Flipping the Prison: Confessional
Members of Group Project consider the ethics of community-engaged practice.
This conversation between current Group Project members Morgan Augillard, Alex Bodkin, Isadora Dannin, Kailin Jones, and Joey Swerdlin took place via Facebook Messenger between July 24 and August 23, 2020.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What has made you stay in Group Project?
Kailin Jones (KJ): @Joey What has made you stay on with GrowingChange / Group Project for so long?
Joey Swerdlin (JS): Hmm. I think it holds a really valuable space for me personally. I believe that there’s a possibility to make Group Project a lasting collaboration that generates good ideas that can benefit the folks that we work with as well as contribute to the evolution of how architecture and urban design is practiced.
Morgan Augillard (MA): @Joey there have had to be times when this process was super frustrating…?
JS: Yeah, definitely. I feel my frustrations mostly stem from the communication challenges of working separately/remotely, which has always been the case with our partners in North Carolina. That challenge grew when we (Morgan, Alex, and I) graduated. There’s also ethical questions that I wrestle with, but I think that constant self-criticality and reflection is something that I also value. This isn’t a space where we just do things without thinking or with one specific goal in mind. We are always self-evaluating.
I’ll throw that question back at everyone else in the group: What makes you stick around?
KJ: I think the concept of duration and long-term engagement is what sets our relationship with GrowingChange apart from a lot of the work we do at school or other community engagement projects I have worked on in the past. I think that once we make a commitment to a community that has a long-term project, that has relied on our collaboration in some ways for funding, marketing, and other things, that we can’t just abandon them because it doesn’t fit into our schedule. I think it’s important to communicate our commitment and what we can accomplish, how much time we can dedicate, for how long we can, and/or if we can give definitive answers. All of that needs to be a part of the conversation.
For the most part all the challenges or moments of friction that I have encountered working with Group Project and GrowingChange have been productive learning opportunities. Whether it’s having a challenging conversation with @Isadora about something the community partner suggested that we reacted to differently, dealing with many different people that are hard to get a hold of, or internal issues about self organization, funding, or maintaining a pretty democratic process of making decisions and getting work done, it’s still been really nice to have this space to kind of learn through these moments of tension. I feel like I have a group of people who at the end of the day are very supportive and thoughtful to work through it with.
Isadora Dannin (ID): For me, this has been a project so unlike any other. In a way, it’s been an option to tack onto the MArch degree. It’s an example of a type of work that I knew existed in some capacity for architects but is certainly not the status quo (internship at a firm, laboring on someone else’s work that you might not ideologically be able to fully get behind, working to gain technical skills but not really being involved in the development of a project that is meaningful, etc.). So I’ve wanted to see it through, or at least see it through in the context of my time at MIT. It certainly doesn’t reflect the way most architects work in the real world, but it’s a space I believe they should occupy, or at least engage with (the space of community engagement, and the space of working with nonprofits).
Alex Bodkin (AB): I think it’s a sense that the priorities and practices of architecture could be different, and that we could attempt to model what those priorities/practices might be. Nobody else was going to make this opportunity for us, so we knew that we had to do it ourselves. GrowingChange also proposed an idea for the world that I think is valuable + desirable. So it was both the general model of practice and the specific project we were working on that kept me on.
KJ: @Alex As someone who has taken active and passive roles in Group Project over the course of the past couple of years, how have you seen your role evolve over time; do you feel like your involvement will ebb and flow or phase out? Are there adjustments you think Group Project should make in the way it is organized that would better inform how you relate to the group as you have left academia? If so, what and how?
AB: What I think is really cool about the Roundtable report is that it is something that is feasible, and it’s something that multiple members of Group Project and GrowingChange are working hard on and finding joy in. So I’m super excited that it’s happening.
I feel like Group Project is comfortable gathering, archiving, recording, listening, but we haven’t yet seemed comfortable projecting, building, and so on. We are also comfortable in images and words, but we haven’t yet seemed comfortable in objects or things. If there was a budget, a deadline, and teams on the Group Project and the GrowingChange side who were committed to doing something built, I’m sure I would be excited to join in on the project. Alternatively, if there was a new local (design/construction) project that I could work on, alone or with a team, I would also probably be excited about it.
The ethics of practice
JS: @All Do you think we can practice ethically and be ‘engaged’ when working on a project that’s in North Carolina and we are not able to easily be physically present with our collaborators?
KJ: I think given the anomalous way in which we have established our relationship with GrowingChange and our position of being part of an elite institution that is being capitalized on, not only by us, but also by Noran and his team—from an ethical standpoint I think that the issue inherently is no longer very black and white. I think at the end of the day it’s not about proximity to the site or the origin story or being outsiders but about our awareness of it and how we grapple with that.
ID: The question of ethics is big, and I’m not totally sure how to answer it. In general I don’t see our inability to be physically present with our collaborators as something that would compromise our ethical positioning, especially in the time of COVID (even if we were nearby we’d be working remotely). Outside of the pandemic, we’ve more or less revolved our work around trips down there, which I think is our reaction to our internal worry about imposing too much outsider perspective onto the project/becoming too dissociated from it and treating it like just another theoretical studio project that is so at a distance from our daily lives. Of course, ideally, this is the kind of project that happens with a community we’re proximate to, geographically (and culturally/socially), but I think now that we’re engaged with this community it would be unethical to disconnect just because we’re not physically present all the time.
JS: Yeah, I agree, @Kailin and @Isadora. I think that the longevity of the collaboration is where our “engagement” comes from. We’ve maintained our connectivity to GrowingChange and maybe that’s the important thing for us to consider in future project opportunities—is this something that we can be committed to for an extended length of time? But that being said, not every project requires 4 years. Maybe, then, it’s not about looking for projects but really looking for collaborators and people that we share values and visions with beyond “getting a project done.” Maybe Group Project isn’t just about “getting projects done,” it’s about establishing and maintaining relationships. But maybe that also sounds like a charismatic financier who would say a similar thing…hmm…
MA: @Kailin @Isadora: Are y’all planning to become licensed architects? Why or why not?
KJ: The licensing process for being an architect is inherently exclusive and limiting in the sense that it is expensive to take and maintain and time-consuming, which is all in addition to the professional 3 or 5 year degree. Noran always refers to our “guild”, yet technically none of us can consider ourselves architects. I think that Group Project is trying to challenge existing architectural practices.
The smoothest path to succeeding in the profession and becoming an Architect is to work at an office that will sponsor your exam and time—these programs are usually more available in larger corporate offices. In order to continue to work with Group Project and collaborating with an organization such as GrowingChange, it would have to be a side hustle that is in addition to a job that pays (as the way Group Project currently stands, it’s not financially self sustainable) and I would have to decide if I have time to also try to get licenced. So far, our lack of having a licensed architect has not hindered our ability to engage with and seek projects that are relevant to the discipline—an interesting question for our future as more and more Group Project members graduate and enter professional practice: How does licensure affect what we can do and how we do it? I will not not get licensed in spite of my frustrations with the system in place, but getting licensed is not my priority either. Working with Group Project has shown that with using our architecture education there is still a lot we can accomplish without a license.
“Community engagement” & what we do
JS: Can we call our work “engaging”? This term gets thrown out a lot with “community engagement” but I wonder if we see our work as community engagement or is it something else? If it’s not “community engagement” does that make it bad/wrong/immoral in an era that is seemingly “community engagement” or die practice? Maybe that’s extreme but…
AB: Currently, we can talk over Zoom, but we can’t draw together or attend casual events or meet with fabricators, so if we are doing engagement it’s a very narrow form of engagement that only engages people who can Zoom or call us at the times we’re all available.
MA: I do think “community engagement” is becoming a bit of a buzz word or phrase but I’d also disagree with @Joey and say that I don’t think it’s yet ingrained in design/planning practices. I think practices are begrudgingly starting to do it in a more real/more visible way but some of those practices include public agencies that should have been engaging the community from jump street anyway.
Something I’ve thought about a lot is the ways doing this type of work isn’t considered “different” or “special” but it’s just how one is supposed to operate in an industry that, no matter who is paying for the project, always affects the public.
JS: That’s fair. I do see more and more big offices/corporations/developers doing “community engagement” though often on a level that feels super performative. I don’t think this discredits the work that nonprofits made up of local community members engaging their neighbors and advocating for their communities do, but I think it does muddy the meaning of the phrase. With that though, do you think that we do “community engagement” or if you had to categorize what we do, how would you describe what we do? Should we just avoid buzzwords and labels and just be more descriptive? (Now I’m thinking about our ‘mission statement’ exercise of trying to hone down what we do in a digestible way.)
Yeah, trying to create a “new normal” new standard of practice.
MA: @All: What are the steps we take to get to that reality? I always think about ADA requirements and the way it’s become second nature to the design process for public structures. It’s not always done well and is still at times considered an “add-on” or as if designers are going out of their way to be accommodating (which is ridiculous) but it’s built into building codes. You literally can’t get around it no matter how you feel about it. In some ways that’s how I imagine the future of “community engagement.”
AB: Overall, I think the Roundtable report is doing a great job at engaging via talking/writing. I wonder if other specific projects could attempt different forms of engagement—maybe there’s a way to build (or at least design) something physical together over Zoom? Maybe there’s an online drawing board that is shared for a session, or maybe a set of Google forms? Idk.
I say this because maybe the way to code it into the profession is to test many different modes of engagement through very specific projects, and then to make some sort of guide for engagement? Maybe a guide already exists; we should look into that. But if not, a guide that just offers different ideas so both “client” and “architect” would know what to ask for and have some specific examples of things.
MA: @Joey: I don’t know about drilling down to buzzwords but I do think we need to be able to describe what we do or are interested in doing beyond just “a bunch of individuals with similar skill sets ready to help however we can.” I mean, I think that’s okay for the organically developed relationships, the ones that maybe happen through connections or conversations, but what about when/(if) we want to actually go after a project? But, then again, maybe the whole idea of “project chancing” in the architectural sense needs to be disturbed and dismantled.
ID: What is “project chancing?”
MA: I meant “Project Chasing”
ID: Oh hahaha
KJ: I like “project chancing” as something that needs to be disturbed and dismantled too.
MA: Lolol! I do think @Joey was actually saying a bit on that idea in an earlier response…that maybe another “transformative” aspect of Group Project is how we come upon projects. Maybe we only get projects through organic connections and the belief in/power of network building.
KJ: I was really just thinking about it through the terms you had mentioned earlier. That we are “a bunch of individuals with similar skill sets ready to help however we can,” and that’s how we’ve sort of been operating. While I haven’t been aware or a part of a lot of the non-GrowingChange related projects that Group Project has taken on/or attempting to and I don’t know how much chasing is happening, we are taking some “chancing” with our skill sets, especially since we haven’t established a coherent criticality or approach to what we do, what we can do, and why we do it.
MA: Oh, I love that! There’s also the “chance” by which we even came to work with GrowingChange, but, yes, I love the idea of taking a chance on ourselves too. I think that also starts to complicate the notion of the “expert” in a way that’s really nice. We’re taught that experts are sure of what they know and of how their contribution is seen as valuable, but maybe there’s also the “expert” who’s taking a chance every time they enter a new place, community, project, etc. And while they know the skills they possess, they are always still hoping that those skills translate to the particular project in front of them.