Having recently passed the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, it’s evident that New Orleans is still recovering from the devastation caused by the storm. Although the city has come a long way in rebuilding, there are still so many underserved areas in the city with infrastructure problems and a lack of available resources. But one group that’s actively working with community groups to provide design solutions to areas in need is Tulane City Center (TCC), led by Suzanne-Juliette Mobley, who will be part of a panel at the AIGA Design Conference in New Orleans called “Central City by Design: Community-Driven Change in Action.”

As TCC’s community engagement manager, Mobley does a little bit of everything. “I help identify potential community-based and university partners, develop our strategy on projects, work with students on research techniques, manage events hosted in our storefront, develop panels on critical issues facing our city, and right now, I’m working on an exhibit that will be up during the AIGA Design Conference.”

Before we hear her speak in New Orleans, we caught up with Mobley about some of TCC’s initiatives and how design can be an agent of positive change in our own communities.

Do you have a built-in volunteer network or is it difficult to find lending hands?
We rarely use volunteers, actually. We provide a stipend to the faculty leads on our projects, and students receive class credit. As part of a university and a field that we believe has inherent value, we try to set a good precedent for design as a service that deserves remunerations, while also making design services available for communities and organizations that are underserved.

Tell us a little bit about Façade RENEW.
This is one of my favorite projects. It’s a collaboration between TCC, the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority, and five Main Street organizations across the city. The project supports business and property owners along formerly thriving commercial corridors by providing architectural research, design services, and grant funding to restore or renovate their building façades. The goal is to revitalize the corridor while strengthening existing businesses in the face of neighborhood change.

We’re about two years into the project with construction underway for many of the sites, and because our building sits alongside the Oretha Castle Haley corridor, we’re getting to see all of the research and planning come to fruition in a very real way, which is amazing. The process itself has been incredible as well, learning and sharing the history of the buildings has been exciting for individual building owners, but it has also created a dialogue within and about our community.

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Are younger people getting involved in TCC’s projects?
We engage young people in so many different ways. We’re a part of Tulane School of Architecture, so our students are a central focus. We also work to support youth design programming more broadly, hosting Cooper Hewitt’s Smithsonian Design Institute, St. Martin’s Episcopal School’s summer design camp, the National Organization of Minority Architects Project Pipeline, and we’re working wherever possible with local start-ups like UnCommon Construction and PlayBuild.

We also love projects that serve kids. This summer we worked with an awesome partner, APEX Youth Center, to do a design intervention that made their play space more functional. APEX is a year-round, drop-in center and summer day camp around the corner from our building. They serve about 70 kids a day, and I think all of them played a roll in design or production at some point in the project. We were also able to draw on campers from the Kuumba camp at Ashé Cultural Arts Center for their camping expertise on a project that explored a potential campground in City Park and to work with The NET Charter school’s summer carpentry class on both of those projects.

Do you think TCCs efforts have influenced any youth to pursue design as a vocation?
I certainly hope so. We really view youth engagement as critical, both in our partners and in our own work. Whether design is a career path, or whether understanding the world around you as something that we all have a hand in shaping and a right to help shape, I hope we can keep expanding our reach to youth across our community.

What advice would you give to others who want to make effective changes in their own communities?
Listen first. Learn first. It can be hard to resist the urge to jump in and apply our training or to present what seems like the solution, but we don’t know and can’t know where we can make effective positive change unless we’re willing to accept that we don’t have all the answers and take the time to learn what we don’t know from the people who do.

What milestones has the center achieved in the 10 years since Katrina?
In the past decade we’ve completed 84 projects, and over this past year we’ve laid out a strategic plan to meet that mark again, this time in five years. The Katrina anniversary was also a point of reflection for our team, recognizing that New Orleans faces systemic challenges with deep roots, and that our work is shifting to meet those challenges. That means developing new partnerships and new approaches to projects where our scope is limited. Our impact is broader, and there are so many new opportunities to learn.