Raising a Phoenix

As the Architecture for Humanity Chapter Network, our community of civic-minded designers completed scores of projects, hosted hundreds of events, and sustained annual programs around the world. When AFH Headquarters declared bankruptcy and handed over its assets (including all of its digital and branding assets) to the state of California, our chapters were at a loss. However, we recognized this loss as an opportunity, undertaking an intensive process as a community to redefine our values.

In 9 days, we will be announcing the name of our new organization. As an embodiment of our values, I’d like to be open about how we chose our new name (and how we had to make a million other decisions along the way).

The initial values from the International Steering Committee

A group that shares values stays together. Values transcend context. No matter the difficulty of a situation you might find yourself in, your values are a roadmap to help you find the best path forward.

Seeking autonomy this past year, our network made a series of values-based decisions that led to a new name, brand, and identity. With our collective experience of participatory design, we redesigned our organization to embody the techniques we otherwise use to empower marginalized communities where we live. The process again created a world we wished to see — one where everyone has the right to dream, design, build, and love their surroundings. Here I discuss the essential values that made it happen.

Be Open

Openness requires vulnerability, honesty and intentional discovery. Being open within a creative process allows the group to consider and confront all possible outcomes, concerns, and opportunities.

If you are really open then everyone involved should feel their voices were not only heard but their contributions made an impact in the process. It can be difficult to know if you have reached “peak openness.” Maybe we never really do, but being transparent in every step of the process allows people to respond in their own way, which can be formed into a viable contribution.

Openness In Practice

Last year began with a day of discovery where over 45 chapter leaders made the decision to form a steering committee charged with overseeing the creation of our new organization. None of us had ever done this before, but acknowledging that lack of experience allowed us to define our skills and the gaps that needed to be filled by outside experts. Throughout the year we used tools that allowed us to be transparent in general discussions, in the creation of content and documents, and even in making decisions so anyone could leave comments throughout the journey. This process sparked some great conversations and raised some very real concerns which we were then able to address directly in those documents.

Some tools we use to keep ourselves transparent and encourage openness are:

  • Google Apps — Email, Docs, Sheets, Calendars, Surveys, Groups…
  • Typeform — for surveys and votes (the free platform provides analytics)
  • Slack — for those ‘oh so necessary’ group chats
  • Social Media — Facebook groups and twitter lists
  • Trello — Workflows and participatory exercises
  • Pen and Post-It — My personal, versatile favorite
  • Bluejeans — A recordable video conferencing platform (Skype and Google Hangout were also used)
  • Instapannel — A service to collect feedback via video recording
  • Github — Online platforms, an open source repository for technical code

Ensure Participation

Ownership takes root in participation. If you want to create something sustainable you need to make sure the stewards of that thing — whether a piece of art, an event, a building or an organization — are involved in the process and have come to love the outcome.

Making sure all the constituents can participate is not easy. This past year I have sent countless email reminders, hounded dozens of people on Slack, made just as many phone calls, hosted over 100 video conference calls, and visited local chapters throughout the world. I found that everyone communicates differently, and it’s my job to make sure that local leaders can participate in their own way.

Participation In Practice

When it came to choosing a new name, the means of participation were:

  • having each chapter write a values-based business canvass
  • inviting the entire network to record themselves talking about the values and mission of the organization, and then transcribing those interviews
  • creating an accessible online version of the survey above for those with poor internet connections
  • assembling a branding committee of chapter leaders to conduct market research, consult with branding professionals and make recommendations
  • sending the name recommendations to all the chapter leaders for a vote
  • responding to a very clear reaction from the majority that those recommendations were not a great fit by redesigning the voting process, by having each chapter put forth a possible name
  • rank choice voting for the top three options
  • finally adopting the majority name

All of these steps might seem excessive, but I believe that a thorough engagement process maximizing participation in this important decision was the only way to ensure universal ownership of the new name.

Establish Trust

Collaborative change is possible when participants trust one another to make the right decisions. It’s not enough to assume trust; you need to acknowledge its presence or absence in order to confidently move forward. You can avoid disenfranchisement by keeping communication and messaging clear.

This means making sure the communication channels are open and the relationships have been cultivated so individuals can comfortably participate. At every scale of work, from local to international collaboration, building relationships allows us to recognize that we are all human. Knowing someone as a human will make the virtual connection much easier.

Trust In Practice

In our final Steering Committee meeting I asked the foundation setting members to give a piece of advice to the incoming Regional Leaders Council. Portland, OR, member Rachel Bailey said, “knowing each other as humans is incredibly important! Getting together, meeting, having a dance party. Having fun together. The connectivity is how we thrive.”

For the first four months the International Steering Committee virtually gathered every sunday for two hours. This time confirmed everyone’s commitment to creating a shared vision, and established the camaraderie and energy now felt by local leaders and volunteers at large. When the Steering Committee gathered in Detroit we gladly worked past our scheduled time to ask ourselves the tough questions and learn how we all operated as people. At the international scale we set our focus on local chapter growth and professional development for our members, and built our governance structure to reflect those collective priorities. Trust thrived in the systems we designed together.

International Steering Committee and guests defining the beginning of the process

We embrace the openness of our process and trust one another as we believe all local communities should. In doing so, we invite your feedback. These values will continue to grow and evolve with our experiences, and continue to shape us over the coming years. I am excited to see our new strategy and common become “official” beginning next week.

When people design and build their own environments, they take ownership of the places they create, sustain them long term, keep them safe, invest in them, and enrich them with their most precious expressions. We are taking this same care with the construction of our organization.

I am not ashamed of being “publicly patient,” as my friend and mentor Ginger Daniel characterized it. Prioritizing participation means this process will take time, but it’s time well spent.




Using privilege to shift power. Learning from others, following women, and being vulnerable. Director of the Open Architecture Collaborative.

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Garrett Jacobs

Garrett Jacobs

Using privilege to shift power. Learning from others, following women, and being vulnerable. Director of the Open Architecture Collaborative.

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