kenya to Bolivia. Because the work is built on relationships with indigenous people, DeKock travels the globe for OHS, while Mulder and Christians work mostly from this country.
“Using our educations to give back, and having local people come alongside us and help us do better,” Mulder said, “that’s been a beautiful thing to be part of.”
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