Eli LaBan is named 2017 Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow

April 19th, 2017   |   SIT Study Abroad

SIT Study Abroad alumnus will use media to preserve indigenous language in Nicaragua.

Eli's project wins a College Emmy award

Photo - Eli Laban

The School for International Training has named SIT Study Abroad alumnus Eli LaBan as the next Alice Rowan Swanson fellow. LaBan will return to Nicaragua to digitize a disappearing language, develop teaching tools, and draw more attention to indigenous culture.

LaBan, of Wyncote, Pa., is a fall 2016 alumnus of SIT Study Abroad’s Nicaragua: Youth Culture, Literacy, and Media program. He will graduate from Temple University this spring with a degree in media studies and production.

The Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship provides support for SIT Study Abroad and International Honors Program alumni to return to their study abroad host country to pursue development projects that benefit human rights. LaBan’s project focuses on preserving the indigenous language of the Caribbean Rama community.

While traveling through Nicaragua on his SIT Study Abroad program, LaBan was struck by the distinctive indigenous cultures of the Caribbean communities and their isolation from the rest of the country. Ninety percent of the Nicaraguan population lives on the Pacific side of the country, where the culture is predominantly made up of Catholic Spanish-speakers. “The Caribbean side is like a completely different country,” LaBan said. It is home to rare or almost nonexistent cultures, with no more than a few native language speakers left.

In learning about the circumstances of these cultures, LaBan said the language aspect was what inspired him the most. “Culture is an integral part of autonomy for these communities, including language,” he said. “Without language, they lose their identity.” His SIT Study Abroad program allowed him to use media as a research method for his independent study project (ISP).

Through his ISP, LaBan connected with community initiatives on the coast and learned about the framework for autonomy for local indigenous cultures and communities. From this research he produced four short videos highlighting indigenous Rama languages and shared them on social media to raise awareness about these unique cultures and languages.

His videos received an enthusiastic response from Nicaraguans and foreigners alike. Spanish-speaking Nicaraguans commented that they had no idea these endangered indigenous languages even existed, and Caribbean Rama Nicaraguans were seeing their culture highlighted in a modern way for the first time. “I felt like I was tapping into something really powerful,” LaBan said.

After seeing such great responses on social media, LaBan decided to expand the scope of his project with the help of the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship and a local university, URACCAN. The university asked LaBan to return to Rama Cay to work with their language preservation institute.

Through the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship, LaBan plans to work with several grassroots organizations in the Rama community, including a Rama language institute, Bluefields Sound System, and Blue Energy, to produce more videos to help digitize the fading language, provide teaching tools, and draw more attention to the indigenous culture. He plans to create language content, develop video templates, and establish a basic multimedia space for community members to participate in documenting and promoting the endangered culture.

LaBan hopes to use projects like this to educate people, empower marginalized communities, and increase cross-cultural interaction. He plans to establish a foundation to systemize the videos and media content so others can participate and continue his work, and so these new media strategies can be applied to other preservation efforts, such as indigenous farming methods (agroecolagia) and indigenous plant knowledge (ethnobotany).

Previously, LaBan worked on award-winning video projects including a documentary about the emerging music scene in post-apartheid South Africa. He recently won an Emmy for his work on a series about the local heroin epidemic with NBCPhiladelphia.com. In addition, the series of short videos that he created for his ISP was recently nominated for a national College Television Emmy Award through the Television Academy Foundation.

His passion is using media to educate and empower, in order to build a global community. More about LaBan’s work can be found on his website.

The family of Alice Rowan Swanson created the fellowship in her name as a living tribute. The Amherst College alumna died in a 2008 bicycle accident in Washington, D.C. Rowan Swanson was inspired to work in international development and human rights during her SIT Study Abroad experience in Nicaragua in 2006.

The next round of Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship applications will be reviewed in October 2017. To learn more about the fellowship, eligibility, or to download an application, visit the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship web page.