Anti-racism design challenge promotes creativity, collaboration


How do you imagine a future world that is anti-racist? How do you envision the community you want to build? What societal impact do you want to make?

More than 60 students representing 17 of the Ann Arbor campus’ 19 schools and colleges and UM-Dearborn worked to answer those questions as part of a semesterlong design challenge to reimagine a future world — and a future campus — that is more diverse, equitable and inclusive through self-identified projects.

The challenge was sponsored by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, in partnership with the U-M Center for Socially Engaged Design, the U-M Arts Initiative and the U-M Center for Academic Innovation’s XR initiative.

Seven teams shared their projects and three student teams received $1,000 awards related to their work addressing anti-racism during the Center for Socially Engaged Design annual Innovation in Action awards showcase April 9. The winning teams are:

  • Plucky Comics, a web application that tells the story of Black queer historical figures through the medium of comics. It was created by Nathan Alston of the Stephen M. Ross School of Business, and Daniella Gennaro of the Ross School and School of Education.
  • Shift, a personalized platform dedicated to helping individuals become more aware of ways to be anti-racist. It was created by Amoolya Kumar of UM-Dearborn’s College of Engineering and Computer Science; Gabriela Chen of the School of Public Health and Rackham Graduate School; Kelly Chan of the School of Education; and Robin Kocher of the School of Information.
  • Designing Access, a resource that promotes creation of events that are inclusive and welcoming to all. It was created by five students from the School of Social Work: Sofie Aaron, Amy Belfer, Flavio Di Stefano, Hannah Lefton and Callie Torkelson.

“The students who worked on these projects represent the creative potential of working in new ways — across disciplines and in new modes — to address one of the biggest challenges facing us today: envisioning an anti-racist world,” said Rob Sellers, chief diversity officer and vice provost for equity and inclusion.

“This past year has been difficult, but it has also forced us to try new things, and to be more creative, compassionate and inclusive. And perhaps most importantly, this year has challenged us to address racism in as many ways as possible.”

The design challenge used methods developed by the Center for Socially Engaged Design for its annual Innovation in Action Design program. Over the course of the semester, students met via Zoom to hear feedback from faculty about new ways to think about their projects, and mentoring sessions for individual teams.

“Innovation in Action guides student teams through steps so that they can take on big challenges,” said Ann Verhey-Henke, strategic director of the center. “Each year, student teams surprise and impress us with their passion for a wide range of topics. We are grateful to be on this journey, at this moment, with them.”

In addition to the awards for anti-racism, Poverty Solutions awarded $2,500 to Lifelock, an affordable-housing proposal that matches low-income senior citizens with students in living-learning communities.

Seventeen teams competed for the Innovation in Action awards, which went to Equihome ($10,000), a system for sharing housework among family members, Plucky Comics ($7,500), and Shift ($5,000). The $1,000 audience choice award went to Visionary Central, , which works to develop internships in Ghana. Student teams can use the funds to move their projects forward.

“I’m really proud of how far all of the students have come,” said Ryan Henyard, faculty experience designer at the Center for Academic Innovation, who co-planned the project through the XR Initiative with a core group of staff from the sponsoring units. “They’ve been asking really impactful questions throughout the process, interviewing community members about their projects, and getting feedback from their constituent groups and stakeholders.”

Said Nathan Alston, one of the students who participated in the project-development process: “I think we have learned that the best way to reveal our individual gifts has been to pursue projects that inspire us. Plucky Comics and working together has been time-consuming, but when you love the project and your collaborators, it barely feels like work.”

“By inviting students to collaborate across fields of study in designing pathways to a more just world, the challenge shows how the arts empower us to address the most pressing issues facing us today,” said Jonathan Massey, dean of the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, and co-chair of the Arts Initiative.

Innovation in Action is sponsored by Ross Business + Impact @ Ross, the Michigan Law Entrepreneurship Clinic, the School of Information, Practical Policy Engagement at the Ford School, and the Zell Lurie Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies.


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