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Tips for More Nimble and Inclusive Rural Design

Maria Sykes, Epicenter

After completing her degree in architecture at Auburn University, Maria Sykes aspired to become a citizen architect who served the community’s most needy.  Maria’s professional goals brought her to Green River, UT (pop 953), where she co-founded an innovative public interest design firm called Epicenter. Today, Epicenter is a successful non-profit dedicated to providing Green River residents with access to housing and business resources, while promoting the arts to make the community more vibrant. Epicenter’s staff and volunteers design, renovate, and repair residential and commercial buildings. Epicenter also assists businesses with grant writing, graphic design, and marketing, and hosts artists-in-residence from around the country through their Frontier Fellowship program.  Central to Epicenter’s work is engaging and collaborating with the community through the innovative projects they program in their community space in downtown Green River.

Epicenter, Green River, UT. | Photo: Epicenter

Maria was one of the designers who worked with us at our Oregon County, Missouri workshop.   At our workshop, Maria was instrumental in developing ideas and designs to guide the expansion and relocation of the Oregon County Food Producers & Artisans Co-Op. We followed up with Maria to find out more about what it takes for rural projects and organizations to become successful, and about her experience founding Epicenter.

1.   Provide opportunities for people to get involved and participate!

CIRD: At Oregon County’s workshop, you emphasized that successful projects happen by empowering the local community, and that one person cannot take on everything.  You recommended working closely with business managers and owners, who you referred to as “the gatekeepers for making things happen in rural towns.” How do you engage these community members at Epicenter? And how do you ensure that other voices are heard as well?

MS: Epicenter facilitates multiple groups in town including the Green River Business Group (aka “Potluck” and the de facto Chamber of Commerce), Green River Improvement Team (aka “GRIT” and the city’s “Beautification Committee”), and the Green River Trails Committee. These groups meet monthly at a minimum in Epicenter and/or City Hall. Potluck is focused on destination development design and is comprised of local business owners, managers, entrepreneurs, and event planners. GRIT is focused on community pride and beautification of derelict properties, and is comprised of local go-getters, local government employees, and public servants. The Trails Committee oversees the progress of the city’s proposed non-motorized trail system and is comprised of recreational entities, local and regional government representatives, and local river rats, farmers, and outdoor enthusiasts.

At Epicenter, we’ve found that facilitating the discussion and being the “boots on the ground” (e.g. setting meeting times, creating agendas, and following-up on action items) is the only way to ensure success in medium- to long-term projects. We never waste anyone’s time; we keep meetings on task and we don’t allow any single person to dominate the conversation. Additionally, Epicenter doesn’t make decisions about the future of Green River; it’s up to the residents to craft their future and for Epicenter to help make it happen with local and regional support.

In addition to monthly meetings with these focused groups, Epicenter facilitates (or co-facilitates with outside experts like the Rural Community Assistance Corporation) yearly strategic planning sessions and performs community surveys. At Epicenter we also foster a culture of natural community-engagement; make friends with your neighbors, go to high school basketball games, and generally be friendly and real with people throughout your day. Not all productive conversations have to take place at a formalized meeting or workshop session!

2.   Reach a broad audience- especially youth and newcomers!

CIRD: Rural communities often struggle with getting youth involved in community projects.  Since the workshop, the Oregon County Food Producers & Artisans Co-Op developed a Youth Council, which demonstrates how students, teens,  and even children can bring energy ideas and a fresh perspective to improving both an organization and the community. You pointed out that “young enthusiastic entrepreneurs, newbies to town, teens, students, growers, farmers, and educators can be great contributors.” Can you tell us more about how Epicenter has engaged these populations in Green River, especially the youth?

MS: Epicenter engages youth through year-round educational programming in the high school and after school programs, community-sourced exhibitions and publications, and a residency program (“The Frontier Fellowship”).  Frontier Fellows are creative professionals, hosted by Epicenter, who immerse themselves in the town of Green River for four to six weeks. While in residence, fellows work within existing Epicenter programs to facilitate our teen and youth arts workshops and lead the production of community-sourced exhibitions and publications (e.g. The Green River Magazine).

Part of Epicenter’s ability to engage youth so well is based on the personal relationships we’ve developed with the kids and local schoolteachers over the years. We’ve been here for six years now; we’ve seen these kids grow-up and become all-star basketball players, great musicians, and young adults. Before we formed Epicenter, we were volunteers with the local Boys & Girls Club where we got to know many kids and their parents. Additionally, the high schoolteachers are eager to let Epicenter staff and Frontier Fellows into the classroom due to our past successful projects involving youth. It’s great to have these great teachers and their support and trust in us.

Maria Sykes in action | Photo: Epicenter

3.   Create a Strategic Plan for Funding, and Diversify!

CIRD: At the workshop, you gave sound advice for creating a physical document that clearly defines the Co-Op’s goals for the next three to five years. You emphasized that the Co-Op should not depend solely on one source of funding, rather they should request funding from local, federal, and regional government entities, from private foundations, and through earned income. How did you approach funding for Epicenter?

MS: Epicenter was originally funded during the recent recession through a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant, which funded the renovation of our facility as well as some of our first year’s operations. We had to match the USDA funds with private funding sourced through friends, family, and regional private foundations. As that grant neared completion, we had to create a funding strategy that diversified our funding and reduced our risk of failure. Epicenter’s current funding is a jigsaw puzzle comprised of state funding for the arts, national private funding for affordable housing projects, and earned income through design and economic development projects (e.g. designing destination development products like the Day Trips). If any piece of the funding jigsaw puzzle were to fall away, we’d lose some staff hours or project funding, but not everything.

CIRD: What are some funding resources you recommend?

MS: The USDA, The Rural Community Assistance Corporation (rcac.org), AmeriCorps VISTA & State/National (nationalservice.gov), and FoodCorps (foodcorps.org) are great resources that can provide invaluable technical assistance and resources for rural non-profits. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development programs were crucial in renovating Epicenter’s facility and providing seed funding—there are great opportunities through the Rural Business Enterprise Grant and Value-Added Product, and/or a similar USDA opportunities to fund a facility and “first year” of operations of a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

CIRD: We’ve been so inspired by Epicenter. Are there any other examples of great organizations that work in rural communities or engage communities through design that our readers should check out?

MS:

•        Rural Studio (ruralstudio.org) is Auburn University’s off-campus architectural design studio, which provides design assistance to West Alabama’s Black Belt region. The organization’s ethos is “everyone, both rich and poor, deserves the benefit of good design. “

•        M12 (m12studio.org) is an interdisciplinary group based in Colorado, which develops context-based art work, research projects, and education programs for the community.

•        PieLab (pielab.org) is a bakery, culinary school, and design studio that was established by a group of young graphic designers in a thrift shop storage site on Main Street in Greensboro, AL in the summer of 2009.  “Food brings people together,” designer Amanda Buck says. “Pie is how we get to know Greensboro.” PieLab teaches area youth how to make pies, and then sells slices for $2 ($3 à la mode). Since opening, the designers have also started job training programs for local residents and completed design work for downtown merchants.

•        Elsewhere (goelsewhere.org) is a living museum located in a converted thrift store in Greensboro, NC. Elsewhere also functions as an artist residency and a learning center, providing downtown Greensboro with a valuable cultural anchor.

•        Wonderroot (wonderroot.org) is an Atlanta-based non-profit arts and service organization with a mission to unite artists and the community. Wonderroot empowers artists with production facilities to engage their communities through arts-based service.

•        Project H (projecthdesign.org) is a design group that educates youth ages 9-17 in yearlong courses designed to complement their school education. Courses range from rigorous design iteration to vocational building skills, which provide young people with creative, technical, and leadership tools.

•        Bike & Build (bikeandbuild.org) is an independent nonprofit organization that works with young adults to produce cross-country cycling trips to fund affordable housing initiatives. In over ten seasons, Bike & Build has contributed more than $4.5 million to housing groups.

CIRD: We want to thank Maria for her time and expertise. Maria’s advice is innovative, thoughtful, and may be applied to your community!  We encourage you to learn more about her work at Epicenter.

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