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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.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Poverty Shock and Suburbs

I've met countless people at this point in my life who are doing wonderful work to make the world a better place. When I ask them their story, on several occasions, I hear a similar story. That after they graduated college, they went to developing country X, saw poverty for the first time, and made a commitment to themselves and those in the community to do something to help the people of this impoverished land. This is very honorable work and I in no way wish to discount this, but the thought that repeatedly runs through my mind in reaction is, "how does someone go 22 years of their life without seeing poverty?"

The answer I continually land on is... the suburbs.


As far as I can tell, the suburbs continue to be homogenous communities where families can thrive. They can have 2 cars, good schools, enough land to run around in. All pretty ideal and I don't blame people for wanting this. However, I can't shake the feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with this model. Not just from an environmental and economic perspective, but from a pure cultural perspective of creating an empathic society, where people carry a level of curiosity that questions the status quo.

Let me try and explain. (However, I have no doubt that these thoughts are not novel, rather, they are my own reflections as I try and make sense of life so please indulge me.) For nearly the last two years, I've lived in what I would consider, the closest I've come to living in the suburbs. I live in Lakeview, Chicago. It's incredibly beautiful. I have an affordable studio apartment that's filled with sunlight. I am walking distance to the lake and a short jog to the beach where I can lay out for hours on end during the summer. I've got cute shops and restaurants near by and an occasional thrift store too. There's just one problem: everyone looks like me. Everyone is a healthy yuppy with their suddo laid back professional apparel. Everyone is staying fit with their exercise by the lake and searching for a well-balanced life between working hard and enjoying life. Everyone, for the most part is also white and from the same socio-economic level.



It has recently dawned on me how much of a contrast this is to my upbringing. I grew up in a city, in San Francisco in fact. In a (upper)-middle class home that happened to also be right next to the Projects. One block up the hill you can see the Painted Ladies and meet the cast of Full House (which I did when I was 7). And one block down the hill you were among some pretty sketchy areas with public housing. This picture and statement sums it up pretty well where it states, "This place used to be kinda sketchy but it's on the up-landia."


I grew up taking public transportation from the age of 6, was mugged when I was 8 (although I got my money back- so don't be sad), walked by countless people living without homes everyday, and was a minority in school. I don't say this to give me any sort of street cred. I say this to contrast this life with that of the suburbs (and my life now) and what I think it does to one's outlook on life. I'll try and convey what I mean with a short flash of a story.

This weekend, I saw a young girl bike by along the bike-path. With her clearly hispanic background and embodied attitude, she reminded me of an old friend I used to play soccer with- who was a firecracker and a half. In this flashing moment, what I realized was that I used to have friends that didn't look like me. I used to have friends from different races and cultures. I used to have friends whose parents don't speak english. I used to have friends with accents. And I MISS THIS in Chicago. I've even bemoaned the fact that my sense of style and flair has significantly declined. I took it for granted that people in school were comprised of all colors and races. And what did this do? It gave me empathy. Because when I met someone new or traveled the world, I could see a glimmer of resemblance to a friendly face I knew back home. I could connect to a culture that was not my own because I had gone to a friend's house for dinner or celebrated a holiday I had never heard of. Living in a city allowed me to feel connected with the world around me and feel EMPATHY. When we are deprived of this, it's harder to connect. It's harder to understand. It's harder to listen. It's harder to see. This deprivation, I believe, is the epicenter of our downward spiraling society.

In sum- I don't believe in the suburbs. I don't believe in suburbs as a means of achieving happiness in one's life, and I don't believe in suburbs as a means to achieving a just and equitable society. We must surround ourselves with the diversity of this world so that we can see ourselves in others, care for our fellow citizen, and develop a sense of curiosity that will push society forward. 

I've been observing my feelings over the last few months with the recurring thought of, "I'm most uncomfortable by how comfortable I am." After many conversations with friends and strangers (with odd looks and perhaps rolled-eyes- "complaining about how good life is, boo-hoo."), I may have pin-pointed it to the fact of where I am living. My sense is that I need to get out of the city "suburbs." I've been putting this thought aside as I keep telling myself to simply enjoy it. That this is what everyone works for and that I'm so lucky to be where I am. I have an awesome apartment (which really is awesome) and a great safe neighborhood etc. But I've come to realize that I am not fully happy here. So, as I a result, I am now looking to move. And no, I'm not going to go live in the South Side of Chicago (I still need to commute north to Evanston for heaven's sake). But I am going to look for that diversity I crave. The density I crave. The grit I miss. Because it's this that gives me the experience of life. I need it to stay motivated. I need it to feel inspired. I need it to feel connected with the world around me. And I need it to feel alive and feel like myself.

Although it feels like eating my cake and having it too, hopefully I can find this.