Student Spotlight: Rebecca Hui, Urban Planner

Second-year Tata Fellow on creating change by following cows in Mumbai, driving a bus around West Bengal, and helping rural artisans connect to a global audience.

rebecca hui tata center

Even before she became a Tata Fellow, Rebecca Hui had spent the better part of four years in India. Beginning as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, and continuing with support from National Geographic and a Fulbright Scholarship, she pursued her deep fascination with the country’s ever-shifting urban boundaries and morphologies. One of her projects was “The Secret Life of Urban Animals,” a study of how cows, dogs, and other animals interact with the cityscapes of Ahmedabad and Mumbai.

Now, as a Tata Fellow and Master’s student in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Rebecca works with Professor James Wescoat on issues of water stress in peri-urban communities—the places where urban and rural meet. At the same time, she has a venture: Roots Studio, a marketplace that connects indigenous artisans to interior décor and other product opportunities through digitization. She recently received a prestigious Echoing Green fellowship to move Roots Studio forward.

You already had a lot of experience doing research in India, so what did you learn as a first-year Tata Fellow?

Before MIT, my point-of-view in India was very grassroots and bottom-up. I spent a significant amount of time in villages learning about problems from the personal perspective of villagers, but the larger workings of higher level government had been inaccessible to me. I left India after three years with a limited understanding of how to scale policy and impact. My first year working on a water project with Professor Wescoat has been an inversion—now I’m involved with change from a top-down perspective, from national down to village governance, dealing with allocation of large investments and multi-constituent capacity building in the planning sector.

How did Roots Studio originate?

Our vision is supporting the village economy by formalizing existing skills and assets in the villages as alternatives to urban migration. On many occasions, conversations I had with villagers came around to the dilemma they face when it comes to their children: the choice between sending them to school, making them work in the field, or teaching them traditional arts and crafts. A lot of parents communicated that the opportunity cost of sending their children to school and not having them contribute to the household income was very high.

My first idea was to bring the school to them—a mobile school. I got a bus and began piloting this idea in the northeastern part of West Bengal. But after a few months I started to think very critically about what education meant in the rural Indian context. If education was not leading to opportunities, then we’re just beating a dead horse. The two major income sources for villagers were farming and crafts. I’m not a farmer, but as a designer I saw many innovative opportunities within crafts, so I thought “Why don’t we focus on design education to help them make money from what they are already good at?” It was important to put money directly back into the pockets of villagers from their craft making.

What is the current progress? Where do you see Roots Studio in 5-10 years?

We’ve worked with several different villages all throughout India. Currently we are working with Gond art that originates from Madhya Pradesh. We are now also piloting with artisans in Nagaland, and previously worked with Mithila artists in Bihar, Phad Chitra artists in Rajasthan, and artisans in West Bengal.

As for the future, the artisans remain at the core of Roots Studio. We want to create a world where art has been passed on from generation to generation and can continue to flourish and participate in the larger society. We are about sharing with the world the extraordinary identities and vibrancies of indigenous communities that are at the risk of being lost because of poor connectivity.