Our February issue features an interview with Charlie Brown, CEO of Context Partners, a design agency that leverages community building to grow brands and organizations.
Community design as a business model appears to be flourishing. One of the newest entrants on the scene is Design+Culture Lab, a Portland startup that zeroes in on the intersection between race, culture and place. The lab’s projects are eclectic. Led by energetic, 26-year-old owner Joy Alise Davis, the three-person team is helping craft Portland’s first African-American city plan, convene immigrant communities around the soon-to-be revamped Powell-Division corridor and draft neighborhood design guidelines aimed at preserving light in the Division street district.
“The way we are designing cities is changing,” Davis says. “We are no longer going to be architects planning in silos behind closed doors. We are going to have to engage the public. Sometimes communities are doing more designing than the trained experts.”
I checked in with Davis in the offices of Cogan Owens Greene, where Design+Culture has its temporary headquarters. Here are a few more highlights from our conversation.
I grew up in Jamaica and have an undergraduate degree in political science from Miami University. That’s when I got excited about activism and community. Miami had very similar demographics as Portland. It was a very white university. So it was about figuring out ways of leveraging people of color, to make sure they feel this place also belongs to them.
Activism to academia
From there, I went to New York City and did an AmeriCorps focused on community service/nonprofit management and community activism. Then I went to the Parson’s New School of Urban Design, where I studied theories of urban practice.
More on the African American community plan
Typically planners go through a big design process, then bring it to the community to fact check. We wanted to flip it. We're working on a project with the Portland African American Leadership Forum, asking community members very simple questions: Where do you feel comfortable being yourself? What’s your vision for utopia? Historically African Americans have a hard time visioning. It's difficult when you have a lot of stuff going on, a lot of stressors. So it’s been fun for the first time answering questions like: What do you mean, I actually have the right to design my city and to shape my community the way that I see fit?
To encourage community response
We’ve been doing Monday meetups. Every other Monday we support a black-owned business like a restaurant and then have a great conversation.
Our categories are economic development, health, housing, youth, sustainability, environmental justice, parks and open spaces. We’re also looking at art and culture. There is a big need for an arts space. The was one earlier in the 80s where people could come together and celebrate in public art, and perform, That is no longer available. That has been a big thing: How do we actually get a community space where African-American artists feel comfortable expressing themselves.
What’s in a name
The reason we chose to have lab in our name is we wanted to experiment. We believe community participation is the best design solution — getting a diverse group of architects with community designers, with businesses, with teachers, students. Everyone comes together and has a really positive experience.
New generation of African American businesses
I am a very young millennial. When I first moved here, I would not tell people my age, I didn’t want people to underestimate me or to not recognize my place in this field. We have two part time employees. One is a design researcher. Her role is looking at tool creation and innovative ways to engage the public. Then we have a collaborative designer — our on the ground person who is really great for communication and talking with constintuents. She has a really good understanding of racial justice and racial theory
We are starting to work in other cities. There are the same same issues in New York City, Ohio — issues of displacement and gentrification. I have a really good idea of what community can look like and what other cities are doing to combat it. In every project, we collaborate with a local community group.
Davis will be speaking at the Elevating Impact Conference February 5, 2016.