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BAC Alumna Designing a Brighter Future for Chicago Children

On a recent afternoon, a group of students, ranging from ninth through twelfth grade, from Marshall High School, located in Chicago's west side East Garfield Park neighborhood, were introduced to the design world through a special drawing and modeling workshop. For the students who participated in Chicago Mobile Makers' first workshop, this was their first introduction into the architecture and design world.

East Garfield Park is full of empty buildings and lots. There aren't many new businesses or industries coming into this neighborhood to create opportunities for its residents, and there are no new buildings being constructed. It is this lack of exposure to interesting architecture in low income, ethnically diverse neighborhoods that has contributed to a lack of diversity in the design field, and Chicago Mobile Makers wants to change that, says Maya Bird Murphy, founder of Chicago Mobile Makers.

Chicago Mobile Makers is a new nonprofit in Chicago started in Fall 2017 by Maya Bird Murphy, M.Arch '17. The organization wants to attract eighth graders and high schoolers from underrepresented groups in specific Chicago neighborhoods and expose them to the design field through special "design focused skill-building workshops." The programming is designed to "encourage Chicago youth to become advocates and change makers in their own communities."

Maya grew up just outside of Chicago, in Oak Park, Illinois where noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked. An active child, her parents sent her off to various summer camps, including several design camps. It was this early exposure to architecture that guided Maya to an education and career in design. But she knows that her story is unique. Most young minorities aren't exposed to things like architecture and design classes or camps. While earning her Bachelor of Science in Architecture at Ball University in Muncie, Indiana, there was only one class about diversity in architecture and Maya said it wasn't a great class. Maya wants to change this.

Long before she enrolled in The Boston Architectural College's (BAC) online Master of Architecture program, Maya had thought about starting her own nonprofit organization. While studying at the BAC, Maya began talking to her thesis professor Jack Cochrane about her idea. Jack had started multiple businesses, so he guided Maya through the process of putting together a business plan, filling out the appropriate paperwork, and making connections in Chicago to assemble a board of directors. This project would become Maya's thesis project and would be the beginning of Chicago Mobile Makers.

Officially launched in October 2017, Chicago Mobile Makers' first promotion was on #GivingTuesday, the annual fundraising day that falls on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Now Maya is reaching out to current and former colleagues, and Chicago-area design firms to talk to them about the organization and ways they can support it and get involved. "It's been very nice. I've gotten a lot of support, people reached out to me to partner with their organizations," says Maya. "It's still very, very new, so I'm still figuring out a lot. I'm talking to individual firms about sponsorships opportunities and benefits."

Maya is now working to get Chicago Mobile Makers into public schools. It was Board Member Cassandra Yarnall, a teacher at Marshall High School, who helped Maya arrange her first workshop. Nearly all of Marshall High School's students are African American, and around 97.8% of students come from low income families. Maya was pleased with the students' participation in the workshop, saying, "The effect of these programs is that this is usually the most exciting part of their day, because it's different, they can pay attention, and it's exciting. The students were really excited and engaged throughout the workshop."

With her first workshop in the books, Maya is looking ahead. She's already planning the next steps. Maya has already created an in-school workshop template which has students analyzing their neighborhoods and making models showing changes they believe will bring positive change in their communities. Ideally, the students would get to work with a firm or neighborhood organization to build a model of their intervention design, and if resources are available, the students would get to build a real-life model. These workshops would last about 10 weeks, meeting weekly, and would also serve as a model for a two week, Monday-Friday summer camp. Maya has also booked Boombox's, a prefabricated, climate controlled pop storefront, locations in the Austin and Englewood neighborhoods for a month this summer to host popup workshops and events.

"We want to offer workshops that span a range of creative skills that may translate to jobs for the students later." Maya would also love to see Chicago Mobile Makers "graduates" come back and serve as Teaching Assistants and mentors to the new students.

Eventually Maya wants to have a permanent space for Chicago Mobile Makers, a space that includes a studio with all the necessary tools and supplies to host workshops, and a place to park the Mobile Makers truck. She'll be meeting with her Board soon to discuss planning and funding, including some sort of crowdfunding campaign.

Maya is excited about the future of Chicago Mobile Makers, and she's grateful to the BAC for making it possible for her to create this organization. "I'm most proud of my thesis project. It's turning into a real organization, and the only reason I was able to accomplish this was by coming to the BAC and being able to research it for my thesis. It's coming to fruition now, and I'm so excited to be able to bring architecture and design to underrepresented groups."

Learn more about Maya Bird Murphy and Chicago Mobile Makers.

Watch Maya talk about Chicago Mobile Makers and the design community of PBS Chicago Tonight.

Marshall High School students participate in a design workshop

Marshall High School students participate in Chicago Mobile Makers' first design workshop; image courtesy of Chicago Mobile Makers

Marshall High School student designs a house using foam balls

A Marshall High School student builds a house using foam balls and toothpicks; image courtesy of Chicago Mobile Makers

Marshall High School student builds a school using paper coin rolls

A Marshall High School student builds a house using paper coin rolls; image courtesy of Chicago Mobile Makers

Marshall High School student builds a house using popsicle sticks

A Marshall High School student has fun building a house made of Popsicle sticks; image courtesy of Chicago Mobile Makers