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Dorothy Garcia and Tom Harding

Dorothy Garcia and Tom Harding

“It’s a radical little city in its own conservative way,” says Dorothy Garcia, commenting on the Pasadena City Council’s 1993 decision to refuse doing business with South Africa in response to apartheid. We are sitting in the living room of Garcia and Tom Harding’s spacious Altadena house, the circumference of the room marked by a collection of globes, dozens of anxious, miniature planets standing still. This is Garcia and Harding’s world, and it is their own beautifully eccentric little world that seems impossible to grasp at times, full of endless ideas that fly from Dorothy and bounce off of Tom, or emerge softly from Tom and light up in Dorothy’s big brown eyes. At the same time, it is a vast, open, generous universe, one that encompasses as many other worlds as it can.

Garcia and Harding might not be famous in Los Angeles, but the second they set foot in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Cape Town, South Africa, people sing their praises — literally. Co-founders of Art Aids Art, an Altadena-based nonprofit, Garcia and Harding are the faces of a new free trade, with a mutual passion for progressive education and teaching diversity via the arts. The couple met in 1992, when Harding was a student in Garcia’s class at Pacific Oaks Teachers College. Their interest in South Africa began when they befriended an acting duo from South Africa, Ellis and Bheki, at a Theater of the World conference. In 1999, Ellis and Bheki received a grant to begin a project on Rights and Responsibility in South Africa, which would prepare people for the first election in the country’s new democracy, and the pair invited Garcia and Harding to come along.

Impressed by the work of a particular artist’s collective, MonkeyBiz — which provides jobs and health services for women struggling with HIV/AIDS — Garcia and Harding returned home with a suitcase full of the artists’ beaded dolls, the first batch of which was intended as gifts for friends and family. But people who saw them were so impressed that Garcia and Harding decided to try to sell them to make a profit for the Cape Town collective. Since then, the couple has organized hundreds of sales nationwide. Many retailers, such as Anthropologie, mark up the dolls to more than $150 each and snip off the handmade card that gives the name and bio of the artist, but Garcia and Harding connect the artist and the consumer.

“We are about creating the circle, where people who are purchasing something can understand the story of the people who are making them. It’s completely about the dolls and not about the dolls at all. It’s about the women’s lives, which are changing.”

The couple’s latest project, eKhaya eKasi (Home in the Hood), is a community center in the heart of the township, set to open at the end of this year. The sustainable building includes an edible garden roof and workspaces for locals, including a beauty salon, a retail shop for artists and a community-run restaurant that will offer classes on healthy cooking and safe food preparation. The hope is that the center will be both a place for locals to work and meet, and also a way to invite outsiders into the township, with a B&B that gives tourists and visiting artists a chance to experience life in Khayelitsha.

“This is a space that will hopefully recreate places to be able to come home to,” Garcia says. “Whole generations of mothers and fathers are dying of HIV/AIDS, and family members have to take on more family when they can hardly support themselves. Home in the Hood provides a village to raise the children, a sort of extended family. If it takes a village, it takes a village.”

 

Photo by Kevin Scanlon