TibetanTees, Alleviating Poverty for Tibetan Refugees

TEXT student Jessica Estenssoro with a Tibetan child.
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TEXT student Jessica Estenssoro with a Tibetan child.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Two campus organizations and a local business have joined to strengthen Tibetan education in the Tibetan refugee camps in southern India. The TibetanTees project brings together a remarkable collection of groups with an equally remarkable purpose.

The poverty-alleviation project will create employment for exiled Tibetan refugees living in India, to bring increased awareness of the Chinese occupation of Tibet and provide funds for the education of Tibetan youth who are currently living in the Dekyiling Tibetan settlement near Dehra Dun in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. This collaborative effort provides a sustainable source of income for families to subsidize the cost of tutoring their children in the Tibetan school system.

The University of Arkansas chapter of Students for a Free Tibet, Fayettechill Clothing Company, Drepung Loseling Monastery, Tutors for Tibetans, the Tibetan community in Mundgod and the university’s TEXT Program are working in tandem to bring the idea into reality.  

The initiative began with The TEXT Program, or “Tibetans in Exile Today,” an oral-history project designed to record the stories of Tibetans currently living in refugee settlements in India. The program focuses on Tibetans who left their country in 1959, but still have vivid memories of traditional Tibetan culture. The TEXT Program allows students to spend three weeks in the summer living in the Tibetan settlements in India as they gather these vital stories of the elderly Tibetans. Two faculty members in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences train students in Tibetan culture and oral history before their residency in the settlements. Under the co-direction of Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a Tibetan Buddhist scholar-monk and instructor of humanities, and Sidney Burris, professor of English, director of the Fulbright College Honors Program, as well as co-director of The TEXT Program, students design and conduct the interviews, process the footage, create the transcripts and upload the resulting materials to an online archive.

TibetanTees will provide the start-up equipment, supplies and instruction for families in Dekyiling to produce t-shirts at home. The shirts will be purchased above cost and delivered to Fayettechill, a local clothing shop that markets its line toward outdoor enthusiasts, to silkscreen and sell in their stores. The profits will both continue the production cycle and provide highly trained tutors to Tibetan youth.

One of Fayettechill’s founding members traveled to India with The TEXT Program. Devin O’Dea was on the ground floor of starting the local business that now wants to give back to the Tibetan community he encountered while in India. O’Dea has played a major role in the progression of the collaboration.

TEXT students Wesley Clawson, Alexandra Jewell and Jeanette Bridoux represented the project at the seventh annual Clinton Global Initiative University held from March 21-23, 2014, at Arizona State University. The students, one of six teams from the University of Arkansas, made it to the conference’s project finals.

The conference is designed to allow students to network with their peers, build skills and identify potential partnerships. Youth organizations, topic experts, and celebrities join students at the meeting to help them find the resources and knowledge needed to take action on their commitments.

Since the conference, the entire TibetanTees team has moved forward with their plan, part of which included growing the team. Laurie Apple, associate professor of apparel merchandising and product development in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences, and her students will soon begin developing and cutting the patterns that the Tibetans in India will use. The team will rely on the funds awarded by the Clinton Global Initiative University to provide compensation for the students and to purchase the cotton that will be used in the patterns.

The TEXT Program will return to India in June 2015, by which time the team members expect the current round of TibetanTees to be completed. When the TEXT students visit in June, they will interview the tailors and take both video and stills to be used by Fayettechill and The TEXT Program for advertising TibetanTees.

Under the guidance of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tibetans have worked hard to preserve their culture and heritage in exile. The TibetanTees program is an extension of this preservation effort. The TEXT Program at the University of Arkansas has facilitated a number of initiatives on campus—from the Dalai Lama’s visit in 2011 to a growing awareness among students of the power of nonviolence—a tradition continued through the TibetanTees project.  


Sidney Burris, director, The TEXT Program
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
479-575-2509, sburris@uark.edu

Taylor Glover, communications intern
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
479-575-3712, tglover@uark.edu

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