ASU Design and Arts Corps trains designers, artists to work with communities

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Schools. Hospitals. Laboratories. Designers and artists do as much work outside their studios and practice rooms as they do inside these spaces.

Courtney Davis, an interior architecture graduate student, spent the bulk of her spring semester in Phoenix’s Sunnyslope community working with Chrysalis, a nonprofit that supports survivors of domestic abuse.

“I’m working with them to redesign a transitional housing casita for families who have moved through the emergency shelter but need housing while seeking education and job training,” Davis said. “I love knowing this design will support these strong mamas and resilient kids.”

Her project is one of several that place designers and artists in public life as part of Design and Arts Corps, one of the Herberger Institute’s signature initiatives, which empowers students to use their creative capacities to advance culture, strengthen democracy and address today’s most pressing challenges.

Leveraging creative skills

Design and Arts Corps addresses a unique 21st-century challenge for colleges: About 85 percent of design and arts graduates worked outside of the arts at some point in their careers, according to a survey of more than 80,000 design and arts alumni by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project. Most schools do not train design and art students to leverage their creative skills to serve in nontraditional settings like health care, youth development and civic institutions. Herberger Institute does.

“This initiative fundamentally shifts design and arts education to ensure that every student gets a chance to work with a community partner and to deeply understand how they can equitably use their creative talents and imaginations to improve their communities,” said Stephani Etheridge Woodson, theatre professor and director of Design and Arts Corps.

For example, the digital storytelling program iCreate partners Design and Arts Corps students with Phoenix Children’s Hospital. The resident artists work with young patients to create playful explorations of the children’s most creative selves. Last year, two graduate students from the ASU School of Music visited labs with ASU neuroscientists studying Alzheimer’s disease and created original compositions communicating the research they observed and the struggles affecting Alzheimer’s patients, caregivers and the scientists. This spring, film students partnered with local nonprofit organizations to create PSAs.

For her project, Davis said she is thrilled to leverage the design principles she’s learned.

“What I get really excited about as a designer is using principles of trauma-informed care and biophilia to create spaces that are not only functional, but actually contribute to healing and transformation,” she said. “Beauty is care, and design makes a powerful contribution to healing.”

Working together

One of the primary goals of Design and Arts Corps is making sure students are trained to be ethical partners.

“In a traditional process, a designer like myself might come in and play the expert,” Davis said. “In this project, I am working closely with the organization, as well as getting input from the residents about what the spaces need.”

Herberger Institute alum Julie Akerly, who serves as the arts engagement specialist for the city of Tempe, said it’s important for artists to learn how to work with communities, especially as the arts play a larger role in supporting the equity and inclusion of communities.

“As someone who works in arts engagement, we are often interested in hiring artists to do community-based work and to work with communities in Tempe, but it is hard to know who has the skills to address communities in a way that will not be harmful,” she said.

Design and Arts Corps received funding from the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics to build the ethics component of the initiative, along with help from a community advisory council. Current plans include a certification that Design and Arts Corps students will complete before they go out into the communities.

Changing the world

“Artists and designers have a way of asking questions, expanding our imagination and exploring opportunities,” Herberger Institute Dean Steven J. Tepper has said. “Their ideas and methods provide a powerful lens to address critical issues facing our communities.”

Through Design and Arts Corps, students are able to do just that.

“I was drawn to Design and Arts Corps because I feel passionate that everyone is deserving of beautiful, functional spaces, regardless of their race, religion, gender or economic status,” Davis said. “This was the perfect opportunity to create a space that has a positive and very concrete impact on the life of a family.”

And when Davis leaves ASU, she will take the necessary skills and knowledge to continue this work and make an impact with her into the wider world. She’ll be one of many.

“Once we’re fully rolled out,” Etheridge Woodson said, “we will probably have 1,600 students per academic year working in partnership with community.”

The goal is for every Herberger Institute to participate in Design and Arts Corps at least once during their time at ASU. Tepper certainly has that in mind when he says: “The nation is asking us how can we lead — how can we show the way forward so that every artist and designer who graduates in America recognizes they have the tools, the capacity, the imagination, the competencies to work anywhere, in any place, with any partner, to engage, to advance ideas, to solve problems, to build communities, to create a more equitable world. That is what our mandate is.”