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Aspen Design Summit Report: Hale County Rural Poverty Project

The participants of the Hale County Project

At the Aspen Design Summit sponsored by AIGA and Winterhouse Institute November 11–14, 2009, the Hale County Rural Poverty Project's initial goal was to conceive a National Design Center for Rural Poverty Programs in Greensboro, an impoverished town in Hale County, Alabama. The idea was to create a laboratory for designers, academics, NGOs and community groups to experience, research and collaborate on issues related to rural poverty, including health, education, housing and infrastructure.

The team wrestled with the concept of such a center and the potential conflict between those already working in Hale County on social change projects and those who would go to the region to initiate design interventions, at the Center or elsewhere. Eventually, the team decided instead to develop a socio-economic model of resource allocation for accelerated regional development. The backbone of the proposal is a website that connects communities and their leaders to financing and services they need to complete local projects, which may range from start-up businesses to operating support for non-profits and to capital-development projects.

Initial Wariness
From the start, team members expressed skepticism about the goal of creating a National Design Center for Rural Poverty Programs. This attitude was especially pronounced among members who lived in Alabama and were engaged in projects aimed at improving the lives of local residents. Both they and the seven team members who did not reside in the state feared a perception might be created of outsiders blindly imposing an initiative on an unfamiliar community. New York–based designer Chris Hacker, for one, said, “I'm more interested in the 'work' that's being described, than the center that's being described.”

The team decided to approach Hale County as a prototype, emblematic of the problems facing the rural poor, as well as a case study of the benefits of student interaction with such projects. This case study included diverse examples of how designers might enact social change in a region facing severe problems with housing, employment, education and health.

Pam Dorr, executive director of HERO, explained how her organization, on a limited budget, has managed to build affordable and sustainable homes in Hale and offer extensive counseling services related to home ownership and home repair. Andrew Freear, director of the Rural Studio, which also has sustainable architectural projects in the region, spoke about the necessity of long-term and patient daily engagement. Project M’s John Bielenberg discussed the benefits of harnessing the positive energy of young people, and the impact that socially responsible projects have on his students. Cheryl Morgan and Nisa Miranda, directors of the Urban Studio and of the University Center for Economic Development, respectively, spoke of the need for a regional perspective. They described the possibilities of harnessing Alabama's natural riches to create an economic flow that would affect communities like Hale County. Faced with questions of how to proceed, the team began to rethink the initial design brief by examining the wider context and existing projects in Hale County.

A Grass-Roots Approach
Asked what they need to better serve their constituencies, the directors of Hale County–based programs specified an increase in staff and funding. This questioning led the team to adopt a grass-roots approach. As the group came to appreciate the slow, difficult progress of these programs and the hurdles they face — that meaningful change can take decades, not months — it began to consider ways to encourage long-term transformation.

The team recognized that a “helicopter approach” — dropping in to fix a problem and leaving after the initial engagement — might do more harm than good to community initiatives. So it began to reframe its objectives, dividing into three groups to ask fundamental questions about how to be engaged in Hale County, a move that would prove critical to discovering a unified mission statement. The three groups examined a number of questions:

• Was it able to deliver services, knowledge or hands to enable interlinked solutions? Based on the success of Rural Studio, HERO, and Project M, one sub-group imagined how these local models might be applied regionally, and in turn how they might resonate across the entire state. For example, the natural scenic attractions of Alabama were highlighted as an underappreciated asset that could become a tourist draw to stimulate local and regional economic development. Bike trails, canoe paths, birding towers and green spaces awaited a community investment to promote the region's natural beauty on a national level.

• A second group focused on helping individuals acquire tools and skills to enact change in their own lives, such as by starting a homegrown business to improve the economic health of their community. Pam Dorr identified existing issues and needs within Hale County and proposed an organization that could assist individuals with the funding and training required to start a local business or project.

• A third group discussed micro-financing and how the team could learn from efforts underway in Hale County and apply them elsewhere. This group gained a better understanding of what local programs like Rural Studio need to flourish, highlighting access to funding streams to assist participating communities in achieving their goals. Its members suggested a web-based tool, a database where projects could be posted online to attract funding. Resources could be matched to accelerate businesses and projects.

Breaking into three groups proved to be a turning point for this Project because it allowed the voice of every team member to be heard. Though the sub-groups were conceived with different objectives and addressed different scales of community activity, they similarly emphasized the importance of building a model to support engagement within Alabama’s communities.

Despite some progress on finding a way forward, skepticism remained. Some team members still questioned the fundamental idea that design could address such problems as rural poverty. This led to a conversation among the entire group in which members drew connections between the three models created during the previous day.

A Web-Based Engine of Economic Development
All had stressed the importance of the embedded leader — a self-motivated person seeking funding and support for a project. Stepping back, the team's members realized that what was needed was an engine to propel projects like Rural Studio, Hero and Project M. In particular, this engine must enable deeply authentic, local transformation by assisting and accelerating work on the ground. Understood this way, participants realized that the engine should not be place-specific. Rather, the team developed a model for a philanthropic website to connect communities and their leaders to outside financial and professional expertise, drawn from a national support network.

Communities, in this concept, would be supported by outside experts who could assist in placing small-scale initiatives in a larger regional context and frame proposal and project objectives. Once the embedded leader had a proposal for a community project, the proposal would be posted on the micro-financing website, where it could be linked to a database of outside individuals offering funding, financial advice, design services, volunteer hours and the like. Local projects — such as small businesses, operational funding for non-profits and capital campaigns — could thus be supported and accelerated through access to state and national networks.

Two Proof-of-Concept Projects
To test the concept, the team prototyped two projects within the model. The first was a campaign for increasing national awareness of the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, a 2,100-mile-long bike trail that begins in Alabama and ends in Canada, allowing cyclists to experience the Underground Railroad route taken by slaves. To improve facilities and create businesses linked to this bicycle route, local communities could post proposals to the microfinancing website. In this example, efforts could be reinforced by a national advertising campaign that touts the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route, thereby bringing attention to projects along the route and ideally securing matching governmental funding to create amenities and services for tourists. Recreational tourism would thereby help to generate local economic redevelopment.

The second example focused on quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama, a small rural community nestled into a curve in the Alabama River southwest of Selma. The extraordinary textiles, which are based on traditional American and African-American designs, garnered national attention beginning in 2002 through a traveling exhibition. While the quilters have a facility to display their work, it cannot adequately build upon the national attention created by the exhibition. Therefore, the project team explored how a microfinance website could be used to acquire the capital funding and pro-bono assistance to develop a quilting museum. The website would also provide business training to support the quilting collective’s efforts to translate its artistic renown into financial stability.

Connecting Communities
With these two examples, the team proved the conceptual viability of a web tool for connecting communities and their leaders with resources for enacting social change. Perhaps the most significant outcome was shifting attention from the rural poor as a constituency and placing it on the need for community reinvestment and outside support for existing and new grassroots initiatives. The most compelling validation of the concept came when Hale County resident Andrew Freear acknowledged that this was the type of tool people working in the region needed, and one that neither he nor his colleagues had the capacity to develop.

Next Steps and Action Plan
The Hale County team is seeking seed funding, and plans to reunite in March 2010 to continue developing the project. A detailed plan through the second quarter of 2010, to move from the concept outlined at Aspen, is as follows:
1. Open a Collaborative Online Workspace: 11/2009. (Daniell Hebert)
2. Complete a three-page project description/white paper for prospective funders and institutional sponsors: 12/2009. (Charlie Cannon, Jeremy Kaye)
3. Identify potential funding sources, both nationally (AIGA/Winterhouse) and regionally (Auburn Urban Studio and University of Alabama University Center for Economic Development): 01/2010. (Cheryl Morgan and Nisa Miranda)
4. Seek seed funding for a Project Workshop in Birmingham, Alabama: 01/2010. (Cheryl Morgan and Nisa Miranda)
5. Hold Project Workshop in Birmingham, Alabama, weeks of March 22 or March 29. Team members from around the country will meet in Birmingham to flesh out a design brief for the micro-philanthropy site and develop a schematic communications campaign for the project. The workshop will culminate in a Concept Launch Event with state and regional stakeholders and potential institutional partners: 03/2010.
6. Following the workshop, team members will work to solidify institutional partnerships in order to seek summer-cycle grants to fund the project pilot: 05/2010.
7. The project will be piloted in January 2011.

Team Members
Moderator: Charlie Cannon, Founder, Innovation Studio, Professor of Industrial Design, Rhode Island School of Design
Recorder: Chappell Ellison, MFA Graduate Student, Design Criticism Program, School of Visual Arts
John Bielenberg, Founder, Project M; Founding Partner, C2
Pam Dorr, Director, HERO (Hale County Housing Resources / Alabama)
Andrew Freear, Director, Rural Studio; Professor of Architecture, Auburn University
Chris Hacker, Chief Design Officer, Johnson & Johnson
J. Daniell Hebert, CEO, MOTO Development Group
Jeremy Kaye, Creative Director, Ziba Design
Nisa Miranda, Director, University Center for Economic Development, University of Alabama
Cheryl Morgan, Director, Urban Studio; Professor of Architecture, Auburn University
John Peterson, Founder and President, Public Architecture
Sam Shelton, Principal, Kinetik Communications

Significant contributions to the writing of this report were made by Chappell Ellison and Charlie Cannon.

A PDF of the briefing book chapter on the Hale County Rural Poverty Project is available here.

A PDF of a Powerpoint presentation by the Hale County project team is available here: this is documentation of the process at Aspen, not indicative of final outcomes.

The original website for the Aspen Design Summit, as well as a list of all participants, is here.

Posted in: Business, Social Good

Comments [2]

Other cultural assets worth leveraging in Hale County include the photographs of Walker Evans for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documenting both poverty and lifestyle in Hale County. Many of those landmarks were revisited later by William Christenberry, and the countless photographers who have made a pilgrimage to Hale and Tuscaloosa counties-to see and document those iconic sites. A sensitive presentation of rural lifestyle and the interrelationship of race, poverty, and politics of the region would be both fascinating and instructive.

Moundville, on the Hale/Tuscaloosa county line is an under-utilized resource. The little downtown area is poised for rebirth, but lacking the tourist traffic to drive it. Once a thriving hub of the Mississippian culture, the mounds adjacent to the downtown area should be a significant attraction in a cultural/historical corridor that could loop from I-20 in Tuscaloosa to Greensboro-through Greene County and reconnecting to I-20 outside Eutaw.
Craig Nutt

How is the project coming along? Will it be launched in January 2011 as hoped?
Cindy Houben

Aspen Design Summit reports are edited by Ernest Beck, William Drenttel and Julie Lasky. The 2009 Aspen Design Summit was organized by William Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute, in partnership with AIGA and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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