About Me

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Currently the Associate Director for Design for America (DFA) and a lecturer at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University, I am a San Francisco native and passionate about the intersection of design education and local/social impact. My studio, students' projects, and DFA have been discussed in publications and blogs such as Fast Company, Chicago Tribune, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Core77 and more. I have been fortunate enough to have spoken and given workshops at TEDx, the NE IDSA Conference, Better Word by Design Conferences, Fulbright Seminar, and given workshops at college campuses across the country. I earned my BFA in industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design where I received RISD’s Community Service Award and the Rachel Carson Award upon graduation. I am currently working on a masters in learning and organizational change at Northwestern University. At the start, I founded and taught the advanced studio, Design for Social Entrepreneurship at RISD, Design Futures at Pratt and worked with nonprofits such as Design that Matters and GreenBlue.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Sami @ Design for America

Update on Sami:

I've packed my bags and for the next 7 weeks, I will excitedly be helping to run this year's Design for America Fellows Program at Northwestern! Check us out here.



I'll be working as the Studio Lead and resident "Design Therapist" so to speak, helping to bring greater clarity to students' ideas, while also working to develop a systemetized documentation approach to build our DfA brand.

So, my blog posts might be slowed, but stay tuned for updates!

With my apartment being a 10 minute bike ride to the lakeside beach, I might just like it here...


Thursday, July 8, 2010

If Your Motives Aren’t Slightly Selfish, I Would Be Slightly Worried


I just read this article, “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” (thanks Winstin Mi for pointing me to it)

Having just come back from one of the Least Developed Countries in the world, Nepal, where I made no attempt of participating in humanitarian design which is quite contrary to my background, I found this article to be extremely thought provoking and a good opportunity to put many of my recent feelings on paper.

It’s been kind of a crazy year to say the least. Within the last 12 months I’ve been to Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Kathmandu, Nepal, Washington DC, Chicago, Toronto, New York, San Francisco and drove cross-country with two girlfriends to boot. I’ve studied for and taken the GMATs twice, applied to 4 business schools and turned down one partial scholarship. I taught at the graduate level without having a masters, was an extra in a Nepali film and as the kicker, ran a healthy home makeover summer program for inner city teens exactly one year ago.


When applying for business school I had to answer Stanford’s question, “What is most important to you and WHY?” It’s most certainly the “why” that made this question so darn hard to answer. I had a really hard time finding what felt like the core to my answer and am not so sure I ever really found it (which is probably part of why I didn’t get in this year). I was raised Baha’i which is a religion most people have not heard of, and grew up believing that my life and my work should be a form of service. I technically stopped practicing as a Baha’i five years ago, and so when I push religion aside and still ask myself “why?” I am hard pressed for an answer deep down inside. I can’t help but to feel that perhaps it’s just human nature or perhaps a privilege for those of us who don’t have enough problems of our own that we have the luxury to think about other people’s problems.

So what would my life be like if not one of service? I guess you can say that was the experiment of the year and let me tell you, it was a lot of fun. This is the first year that I learned how to really have a good time. And yes, I think this statement says a lot about my social life while in college. This year I travelled, I partied, I danced more frequently than ever before- at least while in public-as I won’t count sessions in my room. I enjoyed life, lived selfishly, and embraced the chaos of the everyday- of course still trying to be a good person along the way i.e. please, thank you’s and opening doors for people is always in good form.

Now that this year is coming to a close and I am getting ready to move back to my homeland of San Francisco, I am feeling ready to put my head back on straight, focus and work a job where I can have the stability I want (being a nomad for a year will do that to you) and ready to try my hand again at working towards the greater good. I can still say that I have a burning desire to contribute to humanity and although I don’t really know why, I’m still going to do it but I have a few new thoughts about it.

As a middle-class American Caucasian female, I often can’t help but to feel like I don’t belong in the circles and communities I am inclined to “help” i.e. low-income at risk youth, underserved women and etc. I am an outsider and always will be. (If I am from San Francisco and working with communities there, does this make me more of an “insider?”) So where then is my place in contributing to the world I live in?

I’ve been asking the same question since my senior thesis when I thought my role in all this was to make white people aware of their white privilege. I’ve learned a thing or two since then and strongly believe that awareness and change doesn’t come from guilt tripping but from fun and self-interests. (thanks in part to my classmates for this!) As Paul Polak discusses in his book, Out of Poverty, he sees his clients as customers not as benefactors. It’s this mutually beneficial relationship that I believe allows us to avoid Neo-Imperialism, which inherently relies on subordination for its propagation. Don’t get me wrong, being the boss is fine and good, but a systematic unequal distribution of power is not. Nor is it appropriate for “outsiders” to come in to a community that is not their own and say or think things along the lines of, “I have the solution for you. Can’t pay for it? Well I’ll give it to you then because I really know what’s best for you and you just can’t see it yet.” Undoubtedly, we all know things that other people don’t and vice versa and it’s great to share these expertise, but it’s the attitude and expectations going into it that often makes the difference.

After working for a social enterprise in Kathmandu, Wild Earth Nepal, which locally produces herbal cosmetics, I see the simple yet powerful notion of employment and job creation. Starting a business that earns ourselves a buck and gives others jobs is a direction I see myself going in, in the not too distant future. If all parties are equally invested, motivations are more clear and you’re not telling anyone what’s best for them, but giving them access to figure that out on their own from a pure economic development perspective. Sustainable Health Enterprises is probably one of my favorite examples of this.

As a result of this year and years of thinking about this stuff there are a few principles I feel comfortable extrapolating: Find something you love, DO IT, and in turn, you will find ways of giving back to your community. For example, I love sewing and apparel design. After the Haiti earthquake I hosted an “Upgrade Party,” where women brought in their old clothes to trade, they paid for the clothes they wanted from other people and the money raised went to Paul Farmer’s Partner’s in Health for disaster relief in Haiti. In addition to this, with the clothes left over, I redesigned the garments and sold them, making a few bucks for myself. To me it was a win win win. Women got new clothes at cheap prices, money was raised for Haiti, and I got to have a creative outlet while making some cash. Is this Neo-Imperialism? I think I can safely so “No.” It’s this type of thinking and line of work that I hope to do as I move forward in my career: Triple and Quadruple Wins.

If one tries to play it off like they simply want to do good for the sake of being a good person, it makes me wonder what the motivations really are and what type of guilt one is trying to work off (but if you admit that you want to karmically work off some guilt, I think that would be okay). I just think we have to be real, we have to be authentic; we have to be nuanced as we try to be good people in the world. As you never know what type of unintended consequences there will be. (William McDonough’s project in Huangbaiyu is a great example of how design can go very wrong)

Some questions I now use as a compass while moving forward:

· What do I enjoy doing?

· How can I make a living at it?

· Can it benefit my surrounding community?


…So this where I am at right now. These thoughts are not conclusive. It’s an ever-evolving journey anyway right? And I welcome people’s thoughts, feedback, criticism, and whatever you wish, thank you Bruce Nussbaum for sharing yours.

Let’s just keep the dialogue going…

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Rooster on Top

As I currently prepare to move back to the West Coast and pursue my own job search, I’ve decided to take a step back to reflect on some of the important lessons I feel I’ve learned over the years that I strive for within my own self in a professional setting and thought I would share:

Success often has to do with attitude just as much as aptitude. Whether working with a team or leading a group, people are attracted to positivity and a lot more often gets done when people feel good and are excited about the work they are doing.

Network and maintain relationships. A lot can happen during a walk to a subway station or over a drink. Every relationship is a valuable connection both personally and professionally so it’s a good idea to stay in touch.

Always have your elevator pitch ready to go. If you can’t describe what you’ve been up to in 2 minutes or less, people may stop listening.

Breadth and depth. Being a generalist is certainly good and fine, but every once in a while you’ll find you can have a deeper impact when you become an expert at something that might turn out to be more satisfying.

The world lacks doers so work towards becoming one. For many of us, we have to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones to move forward on our ideas to start a project, company, or internal initiative. Someone else won’t do it; it’s up to you.

Don’t get good at things you don’t want to do. Although one’s career might start out doing the grunt work in any organization and there’s lessons to be gained from all types of work, be careful not to pigeon hole yourself into a line of work that you really hate doing.