The Intentional Design of Community Experience to Drive Culture Change
Words & Media: Jeff Goldenson
Illustrations: Doyung Lee ‘16.5
+ Invite Everyone to the Table
early, often and without agenda
+ Find Room in the Margins
of the curriculum and the academic calendar
+ This is Show Business
not “tell business,” we are designing entertaining
experiences people choose to engage with
More is being spent on changing buildings
colleges than on building new ones.
(Brand, pg. 5)
Colleges are constantly performing maintenance. Large teams of folks manage the buildings, staying atop a never-ending backlog of repairs while fielding crises as they inevitably emerge. But what about culture and community maintenance — true college maintenance? Who takes care of that?
In the Greenhouse saw this opportunity and made it our creative practice. We make the rounds to check in with folks. We call it “gardening.” We try to catch concerns or issues before they bubble-over. We’re a college resource to swiftly respond to the needs of culture and community, opportunities and crises alike. We have the will and access to organize immediate action. In the case of Faux-mencement, across our team we had the relationships to text the Interim Provost; the Registrar; the Facilities Manager; first years on up through fourth years — and expect immediate response.
Convening around an idea or issue is a powerful way to work, but time and again, engaging students, faculty and staff in physical maintenance was our royal road to the cultural and community maintenance we were after. Any inquiry into the minor adaptation of the built spaces of Olin runs right up the flagpole. The inquiring team quickly finds itself in conversation with multiple stakeholders in the college, with real concerns from varying perspectives, seeking compromise. By its very nature, community-performed physical maintenance requires respect and trust across roles, duties, and ages. The act is a demonstration of the values and way of being together we’re after.
And from a resource utilization and management perspective, we’ve found its a robust path to a well used and loved space. How we changed the Library, our process, was far more important than what the changes were. Our goal was to elicit a feeling in our patrons — “I have the permission and resources to do things here.” The adaptations and repairs themselves --the products -- were not what paid the lasting utilization dividends, it’s that our process seeded a culture of community agency and ownership. Our community knew its members changed the Library, and they could too.
- Students appreciate the sense of ownership that comes with maintenance, and become caretakers and stewards of that space.
- In the creative redesign process, a vitality of place emerges
The opposite of adaptation in buildings
colleges is graceless turnover. The usual
pattern is for a rapid succession of tenants,
each scooping out all trace of the former
tenants and leaving nothing that successors
can use. (Brand, pg. 23)
Olin Workshop on the Library
The Olin College Library sits at the front door of the college. Walk into the Milas Hall Atrium today, and to your left is admissions. To your right, a huge student-made sign reads “Library” in reindeer moss. Passing through the glass doors, propped open with student-made hexagonal planters, you’ll find a pair of reclaimed wood tables greeting you with new & noteworthy books. The room is lit by a curved bank of double-height windows lining the western wall. It is perhaps the most beautiful space on campus.
But when I came to Olin as Library Director in 2014, the Library was a ghost town. There was no moss sign, no planters, no student creativity on display. There was neither character nor charisma, it was just another empty controlled college space.
At that time, Aaron Hoover, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, was the faculty lead appointed to chart a new, more energetic future for the library. Aaron was on my hiring committee and fortunately we hit it off immediately. Just a few weeks after arriving, Aaron and I set off on a campaign to invigorate the Library. We called it OWL, Olin Workshop on the Library. Our pitch to the students was simple: Every one of us is at Olin because we believe in project-based learning. Olin has given us the Library is a project, wanna help?
That first semester we began by inviting students to the Library for weekly lunchtime discussions. At the outset, we gathered data. The students created an open-ended form and interviewed peers in the Dining Hall. A strong signal came back: “A Room of Requirement” was requested in multiple independent interviews. I was in the dark, so I had to ask. According to the Harry Potter Lexicon, the Room of Requirement is “a magical room which can only be discovered by someone who is in need.” If you have a need, the room satisfies. What the students wanted was “open space” to shape for themselves.
There was a large room at the back of the lower level of the library with no natural light. This was the “Storage Room,” approximately 700 square feet of space off limits to students. With a little archival guidance from the Library team and disposal guidance from facilities, the OWL students carved out a Room of Requirement within a week or two.
Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going. A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.
Word of the room spread quickly and then-senior Chris Lee ‘15 came by the Library. Chris ran a student organization called Stay Late and Code (SLAC). They wanted to welcome more forms of creativity so SLAC was becoming Stay Late and Create. To kick off the new identity they were hoping for a new venue.
It didn’t take long for the new SLAC to become an anchor of Olin culture — and five years in, it hijacks the whole Library every Wednesday night and shows no sign of fading. Only the Quiet Reading Room is spared. If you’re a Faculty member kicking off a new initiative — head to SLAC. If you’re a student looking to co-work with friends while enjoying a few free snacks and some music — head to SLAC.
Shortly thereafter, the ultimate “requirement” for the room emerged. Students wanted a public space to make a creative mess -- room for screen printing, art-making, materials storage and the like. We retained a contractor, replaced carpet for easy-cleaning vinyl tile; plumbed a slop sink; and the “The Workroom” was born. It turned out, the only requirement for a successful Room of Requirement was a willingness to engage students as people (not folks who fill out forms); give them the benefit of the doubt; and say yes.
There’s also a bit of an inversion of process. When you renovate a space, the expectation is you begin with the program. What will the room do? What we’ve found is there are requirements, or “programs” in architecture-speak, that need time to come out of the woodwork. Beginning with the gift of open space and open program is frequently appreciated by the community. Our best work emerged when we led with opportunity, not idea.
In January 2015, not long after that first SLAC event, Aaron and I hosted the faculty retreat, “Making Space for Making Culture,” on the future of the Library. This was our time to listen and learn from the faculty. As a result of the retreat, four themes came through loud and clear:
- Community — People wanted a crossroads, a place that facilitated more staff, faculty and student interaction.
- Flexibility — We needed to employ Olin’s commitment to prototyping and iteration in our pursuit of the Library. We needed maximum flexibility to try things.
- Agency — There was an energy in the room that day, a chance to try something new at the College. We needed to act fast to keep that agency alive.
- Coffee — The word coffee came up with enormous frequency.
At the time, the first floor of the Library was spacious but inflexible. Strung together in long rows in the center of the space, the bookshelves consumed the main floor. Inspired by the retreat, we wanted to let the community “borrow” the room to host an event, and then reset the space, returning it to a functional library. How might the main floor be its own room of requirement for the faculty and larger college community? We started by putting everything on wheels.
In one afternoon, fueled by the best bagels and cream cheese money could buy , the students mounted swivel casters to the bottom of the bookshelves. It was a safe and scrappy retrofit. If you wanted to put a date on when a new culture of the Olin Library was born, that Friday, February 19th 2015, would be it. The community came together turning The Library into a mixed-use venue.
In the process, we hit on a formula that guided much of our work in the Library:
- Pitch students on making a dramatic change to a public space
- Make it a party , encourage folks to play music, slow down and have fun
- Spend hundreds feeding them memorable food
- Save thousands by retrofitting existing resources with our own hands
- Buy a nice camera (that students can borrow) and document everything
- Check with Facilities beforehand to ensure safety and feasibility
That summer, emboldened by what we saw students could do in one day, we created OWL Summer Design/Build. For eight weeks we set seven students free to create the library the community wanted. We worked hard, played music, ran a book club, swam in Wellesley’s lake, brewed coffee and called it learning.
This is Project Based Learning
When we claim maintaining and adapting the college as project-based learning we foreground the unique “do-learn” opportunities embedded in the practice. Olin’s engineering coursework revolves around teams making things. Organizational change, college change, focuses on teams making things happen. This work requires collaboration across all constituents, engaging the broadest spectrum of folks.
Introducing anything new amidst today’s health & safety concerns, insurance policies, fire codes, shrinking budgets and competing agendas is hard work. It also makes for rich learning.
If a team of students wants to work with staff and leadership to make something happen in college, they need to understand how college works. They’re motivated to look behind the curtain. And there they see the college for what it is: a universe unto itself complete with its own issues and idiosyncrasies, people and politics. This is “do-learn” organizational change. To make any headway takes careful thinking and planning.
- How do we frame x?
- How do we do x with the resources at hand?
- Who should we talk to first?
- How do we satisfy students and administrators simultaneously?
- How might we measure success?
It’s hard to teach this kind tactical thinking, this kind of hustle, inside the curriculum. Walk out of the classroom and into the halls of power and tactical thinking is critical. Making change at Olin is good practice for making change in the world.
So where do you start? Start with a small, easily repeatable demo and provide something people want. You can’t go wrong with coffee. Perhaps you start where we did, with a regularly scheduled pop-up community cafe — free coffee, free conversation. The students named it the ACRONYM.
- Free Coffee & Tea
- Wednesdays, 12:30p-2:30p
- Milas Hall Atrium
- Fresh-brewed pour overs
- Served by student volunteers
The coffee’s delicious and it takes forever - turns out pour-over coffee delivered by novice baristas is a slow, inefficient proposition. And while at first the long lines seemed a bug, they quickly proved a feature. What folks don’t pay in money, they pay in time -- time spent in line chatting, listening, spacing out -- building community.
the ACRONYM (which is not an acronym), checks all the boxes:
- Invite Everyone to the Table
- Everyone gets an email invite, everyone gets a beverage.
- Find Room in the Margins
- The ACRONYM pops-up in the Milas Hall Atrium, the front door of the college right outside the Admissions Office and the Library, temporarily energizing the empty security desk to everyone’s pleasure.
- This is Show Business
- ACRONYM sets the stage with all the details: there’s a chalkboard with specials, a playlist, and matching aprons. And not to leave Olin without free coffee during exam week, Faculty baristas now step up and host “FACRONYM.”
Five years in and fully owned and operated by students, ACRONYM has become a fixture. It’s a weekly, three hour demonstration of the students’ vision of Olin in the heart of the college. And for those three hours once a week, our college is a different place.
This is Social, Work
A college is not a building. A building is a material construction -- masonry, lumber, fixtures, HVAC. A college is a social construction -- policies, programming and agreements established and carried out by people. A college learns as its culture learns.
A fake graduation, a week of repair, a summer co-creating a library, a free cup of coffee -- this is the joyful, social, work of changing college by demonstrating culture.