Grandmas, social design and gentrification

I met Susana when I was strolling down the streets of Lisbon, escaping a crowd of tourists and looking for something a bit more authentic and real. I followed my instincts when I decided to keep walking on Rua do Poço dos Negros.

I was first attracted by the colourful pillows hanging in the shop front and the few words that I managed to read through the window on the poster inside: social, cultural and responsible design. When I ventured in, Senior José was sitting at the front table, working a new product that will soon be displayed in the window. I believe Susana saw the curiosity in my eyes when I asked her: “Where am I, What’s going on here? ”. For about an hour, I had the pleasure to chat with Susana, unveiling (some of) the secrets behind the story of her organization Fermenta and her main project: A Avó Veio Trabalhar, which translates to Grandma came to work.

Senior José working on the third collection

Susana Antonio, social designer

Susana studied industrial design and spent a year in Milan, Italy. After the big buzz of Year #1, she came to realize that these decorative objects, by standing in the living room of fancy houses, will not serve the purpose of her own work.

“I like to think that design can change the world”, she says.

As she made her way back to Portugal, Susana started volunteering in a nursing home for older people. Every day, she was working with a group of seniors using a collaborative and participatory approach that quickly proved to be successful. The creations that came out of these sessions were those of a “working group”, and not those of one individual. Every participant had a role to play, whether it was selecting the colors, choosing the fabric or developing the product design. This participatory approach, known today as “social design”, fostered change and empowered the elderly in the context of Susana’s story.

For 11 years, she continued her work, developing and refining her approach in different contexts. Design was always used as a social innovation tool to change the experience of the “disadvantaged people”, whether they were the unemployed, the disabled, the poor, or the elder ones. In 2005, Lisbon hosted the Experimenta Design exhibition under the theme “My World, New Crafts”. Invited to show her work, Susana became the most mediatized artist of the Biennale. She used this opportunity to start a discussion about the older generations, a topic that is probably not sexy enough to make it on the front page of mainstream media. However, for a country like Portugal, demographic aging is a pressing issue that can’t be ignored. The country is at the forefront of Europe latest baby bust. By 2030, the retired population in Portugal is set to surge by 27.4% with those older than 65 years old then predicted to account for nearly one in every four residents. While the society is aging, governmental responses to keep this part of the population active are few and far between. The elderly are too often perceived as “users of the society”, in contrast with the workers who are known as the “producers”. This conception, however, is missing a key aspect : older people have time, and time is money. So how can we offer them the opportunity to be “producers” again?

Meet the Grandmas at work

After the exhibition, Susana continued her work with the elderly, deepening her social design skills and her knowledge of the senior population. As her expertise gained value and recognition, Susana partnered with her friend Angelo Campota, a psychologist, to found Fermenta in 2012, a non-profit organization which aims to promote social and cultural development through responsible design. The organization applied to the BipZip program of the municipality of Lisbon and received a funding of 35,000 euros. With this grant, the organization was able to officially start the A Avó Veio Trabalhar (Grandma came to work) project and set up a community space on Rua do Poço dos Negros in Lisbon.

A “creative laboratory” for the community

The A Avó Veio Trabalhar’s “laboratory” is located in the Cais Do Sodre neighborhood, a thoughtful choice looking at the current dynamics of this part of the city, where a recent crowd of trendy bars, cafes and galleries now mingle with the quiet and slow pace of the older inhabitants. The project is presented as an opportunity to fill this gap between the two populations by offering them a place where they can meet, discuss and learn from each other, hence keeping the conversation going between the two generations.

Grandma came to work is a project of learning, sharing and empowerment, which invites all seniors to participate in the creation of handmade products using traditional craft techniques under a logic of concerted action and cooperative design. The first collection was launched in October 2014, proposing a series of 40 handmade gloves made from donated wool shirts and featuring traditional Portuguese designs along with more “modern tattoo designs”. All gloves were hand-embroidered by the grandmas, and each piece has the picture of the person who made it : “She made it for you”. The first collection was sold in two weeks. The second collection featured a series of handwoven pillows, and the third collection is currently being finalized. A new collection is developed every three or four months, as a result of an intense brainstorming on new ideas, techniques, and products to create.

She made it for you

The space is presented by Susana not as a school, neither as a store, but as a “creative laboratory” where people can come, use the materials, the machines, meet people, experiment, and feel at home.

“It’s not Fermenta’s, it’s all of us! The products are simply used as a catalyst for social change”, says Susana

Susana and her team also propose a series of workshops and events during which the two generations are invited to gather and learn from each other. The grandmas share their knowledge with the community by teaching the participants how to embroider, to do fabric embellishment, or silk screening. The workshops usually take place in those trendy places where the Grandmas would otherwise never go, allowing them to feel part of their neighborhood again. The money collected from the products or the workshops is re-invested in the project, through the purchase of new materials and equipment for future collections.

The project started about a year ago with 12 people. There are now more than 52 people aged between 59 and 96 years old working on the development of the collections and the creation of the products. Not only Fermenta meets the needs of a divided community, it also proposes an innovative alternative to people who recently retired, but still have the energy to be actively involved in the society, and are too young to spend their day at the “Centro do dia”.

The creative laboratory

Your grandma is an artist

The project receives a growing attention from all over the world, from tourists adventuring in the neighborhood and attracted by the beautiful shop front to young artists willing to work with older generations. As the project keeps growing, its objectives are going way beyond the sale of handmade products. Fermenta has become a living and dynamic platform for people who want to work with the seniors. The organization also aims to offer its participants an immersion into the cultural and artistic world of Lisbon.

For example, Susana recently brought her crowd to the International Queer Film Festival. They also participated in the Moving Europe Exhibition, a walking art exhibition by Jan Beddegenoodts where grandmas were asked to carry pictures taken during the Burning Man festival while walking around the city of Lisbon. Finally, A Avó Veio Trabalhar will collaborate with Zomato, a platform that guides citizens in looking for the best places to eat in every city. Grandmas will then play the role of the food critics for the new restaurants opening in Lisbon. The idea is to offer them an opportunity to discover the new cuisine, while valuing their opinions and critics on the new food scene.

In the fast changing neighborhood of Cais do Sodre, social design has proved to be a successful approach to address the negative impacts of gentrification. By proposing a diversity of participative and intergenerational activities, Grandma came to work fosters a greater understanding and respect between the two generations, and contributes to building more cohesive and sustainable communities.

Follow A Avó Veio Trabalhar on Facebook and take a tour in the laboratory: