In 2016, Wellington alumna Anna Taft ’97 celebrated an important milestone for the Tandana Foundation, an organization she founded more than a decade ago to provide intercultural volunteer experiences supporting community initiatives in highland Ecuador and Mali’s Dogon Country. It has been 10 years since Tandana received its official nonprofit status in 2006. With a mission to facilitate travel opportunities that go well beyond ordinary tourism, the organization fosters engaging and rewarding experiences in indigenous cultures that form friendships and leave a positive lasting impact on the local community. In her own words, Taft describes her extraordinary journey of self-discovery as she set out to change the world.
While I was at Wellington, my friends and I talked a lot about different cultures and languages, relativism, universalism, truth, and ethics. During the winter break of my junior year, my parents took me on a safari to Kenya, which gave me an opportunity to interact with people whose cultures and economic resources were very different from my own.
That experience brought the philosophical discussions my Wellington friends and I had to a close, personal level, and made me reflect on them even more deeply. I felt very uncomfortable in the relationship to local people that I had as a tourist in Kenya, and I realized that I needed to spend more time in a place very different from Ohio so that I could work out a relationship that felt better.
During my senior year, I recruited a bunch of fellow Wellington students to go on a spring break trip to help build houses in Tijuana. It was during that trip that I decided to teach English in Ecuador, immersing myself in a different culture, and hopefully learning how to build a respectful relationship with people whose background was very different from my own.
My first experience in Ecuador was very rewarding in several ways. I was humbled by the way that I was welcomed into a host family and a community. I had not expected to be loved and accepted so quickly, and I was very grateful to my host family, fellow teachers, and students. It was exciting to have a role that was important to the community where I lived, where it mattered if I showed up to teach every day. It was also rewarding to see myself growing and doing new things I had not realized I could.
I began to think of starting my own organization when I was teaching for The Traveling School (TTS). That was when I first had the opportunity to bring together my TTS students from the US with my friends in Ecuador and see them interacting in positive ways. I decided that I wanted to create more of those kinds of opportunities - for people from different backgrounds to get to know each other, make friends, learn from each other, and work together in ways that make all of them feel honored by the experience. To do that, using my connections and relationships in Ecuador, I would need to start a new organization.
My parents [Bob and Hope Taft] definitely set a wonderful example of service to others that inspired me and made me think that I both could and should do something that would benefit other people. My dad was in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, so I grew up hearing stories about that and found them so interesting that I studied Swahili on my own while I was in middle school at Wellington. My mom founded and worked with many nonprofits, giving me the idea that it was quite possible to do something like that, and a valuable way to devote one’s self. They have always supported me in my journey, never pushing me in a particular direction, but allowing me to discover my own callings and pursue them.
The close-knit Wellington community allowed me to form lasting connections with fellow students, faculty, and administrators. Fellow alumna Jennifer Schlosser ‘97 was involved in the initial brainstorming about creating the organization and was part of the original board. When Tandana became a non-profit organization and we needed a larger board, I asked [former] Head of School Rick O’Hara, teacher Catherine Dison P ‘21, and alumnae Jill Rogers Spiker ‘96 and Elizabeth Weinstein ‘97 to join. Alumni parent Ash Varma P ‘97 has always been a very loyal supporter, and we recently asked him to join the board, too. [At the Tandana Foundation] we have stayed true to our values, always growing only as and when it made sense, rather than following a predetermined plan. We have evolved organically, responding to the realities we encounter in the communities we work with and learning from each experience.
I love understanding how different cultural logics work and how different people see the world we live in. I enjoy making friends with diverse community members. Seeing people with very limited resources pursuing their dreams in creative ways inspires me to want to contribute to the process.
I plan to continue to guide Tandana but shift my role a bit so that I have more time to devote to articulating and expressing our unique philosophy. I would like to affect the larger discourse around development and hopefully shift it more towards a sensible and respectful approach. I plan to teach workshops, write, and make videos.
Wellington provided a wonderful community in which I could find my voice, explore, and engage with ethical questions. My teachers and friends nourished my intellectual curiosity, pushing me to think more deeply about the world and what makes people both similar and different. The intellectual and social community at Wellington prepared me to keep learning and growing and to act in the world based on my carefully-considered beliefs.