(Summer 18) John Fechtel, G, Growing Change, NC
I look back on the Growing Change project as I’ve been involved with it for the past year or more, and see some real growth in my own maturity as a designer and collaborator, as well as a really big increase in the health and longevity of the collaboration between MIT and Growing Change.
I’ve learned how to talk about design with people who aren’t designers, and to advocate for the importance of good design to people who don’t always see its importance. I’ve learned how to talk to contractors, city officials, teenagers, tree farmers, and everyone in between about the work that we’re doing. I’ve learned how to give space and time for the people we’re collaborating with to insert their own ideas, and to be sensitive to the imbalance of power so often found in “collaborations” between trained designers and laypeople. I’ve also learned how to design straightforwardly and without pretense. Too often, design collaborations with non-profits end with beautiful — and never-to-be-realized — designs that are more about stoking the ego of the designer than about making something which can contribute meaningfully to a non-profit’s work without outstripping and frustrating its benefactors.
I’ve also seen our team of MIT-affiliated students grow from 5 to 13, and with that, a commensurate increase both in the quality and the longevity of our project. Many of the students have only just completed their first year, and are already recruiting students from the incoming class to join in the effort in the upcoming year. Unlike at other times, there seems to be some actual, unstoppable momentum to this project. It feels like it has legs; it no longer feels like we’re just dragging it along.
Being able to do this work while receiving financial support for the project has been an incredible factor in this. It’s enabled a lot of us to change how we work this summer, to allow for the hours needed to make the project successful. I’m really grateful to the PKG Center for its efforts and support and to my fellow students for their tireless efforts to put this project together and to constantly grow and evolve as we moved along.
As a student who is going into his last semester at MIT, I was particularly interested in making sure that the project would have a sustainable future both at MIT and in North Carolina. To that end, a big focus our team has had over this summer so far has been in finding ways to formalize and concretize the work that we’re doing. We’ve explored whether this project will find its eventual home within the School of Architecture and Planning, as a standalone entity as a non-profit or for-profit venture, as a lab embedded within Co-Lab in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, or whether the PKG Center itself would play host to the organization as we establish a more permanent way to include this kind of collaborative design and planning effort in the core curriculum of the School of Architecture in Planning.
We see this effort, whether it is embedded within an institution or not, as a critical way to educate (and re-educate) design and planning students, not only for working in real environments, collaboratively, and with real people; but for cultivating a public and community spirit in their design work. Those people and groups who need the skills and techniques we’ve mastered in school the most are, most often, the ones with the least access to them.
Because of that, we’ve been really excited to find people in positions of authority within and without the school who are really excited about the mission and vision both of “Group Project” — our collaboration — and the work of Growing Change. A big part of our work this summer has been in making these connections, refining what our mission and vision would be, and getting organized.
There was one moment in particular this summer that stands out to me as emblematic of the kind of collaboration that our team from MIT are trying to achieve with Growing Change. It was in one of our collaborative design sessions with the youth in the program.
These youth were, without exception, incredible young people. All of them had experienced extraordinary trauma of some kind in their past, but it was evident by the way they interacted with us and the ideas they came up with bespoke a depth of understanding and intelligence and the kind of knowledge that comes from long experience.
We were sitting around the table, talking about some of the design strategies we could use for various buildings across the site. We had been having difficulty getting some of the students to open up and engage with the process, but they were beginning to get comfortable around us.
Suddenly, one of them came up with an idea for a meditation center, based on some of his other experiences, for one of the buildings on the campus. This was authentically his own idea. It wasn’t one that we had seeded or backhandedly suggested. What followed was a really interesting quarter-hour discussion about what the characteristics of that space would look like, where it could be located, how it could be used, and some other really interesting points of discussion that gave the youth the chance to get on the inside of some of the most exciting and interesting parts of concept design. To involve them in that experience reminded me of why I was so passionate about this project — authentically engaging a community in the generating of design that they’d all be able to use and benefit from was exactly the kind of work that I wanted to do and support.
Hi everyone! My name is John Fechtel. I’m a graduate student in the M.Arch program in the Department of Architecture. Growing Change and I first met in May and June 2018. A few of my student collaborators attended a lecture given by the founder of an organization called Growing Change. Once I heard about it and learned more about the mission of the organization, I knew that I wanted to be involved to support their work in any way that I could.
Growing Change began as a clinical pilot program to study ways to help youths in Scotland County, North Carolina, an impoverished rural county, to set their lives back on track after interactions with the justice system. The organization was founded and is led by Noran Sanford, a clinical psychologist who used a dual program of agricultural skills training, group clinical sessions, and a healthy dose of fun to help the youths in the program he calls “Experience Experts.”
The organization was given use of a state property at the beginning of the Summer of 2017. It’s a derelict field camp prison in the county which has been disused since 2001. When we asked him how he planned to redevelop the property and its buildings for the use of their organization, he told us that he had no idea, and was looking for design and planning help. That began a relationship with the School of Architecture and Planning that now comprises a dozen students and a long-term design collaboration relationship both with the leadership of the organization and the youth who make it up.
This summer, our goal is to advance several design/build projects with the organization, as funding and time is available to them. We’re going to work with them both on the visionary, high-level goals for the site, and on the nitty-gritty details of actually making these interventions work. In addition, we’ll be working with them and some of their collaborators to help record and present the history of the site, of the incarceration system in North Carolina, and of the agricultural justice issues the organization is taking on.