Economic and Social Development by Design

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Recently I spoke with Chelina Odbert, co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that applies design, architectural, and planning solutions to the needs of communities in the U.S. and around the world. Last week, Kounkuey (a Thai word that means “to know intimately”) was chosen as one of five winners in the second annual Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. Founded by Odbert and five other friends at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2006, the group has completed projects in Kenya, Haiti, Ghana, Morocco, and low-income neighborhoods in and around Los Angeles.

I spoke with Odbert about the history of the group and her views about what it takes to drive social change. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ron Brownstein: Why did you think you were the ones who could do this?

Chelina Odbert: Well, I guess to be really honest, at the beginning we didn’t necessarily know we could do it, we just had the question. When we were students it started just as a question, and the question was as simple as—here we are in design school, we are from several different design disciplines … and the traditional path that each of us would take after finishing school was to work in the process of big civic projects. We’d go work for a big firm, and we’d build civic spaces or skyscrapers or high-end residential homes. We were all friends, but we have a common interest in issues of social justice, poverty alleviation. … Our question was: Could we use these skills in those arenas, as opposed to the ones that are the more traditional paths out of this place?

Brownstein: Your first project was in Kenya. How did that happen?

Odbert: One of the six of us was from Kenya. We said, “Where can we explore this question? What makes sense?” without too much thought and, more because of opportunity, decided that we would explore this question in the large informal settlement in Nairobi called Kibera.

We went for two weeks. We knew one thing—if these skills and this training will be useful in these other socially-oriented arenas, it’s not going to be our technical knowledge alone. These are communities that are not our own, and they are communities where a lot of work had been attempted, but a lot of work had failed, and we think the reason it failed is because people don’t ask the people living in those places what the problems are and how they think they can solve them.

We had a really loose hypothesis that if we could be useful in these nontraditional contexts it would only be because we were with collaborating with and being led by the people we saw as the experts, which are the residents in these communities. That is how we got started. We had a question, we had a simple hypothesis, we had a little bit of school support to explore. Then we went to Kibera and everything became real. It was no longer this academic pursuit, it was real people, real questions, real realities.

Without even knowing that we were going to get in so deep so fast, we did. From those two weeks we realized this can’t be talked about in a broad academic research question forum. We can’t leave here having done nothing more than writing a report or giving a presentation. We took 50 or 100 people’s time—we owe it to them, our thought was, at the very least, now that we are here—we need to do at least a project. We need to make good on some of these ideas that we have been asking people.

Brownstein: At this point where were you all?

Odbert: This is graduate school Harvard Design School—we were all at different stages, and in different departments. When we went, two of us had one year left of school, and the other four had just finished their last year. After those two weeks, the two of us who had a year left of school, we made our last year about this work. We took classes at the business school to learn how to write a business plan; we were part of a social business incubator at the Kennedy School [of Government]; we took a course at MIT to learn about water engineering. We used that year to begin to arm ourselves with the tools we thought would be necessary to make this a full-time practice.

Brownstein: Were there people you tried to model yourself on?

Odbert: There were definitely people we were inspired by. The great thing about coming to these questions in an academic setting [is] we really had the time and the space to do a lot of research, to see what had been done, what the models were. We surveyed the scene pretty extensively. We saw groups doing projects like ours … but we didn’t see a lot of people that had successfully found a way to do this kind of project as a full-time project as opposed to traditional firms doing a pro bono project, or a university that had an institute within the university. That was what was missing: It’s really hard to do this work well [if you’re] helicoptering in and then out. You have to really invest in a place, you had to invest in communities, invest in people to really understand what these political and economic constraints are.

Brownstein: Who hires you? And how do you sustain yourself?

Odbert: In a very hypothetical world where we knew very little about what reality was, we said the way it financially sustains itself, it can’t be 100 percent reliant on grants.

We went through a long process and got to a place where we said the key to success was a diversified funding stream. Some of it has to come from grants—to work in the hardest places you won’t have a paying client. Other projects that are still in line with our mission and things we care about can be worked on through a more traditional funding model of a design practice—we can do some fee-for-service work that is still very much in line with our mission, some work through multilateral aid agencies, using our unique community-driven approach

Brownstein: How long did it take to reach financial stability?

Odbert: It took us a while. We started with individual donor support and some foundation funding, and now we are about 10 years on, we have achieved that model. Sometimes the client that pays us is a local government, other times it is a foundation that invests in the work we are doing in a particular community, and then larger scale things funded by SIDA, the Swedish International Development [Cooperation] Agency.

Brownstein: What is the north star of what you do?

Odbert: The thing that makes us different and unique: this idea of participation. We do a wide range of scale of projects, from things that are really hyperlocal and temporary in nature, to things that are more on a whole-neighborhood scale and very permanent. Regardless of the scale or type of project, it is always done through an intensely participatory process that puts residents at the center of decision-making.

For us in our work, it’s not about asking people their opinion at the beginning of the project. It’s about starting with those people giving them actual decision-making power at the beginning. In any project of ours, we may have 50 to 100 workshops meetings, what we call “research deployments.”

The other thing is, for us, design is never really enough. Because of this participatory process, we always start not by asking what do you want to see in your park—we ask, ‘What are the biggest needs in this community?’ We never get an answer that is just physical. It’s always physical, economic, and social: We need safe places for our kids to play, we need more opportunity for our young men, we need clean water.

We thought we were going to be creating just this design firm. We learned really early on that design is just our entry point and we have to layer on to any physical design project … economic development and social development components. Design is our entry point, the lens through which we understand the problem, but the problem is much bigger than the physical realm.

Brownstein: How many of you are still active?

Odbert: Of the six who started, one unfortunately passed away. Of the five of us, three are active—two in U.S. and the Kenyan co-founder is now active.

Brownstein: How have you sustained it? What’s been the key to your civic stamina?

Odbert: I think for us being rooted in actual trade or profession makes a big difference. People talk a lot about nonprofit burnout. Though we are a nonprofit, I think we see ourselves as a design organization. We are trained to be landscape architects and urban planners and that’s what we do on a daily basis. We are doing the work that we are trained to do, and we are doing it in a different setting.

And yes, those settings are very difficult, they are very complex—when you look at it as a design challenge, that is what propels you on. The more complexity to the design challenge, the more rigorous your response has to be. And that’s all that anyone can hope for in a career—to be working on really important things in a really rigorous environment in a way you can understand your impact at the end of the day.

Brownstein: What’s your advice to other people who want to do work like this?

Odbert: What do I do every day? I never take no for an answer, and I always believe if we talk to enough people in enough different ways, and we ask the question in enough different ways, we will eventually find an answer. Having those two traits makes it possible to survive in the long run.

If you just keep looking for the way out of the jam, you will get there, and I feel that we hit those jams or those roadblocks every day and so for us, they don’t surprise us. We are comfortable with the struggle, and because we are comfortable with it, it doesn’t ever kill us, it doesn’t ever rattle us in ways it could easily do. We understand the struggle as part of the work.

Brownstein: That seems relevant advice at a moment when so many people, on all sides of the political debate, feel disenfranchised.

Odbert: It is absolutely critical. I feel like the only reason that this political moment hasn’t crushed me as a person is because I know that my whole career, our whole body of work thus far … is about helping people realize the agency they already have within them, putting them into action. I know through our own work in establishing the organization—but also in seeing communities we work with at the beginning of a project and ten years later—there is agency in every single person, in every single community. And really, all it needs is a little bit of massaging or access to resources. It just makes a little bit of agency to make that agency come to life.

In these tough political moments, even if it went the other way [in the result of the presidential election], all of those groups that feel so disenfranchised … I know there’s a way to work through that and get to a point where those groups can be the change makers. And being in our position, I actually have the tools to do that. We don’t have to wait for someone to ask us into a situation. We’ve created a vehicle by which we can recognize the … need for particular resources or power in a particular group and we can help them access it. To be in that position feels like there’s hope.