In 2008, Barack Obama said “Yes we can!” to millions of Americans who desired change in their lives and in their country. People were moved in a way they hadn’t been before; many felt, for the first time, high levels of political efficacy—that they could maybe, with their vote, make a difference in the world.
Tara Heuzé-S, a second-year master’s student in the Dual Degree Program between Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs and Sciences Po Paris' School of International Affairs, said “Yes we can!” in 2008, too. She wasn’t talking about political mobilization, however, or even United States politics in general. To her, this was about art, and education, and change. In order to finance her graduate schooling at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, Heuzé-S created a series of sculptures called “Yes We Can!”, which she sold to galleries around the world. This theme—Heuzé-S’ active, project-based engagement in achieving her goals—is one that crops up over and over in my conversation with her.
“We live in a moment of unprecedented crisis: ecological, economic, social, everything,” Heuzé-S says, and from speaking with her, it’s overwhelmingly clear that she thinks about this often. In addition to talking about the ways in which she has worked to effect change—namely founding and running an organization in France that collects feminine hygiene products for homeless women—Heuzé-S also reflects on broader qualms she has about the world frequently. She sits across from me in Lerner Hall; it is unusually crowded, but its noise seems to muffle to a steady hum as we immerse ourselves in conversation about her life.
Heuzé-S, of Syrian origin, was born and raised in France; she has Swedish and Italian cousins, and her father lives in Spain. “In my family, everyone speaks at least three or four languages,” Heuzé-S says. On her end, she speaks French, English, Russian, and is learning Italian.
With an intense passion for taking action, as she explains, and not just watching, Heuzé-S decided a couple of years ago to make a difference in an area that was important to her.
While she was studying at Cambridge, campaigns about the accessibility of feminine hygiene products were taking place. The tampon tax, which refers to the value-added tax placed on tampons, was a particularly contentious issue in the United Kingdom. Yet, when she returned to France, she realized nothing was being done about the accessibility of sanitary products. “I was really shocked when I heard the problem,” she tells me. And she mobilized that shock into action.
Heuzé-S contacted homeless shelters and NGOs that worked on homelessness in France, and they all said the same thing: They were lacking sanitary products for women. But nothing was going to happen to increase accessibility. They had no money to buy them.
“People were not at all receptive and they didn’t want to hear about blood and periods,” Heuzé-S says, sighing. But she became determined to break this taboo. “There was nothing to lose and all to gain,” she says, her tone reflecting a conviction that stays consistent throughout our conversation.
To date, the project has collected nearly 50,000 products, including the 18,000 that were collected during the first three-day campaign, last November. They have redirected these products to organizations that provide them to around 15,000 women.
Now in New York, Heuzé-S continues to be involved in the project. “I still am kind of supervising what is done in France, I’m still in touch with the team back in Paris,” she says.
“New York is a really cool place to be from that perspective,” she explains to me. “It recently passed a law saying that sanitary products would be available for free in most public places, education institutions, but also homeless shelters and prisons, so it’s very much at the forefront of that.” Heuzé-S is referring to the 2016 legislation, passed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, that made menstrual products available for free in all New York City public schools, shelters, and jails. What’s next for Heuzé-S: getting in touch with “period challengers and companies” in New York.
The issue of access is one familiar to the Columbia undergraduate population. Columbia Health Services launched a pilot program last March to provide free tampons and pads to students, in response to advocacy by the student body. In a Spectator op-ed published last February, Courtney Couillard, a senior at Barnard, accused Columbia Health of having an “utter lack of support for people who menstruate,” urging them to accept Columbia College Student Council and the Engineering Student Council requests to provide free sanitary products for students on campus.
The program was discontinued this September, though, due to lack of students using the program. But after much pressure from CCSC and the Columbia community, the program was re-launched only four days later.
Heuzé-S also reflects her activism through her art. It represents yet another way in which she doesn’t back down in the face of a challenge. She first began sculpting at three and a half years old; her mother signed her up for a sculpting workshop and she “never stopped [making art] since,” she says.
It had always been a hobby, something that let her relieve stress, but she never had intentions to monetize her art. However, as the financial burdens of graduate school became a reality, Heuzé-S was determined not to let the price of school stop her from realizing her dreams. In 2008, Heuzé-S began her “Yes I Can!” project.
When I ask her about it, she laughs and asks me if I want the long or short story. It is clearly a significant part of her life, and so of course I answer “the long,” and she starts from the beginning.
Heuzé-S had already made a series of clay sculptures with enamel coatings before the project—which she explains “looks like it’s bronze, so everyone thought that it was bronze.” She soon realized, though, that they actually could be remade in bronze; after all, people, she had noticed, were interested in buying them. Her best friend’s mother had lived in Russia before her and had taken her own clay sculptures there to remake them in bronze, which was very cheap in the country at the time. Heuzé-S was inspired to do the same, but when she went to Moscow for a year abroad in college, bronze had become 10 times more expensive. “Not so cheap anymore,” she laughs.
Photo courtesy of Tara Heuzé-S
And so, despite never wanting to monetize her art, with a sculpture in one hand and boundless ambition in the other, Heuzé-S decided she would crowdfund to raise money to make the sculptures in bronze. She would then sell them to galleries to help support herself at Cambridge, and then at Sciences Po and Columbia.
“I did crowdfunding to raise over 6,000 euros to make eight bronzes,” Heuzé-S explains. An artist can only make eight or fewer copies of a sculpture until it’s no longer considered an original. “And then I [have] sold five so far in France, in Moscow, in Hong Kong.” She is proud to report there is even one at Cambridge, the school she attended for a year. That piece paid for a third of her tuition there and is helping to fill in the gaps at the Columbia program.
When asked if she could see herself pursuing art, Heuzé-S, who is currently studying economics, is firm about her original intent to avoid art as a career. “I will pursue art as a hobby, but I don’t intend to make it my job whatsoever,” she tells me. She feels that being financially dependent on it would “completely transform [her] art,” explaining: “It’s something I do to relax and not to make money out of.”
Nevertheless, her dedication not to be passive in the face of adversity carries into her career pursuits. Heuzé-S clearly wants to change the world, but what is equally evident is that she’s not bound by idealism; she wants to do it in a tangible way by having the most material impact she can. This attitude is refreshing in an era of idle Facebook activism, often never translated into action.
That desire is why she moved away from her previous career goals of working in politics. She explains to me that she was “very disenchanted” while at Sciences Po, where academics mainly focuses on politics. During her time there she voted in her first election, opening her eyes to the true nature of politics. “It was really distressing to see how candidates completely changed their minds over crucial issues or how they would betray their values and supporters just to get a few more votes of the far right or far left,” she says.
But through this disillusionment, she learned where the real power is held. At talks at Sciences Po, Heuzé-S was introduced to many people who would change her views on her impending career. In one lecture, for instance, a banker was discussing their involvement with the restructuring of the Greek and Argentinian economies.
Heuzé-S realized through this experience that “power is where the money is,” and she became determined that there was a specific path she could take to make tangible change through her career—green finance. But, after a couple of internships, she became increasingly convinced that where the real change can be made, the “sectors that can yield the biggest transformative change in people’s life,” is in tech and artificial intelligence. At least, that is the conclusion she’s reached at this point in her reasoning.
Heuzé-S’ favorite sculpture on the Columbia campus is Rodin’s The Thinker, which is situated outside Philosophy Hall. I find this a fitting choice, not because it was created by an artist with whom she shares a nationality or because it is made of bronze, but because it is the depiction of an intellectual who contemplates deeply. This thinker doesn’t get caught up by the swift and aggressive current of the problems of the world and get carried away down a stream of apathy, but rather stops and reflects. Heuzé-S is a thinker—she knows something is wrong with the world, and she has spent her whole life figuring out how she can fix it. She knows that just acknowledging the problems is not enough. And through my conversations with her, it is clear that her confidence could sway even a cynic.
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