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News Bites: KCAD Students Talk Community Building with Activist Nikki Silvestri

On 15, Mar 2015 | No Comments | In News | By Collaborative Design

Posted March 16, 2015 in News BitesPublicCollaborative DesignIndustrial Design

Nikki Silvestri knows a thing or two about building strong relationships with her fellow human beings. After all, she’s spent the last decade trying to tackle some of the world’s most layered and complex problems – social equity, food scarcity, social services, public health, and climate change, to name a few – and you don’t get very far doing that alone.

The Oakland, CA-based activist was recently in West Michigan as the featured speaker of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council’s (WMEAC) Women and the Environment Symposium, and she took some time beforehand to talk with a group of KCAD students from the Collaborative Design and Industrial Design programs about what it takes to create meaningful social change. As she spoke, she frequently referenced her own experience moving from a graduate student at UCLA to a burgeoning activist to a bonafide social leader involved in both the food systems and environmental movements.

Nikki Silvestri (left) speaks with KCAD students

Silvestri told the students that, in order to become an effective leader she had to let go of her own ego. Through firsthand experience as Executive Director of both People’s Grocery and Green For All, she learned that solutions don’t always work out the way they’re planned to on paper. And when they don’t create the desired impact, the right thing to do is always to connect directly with those who are affected and admit that there’s still work to be done.

Three-quarters of the way through her 2014 talk at TEDxManhattan, Silvestri makes a powerful statement on empathy: “When you’re with struggle, really with struggle, it hurts,” she says. “Privilege is the ability to be with that pain until it gets to be too much and then walk over here and sleep in the nice bed in the nice home with the trees and clean air. Lack of privilege is having to stay here even when it’s too much and then seeing when you crack. When one is allowed to empathize with that and stop trying to fix things all the time, it’s amazing what we can create. When one builds a relationship first, that relationship is the thing that actually breeds the solution.”

These same sentiments were echoed in her conversation with the KCAD students, who are working to become designers capable not just of creating work, but of creating positive and lasting impact with that work. But that desire, Silvestri told them, is not enough on its own. It’s only when we make meaningful connections with those who will be affected by our work that its larger sense of purpose emerges.

Find out more about Nikki Silvestri at

This article was originally posted on

Wege Prize 2014

This first inaugural Wege Prize was won by FusionGRow on March 3rd when the event was held at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts. Organized by the Wege Foundation and Kendall College of Art and Design, the competition’s focus centered around circular economies.

2014 Wege Prize - 3

Jacob Czarniecki (General Business, Grand Valley State University)

Aziza Ahmadi (Public Administration and Sustainability, Grand Valley State University)

Philip Han (Collaborative Design, KCAD)

Yulia Conley (Applied Economics and Urban Planning, Grand Valley State University)

Eric Choike (Industrial Design, KCAD)

Ni Hao Kendall

The office culture at Gensler is active and community driven. There are weekly presentations by various designers, artists, and firms as well as workshops, movies, daily inspirations, parties, and many other events. The entire Gensler office meets on Friday afternoons for news, updates, to introduce new staff, and to socialize. Every other week each studio hosts its own meetings to share news and updates. Having been completely immersed in my internship, I invited people from various parts of the office out to lunch, coffee, or art/design related events. As a student, these are rare opportunity to learn, connect, and pick expert’s brains!
student interns at dinner

Gensler student interns at a farewell dinner

A one-month research program was assigned to all 17 interns this summer. There were two groups, a Commercial Office Building team and a Transit Oriented Development team. I ended up joining a third project titled “Interstitial Spaces: Researching China’s Spaces In-Between,” which was awarded the first Gensler grant in Asia. I worked with another intern named Yuan, who is in the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Michigan. We had two sponsors from the work/flex 2 architecture studio: Shamim Ahmadzadegan, design director, and Lin Jia, designer. After our initial research into history and analysis, we spent a week creating layered maps of four mixed development projects in Shanghai. Halfway through the project we had a project review, and critiques showed that although people agreed with our lack data and analysis, they weren’t convinced on the actual research itself. We needed to communicate the concept of researching interstitial spaces and explore the users of the spaces themselves.

So we set out to interview and document users of the highly successful Xintiandi development where Gensler’s office is located through video interviews, timelapses, and observations. Our last week was spent synthesizing, compiling, and editing all of our research into a final presentation that was given to the entire Shanghai office. The discussions that followed generated excitement and interest among many directors and managers, creating anticipation for the final research presentation in 2014.

student interns presenting

Student interns present to the Shanghai office

Living in Shanghai is much like any other major city: space is limited. Many people live in very close quarters and the average apartments size is 250 sq.ft. (dorm size). I was fortunate enough that my grandfather invited me to stay at his place during my internship. This allowed me to live closer to the city and experience Chinese family culture and the relations between local people on a daily basis. I spent most of my weekdays from sunset to nighttime either at Gensler’s offices or experiencing Shanghai. Commuting is very easy with Shanghai’s amazing subway system and cheap cab fares.

If there is one thing that a foreigner needs to learn about business in China it is the concept of guanxi. Guanxi can be thought of as the system of networks and relationships in business. It’s quite important to be aware of the concept of guanxi, as there are many opportunities and connections to be made by building one’s own guanxi. For certain deals, shaking hands over drinks at a social dinner among a network of partners, family, and friends is often more powerful than inking signatures over a brief coffee.

Botanical garden

Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai

A social issue that caught my eye was the gentrification which sits at the crossroads of ecology, architecture, and social policy. Many areas still face gentrification due to new development, and the government relocates residents or offers a housing unit and/or financial compensation if a residential building is being built nearby. It is a grey area due to many families being given housing during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), so there is no clear ownership or regulations. Some houses are in fact Art Deco, Spanish style, or traditional Chinese architecture that were divided up to house dozens of families. I hope to travel back to Shanghai in the future and see these buildings preserved or at the very least unchanged.

When it comes to food in Shanghai, you can find almost any type of cuisine or produce. To me the best food is street food and the local’s favorites or local’s cooking because it is authentic and culturally immersive. The prices are quite cheap; you can grab breakfast on the go, a set lunch, or late night dumpling soup for a few dollars. Shanghai also has many world-renowned restaurants, bars, clubs, and they even have a few microbreweries. It was memorable to experience Shou Ning Lu road, where you can find hundreds of restaurants selling all kinds of seafood (famous for their crawfish), Chinese barbecue, and even grilled snakes.
outdoor food market

Shou Ning Lu food market in Shanghai

The nightlife in Shanghai is unimaginable on many levels. The city simply does not sleep. There are endless amounts of activities ranging from early night Tai Chi in the park to karaoke sessions that go well into the morning hours. Every weekend I set out to meet as many designers, artists, musicians, DJ’s, and people involved in all kinds of projects as I could. There are countless galleries, studios, and spaces to visit. The historical architecture in the French Concession area is astonishing. Pudong’s futuristic skyline instills feelings of a dystopian reality when you realize that the Shanghai Center topps out at 2,070 feet and 135 floors and is surrounded by many other skyscrapers.

panoramic view of Shanghai

Panoramic view of Shanghai

Leaving Shanghai after seven weeks felt like being torn out of a movie. Living among 25 million people in an urban world of metal and glass shooting towards the sky feels nothing short of dystopian. Everything in the city constantly changes and moves, fast. My mind shifted gears rapidly and changed to the Shanghai pace of life, but as the gears of the plane touched down on Michigan soil I snapped back into a familiar place with a brand new perspective.

KCAD Dominican Republic Study Away

In July of 2013, a group of KCAD and FSU students embarked on a trip to the Dominican Republic to solve the problem of water quality, sourcing, treatment, distribution, and other varying factors. With help from Triple Quest of Cascade Engineering, the safe water team, and Aqua Clara, the students worked to better understand water systems, community, the triple-bottom line, and human-centered design.

Students worked in Haitian bateys installing Triple Quest’s Hydraid Biosand water filtration systems. This experience helped them not only collect vital information about the surrounding culture, education, transportation, and economy, but also to apply what they learned to develop their own design solution.

The group held a debrief meeting at Cascade to present their experience and findings through their work with the Hydraid filter. They decided that they wanted to tackle the issue of food growth, food safety, and food storage. After much work, they came up with their final solution: a modular gardening system.

Their gardening system needed to be universal and able to be used globally in different climates. The system is raised off the ground to accommodate the island’s heavy rainfall, soil erosion, and animal and human interference. It has the ability to be mounted on a vertical surface such as the outside corner of a home, or a windowsill. The system’s pods can also be set on the ground if necessary, and serve as a composting system to prevent development of waste. A lot of hard work and collaboration went into this experience, and we at KCAD hope to revisit the Dominican Republic in the future.


On 01, Jan 2001 | No Comments | In News | By Collaborative Design

Welcome to the KCAD Collaborative Design blog!

Here we will keep you up to date with the goings-on of our program. From student competitions, student trips, and other activities that we are involved in, stay tuned for useful posts in the future.


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