Farmers Markets and Fluff: MaryCat Chaikin of Relish Placemaking Consultancy

A few weeks ago, the Creative Somerville Series welcomed MaryCat Chaikin, co-founder of Relish, a project management and consulting practice for placemaking through food-based and creative economy initiatives. While Relish itself is still in its infancy, Chaikin, along with her partner Mimi Graney, have been doing their work in the Somerville community for more than a decade. They’ve established several local farmers markets, founded Union Square’s renowned Fluff Festival (a celebration of Marshmallow Fluff, which was invented in Union Square), and were instrumental in transforming the neighborhood through creativity and inventiveness. On a lovely night at Aeronaut Brewing Company, Chaikin took us back and told the story of how she came to co-found a placemaking consultancy and what it’s like to run one.

From Food and Science To Farmers Markets

With an undergraduate degree in geology and a strong interest in local food, Chaikin’s early career was a collection of jobs—for restaurants including the acclaimed Craigie Street Bistro (now Craigie on Main) and The Blue Room, in exhibitions and natural history for Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, and eventually through her own catering and personal chef business. The common thread, she said, was an ability to organize and a desire to curate.

She connected with Mimi Graney, who at the time was Founder and Executive Director of Union Square Main Streets, and they began to work together to run the Union Square Farmers Market—a proving ground for Chaikin and Graney to develop their working relationship and their unique approach to placemaking, events and economic development. Chaikin and Graney—who was organizing events like the Fluff Festival at the time—sought out local talent—musicians, school groups and businesses to participate in their events.

Chaikin and Graney were attuned to dynamics of social equity—they developed a token payment system so that farmers market patrons receiving food assistance were not singled out and received matching funds for more purchasing power. They took a proactive approach to their market’s socioeconomic diversity, by marketing its food assistance program through promotional materials that asked, “If you know anyone who can use this service, please help us spread the word.”

Relish: From Storefront to Consultancy

While Chaikin and Graney worked together on the farmers market, a short-term storefront rental in the neighborhood opened up and Relish (version one) was born. The venture was a seven-month urban agriculture pop-up where the team hosted a retail store and classes in home-based food production including beekeeping, chicken-keeping, gardening, canning, pickling and more. Chaikin said, “We started with no money and ended with a little bit of money … that gave us the confidence to move forward.” Although Chaikin and Graney ultimately decided against the storefront business model, it raised their level of ambition and solidified their vision for Relish.

In the spring of 2014, with the Relish Storefront behind them, Chaikin and Graney decided to team up and form Relish 2.0. The approach: Provide consulting and project management services for placemaking and creative economy initiatives, with a special focus on food. Why food? Chaikin explained, “so many local businesses are are food-oriented, so it’s a great place to start.”

The Relish Model

Farmer’s markets are still Relish’s bread and butter—Chaikin described them as the “flywheel” of their practice, providing the base income for their business. In addition to the Union Square Farmers Market and the Somerville Winter Farmers Market, Relish helped establish and runs a market at Assembly Row and nearby Watertown’s first farmers market. (Want to visit Relish’s Somerville farmers markets? Here’s the schedule.)

Relish also provides consultancy services both for clients and to cities in Massachusetts as MassDevelopment’s placemaking “house doctor.” The cities Relish works with are struggling with economic decline and urban disinvestment, and are looking for “their Fluff Festival.” Chaikin loves the process of getting to know each the city, the local players and discovering the city’s unique opportunities and story. “A community’s perceived weakness can actually be their greatest strength,” she said.

Although Relish focuses on urban placemaking, cities are often not Relish’s direct clients. “We see the city as an ally, rarely as a client,” said Chaikin, noting that the municipalities infrequently have the funding for placemaking projects. Instead, Relish is most often hired by nonprofits and developers. This means he “consultant life” involves a lot of time spent looking for and responding to requests for proposals.

The proposal process led to an early lesson learned for Relish. Chaikin showed us a Relish project she loves—”Kite Day Happy Full” is a zigzagging vending machine temporary installation for a vacant site in Kendall Square that dispenses local food. Yet the client, the Cambridge Redevelopment Authority, ultimately didn’t bite on the proposal that Relish had spent months working on. Chaikin says that the experience spurred them to learn to move more quickly on proposals, and also to wait before enlisting their vast network of collaborators, avoiding “burning out all our contacts immediately.”

It’s All About the Data

Since the range of experiences Relish can ultimately deliver to their clients is so diverse, the team has had to define the value they add in a sophisticated way. Chaikin said, “the level of community involvement and social capital” is the difference between event planning and placemaking.

Chaikin and Graney are always looking at the relationship between urban vibrancy tactics and their larger social and economic impact. They regularly collect data on their markets and have developed survey methods for customers and vendors that reveal the deep impact they have on the community.

The Union Square Farmers Market, for example, plays a pivotal role in the local economy—a study found that it generates $2.5 million dollars in economic impact per season. Chaikin cites data that says that farmers market customers on average spend $1 in surrounding businesses for every $1 they spend at the market—provided there are surrounding businesses to spend money in, of course. This data makes the vital connection between interventions that can seem Fluff-y (pardon the pun) and their role as urban investments. “If you have the data, you have the advantage,” Chaikin said.

When Chaikin looks ahead to the future of Relish, she hopes for longer-term projects and relationships, but their smaller scale projects and tests, and even foibles (like the sponsored chairs that they installed in Union Square that disappeared, “because they were really cool chairs,” she adds) have helped them build Relish’s expertise and point of view.

Her advice to both cities and creative placemakers? “The fun of experimentation is the flexibility with trying things on a smaller scale before moving forward.”

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.


For the Love of Letterpress and Local Makers: Mike Dacey of Repeat Press

June was a pull-out-all-the-stops fantastic month for the Creative Somerville Series. Our speaker Mike Dacey, founder of letterpress studio Repeat Press joined us as a shining star in Aeronaut’s week-long celebration of their first year of business. Dacey was part of Aeronaut’s “Neighbor Night,” which he fit in with perfectly, given his role as a founding member of Fringe, a Union Square-based shared work space, hosting over 15 local businesses, and given his growing involvement in the Union Square planning process in Somerville.

Learning Letterpress

Mike’s story starts with his suburban upbringing. He got interested in skateboarding, and from there, with its graphic culture. He realized that someone was making the graphics that would show up on his board and got interested in graphic design.

CSS 061715 Mike DaceyThe college he attended, Hampshire, in western Mass, was by chance, located at a major hub of an almost lost art, wood type printing, due to the region’s historic paper mill industry.  took advantage of Hampshire’s open-ended curricular opportunities and sought out an apprenticeship with a local printer. “I think I emailed every letterpress shop in the valley and said, ‘Can I come hang out?’” he says.

Dacey was fascinated by the craft and he was ahead of the curve on the current explosion of interest in letterpress. He described walking into shops and getting looks from the middle-aged printers. “What are you doing here?” This is where old men hang out.”

Dacey eventually found someone to apprentice with (this mostly entailed putting letters back into their boxes, he says) but who let him play around with his own creations as well. And after school it was a no-brainer to continue the work and try to build a letterpress business. He bought his first press (being ahead of the curve meant he could afford it) and set up in South Boston.

Repeat Press and Fringe

Dacey found a space to set up his studio and started printing as a side hustle. He printed for local bands and honed his craft–including eventually adding contemporary letterpress using custom plates to his skillset, instead of just existing wood type blocks.

After a short interlude in Philly, Dacey returned to Boston and eventually moved over to Somerville motivated by friends and cheap rent. Business was picking up, and among other things, his band friends started to get married and ask him i he printed invitations. At some point, the workload was high enough for Dacey to quit his job.

When Dacey speaks about Fringe, and why it worked he speaks with passion and purpose, “A big thing that sets Fringe apart from other co-working spaces is that Fringe was founded because people needed space to work. It was never about making money. People have more ownership over the space. The community aspect is something very different from other spaces around.”

Fringe generates what Dacey calls “internal foot traffic.” Members not only pool resources and advice, but they’ve built a small ‘ecosystem’ in which clients who are brought in to work with one member, often find themselves being introduced to and hiring other members.

Dacey relayed the story of Cuppow, a product brought to life by the Fringe ecosystem. A drinking lid for a mason jar, the idea was architected by one member, who went to another for engineering and manufacturing advice and help. Soon, many of the Fringe businesses pitched in, helping with branding, packaging and more, thinking, as Dacey recounts, “if we can sell 500 of these, everybody gets paid and it’ll be funny. They sold 500 units in the first few days.”

And while at the end of the summer, Dacey will be the only founding member of Fringe still in the building, none of the businesses based there have closed because they went out of business or grew out of the space, notes Dacey. rather, they moved out of the city or had other life plans that took them out of Fringe.

The Future of Fringe

When asked about what will happen with Fringe as development increases in Union Square, Dacey tells us that the future is not as certain as he’d like it to be. They’ll have a lease that is renegotiated every year, instead of a multi-year commercial lease, which means a lot of uncertainty for the businesses based there. Part of Somerville’s creativity, he muses, was that its cheapness made it easier to take risks. “Somerville used to be a place where you could start something without a lot of money,” he says.

Dacey says in plain terms that new construction is just not consistent with the rent levels that businesses like his need to survive and thrive. He’s joined in as an adviser to the planning committee for Union Square and the new green line stations to add in the perspective of the local maker-based business community.

Creative Juice

When asked about what he’s creatively interested in these days, Dacey is clear that its relationships, and not just craft that is driving him. As the excitement of letterpress and his own business have become more moderate over time, more of his passion comes from the Fringe community.

CSS 061715 crowdMore than a few local business owners see him as one of their core sources on business issues. During Q&A, Fringe member Erin Heath, co-owner of Forêt Design Studio complements him on his business advising, and Dacey tells another audience member to be confident charging fair compensation for her work. “You shouldn’t feel bad charging for your time when you like what you do. You shouldn’t feel guilty for that, you should feel lucky.” If there’s anything he’d tell his younger self about running a small business, he says to not be afraid to make investments in resources or help. “Don’t be afraid to pay people for stuff you don’t want to do, like taxes,” he says, and after a pause, adds, “do your taxes.”

When asked about his dream project, he similarly says that for him it “is more of a relationship than a single project,” citing his relationship with local branding studio Oat. What he’s most excited about in his life now, are his friends, many of whom he works with on a daily basis. And why he loves Somerville? “You have all things about a city but it feels like a community, a neighborhood.”

Thank you Mike Dacey, happy first birthday to Aeronaut, and happy neighbor night to all.

photo credits: Somerville Beat

The Creative Somerville Series is a series of ‘fireside chats’ with local creatives & entrepreneurs in design, tech, food, social impact, and other fields–celebrating the creative and entrepreneurial energy that makes Somerville great. The Creative Somerville Series is not your typical power point and Q&A. Our fireside chats are about getting to hear someone’s story, learning about how they think and create, and sharing ideas in an intimate setting. Cosponsored by Somerville Local First and The Somerville Beat.

RSVP here for tickets for our next event on July 22 with Mimi Graney and MaryCat Chaikin, founders of Relish Management.

Trevor Holmes of Wistia Brings Pokemon and Personality to the Creative Somerville Series

Last week, Trevor Holmes, videographer for video hosting startup Wistia spoke at the Creative Somerville Series and let us in on his quirky sense of humor, his design aesthetic and his path to Wistia and instagram dog stardom.

Trevor started with this amazing video he put together as his introduction to Wistia, which gave us a sense of his story in the well-styled, off-beat and incredibly personable style that I’ve come to know him for.

I hope you were as as charmed as we all were.

That video is so well done that I could just leave it at that, but I’ll go on and share a little more of the Trevor Holmes magic.

Keep Learning

Trevor took us back to Pennsylvania where he started out, in community college where he first started tinkering with radio and TV production, and then on to Lehigh University where he zeroed in on design arts–specifically on web and graphic design. After graduating he freelanced for a time, working on whatever he could get his hands on, and working on his own projects including a line of snarky greeting cards, a collaboration with his now-wife.

Trevor moved on to a few positions after freelancing that placed him in different roles. “Being adaptable and flexible where the world takes you in every day life let me take my skills from college and turn them into a career that was sort of up and coming at the time,” he says. His first position was for a small web and graphics firm, the second was for a Foodler-like startup, and the third was for a marketing firm, Digital Feast in which he started to move into video. “What I love about video is that it’s the ultimate visual experience,” he says. Wistia first came onto his radar because Digital Feast started using their service for web video hosting with a clean interface.

Trevor was good enough to show us one of his early video projects, that he did while in school. The assignment was to create something to pair with music, and his piece is a wacky, endearing stop motion romp through rough sketches, with a friend’s band’s music as a soundtrack. When asked what he would say to a younger self in a critique he says, probably, “tone it down.”

But in these early pieces you can absolutely see a thread emerging–Trevor’s quirky, slightly bouncy and off-beat sense of humor which comes through in his work. His ‘cover letter’ to Wistia was a Pokémon-themed video  in which the Trevor ‘avatar’ visits the office (“Mr. Wistia” greets “Trevor” with wonderfully 1990’s pixelated cheer.) Yet underlying this sense of fun is also a continually moving process of exploration and learning. Trevor referenced the ‘taste gap’ that Ira Glass talks about–the gap between what you can produce and your taste when you’re first starting out. His advice is essentially the same as Glass’s: “Just keep creating. Go into it full steam.”

Keep it Simple

A theme that runs through Trevor’s approach to work is to keep it simple. When asked how to create great video without a large production budget he advised the crowd that with basic supplies, purchased from home depot for under $100, a white wall (and preferably some natural light) they could make beautiful video. But what about actors? His advice: “I’m not an actor and my coworkers are not actors but you’ll see us in every one of our videos.”

Part of Trevor’s job now is to enable Wistia’s customers to create their own great video, and video that engages customers. To that end, he creates resources, including one on how to create that $100 setup–what he calls the “Down and Dirty Lighting Kit.”

Trevor’s approach is to spend much more time on the front end–really understanding what the purpose and idea is before a camera is ever involved. Then, he says, we can “shoot it in a matter of hours, edit it in a day” and have a rough draft.

Keep Playing

We got to spend a little time at the end talking about Rigby, Trevor’s dog, also known as “Motivational Dog.” Trevor, (using his $100 lighting setup of course) posts photos of Rigby that are beautifully styled and often themed (Rigby recently celebrated Easter, for example by wearing bunny ears–among other things.) Trevor started this project because he wanted more quality time with his dog, and he thinks no matter how much you love your job “it’s important to have your work and your personal work.”

His parting advice to the crowd connected this sense of personal playfulness to his approach to continued learning: “I still am not an expert. I’m still a learner,” he says. “Do what makes you happy even if it’s taking pictures of your dog. Do what you love to do, even if that’s not at your current job.”

photo credit: Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat.

Hitting Fifty! Looking Back at Five Months of Blogging

When I began blogging in November I didn’t know what the process would have in store for me. I didn’t set out to start a website and build my ‘tribe’ and I didn’t even know how long I would be doing it for.

I only wanted a place to think ‘out loud’ and sort through everything I was learning.

But consistency has paid off and it’s played a strong but background role in helping me shape my interests and ideas into action.

Blogging has helped me give shape to ideas that were ambiguous and tighten nascent connections among my endeavors.

I wanted to take a moment of celebration for ‘hitting fifty’ by calling out five of the things that have shifted for me since I began blogging that I am really excited about.

#5: I Founded the Creative Somerville Series.


This speaker series, which I run with Elyse Andrews of the Somerville Beat features local creatives and entrepreneurs in an intimate Q&A format, that eschews the ‘fabulous life of…’ approach that a lot of lectures end up at. Although the series is young, we’ve been sold out for every event we’ve hosted, and it’s clear the series is resonating with people.

I’ve loved being inspired by our speakers, the founders of Aeronaut Brewing, Kate Balug of Department of Play, Erin Heath and Rose Mattos of Forêt Design Studio and Trevor Holmes of Wistia. I’m also meeting wonderful people (see item #1) and love working with Elyse and our slowly growing crew of volunteers. Want to join in? Check out our schedule here.

#4 The Build Yourself+ Workshop is Taking Off.

Build Yourself Workshop_Old Girls Club

I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop, an empowerment workshop for women at the Boston Society of Architects for the first time this spring and it was absolutely fantastic. Evals that came back from the workshop are showing that the experience was life changing for many women.

I’ve always had plans for taking the workshop to the next level but a wonderful piece in Fast Company from a few weeks ago has expanded the workshop’s visibility and the workshop’s focus and challenge-based model is clearly striking a nerve. I’m looking at expanding the workshop to other cities and to other fields.

Want to join in the conversation? I’m moderating a panel at the BSA bringing together women in different fields this week, and next week I’ll be part of a National Endowment of the Arts webinar on women in social impact design.

#3 Issues of Impact Have Risen to the Top.

I’ve always intended to use my design skills in service of social impact, but blogging has helped me define a more sophisticated approach, language and set of strategies that I specifically use. Months ago, when I first started blogging I wrote this epic post (it was a manifesto of sorts) on how I thought landscape architecture could drive health outcomes.

That impact focus, driven in part by learning about lean startup concepts, has become a core part of everything I do, whether it’s the challenge-based model of the Build Yourself+ Workshop, or the strategy behind work I’ve been doing for clients. I’m currently taking an Acumen fund class on “Lean Impact Assessment” with my research partner Gilad Meron, and Katie Crepeau of the Impact Design Hub and am excited about how the class and our conversations. I’m excited to continue expanding my take on impact-focused work, and to investigate some instincts I have about how impact assessment can be more creatively driven.

#2 My Research on Social Impact Design Business Models was Funded by the NEA.

Social Impact Design Research Funding

Ok so it’s not really fair to include this one as a blogging-related outcome, since we laid the groundwork way back in the fall when our research group, Proactive Practices applied for the funding.

PrintBut this was my first self-initiated project in the realm I work in: The intersection of design, entrepreneurship and social impact. I can say that I have used this blog as a platform to explore that intersection and draw out key connections and insight and direction. The blog has also demystified writing for me, and made ma a more confident, easy and fast writer, which I know will come in handy as we move forward with this project.

#1 I Have a Crew I Love Here in the Boston Area.


Most importantly, blogging has been a behind-the-scenes organizing force for me to learn, meet new people and get deeper into the city I’ve lived in for almost five years. Blogging gave me a place for reflection, a way of pacing out life, a week at a time, and a way to ‘file away’ thoughts as I met people. I’ve met fantastic folks in the area, and through events like the Design for Equity conference this fall, the Creative Somerville Series and the Boston Society of Architects.

Do you ever get that feeling that you’re surrounded by great people who you respect and admire, and they’re really digging each other? I am starting to feel that way in the place that I live and that’s a huge blessing.

I’m not going to conclude this post with a “and here’s to another fifty!” I’m going to conclude with a feeling of gratitude that slow steady progress can spiral into so much more. Here’s to so much more.

photo credits: featured image adapted from flickr user Elaine. Creative Somerville Series photo by Ben Holmes of Aeronaut. Build Yourself+ Workshop photo adapted from Nina Chase.

Running a Pop Up: How I Design Meals (and Everything)

When people find out I cofounded a pop up dinner club, (and run an empowerment workshop and run a research collaborative)  they sometimes struggle to make it all fit together. So you’re a designer but you do all this other stuff? How’s that all work?

I don’t just design things, or spaces, I design experiences. When I design a landscape, or a book or even a meal, I’m thinking about the kind of experience I want people to have, and then filtering that impact down to all the touchpoints I can control. In landscape design, that’s the signage, the circulation, and how it sets up assumptions for how you’ll interact with others, the topography, the site furnishings, how you move through the space and the viewpoints I set up.

In meal design, there are also touchpoints, both physical and non-physical. There’s the way you enter the space, the signage, the lighting, the way people are seated (do we sit them with people they know? Are their groupings?) and what’s on (or not on) the table when you arrive. There’s the way we give or hold back information (menu information, what’s a surprise, and what’s not?) There’s even room to play in how we serve you and how you serve yourself, and how the meal sets you up to interact with others (Can you pass the…?) And I’m not even designing the food.

I just came across this UK-based pop up that is a collaboration between a set designer and a chef and I thought, yes, this is exactly what my chef partner and I have been doing.

Here’s some eye candy to enjoy below drawn from a recent camping-themed pop up they held on the theme of ‘camping.’ They give a sense of just how much the little details add and how central experience design is to creating a memorable meal.

Photos of The Art of Dining Gone Camping pop up linked from the websites above:

featured image photo credit: Rochelle Li

Mood-Enhancing Videos

I am known to be an earnest person.….And sometimes, maybe a little bit too much of a serious, almost literal person. I very easily slip into “Super-serious Mia.”

But it turns out, “Non-super-serious Mia” is just as smart as her serious twin and she’s way more fun to be around. And maybe even, a little bit more creative too.

So what do I do when I need to flip out of serious me zone? Do fun weird things (like fill water guns with margaritas and bring them to parties) and of course, listen to the right music.

Here are three music videos that I love with a passion. They are insane and colorful and hilarious in that really wacky sort of way that I like best.

Move Your Feet-Junior Senior

Great workout song, so can’t beat that. I just love that insane squirrel that wants to blow everything up at the end. I could watch him blow up the dolphins and the tops off of ice cream cones forever.

Sophisticated Side Ponytail-Brite Futures (formerly Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head)

Gabe Fine introduced me to this group and for that I will forever be grateful. They made all their music when they were in high school. The exploding glitter cat at minute 1:30 is my favorite. It occurs to me, as I write this that I may have a thing for explosions.

Dance Thief- Con Bro Chill

These folks are a former boss’s cousins and their friends. Just love the neon. How can you not? This song is also eminently danceable. I highly recommend their other videos as well. Especially the one in which they wear color-coordinated neon leisure shorts suits.

What strange loves spur your creativity?

The Story Behind the Build Yourself+ Workshop

Tonight I kicked off Build Yourself+ the empowerment workshop I founded for women in design at the Boston Society of Architects.

The workshop is one of those things I created that I didn’t really sit down to plan–I just knew one day it was something I needed to bring into the world.

It’s funny though, now that I’ve been practicing as a designer and researcher/activist for years, I don’t really believe in the idea of design as a ‘flash of inspiration.’ I think that when we look back, a lot of ideas and breakthroughs that seem like they came all at once were actually in the works for weeks, months even years. I like to think of them as individual beads. We’ve collected them but they are waiting for a project. In a moment, in a flash of insight, we suddenly string them together into a strand, and they acquire a new meaning, but that meaning could only be created because we’d patiently gathered what we needed to make it.

So here’s the true story. I’ve been a feminist for as long as I can remember. Maybe it runs in the family–my mom is a sassy, empowered social worker single mom. Apple, tree, whatever. I was arguing about patriarchy in religious classes at 12, and in high school, struggling with the lack of female role models in my youth group, I decided I would do an independent study with the school nurse on gender. (Way to narrow it down, Mia.) And yeah….I read The Feminine Mystique for fun. And then tried to set up a discussion group on it.

Early Threads

In my first year college, I took “FemSex,” an extra-curricular workshop that had been imported to Brown University by a UC Berkeley grad. FemSex, short for ‘The Female Sexuality Workshop’ was intense: Our work for the semester was framed as ‘me-search, not research’ and assignments included a a speculum self-exam, and writing an erotic fantasy. But the most intense classes of the workshop were actually the body image unit, in which every student made a collage that expressed how it felt to be in her body, and the night that we talked about moments our boundaries had been crossed.

founding the build yourself workshop-03I was asked to facilitate the workshop after my class ended, and went on to facilitate the workshop for a few semesters. In FemSex I saw people both pushed and encouraged (and often it was a little of both) to look at really tough, internal issues. I saw them do it on their own but in the context of a group of women (and a few men) who were on the same journey. I saw them struggle–and I believe sometimes we need to struggle to growbut they didn’t struggle alone.

Fast forward. I was about to start grad school, and somehow picked up the book Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever on women and negotiation (we initiate it less and ask for less when we do it.) It spoke to me and of course I gobbled up the authors’ next book, Ask for It in which they cover practical skills to up our negotiating chops.

In Ask for It, the authors include what they call a “negotiation gym,” a multi-week series of exercises that slowly ramp up your negotiating skills. You start off by asking for things you don’t really want, or by getting comfortable hearing ‘no’ by asking for ridiculous things you’ll never get, and move on to negotiations in which you have more stake in the game.

I loved this book. Why? Because I am a doer, and the researchers turned their insight and data into something I could actually do about it.

A Feminist Cheerleader

Grad school didn’t leave a lot of time for activism (it’s hard to do anything when a 12-hour day is on the relaxing end of the spectrum) but over time I became a bit of an unofficial empowerment coach for people in my class. I offered to coach classmates whose work I thought was stunning, but who were always flustered when speaking, and undersold their projects before their reviews. I just  wanted their presentations to give their work the credit I thought it deserved.

I found myself in my last year, at a winter break get together with a lot of the women in my class. We started talking about the year ahead, and a number of women, whose work I envied, talked yearningly of firms they would love to work at–firms they were convinced would never hire them.

My hackles went up: “Don’t reject yourself before Kathryn Gustafson’s office has a chance to reject you….or accept you!” I exclaimed, exasperated. And then I issued a challenge: I told my classmates that they were going to write cover letters to their reaches within the next few weeks, and show them to me. “And if you don’t do it, I will be very disappointed in you,” I told them.

founding the build yourself workshop-02I thought of myself as the ‘tough love cheerleader,’ but I guess sometimes even cheerleaders mope in the locker room.

My moment came later in the semester. I was working on an application for a prestigious fellowship. My idea came together at the last minute, and I wrote the majority of it the night before. It was a horrendous process, because not only was I low on sleep, but as I wrote every paragraph, I was convinced my ideas were terrible, underdeveloped and the selection committee would just know how bad it was and how underprepared I’d been. I came into school that day ostensibly to print my materials, but really looking for someone to let me off the hook for applying.

I spoke to the wrong person. Caroline James, one of my studiomates looked at me when I oh-so-casually mentioned just not submitting after all and exclaimed, “Have you ever read Lean In?” You’ve got to do it.” Maybe you’ll get it, maybe you wont, but you’ll never know if you don’t, and maybe it will even open other doors for you.

It was a call to action, but I was also secretly ashamed. Here I was, telling talented people, mired in self-doubt to go for it, and I was looking for an excuse to give into that same self-doubt myself.

I rallied, and edited, produced and printed like a maniac, and came back after the rush, to thank Caroline for the kick in the pants I had needed. It was then that Caroline suggested restarting the then-dormant student group Women in Design which went on (under Caroline and Arielle Assouline-Lichten’s leadership) to launch the famous Pritzker Prize petition to retroactively grant Denise Scott Brown recognition under her partner Robert Venturi’s 1990 prize.

I published an op-ed in The Christian Science Monitor on my experience as an accidental catalyst of the larger campaign, and as a personal encapsulation of the larger issues at hand. I laid out some nascent ideas about the importance of personal transformation linked deeply to larger campaigns for public change.

Later that spring, I attended a Women in Design meeting in which everyone introduced themselves and their goals for the group and saw that my interest in transformation on the individual level wasn’t resonating in the formal context of the meeting. Most people wanted to talk about campaigns and publications.

Bringing it Together

And suddenly, some time that spring or summer, the idea came to me. It would be a workshop in which women took concepts from the literature on women in the workplace and turned them into actionable steps they could take. The group would be that ‘tough love cheerleader.’ We would struggle, because personal change and confronting our inner resistance is really hard–but we would struggle together.

And because I was trying to take my own lessons seriously, and I was trying to up my tolerance for risk taking and asking I decided I would turn it into a workshop and pitch it to the dean of students.

I taught the Build Yourself+ Workshop at Harvard for a year. It wasn’t the optimal setup: It was funded through the dean’s office, and thematically filed under ‘student mental health’ and while students have so many opportunities to ‘lean in,’ they are not the same set of consistent opportunities that someone in practice has. But despite the challenges, the workshop flourished. A vague idea about challenges-based learning turned into a robust educational structure, and my homegrown interest in empowerment skills turned into a well-researched curriculum.

I also just loved teaching the workshop.  I often entered the workshop with a million things on my mind–I was balancing design practice, research and freelancing, and I would leave with my heart singing, feeling honored to be a part of a transformation in womens’ lives.

After a year of teaching at the Harvard Design School, tonight I started teaching it at the Boston Society of Architects. We have a full and diverse class–architects from multiple firms and landscape architects and planners. I couldn’t wait to meet the women in the workshop, to teach them and learn from them. To see them push themselves and each other…..and support themselves and each other.

And while the workshop format appeared to me in that flash a few years ago, the workshop continues to grow, integrating new concepts and flexing according to the needs of the women who are currently in it. I continue to live it out not just in the classroom but personally–I have had moments where I literally “sat at a table” because I heard Sheryl Sandberg’s voice in my head (it was an important table to sit at and it changed my life) or made career decisions based on Brené Brown’s advice to “show up and be seen.”

I also continue to dole out challenges–and you know that we’ve gotten to be close when I hand you a personal challenge and tell you I want to hear back from you on it in a few weeks (and tell you to give me one as well.)

founding the build yourself workshop-01I also have finally come to recognize that my design work, my educational work and my personal growth are in many ways the same thing. That sense of challenge, that optimistic belief in the possibility of change, the idea that massive change moments and breakthroughs are actually just the very visible tail end of a slow and sometimes silent process of collecting the pieces–those are central to my creative process and how I live in the world.

With joy, excitement, and a sense of possibility, I look forward to to the rest of this workshop.