By Lauren Wilson
“There is something to be said for the value of having built something, seeing the product of one’s labors in use, putting in hard work and long hours and reaping the benefits.” —Ananda Ewing-Boyd, 17, Design Apprenticeship Program and Teen Council participant since 2012
The Design Apprenticeship Program began as an opportunity for Washington, D.C. teens to discover, design, and connect with peers and professionals. Originally called “DAP Squad,” the program began in 2000 as a series of afternoon workshops during spring break. The first design project, a waste receptacle made from discarded traffic signs, is still used in the Museum today. Since then, over 600 teens have participated in the Design Apprenticeship Program, working on projects that benefit both the Museum and its community partners.
Inspired by a design-build program for teens at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, then Museum staffer Mike Hill and his colleagues sought to create a similar program in Washington D.C. Hill complemented the program with CityVision and Investigating Where We Live programs—an experience that would introduce teens to the rewarding challenges of building something—in his words, “working collaboratively with a team, limited by the constraints of materials, tools, and a budget.” As Hill saw it, the value of the program was bringing the students together, and focusing on “giving them something to talk about while keeping it a meritocracy through delegation of skills and responsibilities.”
The first session of the Design Apprenticeship Program taught foundation in design and construction for new students, followed by a second session for returning students interested in expanding their skills. In recent years, the participants’ design challenges have yielded seating solutions for the Museum, puppet theaters for a Head Start program, storage and workspace structures for the fire-damaged Takoma Education Campus, custom furniture for families in transitional housing, small and free libraries, and community gardens. In addition, participants designed a suite of interventions for the Petworth Community Market, including signage, seating, and interactive elements.
Alexis Robinson participated in five Design Apprenticeship Program sessions throughout her high school years. After graduating and pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in environmental science, Robinson returned to the Museum as an instructor and assistant. “Design gives people an outlet for creativity,” says Robinson, “and a way to share how they see different parts of their environment.” Robinson found the relationships she formed in the program had an enormous impact, adding “you are meeting people with the same general interests as you, but they come from different backgrounds and are going different places. You are given a chance to share your experiences with each other and that might change your or their direction.”
Taylor Hicks, a program alumnus, also values design’s ability to unite diverse people to solve problems. “The information that can be gathered from a simple or complicated design creates conversation among people,” Hicks said, “which brings people together and opens up a platform for learning.” An aspiring illustrator and artist studying medical illustration, Hicks credits her experiences with peers and adults in the Design Apprenticeship Program with guiding her on a path to her current college major.
Whether a participant goes to pursue studies in community planning or illustration, there is plenty for them to take away from their experiences in the Design Apprenticeship Program beyond the technical skills. “Kids learn to think in three dimensions. If you become a designer or not, you are becoming a good citizen because you learned skills you didn’t have, you worked as a team, and worked with adults who were teaching you,” says Hill.
Many of the program’s participants feel the element of collaboration is key. Personal connections with peers and adults stood out as a highlight for Oluwafemi (Femi) Morrisey, another alumnus of the Design Apprenticeship Program and other Museum’s Teen Programs. Starting in the CityVision program when he was eleven, Femi continued to participate even after graduating high school in 2008. He has interned, volunteered, and even staffed Investigating Where We Live, the Teen Council, and the Design Apprenticeship Program, attributing these collected experiences with helping him find his voice and confidence:
“In the Design Apprenticeship Program it’s more about your personality that plays a larger role than, say, how good you are at math or drawing. I learned how to adapt to different people and their personalities, and how to find common interests. The adults were just like cooler versions of us. We didn’t feel stressed out around them, we weren’t afraid to ask questions. They made it a safe environment to do trial and error and let us make our own mistakes. I learned how to take risks there, and it’s impacted the rest of my life. I learned how to put myself out there and share ideas as a teenager, which has made it easier to do so as an adult.”—Oluwafemi (Femi) Morrisey
Morrisey is working toward completing his bachelors of science in human development and hopes to work with educational and outreach programs as a diversity specialist.
Joshua Krauss, a Design Apprenticeship Program participant and one the Teen Council co-chairs, also felt the program was instrumental in helping him find his voice and learn to take risks. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, Krauss found social relationships with his schoolmates challenging. When he enrolled in the program he was home schooled, feared kids his age, and being bullied. “Being able to meet my fellow peers and adults, [the Design Apprenticeship Program] greatly removed a big portion of stress in my life,” says Krauss. “Not only did I develop social skills, I met peers my age that didn’t mind that I was unique. I enjoy that I get to see a wide range of personalities and kids from other schools that bring different ideas and experiences.
Finding common ground and making connections with different people from oneself through design also resonates with Ananda Ewing-Boyd. Ewing-Boyd was a senior in high school and also a co-chair for the National Building Museum’s Teen Council. In 2012, she and her team designed and built custom furniture for a family in transitional housing through a partnership with the Transitional Housing Corporation. Ewing-Boyd enjoyed “channeling the creative energy she found latent within architecture and within young minds, and putting that towards a public service.” She also appreciated the value of having built something and then “seeing the product of one’s labors in use, putting in hard work and long hours and reaping the benefits.” In the future, Ewing-Boyd hopes to work as a pediatric psychiatrist on the Oglala Lakota reservation Pine Ridge in South Dakota and pass on design-build skills to local students.
While the essence of the Design Apprenticeship Program remains the same every year, its curriculum has evolved through several iterations in order to continue having an impact on the teens. Asked to consider future adaptations, alum Femi Morrisey imagined the program growing beyond Saturdays and becoming a true, ongoing haven of design and creativity for youth: “There would still be a main project that people are working on, but returning students who have developed more advanced skills would feel comfortable coming in and working on their own design projects,” he says, “the space would be like a design haven for students to be creative whenever they wanted.”