Columns: Empathy for city’s communities

Julia Kowalski

As the fifth year of Challenge Detroit rounds its final bend and next year’s applicants complete the application process, it seems appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the last year.

As a current Challenge Detroit fellow and designer at the Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC), I’ve spent the last year asking: “What does it mean to work within communities?” While in architecture school at the University of Detroit Mercy (UDM), we were taught that the way you make something is important. In order to craft a good process, you have to ask these critical questions. The question “Who is this project for?” is like a photo with roughed edges in the back of my wallet. It’s tried and true and I continually bring it out in every project.

This question recognizes that there is a person at the middle of a project, who has hopes, dreams and dignity. Architecture centered on dignity is what I found at the DCDC: a nonprofit architecture and urban design firm in the School of Architecture at UDM. The DCDC uses a participatory process that brings community members to the table to be a driving force in a project.

Working in the city, I asked myself, “What is the next right thing I can do with my life?” Challenge Detroit was the answer. The application for the fellowship included making a video, writing a short essay, and participating in a two-day interview trip. In the end, the door to Challenge Detroit opened for me and I stepped through it.

Challenge Detroit is a yearlong, project-based urban revitalization fellowship that works with nonprofits to help catalyze positive social impact in Detroit. The process we use for our projects is propelled by empathy and community participation. Put on the shoes of your neighbor and go for a walk. Take their dog with you and grab a meal with them while you’re at it.

Not only did we gain insightful perspectives about various neighborhoods through this process, but we also learned how to more compassionately design. By listening — really listening — without an agenda, we were able to effectively stumble upon that “aha!” moment.

As we’re nearing the end of our fellowship year, the fellows have had the opportunity to participate in the application process for next year’s cohort by attending their interview trip. Being at this trip and meeting applicants felt like inviting someone over to my house for the first time. It was energizing to meet so many people who were zealously ready to work in the city.

The applicants took a deep dive into empathetic work through a “mini challenge” in partnership with Live6, a community development nonprofit focused on the Livernois and Six Mile corridors. For the mini-challenge, applicants brainstormed how to build better relationships between UDM, local businesses, and residents. Live6 has partnered with the DCDC since its genesis, so being able to facilitate applicants’ discussion and welcome them to Northwest Detroit was particularly serendipitous.

The mini-challenge reminded me that building relationships, like inviting someone into your home, really means building trust. This trust not only takes time, but is fostered by doing on-the-ground work and getting some dirt underneath your fingernails.

Trust, dirt, and hard work — this seems to be the beginning of an answer to the question of what it means to work in Detroit’s communities. Putting people at the center of the process brings everyone to the table. Once this happens, then we can sit down for dinner. Welcome home!

Julia Kowalski is a Challenge Detroit fellow.