Leader: Michele Crawford

Project: Design as Protest Day of Action

Neighborhood: Cleveland’s East Side

Raised on ioby: $324 for design supplies like pens, masking tape, post-its, and sketch paper as well as refreshments.


Q:  How did you first became aware of and involved in racial justice activism?

I grew up just east of the city of Cleveland, and moved back to Cleveland about four years ago. I got my master's of architecture from the school of the Art Institute in Chicago. It was during my time in Chicago that I became interested in the politics of the city, and what a city is built on. I lived in a west side suburb, but traveled downtown to the Loop every day, taking the green line train. From my repeated journeys back and forth every day, at different hours, I became more aware of how the city changed, and was really intrigued at why certain parts of the city looked one way, and certain parts of the city looked a different way. I wanted to break it down and investigate what caused that.

I became more aware of what redlining was, and the history of cities, and how different people lived there at different times, and then left, and then a new community of folks moved in. I became interested in investment in cities, and who had access to those investments, and how that changed depending on what you looked like, and where you came from. I think we're forced to live with decisions that were made historically -- it wasn't always fair, but it's our reality. I wanted to challenge myself to figure out what could I do about it individually, and find out who else is working on these types of issues, and figure out how we can come together and unite to change the narrative.


Q: What was the Design as Protest Day of Action and what were you were aiming to accomplish?

A colleague of mine named Bryan Lee put out a call for different cities to collaborate and join on to his design justice platform by way of hosting Design as Protest Design Ciphers in different cities across the nation. I decided to be the organizer for the city of Cleveland -- there were over 10 cities that participated. Through close collaborations with him, we organized the Day of Action, bringing together community activists, artists, designers, planners, and anyone else who wanted to join. We hosted the event on January 20, 2017, Inauguration Day. The intent was to bring people together to share their thoughts and their concerns about what a new administration meant for the built environment and social justice both nationally and locally.

We wanted to spark dialogue about how we could address these new concerns through the lens of design and architecture, but also take an inventory of what the built environment status already was, and come up with ways to change it and make it better for our communities.


Q: How did you structure the event?

It was on a Friday evening after work, for around two and a half hours. We had food, and started off with an ice breaker, and then went into a list of questions along the lines of, “What concerns you about the administration coming in?” and “Who does it affect directly or indirectly?” Everyone had a chance to write down their individual answers to the questions. Then we posted those answers on the wall on Post-it notes.

After that, we took some time and everyone did a gallery walk to see everyone else's answers. Then, we grouped similar answers together, and then had a discussion about what had come up. Everyone had a chance to talk and share their feelings, their hopes of how they could make it better, and how they specifically felt that being an artist or designer gave them a special perspective into changing the built environment. That really was the extent of the first event. On the first day we came up with 10 different concerns.

We had a follow up event a few weeks later to build on these ideas, and see what the group collectively wanted to work on together. We revisited all 10 concerns again, and then decided that affordable housing on Cleveland’s east side was something that the group most wanted to focus on. It was completely unplanned -- we just did a vote and it stood out. We're hoping to move the dialogue forward more and work with the community and the city to gain some measurable outcomes.


Q: How did being from Cleveland impact this project for you?

Cleveland is my hometown. I care about what happens here. I live here now, so I feel particularly motivated to be involved with community issues that are going on in my own neighborhood, and in surrounding neighborhoods. I think Cleveland is starting to realize that we're special. There's a lot of development going on, so being really intentional about all neighborhoods, and inclusive in all neighborhoods collectively will make the whole city stronger.

I think this group had a special skill set that’s valuable to a lot of communities in Cleveland. Our role is to work to figure out where we fit appropriately, and then to be intentional in our work with community members who want to see change.


Q: What were some of the main issues that came up?

Poverty was a repeat thought, as were access to capital, youth engagement, affordable housing, and addressing homelessness. We all could name people in our communities who have been affected by these issues. An important part was not just to  see the bad, but to come up with hopeful solutions -- to look at what other cities are doing, and figure out what's working, and then adapt that to fit what's going on in Cleveland. 

Even though we were looking at really large issues, we felt like we wanted to make it tangible and come up with a project that we could actually complete. While there were a lot of concerns raised, we as a group collectively saw a special need to focus on affordable housing. Cleveland is growing now, and there's a lot of development going on in downtown Cleveland and the near west side neighborhoods, but it's not proportionately being developed on the east side. There was a special interest in noticing that trend and wanting to explore more about it.


Q: What’s the value of design thinking?

Design thinking is all about observation, investigation, being creative and thinking outside of the box, but also going through an intense process of understanding and coming up with new solutions. For me, being a designer is about problem solving -- taking the problem and breaking it down into its different parts, and then focusing on what each one of those parts means, and tracing it back to its core. Then being creative about what the solution should be.

Design is a powerful tool to bring awareness to justice and racial equity issues because design is a part of everyone's life. Everything we touch day in and day out had some sort of design process behind it. For me, it's really about expanding what that lens is, thinking critically about it, and really being intentional about the built environment, and being inclusive both to people who already live in neighborhoods and to newcomers.


Q: What were some of the key steps you took to organize this project?

Because it was connected with a national platform, a lot of the logistics were kind of already set out for me. I mainly had to do the branding and marketing to make sure that people were aware of it, and also secure a space, and secure supplies.

I leaned on my network and friends to help me. They provided a lot of moral support and confidence, but also helped me select a day, promised to be there, and promised to share the event on Facebook. It was small things like that -- if it was something I couldn't handle by myself, I knew I could call someone to pick up the food, or help me carry things from the car.

Just practically speaking, Google Drive has been my lifesaver. I used it for the invite for the event, I used it to do a survey after the event for everyone who participated to get their thoughts and feedback, I took pictures and stored them there. It makes it really easy to organize all the data.


Q: What advice do you have for someone looking to do a design justice project of their own?

Lean on your network and make a lot of connections -- not just with other designers. It has to be a collective process to bring together a lot of different elements that we don't think about looking at through the design lens. I relied on organized people, people who held me accountable for following through, people who were willing to jump in and lead if I needed help at any time, both before and during the event. I was good at organizing things, but once everyone was in the room, I passed the baton to let the leader emerge from the group, and that ended up being really key.

It's important to collaborate with people who are social butterflies. It's important to find people who are invested in community, and also know about community politics, and the economics of different communities. I think it's also important to collaborate with people that you feel uncomfortable with, just to push yourself beyond what you're used to. A lot of times we tend to stay around things that make us comfortable, but there's growth in being pushed, and being challenged -- you learn how to communicate differently.

For other designers looking to get involved with racial justice work, I would say do your research, and find out who's already doing the work. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. Also, pay attention to what's going on around you, and don't be afraid to go to community meetings and voice your opinion. This isn't my full-time job. This is something that I decided to do because it's important to me. I really value community members being able to engage at a high level, and to be stakeholders in their communities. It’s natural as a community member to want to engage, to want to change my surroundings.


Q: How do you avoid burnout?

Sometimes the issues that we're attempting to tackle seem overwhelming and are exhausting, especially when you have a new consciousness so you notice it day in and day out when you're watching TV, or when you're driving down the street. One key that I use is to focus on being hopeful. If I see something unfair, or someone that looks distraught, in my head I imagine a solution. I say, "Oh it would be better if this looked like that," or, "It would be cool if this resource was placed in this place." Really don't focus on the negative, even though we know that negative things are often a reality. Try to take the responsibility to figure out how to change it, so that it's more positive.


Q: What do you wish you’d known when you’d started this project?

If I could go back to before starting the process, I think developing of specific knowledge about how to lead and facilitate a group would have been a little helpful. I also wished I’d come up with more resources to present as examples to people to answer questions. Sometimes having an example to show can do better than me explaining it. Sometimes having a visual aid helps.

All in all, though, it’s important to just go for it, even if you haven’t figured everything out. As an organizer, it makes me really proud and happy to see a group that's committed to making change. They’re really dedicated to come together on their own time to talk about things, learn from each other, and spend time and effort to coming up with a new creative solution that could change the landscape of Cleveland.

More about Michele Crawford, Leader, Design as Protest Day of Action

Michele is currently in the Capital, Construction & Facilities Department at Cuyahoga Community College. An emerging design professional, Michele is passionate about making design more accessible by fostering creative thinking and problem solving skills within communities. She received her Bachelor of Science from Ohio University and Master of Architecture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She is on the Board of Trustees of Midtown Cleveland where she is also a resident. Michele mentors youth at John Hay High School of Architecture and Design, Citizens Leadership Academy, CollegeNow and Max Hayes High School. She is the 2016 recipient of the AIA Cleveland Activism Award.


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