March 27, 2009
On March 18-19, an optimistic group of community activists and designers converged to exchange big ideas and practical solutions for the betterment of Chicagoans and their built environment. Amidst this dialog a bystander could have overheard talk of ‘greening food deserts’, ‘starting CDC design centers’, ‘balancing pro-bono practice & paying the bills’, and ‘building a public-health model for designers’. That same bystander might have wondered, What are these people doing? The answer is still a little uncertain, but across one lecture hall, one live-work space, and three modest classrooms the air buzzed with the excitement of 100 new friends discussing a 1000 great ideas about socially-repsonsible design practice. In full disclosure, I helped to organize this aptly named symposium, Converge:Exchange, in the hope that just this type of fervor would seize the audience. Yet, even the optimism of our small organizing group could not have anticipated the engagement of this two-day conversation.
Converge:Exchange was conceived as a means to understand the landscape of Public-Interest design practice in Chicagoland. We wanted to know, who was doing what, where, how and why? We also wanted to make this knowledge accessible, no, navigable, to others who may one-day utilize this knowledge to positively impact their own community-based projects. During the initial preparations for Converge:Exchange, our group of community-minded designers gravitated to the informality of many small conversations as an armature for the symposium. We began to think of each session as a new opportunity for Table Talk, and postulated that as the symposium progressed from Lecture to Dinner to Panel discussion to Networking Presentations to Round Table, our participants would have a variety of moments to access to our ‘experts’ and share their own experience. It all seemed so simple: first we would Converge, then we would Exchange.
Making pro-bono work work
The symposium began on the evening of the 18th with a series of presentations at the Chicago Architecture Foundation by Bryan Bell of Design Corps (Raleigh, NC), Katie Swenson of the Rose Architectural Fellowship a segment of Enterprise Community Partners (Washington, DC), and John Cary of Public Architecture (San Francisco,CA). These gracious and inspirational out-of-towners presented work from their own professional practice to set the table for our two-day event: they would be the national perspective to our local experience. Bryan presented work from the recently published “Expanding Architecture:Design as Activism” and the first diagram for SEED: a socially-responsible counterpart to the popular LEED checklist for use in asset-based design. Katie shared exemplar work of current & past Rose Fellows, each stationed in their respective Community Development Corporations (CDC), and elaborated on the work model of ‘3 parts work, 1 part training, & 1 part Strive’: the desire to go above and beyond the call of duty, a quality for which Rose Fellows are known. John shared the work ethic of Public Architecture & his efforts to engage the larger design community through the 1% Program: this program asks member companies to donate 1% of their yearly time to Pro-bono projects. This panel acknowledged that while they are national in their scope, their own connections operate on a family model, sometimes with tough love, but always through support and the sharing of resources. This theme would run through the symposium.
A meal with a story
Following the evening program, Anna Daisy Viertel of the Turning Fork Supper Club/ Chicago Botanic Garden & Tara Lane of the Hull House Kitchen prepared a ‘meal with a story’ at SHED Studio. These two fine cooks crafted a seasonal meal of local ingredients that had our overflowing crowd of moderators, participants and volunteers in awe. As I cannot do justice to such a unique occasion, I will simply list some of the ingredients: there were beets, a variety of greens, a delicious panade, root vegetable soup, preserved peaches & fresh cream, car-cracked black walnuts, and a spattering of other finger foods & wine. This hearty & flavorful meal brought the evenings overtones to the table in a very tangible manner: good, healthy food sourced in an equitable manner, prepared by community members each of whom is engaged in educational, activist food practice. Despite our full bellies, it is safe to say that we all left SHED Studio with a hunger for the next day’s table talk.
Over one hundred participants showed up for Thursday’s events in Depaul’s Egan Urban Center. The morning session began with ‘Open Table: Shaping Community Visions for a Sustainable World’, in which 3 groups of local activists & designers engaged in an informal talk-show format: “Freewheeling on the Green Highway: Jobs, Social Enterprise, & Resources in the Emerging Green Economy”, “Cornucopias in the Desert: Food Access, Health Resources, and Nutritional Effort in Local Communities”, and “The Future is Now: Bringing Back Quality into the Quality of Life in our Neighborhoods”. Practice leaders representing Growing Home, Chicago Sustainable Manufacturing Center, Chicago Green Jobs Initiative, Delta Institute, Faith In Place, Institute for Community Resource Development, Chicago Food Depository/Pantry University, UIC Neighborhoods Initiative, Kocoa’s Kitchen, the Egan Urban Center, Little Village Environmental Justice Association, Active Transit Alliance, Chicago Metropolitan Planning Agency and Urban Habitat Chicago served up practical discussions of efforts to engage Chicago’s communities in need. This first session enabled a unique opportunity to help designers understand the worlds of communities, and for community organizations to better understand what a designer may do for them. Veronica Kyle of Faith in Place suggested that now that she knew what designers could do for her organization, she had a number of projects to bring to the table.
During the “Lunch Table: Showcasing Our Participants”, we hosted six community groups as they pitched the who-what-how-when-why of their practice. This engaging session allowed the audience to put faces & stories with organization names, and organizations to reach out to new partners & participants. Dropping Knowledge, Archi-Treasures, the Fuller Park Development Corporation, ADPSR, Architecture for Humanity, Lawndale Youth Corps, and Black Oaks Sustainable Center all came out to share their stories. Ceasar McDowell, of Dropping Knowledge, succinctly reminded the audience that [people don’t live issue-oriented lives, they live diversified lives], and any asset-based solution should be addressed as such.
Days of the Round Table
For the afternoon ‘Round Table’, our moderators sat down with the audience to serve as guides and sounding boards for ideas about public-interest design practice. Bryan Bell & Joyce Fernandes, of Archi-Treasures, led a discussion on Community Participation. John Cary and Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, led a discussion on Professional Involvement. Katie Swensen and Martin Felsen, of Archeworks, led a discussion on Building Partnerships. The ideas flowed freely during these sessions as participants cross-pollinated rooms by moving between the sessions. When the time came to wrap-up the conversation, an exhausted but enthusiastic crowd gathered for one last debrief.
In their closing remarks, our afternoon moderators & out-of towners made a number of acute pleas to the audience to keep working, band together, and to realize the importance and momentum of this event. As an organizer, to hear my own desires echoed by outsiders, I realized that we may have really struck upon a significant moment. Here in the basement of a tall building in downtown Chicago, we had gathered an amazing amount of social capital, all excited by the practice of Public-Interest Design in Chicago: some wanted to know how to get involved, others how to make more effective their current practice, and still others seemed content just to share their experience.
In her closing comments, Katie Swenson aptly captured the moment by saying to the audience, “you are all founding members of Converge:Exchange”. I will go one step further and extend that offer to all reading this post who are interested in continuing Chicago’s amazing legacy of design and activism in the name of those without representation. Please stay abreast of Converge:Exchange by visiting our website. In the near future we will be posting video interviews from participants. Ian Harris, documentary filmmaker for Archiculture, and Ian Thomas of Milwaukee kindly captured the event on video. Three months past the symposium, we plan to host a follow-up to this symposium. Converge:Exchange will continue to evolve, and we will need the help of the entire community to do so. If you have feedback or thoughts or know someone who should be involved, please feel free to contact our group through: ConvergExchange.org or comment on this post.
Guest blogger Ryan Wilson is a Landscape Architect with Conservation Design Forum and an organizing member of Converge:Exchange. Along with Monica Chadha (Studio Gang), Mike Newman (SHED Studio), Rashmi Ramaswamy (SHED Studio), Dan Hatch (ADPSR), Hope Dinsmore (Wilkinson Blender), and over 100 new friends from the Converge:Exchange symposium, he is grateful for the opportunity to converge and exchange.
Ryan may be contacted at email@example.com.