Each student in her class was asked to produce a sculpture made from a book. In a spurt of inspiration, Brontë Velez ’16 decided to cut a hole through her book’s pages and fill it with soil and a dead bouquet of flowers. 

She reached out to Harry Pickering, an artist-friend from Vassar College whom she met while studying in Prague that day. “I texted him and said, ‘Yo, we should make some plantable books,’” Velez explained in an interview with the Justice.

That class assignment spawned a project Velez will head this summer. From the end of June to August, Velez will be in Quito, Ecuador on a $10,000 grant awarded by the Davis Project for Peace Initiative. She will carry out a project titled SeluSemilla to curate a collective narrative of indigenous, Kichwa-speaking communities. The stories will be penned in biodegradable books that are planted in the earth and contain tree seeds in their pages.

The Davis grant program was created on the 100th birthday of Kathryn W. Davis, a lifelong internationalist and philanthropist, and aims to fund projects that are “building blocks for a sustainable peace.”

“SeluSemilla” is a combination of the words Selu, the Tsalagi word for maize, and Semilla, the Spanish word for seed. Selu is also the name of the harvest goddess who plants her heart in the ground in order to sustain her community, according to Cherokee mythology. 

Velez is an Atlanta Posse Scholar and came to Brandeis with the intention of immersing herself in a world of art and peacebuilding. But when she started enrolling in Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies classes, she realized that she fundamentally disagreed with some of their core concepts: one she  specifically opposed was reconciliation. “Most of the ideas around reconciliation involve asking oppressed groups to forgive oppressors in ways that I feel re-inflict and reify trauma. I started to think that it’s not their job to forgive, that maybe there are other methods of healing,” she said.

This caused Velez to create an interdisciplinary major called “The Arts, Identity and Community Building,” but the rigorously reflective Velez now questions the phrasing of her major and says she might change it in applications. Nevertheless, the major led her to take a wide breadth of courses. “It’s a kind of conglomeration of several different arts. The identity portion is centered in the African diaspora … learning from the most marginalized groups as a method for all of our freedom,” she said.

The class in which Velez was enrolled that inspired her project was Prof. Cameron Anderson’s (THA) Art of the Visual Narrative. The dead book-bouquet was intended as an elegy to the unfinished work of Phillis Wheatley, an 18th-century African-American poet and slave who was forced to stand in from of a panel of mostly white men at Faneuil Hall to prove that her poetry was hers.

“Her life ended with a lot of unfinished poetry, because when she was freed from her masters, she couldn’t get her work published, and she died alone. And I started to think, … what if a book could be planted and kind of finished. Like if all this unfinished work could be finished in the earth,” said Velez. 

The community where Velez’s project will take root this summer has an interesting linguistic situation. The oldest generation speaks the native Kichwa language. 

Their children speak both Kichwa and Spanish, as does the next generation, though they strongly prefer Spanish. Most of the youngest generation speaks only Spanish. With that in mind, the project will consist of a series of intergenerational storytelling workshops centered on the theme of past, present and future.

“I have no ownership over this concept,” Velez stressed. She characterized herself as a facilitator and also said that her role in the storymaking aspect of the project will be akin to the job of an editor or curator. She also stressed a lack of ownership over both the concept of plantable books and the collective stories of the people in Ecuador.

After the stories have been written, designed, bound by hand and then planted, an online portal will map where individual books are buried and offer a digital space for people to share stories.

In an attempt to be sensitive to any potential environmental degradation the project might create, Velez intends to consult the experts. 

She’s already been in touch with the environmental department at the University of San Francisco, Quito about this. “I’m collaborating to make sure we’re doing the research to say, ‘What are most reforestation organizations trying to plant? What are the specific community needs?’” Velez explained.

Velez intends to market the biodegradable books to missionary organizations and other volunteer groups coming to Ecuador on reforestation projects. By planting one of these books, “they are considering the people who have been killed, whose knowledge has been erased,” she said. “They’re not just plants.”

SeluSemilla has clear aims to capitalize on the particular knowledge and skills of indigenous populations while challenging conventional, western, white notions. Velez recognizes that many in these Ecuadoran communities are already farmers, for example. “These people know how to work with the land,’ Velez said. “I’m interested in sacred economies and gift economies that can exist outside of our traditional concept of economy.”

Velez views the project as a way to offer particular skillsets to communities that are being asked to institutionalize their traditions. 

“People are interested in modernity,” she explained. “Yes, they want to maintain their traditions, but they also want to learn how to use computers, design and I’m so into that.”

After this summer, Velez will continue her work with peacebuilding and the environment as one of twelve participants of a Spiritual Ecology Youth Fellowship while based in Atlanta.