Parsons Alumna, Katya Akuma on Design Habilitation in Haiti

Channeling their skills from Parsons to Port-au-Prince, four graduates including Katya Akuma worked towards social change with Haitian artisans.

With the help of Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Foundation and members of the Parsons community, Haitian artisans received modern design training and access to state-of-the-art machinery needed to compete in the global marketplace.

An incubator for Haiti’s artisan community, the Design Organization Training (D.O.T) center, enables them to scale up production while preserving their unique cultural practices. Fostering innovation, providing resources and materials, graduates including Akuma trained Haitian artisans to refine their products and processes in the summer of 2015 and continued in the fall.

Led workshops for the artisans

The graduates led workshops for the artisans in laser cutting, fabric dyeing, wood bending, and block printing that extended to the design and manufacturing of market-ready products sold at Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Soulful Economy Marketplace. 

Akuma specialized in the progress of developing new colors and print techniques using local plants and other resources such as rust. “Since there is an increasing interest in the application of natural dyes as environmental awareness and public concern about pollution increase, I believe that it is an important area that needs to be developed in Haiti. The potential national market for natural dye plants in the fiber arts area is not well known and information about this market could help both growers and fiber artists. My goal is to further research and develop local materials for natural dying.” said Akuma 

Many resources are scarce

Juxtaposing her experience at Parsons where creators can get their hands on anything they want, in Haiti, many resources are scarce. Haitian artisans did the most with whatever materials they could find including metal, horn, recycled plastic, and broken glass. Although Haitian artisans have managed to use limited materials and tools to maximum effect, those resources can only take them so far since the machinery needed to perfect their products is scarce, as is the electricity required to operate certain tools and illuminate workspaces. Along with Parsons, the Urban Zen Foundation provided tools and resources through D.O.T giving them access to state-of-the-art equipment and taught locals how to use modern machinery. 

Working together, they produced items such as statues made of reclaimed fabrics, geometric ornaments carved from soft obeche wood, and vases wrapped in dried tobacco leaves. “There were some problems, mostly stemming from the language barrier or working with modern machines,” Akuma admitted. “However, our goal was to maintain the skill of the local craftsmen to design new products for the Urban Zen collections, which use mainly natural materials.”

Designed a new collection

Together they designed a new collection of bags and household goods dyed using traditional natural dyes with respect for the environment. Akuma had succeeded in her mission but admitted that the greatest reward for her was the experience she gained. “I am convinced that our cooperation can lead to something big and valuable,” Akuma said.  

Leaving with an appreciation for the Urban Zen Foundation and a new stance on the power in fashion, Akuma refocused her mission. Deriving a new nonprofit organization, Council for Fashion and Social Change, Akuma successfully replicated the concept of humanitarian relief through synergy and continues to bring about social change today. 

For more information on the Council of Fashion and Social Change, visit

Read also: How This New York City Artist Changes People’s Lives

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