Log Lunch with Jahnavi Kirtane '24 and Mirabai Dyson '24: ENVI Thesis Presentations

On a beautifully sunny Friday, May 3, the community once again gathered for Log Lunch. As the last Log Lunch of the 23-24 year with a guest speaker, people were excited. The meal provided by the student cooks only added to the excitement, consisting of focaccia with wild ramp and garlic mustard pesto, mirza ghasemi, crispy potatoes with chive sour cream, an arugula salad with peach, goat cheese, and basil, a shorbat jarjir soup, and blueberry-lemon glazed dandelion-lavender shortbread. The food was incredible and the packed crowd of friends, family, faculty, classmates, and community members also came to support Mirabai Dyson ‘24 and Jahnavi Kirtane ‘24 as they gave presentations about their senior theses in Environmental Studies.

Jahnavi’s thesis, “Take Place, Make Space: Placemaking First-Year Housing at Williams,” was an attempt to apply theories of placemaking to Williams College’s first-year housing experience. Advised by Professor Sarah Gardner, Kirtane used her experience as both a first-year and as a Junior Adviser to design a research project that began with archival research about the evolution of the first-year entry system at Williams. After finding that there were no dorms at Williams built with the entry system explicitly in mind, Jahnavi believed that this could contribute to the varying levels of involvement in first-year housing spaces and events. The second chapter of her thesis was a literature review of related subjects, including urban planning, campus planning, psychology, architecture, gender and sexuality studies, and placemaking theories. Especially drawn to the concept of placemaking, which represents an interdisciplinary, bottom-up approach to planning that is less concerned with capital-scale projects, Jahnavi believed that it could be used to make positive changes to the first-year residential experience, and conducted various forms of data collection to support her claims. With a combination of surveys, interviews with twelve first-year students, stakeholder conversations with Williams administrations, and extended periods of observation and recreation experimentation, Jahnavi produced 31 micro and macro suggestions to improve first-year living. However, she stressed the need for widespread community engagement to ensure that the process of placemaking reflects the needs and wants of as many people as possible.

Mirabai’s thesis, “Water Insecurity in Los Angeles’ Skid Row: Unveiling the Techno-Social Divide,” presented a nuanced, holistic analysis of water infrastructure in Skid Row, where top-town (the ‘techno’) and bottom-up (the ‘social’) approaches are often in conflict. Advised by Professor Giuseppina Forte for her thesis, Mirabai was not attempting to provide a solution to homelessness or water insecurity, but to allow for a better understanding how the residents of Skid Row have responded to underinvestment in their community. Dyson first notes that the “techno,” or top-down approach to governance, has often made the lives of Skid Rows’ residents more difficult. The neighborhood is zoned as a commercial and industrial zone according to city maps, meaning that there are no people living there according to zoning policy, despite the fact that there are thousands of vulnerable individuals. Furthermore, Mirabai emphasized that Skid row is not represented by an official neighborhood council, meaning that only a social mayor, Kevin Call, represents the people living there. With only 7 bathrooms and 8 water fountains for over 4,400 people, failing water infrastructure puts the burden on volunteers and other forms of social infrastructure to provide water. Mirabai, working for an organization that does water distribution work in Skid Row last summer, found that there were three ways in which this burden manifested itself. The first was the problem of allocating limited resources, which official water infrastructure doesn’t have to do, but volunteers will have to choose how they distribute their last bottles if they begin to run out. The second was ensuring that volunteers distributing water weren’t setting certain expectations for the community, and the third was understanding that volunteers have no control over how distributed is used. From her experience, Mirabai concluded that people who feel obligated can support their communities in the same way that infrastructure does in times that it fails.