Empowering Young People to Design a Better Future: A Conversation with Maya Bird-Murphy
Q&A 07 January 2021
By Maya Bird-Murphy
It’s really powerful and transformational for a student to walk by a space every day on their way to school that they played a role in transforming.
Architectural Designer, Educator, and Maker
We discovered Maya Bird-Murphy’s story in a September 2020 Dwell Magazine feature and were eager to learn more about Chicago Mobile Makers, an organization she founded that is focused on making design thinking more accessible to Black and Brown youth and on unlocking those young people’s potential to impact their built environment.
Q. When did you know you wanted to be an architect?
Maya: I wasn’t the type of person who knew they wanted to be an architect at age five. I didn’t decide until right before choosing a college to attend. Up until that moment, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but my experiences had some influence on that decision.
I grew up in Oak Park, IL where everything is about Frank Lloyd Wright, so I was exposed to architecture very early in my life. We also lived close to downtown Chicago, and I could hop on the train to see skyscrapers and other structures.
Also, I was diagnosed with ADHD as a child and had an incredible amount of energy. Because of that, my parents signed me up for everything. I had the privilege of having access to a lot of inexpensive activities through the local park district.
I explored music, sports, art, and other creative disciplines in an environment surrounded by prominent architecture. I am well aware that if I didn’t have access to those activities, or if I grew up in South or West Side, Chicago, or any other area where there’s widespread disinvestment, there’s no way I would’ve pursued architecture. Because even if I had known it was a possibility, it would make more sense to follow a path that allowed me to get a paycheck right away.
But, for me, at some point, all these experiences and opportunities meshed in my brain and drove me toward a design-oriented career. After participating in a two-week architecture camp during my junior year in high school, I thought: “Oh, I could do this as a career.” That started the path I’m on today.
Q. What then led you to founding Chicago Mobile Makers?
Maya: Looking back now, I can see that throughout my entire life, I was gathering various puzzle pieces from all of my experiences that would lead me to founding Chicago Mobile Makers—an organization focused on making design thinking more accessible to Black and Brown youth and on unlocking those young people’s potential to impact their built environment.
In particular, going to college for architecture and entering the professional world, my passion for the work remained strong, but I was continually struck by the lack of racial diversity every step of the way. It was disorienting that I was consistently only one of a handful of people of color in my architectural classrooms and professional spaces.
But, I didn’t really begin to investigate or reflect on all of my experiences until I started writing my Masters’ thesis, which focused on exploring “built injustice” in America’s built environment, which refers to the man-made physical aspects of our environment, including buildings, roads, green spaces, and other infrastructure.
As soon as I moved out of Oak Park to attend Ball State in Muncie, Indiana, I saw there were so many places in the world where the built environment had deep structural issues, where segregation and injustice were purposely embedded in the foundation.
I decided I wanted to use what I uncovered in my thesis to do something about it and began collaborating with my thesis professor who had started several businesses, including an architecture firm. He was the first one to acknowledge that, “My idea could be a thing.” And, in the Summer of 2017, when I should have been relaxing, he was sending me a business plan template and pushing me to keep going.
I wanted to create a space for young people of color that countered what I was experiencing—one of empowerment and respect.
Architectural Designer, Educator, and Maker
In September 2017, I incorporated my venture and named it Chicago Mobile Makers. Graduating that December, I jumped right into the work. Chicago Mobile Makers creates programming that encourages Chicago youth to become advocates and change-makers in their own communities through design-focused skill-building workshops. Our objectives are threefold:
- Engage and empower youth through making and skill-building;
- Train and support future public interest architects, designers, and makers; and
- Advocate for social, economic, gender, and racial diversity in the architecture and broader design fields
All of our work is aimed at enabling youth to really see that the built environment they live in is just that—a built environment that they can have a direct impact on. We hope that by expanding the variety of people entering the field of architecture and design, we can create more diverse workplaces, leading to more equitable decision making and design.
Q. Can you share a bit more about how your lived experience has led you to tackle the lack of racial diversity in the architecture field?
Maya: At Ball State, I was the only African-American, and one of five people of color, in a class of 100 students. Architecture, as a major, has a high burn-out rate, which means if a person of color leaves the program, it’s more noticeable. And, it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to be in classes where you only discuss white architects, art, and designers. I was rarely learning about or seeing anybody who looked like me. When I graduated, I was the only African-American receiving a diploma.
Among the faculty, there was one Black male professor and one Argentinian female professor. I was really drawn to them because they were the only ones elevating the conversations to real world problems.
In fact, they do a really good job in architecture school of not tying things to professional work. We were so focused on conceptual design and so busy trying to get everything done that we didn’t think about the actual profession. We assumed working in the profession was a lot like schooI. I graduated early to escape that intense environment, thinking that I would go back to Chicago and things would be better. But, they weren’t.
I realized that I would be the only black person in the room at most of the firms I worked at. And, because of office culture and politics, I learned that I wouldn’t feel comfortable or even safe in some of those environments. People of color, regardless of profession, often need to ask themselves if they’re being too loud, or talking too much, or wearing the right hairdo and clothes. It feels harder to gain respect and to be listened to when others carry this false perception of who you are or should be.
I wanted to create a space for young people of color that countered what I was experiencing—one of empowerment and respect. And, one that had them discover and explore interest and career paths or ways of thinking they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
Q. Beyond just introducing youth to architecture and design, Chicago Mobile Makers has a broader aim for impact. What difference are you hoping it can make in the world?
Maya: As a nation, we have been in dangerous territory for a long time, regarding our built environment. It’s literally killing us. And, it’s usually Black and Brown people living in low-income areas who suffer the most.
It’s also really important for young people to understand their world is built by people and not randomly designed. They live where they live on purpose and once they have that understanding, we show them they don’t have to accept things as they are.
They have a voice, they have agency, and they have the power to change things in their built environment. This is a long game and not about everybody becoming an architect. It’s about creating an army of young people who are passionate about becoming change-makers in design, architecture, construction, development, or policymaking.
If I could redesign schools, I would require students to take at least one class where design thinking happens because it opens up a whole new avenue of thinking where you learn how to problem solve while working with your hands.
Q. Can you tell us more about how Chicago Mobile Makers works?
Maya: We do design thinking and problem solving workshops for youth, ages eight to 18. Before the pandemic, we were going into schools and taking over the entire period in history, art, or math classes—because design thinking is applicable to multiple disciplines. The focus was on accessibility and not making students change their schedules.
We also made the work relevant to local issues. For example, we did a project at Carl Schurz High School in Chicago that asked students to propose changes to a problematic intersection that many of them intimately knew.
The next phase in our growth was converting a retired USPS mail truck into a mobile design studio, which we completed in June of 2020. The original plan was to do an unveiling party, but of course, we’re in the middle of a pandemic.
Instead, we pivoted to rolling out pop-ups all around the city of Chicago where we parked, set up an activity outside, and passed out design challenge kits that kids could safely do at home. We also introduced virtual workshops this past fall.
Q. What’s an unexpected discovery you’ve made while doing these workshops?
Maya: Before this, I had no experience in the education space beyond being a student myself. I did well in school across all of my subjects, but I had to learn how to do instruction. I’ve realized during these high school workshops how much fun it is to teach architecture and design-related classes.
We’re arriving in these classes, and the kids don’t fully understand what they’re there for. They’re just excited to be doing something different. And, without our program, they would never have a chance to do this unless they pursued an architecture design program.
It’s really amazing to see that any student, regardless of their interests, can be excited and engaged by design thinking.
Q: How are you looking to expand your programming even further?
Maya: We plan to start doing more Design Build projects, giving kids the opportunity to design and build small-scale projects with their own hands, such as creating a community garden or transforming an empty lot.
They’re not only learning about and solving real world issues in their own neighborhood; they are also doing something with their own hands that changes the narrative. It’s really powerful and transformational for a student to walk by a space every day on their way to school that they played a role in transforming.
Q. What is one of your most memorable moments working with young people?
Maya: You can’t always tell if you’re reaching kids and the most amazing thing to witness is seeing a student open up.
There is one example that comes to mind from a pretty intense summer design camp at Marwen Arts, which was held for three hours a day over two weeks. I remember a student who was really engaged in her work, but it was hard to get her to share. I wasn’t sure if she was excited. When that happens you think, “They’re here, they’re listening and paying attention, but they aren’t getting anything out of it.”
However, during the final presentations, where we invited visitors in, several really shy kids, including this particular student, really opened up once they had the floor to speak. It was surprising but cool to see that happen over and over.
I think that confidence comes from creating a really supportive space where teenagers feel safe to share their ideas, which doesn’t often happen in conventional schools.
This past summer showed me that we need more safe places for young people. They are hurting in so many ways right now. This may be the first time that so many young people, who need a lot of social interaction to maintain their mental health, are spending this much time alone.
This goes beyond the workshops and the great new skills they’re learning. The basic thing they really need is to have access to safe community spaces where they can get out of the house, voice their concerns, and talk about their challenges with peers.
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