(Summer 18) Joey Swerdlin, G, Growing Change, NC

Part IV

This collaboration with GrowingChange has reoriented my professional goals. It has made me realized that I am able to work on design projects that both aligned with my personal values as well as satisfy my aesthetic, architectural interests. These two do not need to exist in separate worlds.

It has also been an extremely humbling and gratifying experience to work with the talented team at GrowingChange. I feel lucky to be able to observe their approach to youth-centered project management. Everyone from the community volunteers, local political and faith leaders, Noran, and perhaps most importantly, the youth leaders have all shared their invaluable life experiences with me. In sharing of their challenges and how they’ve overcome them, they’ve inspired me to learn to listen more before putting pen to paper.

I look forward to the opportunity to be able to connect more students with GrowingChange in hopes of continuing the relationship between MIT and GrowingChange. This experience has been extremely valuable for both myself and for GrowingChange. The professional experience that students are able to gain by running a project by themselves is not possible to experience within the curriculum. Not only that, but we are all able to continue developing academic interests while working towards a goal that is well-aligned with our own personal values. The balance struck between academia, long-term service learning, and professional development is unique in this project and I cannot wait to continue seeking this in my professional development as an architect and community leader.


Part III

In my last post, I began reflecting on the impact of the work that we’re doing in Wagram, North Carolina. It has been so inspirational to watch the youth leaders grow and develop over the past year. Since visiting GrowingChange last June, one youth leader in particular had a dramatic transformation which he attributes to the GrowingChange community and his peers.

A new co-hort of youth leaders, “G-1” joined GrowingChange this year. Inherently, this ‘promoted’ the older members (self-named “the OG’s”). It was incredible to see the positive transformation that took place in one youth leader who took this new responsibility with stride. He was much more confident, sociable, and excited about the work being completed with Growing Change. When talking with him, he spoke about the influence that GrowingChange has had on his outlook of life. As he moves on from this program after graduating high school, he doesn’t see himself as graduating from GrowingChange but views this relationship as ongoing and indefinite. Noran, the Director of GrowingChange, has strongly established that the youth leaders are always welcome to come back and take on roles in the group, no matter how long they take a break.

Being able to watch this youth leader grow by maintaining the collaboration with GrowingChange over the past year has been a wonderful experience. In many other aspects, remaining engaged with GrowingChange over a long period of time has afforded us the ability to see some of the fruits of our labors. Last year, Noran presented our design work to several foundations, including the Campbell’s Soup Foundation. They were thrilled by the idea of creating a lively courtyard on the GrowingChange campus and so this year, we are working with the youth leaders to develop more plans for this, “Campbell’s Can Do Courtyard.” It is extremely rewarding to observe the long-term impact of our design and planning work by collaborating with GrowingChange. We look forward to seeing what the next year brings.


Part II

From May 28 to June 8, we (a group of 13 Masters of Architecture and Masters of City Planning students) traveled to Wagram, NC to experience first-hand the daily operations of GrowingChange and lend a hand with onsite work. During this time, we had many opportunities to spend quality time with the youth leaders who are the heart of GrowingChange. One such meeting left a lasting impact.

The afternoons spent on the former prison site and now home of the GrowingChange campus were hot and humid. To avoid the heat, we had lunch in one of the metal sheds that had recently been reconnected with electricity. That meant that this year, we had a fan to cool off with; a huge improvement since our trip last June!

The MIT students and GrowingChange youth leaders were just hanging out in the shed while Noran (the Founder and Director of GrowingChange) was working with a GrowingChange board member on another part of the campus. This meant that we were able to chat with the youth on our own and get to know them in a more casual setting. The discussion that flowed from this meeting was unlike any other that we had with the youth. We were all able to open up and find vulnerability in each other which led to sharing deeply personal stories. In this moment, I felt connected to the youth leaders in a way that was truly eye-opening to me. I was able to get a sense of the incredible impact that the culture around GrowingChange was having on their lives. The bonds that the youth were able to form with each other by working shoulder-to-shoulder with each other and with Noran gave them a tight community. This unity and camaraderie   strengthened their desire to be better humans and to make a positive impact on their community.

Being able to share that conversation with the youth leaders was a pivotal moment in my time in North Carolina. It made me realize how important GrowingChange was to this community and how the work that we are doing with them is directly impacting that. To the youth, GrowingChange is a lifeline. Each of us as MIT students were able to encourage them through our interactions. I am excited to be able to lift up their stories and struggles, to encourage them, and to work with them to find new ways to bring new life to their community.


Part I

Hi! My name is Joey Swerdlin and I’m a Masters of Architecture candidate. Over the past year and a half, a team of my peers from the Department of Architecture (and now Planning and Urban Studies, too!) and I have been working with GrowingChange, a nonprofit located in Wagram, North Carolina. They are working on the ground to flip a decommissioned prison into a youth-centered agricultural community center. We are working with them to help realize this goal!

Scotland County, North Carolina, where GrowingChange is located, is a beautiful place with many wonderful people. It is a lushly forested area with many waterways that create immensely fun opportunities for swimming, kayaking, canoeing, and just hanging out by the water which is especially important in the hot summer heat. The people that we interacted with in Scotland County where generous, kind-hearted, and really made us all feel like we were apart of their community. The youth with whom we worked were inspiring and really set a lively tone to the whole collaboration!

GrowingChange was started by Noran Sanford, a Clinical Psychologist, in 2011 as a clinical program, working with trouble youth recommended to him by county judges. Noran saw a need in the community in which he grew up. Beautiful Scotland County also has many social challenges. In North Carolina, it has the lowest wealth and highest crime rate per capita of any county. Even though they are one of the largest producers of corn and soy, this rural community also faces major challenges as a food desert, where quality, fresh food is difficult to come by. The youth of the community suffer from low employment rates because of the stunted economy. In addition, North Carolina is now the last state in the US to try 15- and 16-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. This often causes youth who slip up early to be caught in the binding system of mass incarceration plaguing the US.

All of these challenges seem quite overwhelming to deal with. Even so, GrowingChange has found a way to navigate these tepid waters to effect change in its community. Noran has pioneered a shoulder-to-shoulder clinical approach to therapy in which the process of working together with community leaders, public officials, volunteers, veterans, agricultural experts and more provides a means for youth at risk of entering the criminal justice system to develop strong social skills and leadership experience. This all helps to better position them to be able to overcome the struggles that they face in life.

During the first year of our collaboration with the youth leaders and Noran, our team developed a set of architectural proposals for how GrowingChange could use various parts of their site. This work can be seen on this designboom article. We are now working with a large team of both Architecture and Planning students to tackle a wider range of projects. More to come!



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