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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

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