WHAT ROLE DOES DESIGN HAVE IN A CRISIS?
I got chatting to Shareen at an event in October and the words ‘Office of Displaced Designers’ lingered in my mind for the following weeks - I kept ruminating on the question ‘What role does Design play in a crisis?’ Designers have plenty of empathy and though crucial to any design project empathy alone isn’t valuable. So can we use our skills to benefit people in such a transient environment? will it be welcome or do people want something more tangible?
Over coffee in January Shareen told me more, intrigued, I joined her on a flight to Greece the following week to an area at the heart of the European refugee crisis and see first hand what ODD are doing there.
The week I visited Hannah Robinson was running a documentary course on the topic of resilience, self esteem and vulnerability.
Let’s hear from Shareen…
What is ODD?
ODD is an architecture and design charity that primarily facilitates skills sharing. We are based in Mytilene on Lesvos where we run a studio that is open to both the displaced and local communities.
We host workshops, classes and events and take a broad view of ‘design’ in order to support different and changing needs and interests. All projects, regardless of discipline, are related to or impact the built environment, protection issues, social cohesion or cultural understanding.
Where did the idea come from?
I had been a long-term volunteer with an NGO, Humanitarian Support Agency (HSA), based at Kara Tepe camp on Lesvos and was helping them establish and test some non-formal education programs. As part of that work myself and ODD co-founder, Kimberly Pelkofsky, offered to run a participatory needs assessment (we both have a background in architecture and community led design). Through that research we met lots of people with different creative backgrounds: landscape architect, graphic designer, jewelry maker. The thing that really united them all was that they missed their work, were bored and lacked the opportunities to devise their own programs. That was around Easter last year and in August we ran a short pilot project that helped shape ODD into its current form.
What is the big ambition?
Right now the ambition is to simply scale up what we are doing to make better use of the space and offer a greater variety of skills based workshops and classes that we know people are interested in. We’re also working hard to build our relationship with the local community.
Longer term, we’d love to be in a position where we can function a little more commercially and provide paid work opportunities for the amazing creative minds we have in our network.
Which skills or resources do you need to make the next step to achieving that ambition?
We are lucky to have access to a lot of human talent but we are really lacking the technology we need to facilitate many of the workshops and classes that we would like to offer. We’ve received some generous donations of old laptops but they’re not up to spec for our design software needs so this is something we are trying to address.
We’re also trying to give more time and thought to communicating what we do with the right people. Fundraising is always tricky for small organisations like ourselves who seldom have the right skills or time necessary to be successful at it.
Can you tell me about a moment where you thought ‘Yes, it’s working!’?
During the pilot project we were introduced to Juit, a talented carpenter from Morocco who was going to take the lead on making some furniture for a small office space that HSA were going to allow us to use at Kara Tepe. One day, Juit was at one of the kiosks outside the camp and was approached by a guy called Siraj, who lived more or less opposite from him. Siraj is an executive administrator from Eritrea with an admirable work ethic. He had seen Juit working on something and was curious to know more. A few days later, Siraj was a carpenter’s apprentice. Juit showed him the skills of the trade and Siraj kept him working to time- skills sharing at it’s best!
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My conclusion? I saw real benefit from people having the space to work in a professional environment, tell their own story to an audience at a time when they don’t feel heard and nurture confidence in those that were learning something new for the first time. In particular it was fabulous to see the younger women Aya and Seyran (both 18) grow in confidence and Fridoon a journalist from Afghanistan re-ignite his relationship with film.
There are naturally challenges running courses when people can be moved on with short notice but I did see real value in the short week I was there. What’s more I found it interesting, demanding and great fun.
If you have a skill that you think you’d like to share or would like to support ODD with money or materials I know Shareen and Kimberly would love to hear from you.