by Jillian McLaughlin '10
Come September, alumnus Vinny Ricciardi '09 will board a plane headed for Thailand just as a dozen or so current students make the same voyage to begin study abroad. It will be Ricciardi's second trip, his junior-year study abroad experience having inspired his return.
During his first six-month stay, Ricciardi and his fellow classmates visited the Upland Holistic Development Project (UHDP) in Chiang Mai Province, which works with hill tribes to solve problems of citizenship, land rights, and sustainable agriculture.
"That's where I got sparked to do sustainable agriculture," Ricciardi said.
His visit with the UHDP also helped him connect two of his primary interests: environmental justice and social justice. The hill tribes alongside of which UHDP works had long been disenfranchised by the Thai government. Because they could not own land their livelihood depended upon available agricultural work on other farms. As a result most of the hill tribes in Northern Thailand labored as sharecroppers. Low wages, poor agricultural output, and lack of self-determination converge to make life very difficult.
UHDP adopts a holistic approach, advocating citizenship for the tribes, sustainable methods of agricultural production on small land plots, and self-sufficiency through micro-financing.
"Sustainable development work crosses between environmental and social justice, and I love that connection," says Ricciardi. "At the root of a social justice problem there's probably an environmental problem, and at the root of every environmental problem, there's a social justice problem."
Ricciardi will conduct research on agricultural methods during his second stay in Thailand and will teach classes to visiting groups on sustainable farming.
His passion for social justice started with study abroad and continued, back at "K", with his application of lesions learned from that experience. He volunteered as a mentor in the Kalamazoo County Juvenile Home
"At the root of every environmental problem there's a social justice problem."and tried to start a local garden. At Woodward Elementary School, he helped develop an environmental curriculum and sat on a board that organized a farmer's market for the students.
He centered his Senior Individualized Project around sustainability issues, exploring psychological support for the "No Child Left Inside Act," which legislated outdoor education programs for students.
He knows there's much more for him to learn, which is why he's returning to Thailand. Eventually, he plans to open his own environmental education center in the U.S.
As he awaits his September departure, Ricciardi is busy teaching environmental education to students through a program offered by Indiana University. He's also soliciting donations to fund his work in Thailand.
"I'm really happy," Ricciardi said, "I'm so glad to have had all of these amazing experiences with all these cool people."
Vinny Ricciardi (right) plays tug-o'-war with a group of Thai children.