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The Rethinking of Social Design Activism

When prompted to document and advocate a social-design issue in the Twin Cities, I immediately thought of investigating the most obvious and pressing issues facing our society that have had obvious design solutions. Homelessness has prompted architects in the likes of the great Sam Mockbee to design and build innovative inexpensive shelter for the less fortunate. I could write a book about low income housing design in the Twin Cities, much of which is notable, such as our own Ralph Rapson’s Cedar Square West project on Riverside Avenue. Not to underscore the serious nature of homelessness—shelter is a basic necessity that many people lack—but social-design projects that focus simply on building inexpensive shelter to protect people from the elements just don’t thrill me. Necessary? Of course. Noble? Absolutely! Kudos to those who build “shelters? for the homeless. Catalyst for social change? Well, here’s what I don’t throw all of my enthusiasm behind. Finishing such a project is obviously very rewarding. You can say that you put a roof over someone’s head who didn’t have one before. But can you say that you really reshaped the state of society as a whole; that you really made the world a better place to live in? It’s certainly debatable, so please don’t jump on me for saying that I don’t think so. Those people who now have a little more dependable shelter may live a little bit more comfortably, but will their lives really change all that much? If a bunch of architects get together to creatively design them a cheap house out of compressed carpet, will they suddenly land a dependable job to go to every day? Will they decide to leave the gangs and turn from the drugs? Will they seek a higher education? Will they become active contributors in society and noble citizens just because some designers from a faraway land built them a house out of carpet and then went back to their comfortable suburban homes and spacious offices only to forget all about them in a week, thinking that they solved all the world’s problems on their little mission trip? The answer to all of these questions, I believe, is a firm “no.?

To truly have an impact on society, to provoke real social change, workers for social justice must go beyond providing basic essentials to those who lack them. Social designer activists need to reach out in more ways than designing practical inexpensive shelter, but design buildings that will change the landscape of the most dismal places in our society. Inner city America faces not just homelessness, but skyrocketing crime rates, a formidable war on drugs that seems never-ending, racial injustice, and long lines of the unemployed and uneducated at the social services offices. We as designers need to realize that the guy sleeping on a street bench has more problems than homelessness. In order to truly help this man and the millions of men, women, and children like him, we need to design in response to all of their problems. Then and only then will we truly shift the gears of society and create a better social picture.

In our city of Minneapolis, racial and ethnic minorities lag behind white counterparts in education, with 15% of African American and 13% of Hispanic people holding bachelor's degrees compared to 42% of the white population. Median household income among African Americans is below that of white by over $17,000. Home ownership among these minority residents is half that of white, and one-third of the Asian population lives below the poverty line. It is this issue of poverty-stricken inner city minority groups lagging in education that I believe deserves the focus of designer activists. What prompts me to do so is my work with alternative and charter high schools through the service-learning components of both ARCH 1281 and this course. The design of spaces for alternative education for failing inner city kids is something that fascinates me even in the earliest days of my life of design. Last semester, I volunteered at Plymouth Christian Youth Center, or PCYC. The alternative high school is a facility in the poverty-stricken, crime ridden district of North Minneapolis. Not to sound too poetic, but this place is truly a beacon of light that radiates its positive atmosphere for miles. Their website tells a moving story of one student, Larry, who once said he was going nowhere before he came to PCYC Alternative School. Now he's going to college. Previously a habitual truant, Larry never missed a day at PCYC. “And it wasn't just skills in reading, writing and math that he picked up at PCYC, but the values of responsibility and giving back to the community.? The bottom line, explained coordinator Kathleen Butts and the rest of the staff to my group and I, is that many kids just don’t function well in the traditional public schools, especially kids with troubled lives here in the North Minneapolis community. Before the days of alternative learning facilities like PCYC, all of these kids simply failed out of the traditional public schools and were left out in the cold. It was these kids who grew up to be the criminals, homeless wanderers, drug dealers, and victims of suicide of today. Today, some of these kids have been given hope by the innovative, ambitious, progressive thinkers who created new spaces for new education systems for them to learn and grow. But as we can see with previous generations and the effects of their childhood neglect on our society today, the problem still persists and begs further solutions. Designer activists need to design and build more and better PCYC’s. We need to design and build schools for at-risk children in risky communities. We need to design spaces that are safe, embracing of their individual needs, open to their cultural and racial differences, and inviting. We need to design spaces that teach them the academic and life skills that will allow them to break the hellish cycle of poverty by first seeking higher education, then finding stable employment. It will follow that they will form a stable life, abandon drugs and gangs, and contribute to our society in an amazing way. Real social change will become reality in the near future if designer activists focus on the future of the children.

Basically, designer activists need to transform the focus of their attention in the same way as many are urging modern medicine to do—to administer less of the short-term band-aids and more on long-term cures and preventative measures for the ailments facing our society. I look forward to being involved in the long-term solutions to not only the problems facing the Twin Cities, but those facing the global community. I look to Jennie Winhall's essay "Is Design Political?" for inspiration. In it, she writes, "My policy colleagues say they went into politics because they wanted to challenge the status quo and make things better for ordinary people. That's certainly why I went into design."