“Life is both fragile and resilient. We must remember, but we must also live.”
This is from the syllabus of “I Lived, We Live: What Did We Miss?,” a semester-long senior School of Design capstone project at Carnegie Mellon University. On the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr., 33 senior design students are working with members of Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood community to better understand how losses affect the identity of a community and how, in the aftermath of loss due to urban violence, memory of place changes over time.
During the project, students have been guided by School of Design professors Kristin Hughes and Dylan Vitone, as well as the Rev. Tim Smith, director of Center of Life (COL), a faith-based, community-empowerment organization that serves residents in the greater Hazelwood neighborhood. Charlie Humphrey, former director of the Pittsburgh Filmmakers, also is contributing his visual storytelling expertise to the class.
“Together, this collective knowledge will help to tell a story about this community in an effort to invite often difficult conversations about loss of human capital, race, power and privilege,” Hughes said.
“As a society, we often avoid honest and open conversations about difficult subject matter like race, privilege, social exclusion and violence,” continued Hughes. “We must all work together to understand how these types of inequalities result in misunderstanding, racism, and loss of social capital.”
“In the end, we hope to create a meaningful narrative that helps individuals convey the voices of forgotten lives, hopes and dreams,” Vitone added.
Rev. Smith brings a personal perspective to the project, having witnessed the impact that loss and injustice can have on a community.
“When a community loses young people too early, it takes something out of it,” he said. “It changes what the present is, but, more importantly, it directly impacts what the future could be.”
Smith has been impressed with the participatory approach and level of engagement the School of Design students are taking with the community.
“This exhibit will speak to the fact that it’s not normal for young people to die before their parents,” he said. “It is not normal for people to die in this volume. This project might reach people who are thinking about living that life.”
“The students are planning to create a space that will both commemorate and shed light on the issues within the Hazelwood,” added Hughes. “Through active listening, hands-on activities and designing alongside community members who have experienced loss first-hand, the students will be able to design something that may leave an impression on future generations, potentially, affecting the way members of society often engage with communities that are often marginalized and misunderstood.”
“So far, our meetings with the Hazelwood community have been very inspiring and eye-opening,” said Praewa Suntiasvaraporn, a senior taking part in the project. “We have learned a lot about the struggles they have had in the past, and I am so grateful that the Hazelwood community is so ready to share with us some of the most difficult and saddest parts of their lives.”
“It's easy to get caught up in your own life and those immediately surrounding you, and easy to forget about all the lives outside of our immediate radius,” added senior Lauren Zemering. “Meeting with the Hazelwood community has reinforced for me how much you can learn from leaving your bubble. There are so many voices that need to be heard.”
Although the final concept for the installation has yet to be determined, Zemering said the students all agreed that the final product needed to showcase the relationships and give a voice to the residents of Hazelwood, all while creating hope for the future and stressing the value of those that have been lost.
“After having spent time with the community members, our ideas aren't just focused on deaths due to gun violence. We also aim to highlight the beauty that is present within Hazelwood—which is something we discovered while we were there,” Zemering said. “We found we all had unique experiences, but that we were much more similar than we’d imagined.”
“Our senior project is a lot about compassion,” added Suntiasvaraporn. “We want to know what the people of Hazelwood actually need, so that we can help them speak in a louder voice and have a say in the changes and decisions that are happening to the place where they have grown up.”
For Rev. Smith, it has been refreshing working with designers who approach design that is “not just responsive, but responsible.”
“Designers are people who put things together in ways that regular artists don’t,” Smith said. “Designers tend to understand the human side of community and do interesting research on the communities they work with. This group of students has so many great ideas. It is refreshing working with them.”
The exhibit opens at Hazelwood’s Center of Life on Wednesday, May 10th, from 5 – 9pm. For more information and to follow along with the progress of “I Lived, We Live: What Did We Miss?” the senior class has started a blog to capture their work with the Center of Life and the Hazelwood Community.
The exhibit opens on Wednesday, May 10, at the Center of Life from 5 to 9pm.
Photography by Dylan Vitone