Are We Enough?

(AFH Chapter Quarterly) What lies at the heart of a humanitarian design network?

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I wouldn’t call myself an expert networker; I don’t quite meet that profile.

Timidity could be brushed into the “introversion” bin, but I suspect the attitude depends more, if not completely, on the nature of the crowd. Rubbing elbows with ascendant businesspeople is an act carried out with great deliberation; chatting among a conference of compassionate designfolk – not so difficult. It’s a good sign when you feel comfortable in a crowd of strangers – as though something about shared values makes them all familiar, or family.

Certainly the “warm fuzzy” is a sought-after bonus of the charmingly intimate Design Like You Give A Damn conference held each November in San Francisco. A full day of panel discussions and open mics on healthy urbanization, resilience, sustainable materials and community building goes down smooth with accompanying audience nods, fervent note scribbling and emphatic hashtagging.

While DLYGAD (or “Dillygad,” as AFHers mercifully abbreviate it) Live! presented issues plaguing the built environment in united states and the wider world, it was on the subsequent day that leaders from many of the localized, volunteer-based AFH Chapters assembled to teach one another how to organize to combat these threats to sustainable communities of every size.

“Social Resilience”

Ten blocks inland from DLYGAD’s residence at the Autodesk Gallery, Architecture for Humanity’s global headquarters has retrofit a 100-year-old brick factory building tucked into the edge of San Francisco’s tech boom. Within, in contrast to the unvarnished alleyway, a 20-foot living wall that climbs the height of a two-story foyer / stair / light well. It’s a good conversation piece – especially when you know a thing or two about it.

Following a panel presentation of the six chapter strong (and growing) Resiliency Program, attendees had broken away to refill their mugs and mingle. I found a pair of participants on the upper floor, at the precipice of the stairwell, evaluating the living wall. The system was slightly intricate; ferns and broad-leafed tropical plants were arranged in individual planter buckets, and the couple was musing as to the details. They resembled New Yorkers – colorless textured wardrobe; hats; she sported a cream colored scarf, and he a large tribal medallion on a black chord, and designers’ glasses.

“It’s buggy,” I say. “There are bugs.” A superb introduction.

“Oh we have bugs,” she says. “That’s not a problem. How does it work?”

I explain how the rows of buckets are laced into one irrigation circuit, like a string of holiday lights; water is fed at one uppermost opening, and there’s an outlet pipe to discharge any excess.

“Are you shopping for green walls?”

“We’re looking at all kinds of systems, but they have to be suitable for Arizona. We’re from Arcosanti.”

My eyes bugged. The most ambitious holistic living experiment in the Southwest sent representatives to DLYGAD, and they’ve stuck around for the Chapter Forum. An armada of questions sailed into my brain – about the late Paolo Soleri, about the project’s status and ambitions. How did these reasonable looking my-age folks get involved? But most importantly:

“You guys make those bells?”

No, that’s the Foundation. We’re on the implementation side, he says. He, Travis, is an architect; his colleague Kate is in development, bringing a background in psychology.

“What did you guys think of the conference yesterday?”

It was good, they agree. Really good. Resilience, however much it’s a buzzword right now, truly demands a coordinated effort from cities around the world of sharing best practices and reducing redundancy. The keynote by Michael Berkowitz introduced a pretty big carrot for this operational shift in the form of resilience grant funding from the Rockefeller Foundation: the 100 Resilient Cities Centennial Challenge. (The first 33 were just announced Monday, December 2; of those, 11 hail from the US, but only New York overlaps with an AFH Chapter initiative.)

Each of the DLYGAD panels (Sustainable vs Resilient Materials; Population Shock; Active Cities; Resilient Cities) had their moments of insight and inspiration, the Arizonans noted, though they could have spoken more to actionable steps for the audience.

That said, a striking pattern emerged from the panels: “…That ‘resilience’ is foremost a social issue.”

Communities could prepare for unknown futures by neighbors strengthening neighbors; in recovery, the most critical element is the psychological and social support we can provide for one another. From the perspective of my interlocutors, a city should be built primarily from these principles; the professional panelists affirmed the belief that brought them to Arcosanti in the first place.

Sea change

People gravitate to these conferences and fora because they feel the social responsibility associated with designing space, and are moved to address pressures unsavory to the marketplace (except, it’s been suggested, as a corrective measure). Not so long ago, we studied architecture’s aversion to social design – reaction to epic ideological failure, to blows 50 years old and still smarting.

When I returned to Cal Poly in 2010 as a guest speaker for Arch 101 to introduce design’s role in Haiti’s recovery, the student zeitgeist had completely transformed. I was startled–first by the robust attendance (was I slated for quiz material?), second by the volume of follow up (even following the second presentation by UN Studio). After the talk I was approached by a club of engineers and advisers seeking a collaboration in Haiti. I advised them to write a proposal. Within a month it had hit my inbox.

In a span of ten years, humanitarian design had moved from not-even-a-blip to an earnest pursuit and pined-for career among undergrads. By the hundreds students are primed to engaged in social design, which could only add to the shock of reality after graduation. Money, after all, doesn’t follow people. Public Interest Design authorities have done little beyond cheerleading to develop this energy into momentum and impact.

Granted, the same can be said for older-gen designers discovering their passions to be more precise than the general act of “architecting.” (Take a litmus test via this 5-min design synopsis. Is anything missing?)

Weaving a wisdom Internet

Introductions launched the second part of the Chapter Forum – the “may only be interesting to leaders” sessions, described below, but there appeared to be very little drop-off.

I jot down places and names as I caught them–where names were indecipherable I marked ellipses in the palm-sized Moleskine. People had truly converged here from around the world, each listing their origin in an appropriate accent: New York–San Francisco–Portland–Finland–London–San Diego–Santa Fe–Los Angeles–DC–Chicago–Vancouver–Seattle–New Haven–Beijing–Jordan–Bogota–Phoenix–Shanghai–Haiti–Istanbul–Copenhagen.

More impressive than strangers united by mission introducing their work and needs was that in very many cases their chapter was self-made and self-supported. In the first years of nonprofit chapter organizing, the financial model is not necessarily standing on two feet; while such a model would urge development forward, the people among us at the forum were demonstrating just what could be done on the thinnest of shoestrings. In many cases, sheer will was a nascent chapter’s only fuel source.

Just this past Spring, AFH interviewed many those presenting their work here. Ricardo foreshadowed Bogota’s rapid ascent as a regional authority; I spotted Beth, who’d described London’s provocative experiential manifestos at Clerkenwell Design Week; members from Portland could have expounded on their exhaustive research and timely collaborations; others who couldn’t make it to San Francisco had joined the live feed online forum.

The sessions led with contributions from AFH Global headquarters, followed by seminars by certain chapters, and then guests:

  • Garrett and Tinna from HQ intro’ed the forthcoming Chapter Toolkits on fundraising, accounting, volunteer management, etc., to accompany 2013’s extremely insightful as-yet unnamed quarterly publication;
  • AFH Global Disaster Team Director Eric Cesal, in his distinctive brusque-yet-sincere fashion, laid out the steps to establishing successful programs, from mission tests to partner stewardship;
  • Members from Chicago Chapter, a group that recently won funding to hire full-time administrators, discussed the intricacies and diplomacies of grant writing;
  • Rachel from New York Chapter reviewed their practices in leadership transition, which including a moment where she brandished a swollen 3-inch binder of manuals, procedures and notes that the whole room urged be Xeroxed;
  • Public Architecture, headquartered just down the street, sent Amy to draw parallels between the volunteer- and project-based Chapters and the PubArch’s services for both those pursuits (they dovetail quite nicely);
  • Students from the Presidio Graduate School wrapped up the day with a review of their Chapters Strategic Plan in-progress.

“These are all issues we’ve been facing as well,” the Arcosanti contingent at one point stood up to remark. One can imagine the sea of unconnected folks on the verge of, or already wading through, a painful “duplication of efforts” that the Chapter Network intended to quash. It didn’t take much for the duo to rope their efforts into reviving a struggling Phoenix Chapter.

Vessels for change

I didn’t need to wait until the end of the afternoon to realize that this meeting was groundbreaking. As someone who’s attended all four, 2013’s Chapter Forum was easily the most informative, engaging, and energizing. This year, determination, wisdom and momentum seemed to have reached critical mass.

How would the participants walk away from it? Business cards, and soon thereafter notional emails, would be exchanged. I imagine a goal of the Forum was using voices of chapter leaders themselves to paint a picture both attractive and attainable for new members, and connect on issues that, for better or worse, had been commonly and independently faced by the veteran groups. The obstacles of formation and retention; the third-year-in meditations on growth and physical construction; have been welcomed here with open arms.

“Clear out the chairs,” the PGS facilitators had instructed us, and make room to form one circle: a “gift circle.”

Doubtless the Graduate Schoolers carried a mental arsenal of teambuilding exercises, but nothing could match a gift circle’s simplicity: each person reveals a problem they’re facing, or a skill set they’re lacking, and hands go up from those who could tackle it. For nearly every issue there was someone that not only offered help, but already knew the dimensions of a solution; the Network was proving its functionality in real-time.

In that moment nothing could get in the way of this group. With luck, the two-stroke conference / forum had generated enough social glue to carry the movement forward.

As evening set in, it became evident–at least to me–that bugs of the Chapter Network affected its health negligibly compared to the light of inspiration and the water of efficacy passing through each of its localized modules.

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