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Creative Spotlight: Combining passion and purpose with Nicole Tomita from Landesa

by Catherine Chiang  |  March 24, 2020

6 min. read

For creatives, reconciling our passions with a sense of purpose is a lifelong journey. Join us and Nicole Tomita, the digital media coordinator at Landesa, as we chat about her journey exploring the intersection between her love for art and her desire to help others.

The logo of Landesa.

About Landesa

Landesa is a nonprofit that partners with governments and local organizations to secure legal land rights for the world’s poorest families. The organization uses Canto to centralize their digital assets. Read their story here.

Nicole Tomita, Digital Media Coordinator at Landesa.Hi Nicole! Tell me about what you do at Landesa!

I am the digital media coordinator on the communications team. My role is taking charge of all of the digital platforms we have: the website, our social media and some of the email marketing, including the monthly newsletter. I also have other more discrete projects that I work on. For example, we’ve done a digital annual report for the past couple of years and we just finished developing a new animated explainer video that we’re really excited about.

In the past, you have worked in the arts and with other nonprofits. How did you get interested in art?

I didn’t actually take my first visual art class until my senior year of college, where I majored in political science/international relations. It was an observational drawing class and I was like, ‘oh, my God, I love this so much.’ Each trimester after that, I took another art class. Somehow, I had never taken an art class until I was 20, which was really unfortunate, and that inspired me to work in arts education later down the line.

You did a Watson Fellowship, which is a one-year grant for purposeful, independent exploration around the world. Tell me about your project and your experience!

My Watson Fellowship explored how disabilities, particularly intellectual disabilities, are perceived in different cultures and the role that sports can play in that. I had coached and volunteered with the Special Olympics for most of my life, so the original idea had been to join up with Special Olympics chapters around the world and to work with coaches, meet people in that community, travel with them to competitions, etc. But it didn’t work out perfectly, so I ended up joining with different schools, programs, and social services that support people with disabilities in Ecuador, Morocco, Namibia and Cambodia. In a couple of those countries, I was actually able to live with families with people with disabilities, which is how my family was, too. It was an extremely wonderful experience to get a glimpse into these other communities; I learned a lot.

I found that even if there aren’t strong government social safety nets for people with disabilities, there is almost always some sort of support system that exists, formal or informal, that’s through schools, nonprofits, families and/or community advocates. Parents are often the most vocal advocates. Unfortunately, awareness is often low, and then those who need services don’t (or cannot) always access them due to a number of reasons. I found some really great organizations doing fantastic work, but they, like most grassroots nonprofits and services, always needed more funding and resources.

A female worker in a field, taking a break.That sounds like a really incredible experience. Did the fellowship and your learnings affect the direction you decided to take in your career?

Yes! In my last country, Cambodia, I ended up working with this fantastic organization called Epic Arts. They use arts as a form of expression and empowerment to bring people with and without disabilities together. In the program I worked with, they offered dance, drama, and visual arts courses for adults with and without disabilities.

I joined as a volunteer to teach their visual arts class. At one point, they asked if I could help design a poster. I didn’t have any experience, but I taught myself with a tutorial and the poster was a success! So I ended up taking on a ‘graphic designer’ role too. That’s one of my favorite parts about working with nonprofits – you often have the opportunity to step into many different types of roles that you might not have in other sectors.

I loved working with Epic Arts so much that I ended up staying there for almost two years. I feel really lucky to have been a part of such a wonderfully supportive, artistic community. During that time, I honed my graphic design skills a lot more through YouTube videos and tutorials. I continued to teach visual arts classes, and also did some research on the state of special education in Cambodia. It was so much fun.

When I got back to the United States after having been abroad for nearly three years, I moved up to Lake Tahoe and worked as a photographer and ski instructor at a ski resort. At the same time, I continued working in arts education with a nonprofit in the region, whose mission was to bring performing and visual art to all of the students in the school system there. I had at first been hired as the marketing coordinator doing graphic design and outreach for the arts performances that we did for the community. I ended up transitioning into a role that was also coordinating that performing arts program, which brought in critically-acclaimed artists to perform for students in schools.

Wow, that’s really amazing. How did you end up at Landesa?

About two years ago, I decided to move up to Seattle, mostly because I have family that lives up here and was eager to live in a bigger city. I applied for this job at Landesa and it’s been truly great so far. I’ve been able to show what I’m passionate about and do that at work, which is such a privilege. Now, I get to do quite a bit of graphic design, whether that’s designing posters and banners for different events, making graphics for research papers to distill complex concepts, or website design. I also got to travel to our office in Tanzania where I interviewed and photographed women farmers in rural areas, that was a real dream come true. Just recently, I also got to do my very first illustrations for Landesa to go along with a blog one of my colleagues wrote; my boss was super supportive in letting me spend time on it. Getting to do that as a part of my job was also a dream come true!

A happy family with two children sitting in a village.You’ve worked mostly in the nonprofit world throughout your career; was that intentional?

The way that I always conceived of my education and purpose was to use these skills and the opportunities that I’m given to help people. I think a lot of my journey has been trying to figure out the best way to help people, or support them, with my skills. I’ve been pretty lucky that I’ve been able to find different ways to do graphic design (and art!) and continue to develop my skills with nonprofits as I work with them.

Do you also practice art in your free time?

Yes! I recently got an iPad and I’ve been working on illustrating a children’s book. I find time to do it on my commute to and from work, and sometimes just in front of the TV.

When I do art and drawing, I lose track of time in a good way. I feel like there aren’t too many other things in life that make time fly like that.

Thanks so much for taking the time to chat, Nicole! Learn about Landesa’s work here.