Designing Civic Engagement, One Person at a Time

People’s Liberty, a change-maker philanthropic lab, centers design at its core to create movement. 

When faced with the challenge of how to improve a city, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Infrastructure? Talent-retention? Parking? Politics? Probably not design.

But design thinking is actually a driving force behind People’s Liberty, a philanthropic lab that brings together civic-minded talent to address challenges and uncover opportunities to accelerate the positive transformation of Greater Cincinnati.

IMG_9632Unlike other grant-making foundations, People’s Liberty distributes funds directly to individuals rather than organizations — similar to McArthur Genius Grants — from whopping $100,000 yearlong Haile Fellowships to $10,000 Project Grants. The organization also offers Globe Grants of up to $15,000 for individuals to create provocative street-level installations and pop-up experiences inside the Globe Furniture building People’s Liberty is renovating in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. Once deemed one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the U.S., the area is gaining national attention for its remarkable revitalization — and it’s no accident that the civic-minded lab is getting down to work in the thick of it.

In addition to the Haile Fellowships, Project Grants and Globe Grants, People’s Liberty is rolling out a paid, three-month residency program that gives motivated, early-career talent the opportunity to gain hands-on experience, make valuable connections and create a strong portfolio of real-world work. These on-staff residents are master storytellers — graphic designers, writers, bloggers, Twitter gurus, photographers, animators and videographers who know how to harness their skills to produce inspiring narratives and amazing visuals.
People’s Liberty is making big bets on creative innovators who have identified major local challenges and found ways to address them, all while increasing civic engagement and driving community development.

We reached out to Megan Deal, a founder and program director for People’s Liberty, and asked her to weigh in on why design is at the heart of every move People’s Liberty makes and every person it funds.

Why is high-quality design so integral to an initiative like People’s Liberty, in terms of your own collateral and image? Was it an important component of your mission from the get-go?

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At People’s Liberty, we firmly believe that design is not and cannot be an afterthought. We think about design a couple different ways: design as problem-solving process and design as storytelling tool. From a process standpoint, we’ve built a nine-step idea-to-action design process that helps us move from “idea on paper” to “living/breathing project.” This process has proven invaluable for our team and drives a lot of our internal projects. The People’s Process (as we call it) is also one of the tools we share with our grantees to better equip them as they prepare to launch their projects. We know that funding isn’t the only barrier that prevents good ideas from coming to life; people need a process; a roadmap.

From a storytelling standpoint, design is a tool that allows us to visually communicate the ideas that matter most. Good stories have the power to make us laugh, make us cry, call us to action, persuade and inspire—sometimes all at once. Without design, great stories would still be told, but the sensibilities that connect us to them would not exist. Our approach is subtractive rather than additive; we’re always striving to simplify, simplify, simplify in order to make the complex clear(er). I tend to think you can say a lot without saying much, so our visual voice has remained quite minimal.

So yes, design has been important and integral from the very beginning.

In what ways do you think design and creativity help drive civic engagement? 

To Love One's CityFirst off, if your goal is to build audience, your message has to be clear and compelling. There’s no shortage of initiatives, organizations, projects or causes for citizens to rally behind; the question becomes how to make your initiative, organization, project or cause stand out among the others. Good design can be a powerful tool in this regard.

I think we’re also in the middle of a great shift happening in design (especially design for civic engagement/public interest). The role of the designer is shifting from one who delivers the design of services or products to one who’s creating a platform for experience and participation. This is hugely important from a civic engagement standpoint, especially as cities (particularly midsized cities) compete to retain and attract talent. No one wants to live in a city that’s just like everywhere else. Smart design and plenty of unique, creative opportunities can help connect citizens to their place, inspire them to get involved and, ultimately, keep them rooted.

There seems to be a thread of design and creativity running through all the projects and people you are funding. How much weight do these concepts carry when you’re evaluating applicants?

At People’s Liberty we’re first and foremost looking for ideas that are feasible. That means applicants need to establish a pretty solid action-plan. That’s design. Above that, we’re looking for ideas that are creatively excellent, distinct, bold and provocative. We want ideas that haven’t been seen elsewhere. So yes, important.

What do you hope to achieve in this vein with the Globe Grants, in particular?

The Globe Grants are unique opportunities for individuals to implement a site-specific installation/project. Our storefront gallery is basically an 800-square-foot white box ready to be transformed. We’re looking for project ideas that really consider space; that is, they’re designed with both our building and the neighborhood in mind. These could be pop-up experiments, unique exhibitions, interactive installations, etc. As with all of our grantees, we’re looking for ideas that are bold, provocative and creatively excellent.

What types of design professionals do you have on staff (or are you looking to add)? What do you hope their impact will be on both People’s Liberty and the change the organization hopes to affect on a citywide level?

The People’s Liberty team comes from diverse backgrounds, but not surprisingly, two of the five core staff members have formal design backgrounds (me, graphic design, and our other program director, Kate Creason, architecture). Our residency program caters toward emerging-level creative talent, specifically individuals who have background/experience in design or communication. It never fails; we hire designers more often than not, simply because they’re the best problem-solvers. And in any kind of start-up environment, good problem-solvers are vital to the team.

On a personal level, my goal since graduating with a formal design education (I have a BFA from the College of Creative Studies in Detroit) has been to uncover/create an alternative model of professional practice, one rooted in direct engagement with people and place. My work in cities with visionary individuals throughout the U.S. has slowly, but surely, allowed me to do exactly that. With that in mind, my goal today at People’s Liberty is centered on building ways for other designers to explore alternative career opportunities; opportunities not centered on selling products/services, but rather using their design sensibility to leave a direct and lasting impact on the place they call home. So far, it’s been incredibly rewarding.

To learn more about People’s Liberty or to apply for a grant, visit http://www.peoplesliberty.org/.