8 Questions with Alum De Nichols, 2020 Loeb Fellow

Posted by Liz Kramer June 22, 2020


De Nichols (BFA10, MSW14) is wrapping up her year as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard. She was one of nine innovators worldwide who were selected to engage in a year of research about how to advance equitable social futures. We talked about her experience in the Fellowship, how she brought St. Louis to Boston, and what’s next for her. To hear more about De, join her for the livestreamed public keynote of the Design Futures Student Leadership Forum on Saturday, July 18, 2020 at 4p Central>>

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What inspired you to apply for the Loeb Fellowship? 

I hit a point in my career and personal life where I felt like I was coasting. I didn’t have that many challenges, and I was starting to feel a little bored and uninspired. I had some projects that sustained me, which came with victories, challenges, and conversations. However, I realized that I wanted to pivot my practice beyond client projects that were about how communication design intersects with social issues, and to dive more into creating space with others. Architecture and urban planning were coming up more and more in the work that was inspiring me the most, particularly with the Brickline Greenway and the Griot Museum of Black History. I wanted time to think about these deeper questions as it intersected with design. 

What has your experience in the Fellowship been like? 

We started out with the Fellows getting to know each other and hanging out, and getting to know Cambridge and Boston more. Our first formal order of business was all about classes and building connections with different faculty. Some of this is on our own, but there’s some structure with the curators of the Fellowship putting us in connection with faculty who match our specific interests. I connected with professors in Urban Planning, Landscape Architecture, and Architecture, particularly through the program Art, Design, and the Public Domain.  

One thing that is really great about the Fellowship is that we’re not restricted to just the GSD, and we were encouraged to get involved with all the schools across Harvard’s campus. I’ve gotten to connect with people from programs across campus, as well as participating in conferences like Black in Design and Conflict by Design

How did you your work this year engage with St. Louis artists, creatives, and activists? 

Since I was coming from St. Louis, there was a lot of attention on our civil rights issues, such as race, police brutality, and history. There were a lot of folks who were interested in talking about St. Louis. For example, I connected with Walter Johnson, the Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies, who has been leading the Commonwealth Project, which has a focus on St. Louis. Tef Poe, a St. Louis activist and poet, was a fellow at the Charles Warren Center during 2016-2017 and at the Hutchins Center during 2017-2018. I worked with Poe and Johnson to co-create a fellowship with six visual artists from St. Louis. The six selected photographers, documentarians, and visual artists worked with undergraduates on the Harvard campus to answer the question: How do you see St. Louis? The plan was to have a double exhibit on campus in Harvard and in St. Louis, but with the pandemic, we are looking to pivot to a virtual exhibition or a later exhibition.  

Through the Kennedy School, I was a co-organizer of a black policy conference. I organized a panel of people who had been involved in protest and are transitioning toward life as policy makers, politicians, and in public service. I invited Kayla Reed to talk about her journey from being an organizer to running her own nonprofit for racial justice through policy work, and Rasheen Aldridge, who was one of the youngest organizers of the protests in Ferguson and is now Missouri State Rep for the 78th district and cares deeply about the local impact that State policy can have. I wanted to be a good steward of the community by always having St. Louis on the forefront of my mind for every opportunity.  

How have you used your skills from the Sam Fox School and the Brown School as a Loeb Fellow? 

One role of the fellows is to serve as guest lecturers, so I’ve given a lot of presentations talking a lot about the work that we do in St. Louis. Having a communication design background has really helped make some cool and explosive engagements with people. My ability to tell stories has been further increased because of my foundation and training at the Sam Fox School. 

I was also able to leverage my relationships through my past role as a lecturer in the Sam Fox School to connect with faculty like Penina Acayo Laker as a partner around the work at the Griot Museum. It’s not just what I learned, but the relationships I’ve made! 

I also want to mention that my skills as an alum of the Brown School really helped me as a fellow, particularly in facilitating conversations, providing conflict resolution, and utilizing my negotiation skills. 

Who did you meet that inspired you during your Fellowship? 

There are fall and spring trips as part of the Fellowship. In the fall, we traveled to San Diego and Tijuana to study issues at the border with local artists and architects. We met people who were at the forefront of preserving indigenous Mexican land, and making space for Mexican-American communities at the border. For example, Chicano Park, which occupies part of the underpass of the freeway, was painted with murals, and we talked about the history of the stories of people featured in the murals. The work of the artists was defending the space from gentrification, from white supremacy, from police harassment. You could sense the protection of that space in the air. I was inspired walking with those elders, particularly as people came up to us to share their stories.

In the spring, we traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, with a landscape architecture course. Kotchakorn Voraakhom, an alum of the GSD and a landscape architect, taught us about her work. She was so unassuming, nice, down-to-earth, and one of the most bad-assed women I’ve ever met. Her design defends the center of Bangkok from flooding. After finishing her studies, she went back to her home country of Thailand to design something so brilliant, visionary, and necessary. It was amazing to be in her presence. 

How has this experience influenced the way that you work and think? 

In general, this experience has made me more confident in the role that I can play in terms of creating processes that help facilitate more equitable spaces. In terms of depth of knowledge, the connections I’ve made have led me to understand the historical and policy elements that are part of what we experience today. Being in classes where we’re debating gentrification with Toni Griffin or talking about African American Studies in class with Cornel West have helped me see the layers of policy and history on what’s happening the world today. I haven’t had a time since grad school to think about how policy impacts what I’m involved in, because I’ve been learning by doing. Having this time has helped me expand my scope of understanding beyond St. Louis and the Midwest, and to see the networks of systems at play in ways I don’t think I would have otherwise. 

What has been the most surprising part about your Fellowship experience? 

One of the most surprising things about this has been the can-do attitude of people. I grew up with the saying “Closed mouths don’t get fed.” My experience in the Fellowship is that if we speak up and share the vision that we have, there are more people than we would expect who are willing to support that thing. There is a bounty of resources, and we don’t have to have a scarcity mindset or be afraid to ask people to be involved in deep collaborations. 

What’s next for you? 

With COVID, it doesn’t make sense to make any big moves right now. I’m in Memphis with my family waiting things out. Whatever happens next, I don’t want to be doing the same stuff that I was already doing. I’m actively interested in opportunities that will allow me to dive more deeply into how spaces are designed and experienced, and be part of honoring people’s humanity and dignity. I’ll let you know when I figure out what’s next! 

In the immediate response to the uprisings happening all around the world, I’m part of a collaborative effort called Design as Protest with three other black designers—Bryan C. Lee, Jr., Taylor Holloway, and Mike Ford—that endeavors to hold the design industry accountable to reverse the harms that architecture and design fields have caused black people and communities. You can find out more about our demands and events here.

In the meantime, I got my first book deal for The Art of Protest, about people around the world who are using art in the midst of social movement. The goal is to have it out by summer of 2021, so I’m doing a ton of research now, and will finish writing at the end of July for printing, promotion, and distribution next spring. It will be published with Bonnier Books UK’s Big Picture Press. More to come on this soon!

The Design Futures Student Leadership Forum (DFF) is a leadership development initiative that builds capacity for future leaders to apply the power of community-engaged design to address systemic racism in the built environment. As an anti-racist and interdisciplinary learning space, DFF trains design leaders to think critically about power and privilege and redefines design as a tool for racial justice and equity with and in marginalized communities. The 2020 Forum is presented with support from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Enterprise Community Partners. More information about the livestream public keynote on July 18 can be found here>>