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I took the long way to find my true passion. 

My educational journey from photography, to social work, to interior design, has shaped who I am as a person and a teacher.  I am passionate about design and how powerful the design process can be to help change how we live.  As a teacher, I love watching and guiding the students on their path to becoming inspired, innovative designers with an eye towards making the world a better place to live.  I am honored to be able to provide students with design opportunities both large and small.  They get to design everything from light fixtures, to furniture, to homes, to offices, to a women’s maker studio in Kenya! I believe that an education is a powerful toolbox that can open up many doors, but passion, motivation, and perseverance are the tools to get you to where you need to be. 

One might wonder how an undergraduate degree in Social Work and a Master’s degree in Interior Design might relate to each other. I say perfectly. Both can change people’s lives. Both impact our mental and physical health. Both have molded how I teach, what I hope students learn, and my strong belief that design can empower people to change their lives.

The following, is the story of what gets me up every day and may provide some insight as to why I am a such a strong believer in education and the power of making. In spring 2012, I challenged my UW students to use the design thinking process to design shelters for those displaced from their homes due to a natural disaster.  Students took a human centered perspective to design a shelter made out of cardboard no larger than 14’ wide x 10’ deep x 9’ high. The best design was to be built to full scale and on display at the Madison Museum of Modern Art (MMoCA). Sitting prominently in the main lobby of MMoCA, this structure received a large amount of press.  A photograph found its way into the hands of an amazing woman and a design thinker (Susan Miller) who somehow saw value in cardboard structures in Kenya. Her best friend, a missionary at a school in a small village in Kenya, was bemoaning about how many of the villagers lose their mud homes each year due to heavy rains. Susan connected the dots and contacted me. Together we planned a trip to Kenya to explore possibility of building cardboard shelters. We decided to research the viability of cardboard shelters and while we were there, donate computers.  I am a strong believer that an education is as important as food, clothes, and shelter. We raised money for twenty, One Laptop Per Child (the XO) computers to donate to the school. None of the children had ever used a computer let alone seen one. The computers are still used today.

I considered my first visit to Kenya to be one of discovery. I was deeply interested in learning about the people of Kenya.  During this 2013 trip to Kenya, I was able to visit Gatunga, a small village in Tharaka Nithi County. It was in Gatunga that I met Aniceta Kiriga, the founder of the Tharaka Women’s Welfare Program (TWWP) and the Alternative Rite of Passage (ARP). In 1995 she learned that 99.5% of the girls in her county go through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). When a neighbor came asking for a wheelbarrow to carry her dying daughter to the clinic after she underwent FGM, Aniceta had had enough. She gathered like minded mothers of girls who were at the age to go through FGM and suggested an alternative rite of passage. In 1996, 29 girls attended the first ARP and the TWWP was born. Currently, up to 250 girls attend the ARP each year.

Aniceta’s accomplishments are many, and yet, in her mind, not enough.  I learned that Aniceta receives scholarship money from an amazing organization founded by Amy Maglio called the Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP).  Without this money, TWWP would not exist. While she knows that the scholarships make a huge difference for so many girls, there are many that she cannot fund.  In addition, if the girls do not perform well in school or are forced to drop out due to lack of school fees, they end up marrying at a young age and often in poverty. Together, we talked about finding alternative sources of income for the mothers of the girls.

I had the good fortune of meeting eighty of these girls. I asked them what they wanted to be and was impressed by their aspirations. Many wanted to be nurses, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. I also asked the girls what kinds of things they and their mothers made, since I was interested in learning about their traditional crafts. This question was greeted with silence. After all, who has time for making things when they are busy farming, fetching water, attending school or raising children?  If they do have the time, they certainly do not have the resources for the materials, since the average family earns $24 a month.


At the same time, I also learned that most of the girls will not make it to high school due to lack of school fees and will married early and remain in poverty.  It seemed to me that there could be other income generating options for the girls and their families which they can be passionate about.  Perhaps they simply need the resources to learn new skills or to value traditional skills.  Perhaps they needed a learning center and maker space?

In fall of 2014, I offered the first of four sequential design thinking courses at the UW, which focused on projects that could be of interest to the Kenyan people. Students worked on anything from, product development, to solar power, to beekeeping, to alternative sources of fire, all with an eye towards benefitting the women and girls in Kenya. 

Because good design results from understanding the users, along with building and testing prototypes I made plans to return to Kenya. During the winter of 2015, I traveled there with seven passionate students ready to test several of the ideas that the students had come up with. Of the most successful where, creating biomass briquettes out of farm waste, ways to promote their traditional baskets (Kiondo or Viondo for more than one), and ways to extract oil from local plants.


While many big ideas are still brewing, without a doubt, basket making has been the most successful. Aniceta and I have identified forty-nine women willing and able to produce bags (Viondos). We provided them with the supplies to get started, however, it became immediately evident that while the interest was there, the time was not. These women are farmers. They spend their days farming, fetching water, and cooking. It takes them a month to make one bag because by the time they are able to sit down, it is dark. They need light! Winter of 2016, UW-Madison students developed a low-cost way to produce solar powered lamps which were successfully tested in Kenya. 

Because I believe in building strong relationships, in the value of good design, and in the importance of expanding opportunities for all, this story doesn’t end here, it will continue for many years to come. For example, the current project involves the design of a center called Kumbana Markerspace


Thank you for reading. Now let’s go and design.


Lesley Sager

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