Teams take collaborative approach to tackling challenges during Design Forge 2021

The two-day hybrid event included teams from 21 universities and community organizations with more than 110 people participating virtually and in-person at the Center for Design Thinking.

Teams from 21 universities and community organizations from across the country and Canada recently gathered in person and online over two days to collaboratively and iteratively work through challenges they are facing during Elon’s Design Forge 2021.

Organized by the Center for Design Thinking at Elon, the fourth-annual event provided the opportunity for teams to find common ground in their projects around placemaking and to develop the skills together to achieve their visions.

“We want you to leave here with the resources, the networks and the relationships that will sustain you,” said Danielle Lake, director of design thinking, as Design Forge kicked off on June 3.

Each year, Design Forge brings together design thinking educators, practitioners and thought leaders to address a topic of interest to higher education. The event is designed to help members of a team learn how to collaborate better as well as to build connections across teams.

This year’s Design Forge brought together more than 110 participants around topics including sustainable design, community changemaking, global-local engagement, cross-course campus collaboration, bridging K-12 and higher education, and participatory action research. Some teams participated fully remotely, some had members who were in person while others connected online and others had all team members in person at the Center for Design Thinking.

Along with drawing teams from outside the Elon area, Design Forge had a substantial contingent of participants from the university and the surrounding community. Participating this year were faculty and staff from the Master’s in Higher Education program, the Periclean Scholars program, the Arts Administration program, the Department of Performing Arts, the School of Education and the Kernodle Center for Civic Life. Participating from the community were the Alamance Health Equity group, the African American Cultural Arts and History Center and the Mayco Bigelow Center.

The event was supported by Elon students, faculty, staff and alumni, including Design Thinking catalysts and interns who served as guides for the teams and as catalysts for each pod of teams. Contributing their support to Design Forge 2021 were Elon faculty members Tracey Thurnes, associate professor of physician assistant studies, and Phillip Motley, associate professor of communication design. All members of the team worked extensively to support the preparation for Design Forge and were integral to making the event a success. “I think this is a great and innovative way to bring people together,” said Olivia James ’21, interaction designer with the Center for Design Thinking, before the event.

Design Forge 2021 kicked off with a keynote by N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Greene, who walked participants through the creative process she created and oversaw for a public art installation exploring the place and history of Nasty Branch in Asheville, N.C.

Assistant Professor of Public Health Studies, right, with N.C. Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green.

A public greenway will be built along Nasty Branch, a stream that runs through a historically Black neighborhood in the mountain city. The area along the stream saw many of its residents displaced by urban renewal, and the stream took on a new name — Town Branch. A successful push to restore the Nasty Branch name when naming the greenway was based upon honoring the heritage and history of the location.

“The people spoke, and the city listened, and it will be ‘Nasty Branch,’” Green said.

Green was tasked with writing a poem about Nasty Branch that would be central to a public art installation along the future greenway, and her approach to the project was developed as she considered how to recognize the cultural of and connections to the area when she had not formal link to Nasty Branch.

“How do we write about a place we’ve never met but to whom we feel an intense connection?” Green said. “As a documentary poet, I wanted to translate how we must acknowledge the land on which we stand and what it means to be keepers of this land.”

Green’s approach was to work with local youth organization who would use a poem Green wrote about the stream and area as inspiration for their own lines of poetry to make up the installation. Green cut up lines and words in her poem and had the young writers pick a piece, read it, and use it to inspire their own lines. Those lines from the young poets were then pieced together to create “Beloved Nasty Branch,” a poem that will be written along the length of the greenway with the words placed along benches and railings and other pieces created by metalworking students at the University of North Carolina at Asheville.

“There was excitement for these young women of color to have ownership of a space, to reclaim a space and to understand the beauty inside the word ‘nasty,’” Green said.

A team collaborating during the zine-making portion of the Design Forge.

Teams were also guided on the first day of the Design Forge by Josina Vink, associate professor of service design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in Norway. Vink walked the teams through creation of their own “zines” — short, self-published magazines of assembled text and images. That creative process was designed to help them explore their own projects by finding words and images that reflect the physical enactments of their projects, the social structures within them, the power dynamics at work and what the creation of change looks like.

“Think about what you want to disrupt and maintain and create in your space,” Vink said.

The sessions by Green and Vink laid the groundwork for the work ahead for the teams and were followed by sessions led by Creative Reaction Lab, a nonprofit organization focused on educating, training and challenging Black and Latinx youth to become leaders designing healthy and racially equitable communities. Teams were also invited to participate in a variety of in-person and virtual breakout sessions on June 4.

New this year was Forge in-between, with Design Forge 2021 participants participating in three follow-up virtual huddles with Lake and Liesl Baum, associate director for strategic initiatives and educational research at Virginia Tech, during the coming academic year. The goal will be to provide ongoing support for the projects the teams tackled during the Forge.

“The hope is that people leave with strategies and tools and ideas and next steps, but also relationships that we want to maintain,” Lake said.