Community For Opportunity | using design to induce social change
Does the world need another chair?
Maybe not. But people wrestling with homelessness need a job, and the drop in centres they spend time in need better chairs. As a design firm who designs chairs, it may seem odd to question the need for another chair, but Community for Opportunity is a different kind of design project and aims at both those issues — design and build better chairs for drop-in centres and have them made by people struggling with homelessness and displacement.
I have long been conflicted by the disconnect between the deep, personal satisfaction of making something and making it well, and the negative way in which jobs involving making things are often perceived. I’m sure I know how we got here….but it just seems off.
Community for Opportunity was born out of a desire to push back at that — to create opportunities for people through the value of making things….and this is a design problem.
“A social enterprise is an organization that applies commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being”.
A friend of mine started a mens shelter with 108 beds. Each day they would have a lot of laundry. They were also part of a network of 5 shelters in the city and between them they had a sizeable laundry bill — daily. With a keen stroke of inspiration, a good investment and a lot of hard work they started a social enterprise — Gateway Linens, a laundry service for their network of shelters. They employ folks who were living at the shelters to staff the laundry, and have a mentoring and graduating process that enables people to gain skills that can then be used in more commercial settings and to generally get them on their feet.
It all began with a joke question about our work in designing new chairs, “do we really need another one?”. I asked my friend about the chairs they had in their shelter. He’d never really taken a close look at them, but when he did he found they were not very good, and thousands of dollars each year were spent replacing them.
Enter, a solid rationale for a new chair.
A chair was a great starting point for us. We know chairs and we have a network of suppliers who make components for chairs — the only missing link was the right design and the hands to build them.
The environments of drop in centres can be harsh for furniture. They also have a broad set of needs to satisfy. Research led to a detailed design brief that thoroughly informed the design of the chair — not only how it looks and feels, but in how it is assembled, resists places for bugs to settle, and to not be used to cause harm, all the while needing to have the character of being in your living room — these centres often function as a living room for those that frequent them.
Through many iterations the Community chair was arrived at. We made sure Community provides the durability, cleanability and affordability necessary for those centres, and most importantly, to be built by the very individuals who come through the shelters. This presented a unique challenge. Each chair is comprised of two main parts — and those parts need to be assembled with simple tools, correctly, with minimal instruction. The challenge was to ensure the chair could never be assembled incorrectly. This was a key point in the design of the enterprise as the work needs to strike the right balance between not being daunting and also being meaningful. Also, the people building these chairs are not going to be the same day after day, and they might not want or be able to work full time so the question then is, can they do something meaningful with it?
In addition to Salvation Army Gateway, we partnered with Street Soccer Canada. A nonprofit that organizes friendly games for people struggling with homeless, the organization also provides peer mentorship and opportunities for employment. Every Community chair that is purchased will have been built, packed, and shipped by Street Soccer Canada participants.
“When you’re in a shelter, you figure no one will ever hire you,” says Steve McGrath, mentor and logistics personnel with Street Soccer Canada. “Even a little bit of work can be both a stepping stone and a great encouragement. Sometimes, all it takes to get the ball rolling for those in dire circumstances is the encouragement to embrace the opportunity to do something positive.”
Community’s pilot run supplied Toronto’s Salvation Army Gateway drop-in centre with a dozen chairs. “The chairs are really comfortable,” says one of the program’s participants. “They’re designed so that your posture is good yet it feels nice to sit in them for a long time… they feel really solid and they look sharp, too.”
And so yes, we are making yet another chair, because I think we need it and at the same time we’re embarking on a venture to employ people through making things. Let’s see where it leads.