Latitude Zer0 at TEDx Cuahtemoc: Changing World Views Through Experiential Education

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The experience of giving a TEDx Cuahctémoc talk in Mexico City was an incredible way to process the Latitude Zero course and to share the experience in context with others working passionately for change. The extensive preparation process forced me to examine the roots of the Latitude Zero course concept, how it can change in the ways students see the world and to connect this to the geographic location and the students’ experience.

Latitude Zer0

My TEDx journey began on an excursion with students to La Montaña Negra on Isabel Island in the Galápagos. When our guide began in English an Argentinian woman immediately protested, “Why is this in English if we are in Ecuador? My sister does not speak English…?” The question took us all by surprise, but then, why was the tour in English? There’s no simple answer to this question, but her protest brings up a host of complex issues that students began to uncover on our dialogue, what does it mean to enter a new country as a foreigner and how does tourism impact a culture? What is the difference between our course work inside communities and our excursions as tourists, how are we treated differently and how do we treat the people and places differently. For our emphasis on photo and video, how is it different to record in a more vertical posture as tourists vs. recording in a more horizontal exchange as a collaborative storyteller.

Since the first two hours of our hike were though the fog, I had plenty of time to talk with Marcela, the bold Argentinian woman, about how her question accompanied the kinds of questions students were wrestling with throughout our collaborative storytelling project. She had many thoughts on the subject and finally told me she organizes TEDx Cuahctémoc and although time was very short, would I like to come to Mexico City and give a talk. Crazy, considering I would compress a two month process into about 4 weeks, but I could not turn it down.

Latitude Zer0

Our dialogue course Latitude Zero was born from the curious way in which the equator is marked in Ecuador. There are in fact two lines that mark the equator. In San Luis de Guachalá, the community we featured in our collaborative storytelling project there are two lines marking the equator. One features a large globe monument and the other a simple line of bricks. The globe monument marks the line determined by the French Geodesic Mission in 1736 and the other line was determined by Quitu-caranqui astronomers prior to the Spanish conquest. When the French Geodesic Mission arrived in the region, the inhabitants knew where the actual line lay. But the mission had to determine the exact location using the latest scientific methods. Since then, this French line has been the line with the most elaborate monuments, those visited most by tourists. We have photographs balancing on one side or the other, etc. GPS measurements show that the French line is off be 270 meters, but the Quitu-caranqui line is exact! After generations measured the celestial movements against the Andes mountain peaks they were able to arrive at incredible exactitude. These two lines express the perfect metaphor for the Latitude Zero experience. We arrive with our notions and ways of seeing the world. Our methods and measures will bring us to some approximation of the cultural realities that surround us. The goal is not to reach exactitude, but to become aware of our cultural framework and to place it in context, not vertically above the place in which we have entered, but horizontally, a more open position to learn from many perspectives. Somewhere along the way, our notions become exposed as approximations of how things really are.

Latitude Zero emphasized recording our experiences through photography, video and drawing. We collaborated with indigenous filmmakers on a documentary production inside a community. This community was trying to introduce a traditional plant into production and in the process of documenting we uncovered stories exposing the social and cultural importance of the plant, the economic potentials, the political obstacles to the process and the environmental advantages in this unique geographic zone at high altitude on the equator. Students entered into a production process structured by APAK, our collaborators. Their approach emphasizes self-representation of indigenous people in the media. By participating in the project, students had many opportunities to question what they were seeing, how they framed this through visual representation, and how this influenced the end goal of the project. They were able to identify how their western notions intermingled with those of APAK or the people in the community. Students were able to expand possibilities for thinking and seeing in a very exciting way.

Latitude Zer0

Sharing the story of our Latitude Zero course at TEDx Cuahctemóc event among activist voices like Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza and Ruben Albarrán I was both humbled and honored. To be invited to Mexico City to speak about the power of experiential education to expand world views emphasized the importance of my mission as an educator. I was able to highlight the unique conditions at Northeastern including students with a global mentality looking to expand their worldview, institutional support, and the opportunity to leverage over 20 years of relationships developed in Ecuador--dream conditions coming together to seal an incredible experience.

Written by Professor Jean Ormaza