To dispel what she calls mischaracterizations about the borderlands, Ali Dipp is spending the summer creating Work Project, a digital platform for Southwestern self-representation. Photos courtesy of Ali Dipp

Date August 6, 2020
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Every May, Brown students leave their coursework behind to pursue a wealth of transformative summer opportunities — a tradition that has continued remotely during the current COVID-19 moment.

Ali Dipp: Building a platform for ‘borderlanders’ in the Southwest

Through digital marketplaces, murals and storytelling, the Brown-RISD dual degree student and El Paso, Texas, native seeks to celebrate the unique character of the Southwest.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — In the southwestern U.S., people from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and other states share more than just a border with Mexico. And while journalists may often tell stories about one side or the other, the experiences of individuals who identify with both — “borderlanders” — rarely receive the same spotlight.

It’s here, says rising Brown University junior Ali Dipp, that self-representation is paramount.

“When people think about El Paso, Texas, they might not really be considering the people that I’m interacting with on a daily basis,” Dipp said. “They don’t have the privilege of knowing the people here. Instead, they have the impressibility of media that’s been basically stamped onto our region from unreliable sources.”

To dispel what she calls myths and mischaracterizations about the region, while also working to unite members of the “borderlander” community through a shared experience, Dipp is spending the summer creating Work Project, a digital platform for Southwestern self-representation.

Dipp’s work is funded by a Royce Fellowship, a Swearer Center program at Brown that awards grants to approximately 20 Brown undergraduates each summer to design and carry out independent research and study projects across the U.S. and the globe.

A Class of 2022 Brown-RISD Dual Degree student concentrating in both English and Painting, Dipp aims to ensure that the project highlights the many ways the Southwest is represented through a wide variety of art and media forms.

Work Project graphic
Work Project will be unveiled on Labor Day 2020.

Through Work Project, Dipp says that organizations, museums, researchers and artists from across the nation will examine representations of the borderlands pictured in museums, murals and literature. In emphasizing the region’s legacy of labor, the project celebrates individuals for their ethics, effort and excellence.

“My whole concept of work ethic, which runs really strongly in everyone I know, is a condition that is really prevalent in the Southwest, and something that we don’t talk about,” Dipp said. “I truly think that if we cannot recognize our work, we cannot acknowledge our worth.”

The Work Project platform, which Dipp will officially launch on Labor Day 2020, includes five parts: “Currents,” a blog for nonprofits focused on labor equality; “Mementos/Momentos,” which are verbal tales of labor histories; a collaborative mural wall; “Mobile Mercado,” a meeting place for local businesses; and “Linked Bridges,” gateways for further learning into museum archives.

“This is a platform that I probably would’ve given to my younger self five years ago when I was first getting interested in my own region,” Dipp said. “I wish there was a place for me to understand different regional museums, different people, different business and entrepreneurial resources that I just did not have access to when I was growing up.”

Work Project will launch through Sunhouse Arts, an organization that Dipp founded in 2012 with her sister, Celine. To date, Dipp says Sunhouse Arts has raised $10,000 for El Paso and Juárez nonprofits, produced five plays, coordinated several youth programs in performance and film, and produced nine short films.

I think that living in a region that is built on the translation between two languages, the common language we share is action ... our region can basically make water out of sand.

Ali Dipp Creator of Work Project

The platform will serve as an extension of the varied work Sunhouse Arts has already done — making connections throughout Dipp’s community with an emphasis on representation.

“Being a person of the border, you understand the significance of metaphors and you understand the significance of conjoining and finding connections between unlike things,” she said. “And part of what we learned in the last eight years of creating Sunhouse Arts is that you don’t actually know anything until you experience it.”

Finding a way to represent self-representation, however, was challenging at first.

“I was waking up at 4 a.m. for three months straight, revamping our websites, applying to grants and spending a lot of time trying to maturate ideas on how we can represent this adequately — because no representation can ever evade reductiveness,” Dipp said.

Originally, Work Project was going to be an event. But the COVID-19 pandemic and timing issues put those plans on pause (she still hopes to hold the event once it’s safe to do so), and Dipp restructured it into a digital experience — something she said she is now grateful for, because she was able to expand the project past the boundaries of an in-person event.

Hundreds of individuals from every state in the Southwest are contributing to the project, and Dipp says she’s corresponding with people outside the region to gain national affiliation.

“People want to talk about what they’ve been doing, and I want to celebrate what’s happening,” she said.

Southwest in the Northeast

What is good work without a good mentor? Dipp says she has many.

“Ghosts are my mentors,” she said. “My grandfather’s ghost is my mentor. My dad is my mentor. My mom. My little sister. It’s endless — those that I appreciate and respect and are humbled by, they’re all my mentors.”

Green card art
“Heads and Tails (Tales)” is a representation of Dipp’s grandfather’s green card, manually stitched onto repurposed denim.

Her late grandfather, a Mexican immigrant to whom Work Project is dedicated, has remained an inspiring force in Dipp’s artwork. In a series of biographical heirlooms made from repurposed jeans, Dipp highlights his green card, manually stitched onto denim, and a memorial piece emulates a retablo, or Catholic devotional folk painting, the accompanying jeans embossed with a cathedral pattern. Prior to the North American Free Trade Agreement, Dipp’s hometown of El Paso was the jean capital of the world.

By virtue of geography, those living in the borderlands rely on versatility; they weave through two languages, two cultures, two governments, finding ways to exist within, and identify with, both. It can sometimes be exhausting, but above all else, it’s a privilege, Dipp says.

“I think that living in a region that is built on the translation between two languages, the common language we share is action, and I would say that we do so with responsibility, tenacity and resourcefulness,” Dipp said. “I think that our region can basically make water out of sand.”

You can’t do anything without a community, Dipp says, and she was lucky to find that community not only in the borderlands of the Southwest, but on the Brown campus in Providence.

“Understanding that I was constantly vying for a way to find a bridge between Providence and El Paso — that was really explicated during my time as a Royce Fellow,” she said. “If it wasn’t for the Royce, I don’t think I would’ve found quite a tangible way to give back to my community.”

The fellowship helped Dipp work in tandem with large institutions, an experience that not only helped with the furthering of Work Project and Sunhouse Arts, but her own education, especially as she considers graduate school. The ability to retain independence and freedom in her academic pursuits has been crucial to Dipp, which is one thing that drew her to Brown in the first place.

“There was something very affirmative about experiencing this Royce and getting so many great mentors and institutional support that really led me to believe, ‘Wow, Brown is actually the perfect fit,’” she said.

Through the fellowship, Dipp said she has been able to meet role models, authors and individuals that have given her the passion to continue learning.

“I’m really thankful for the people I’ve met, and I would say they’ve taught me more about how I can internalize the pride of my region and the pride of living as a borderlander to a deeper propensity,” Dipp said. “It’s been the most amazing experience of my life.”