Alicia with women dressed in traditional clothing

Alicia Akins, center, stands backstage at a performance with Hmong dancers organized by the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre.

Empowering Women: Alumna now works at organization in Laos featured in Burke Museum exhibit


September 5, 2013

Jackson School alumna Alicia Akins (MAIS, China Studies: 2012) has a personal connection with the Empowering Women exhibit, which runs at the Burke Museum until Oct. 27. Akins has worked as a Programmes Director for one of the featured organizations, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Luang Prabang, Laos, since shortly after her March 2012 graduation.

Alicia AkinsEmpowering Women: Artisan Cooperatives that Transform Communities provides an intimate view of the work of ten women-run artisan cooperatives from across the world, featuring artists' personal stories and stunning examples of the cooperatives' handmade traditional arts. The traveling exhibit was organized by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M.

Akins happened across the description for her job in Laos on the Internet, but her interest in Asia dates back to 2005-2008, when she lived in China — first in Shanghai and later in the Gobi Desert. “Living in China for three years opened my eyes to challenging assumptions,” she said.

While teaching at schools in the region, she became interested in how the experience of ethnic minorities in other countries differed from her experience growing up as an ethnic minority in Virginia.

She noted that many ethnic cultures in Asia have their own songs, costumes, and other special practices that are important to their traditions – something that she said differed from her experience. “I don’t have a special costume,” she explained.

According to the Empowering Women exhibit: TAEC serves an important function as a museum – with objects representing more than 30 distinct ethnic groups. But it is much more. It supports communities in safeguarding their tangible and intangible cultural heritage, stimulates preservation of crafts, and creates sustainable income opportunities.

Akins credits her UW experience for preparing her to work in another country. “Being in the Jackson School, I feel like your interest in the rest of the world expands.”

She said her first degree in education, as well as a Certificate in Museum Studies from UW, have also been useful in her work. In addition to developing workshops for visitors to the museum, Akins coordinates a school outreach program and does some one-on-one staff training. She also helps with fundraising and recently planned events for the center’s five-year anniversary.

Akins is pleased that the Empowering Women exhibit sheds light on sustainability in other parts of the world and how purchasing decisions can affect an individual’s livelihood. “I’m glad people have an opportunity to learn about these issues in Seattle,” she said.

TAEC has its own online shop (http://shop.taeclaos.org/) that gives half of its profits back to its artisans. “It gives them an opportunity to do what they already know how to do,” Akins said.

A new exhibit at TAEC, which opens Sept. 20, highlights a group in southern Laos who are particularly well known for their wood carving. Akins said, “Community members were here in June carving and painting to re-create a communal house in their village.”

By Kristina C. Bowman, kriscb@uw.edu