Erica Dorn, a PhD Researcher at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, was recently awarded the Alfred Landecker Democracy Fellowship from the international non-profit Humanity in Action. The Fellowship “brings together 30 diverse leaders from Europe and the United States who spend one year working part-time on creating projects that reinvent democratic spaces, strengthen social cohesion and build community against the backdrop of COVID-19’s impact on democracy.”
“I’m incredibly honored to have been selected and to now be a part of such a phenomenal network, especially at a time of such isolation and sedentarism,” said Dorn who describes herself as a Social Choreographer. “The fellowship presents an amazing opportunity to do grounded research on the Place Relationality theories I’m developing through my PhD. I’m grateful to the Alfred Landecker and Humanity in Action teams for selecting me and designing such an important community and program at this moment in time.”
Dorn’s fellowship project aims to develop a place-to-place network made up of residents from diverse contexts across the United States who will learn together to reinvent democractic processes.
“Many areas in the United States were already experiencing slow decay before COVID-19,” said Dorn. “Now, the sense of isolation, the economic downfall, and political divisions have gotten worse. Communities that lack economic viability and that are in a process of decay share a need for future visions and relationships that can help enact transitions towards more democratized futures. Yet, relationships with diverse perspectives and experiences must often be intentionally curated and stewarded.
“This trans-regional network will learn, restore, and build democratic processes”
The “Relational Places Residency Program“ aims to bring together six local leaders from distinct economic and urban/rural contexts to develop relationships, share learning, and develop future visions that can be enacted in the present for long-term civic transitions. Through virtual and place-specific learning and interaction sessions, residents learn from one another and from a larger community about how to enact new and innovative democratic processes within and across communities. Citizen assemblies, mutual aid networks, citizen bills of rights, deliberative democracy, design, and dialogue are a few examples of the ideas and tools that will be introduced. The network will also ensure space for each resident to share their place-specific knowledge.
Dorn’s fellowship project relates heavily to the work she is currently performing as part of her PhD thesis here at the School of Design.
“My research is focused on developing theories and practices in ‘Place-Relationality’,” said Dorn. “It's rooted in the notion that places, like people, are living. Yet even in a hyper-mobile and global era, we often perceive places as geographically fixed. This ‘fixicity’ creates isolationism and can lead to decay of economies and the decline of healthy democratic processes. My research designs and distributes processes that enable localized, relational, and living economies and democracies.”
More and more, design and the input of designers are becoming vital to tackling large scale societal problems.
“Design can be understood as the expression and materialization of intention,” added Dorn. “Design’s impetus towards action and materialization while also being focused on process is a powerful recipe for changemaking.
“I also appreciate that design as a discipline is self-examining and in transition itself towards more participatory and ethical practices.”
Prior to her time at CMU and her Alfred Landecker Democracy Fellowship, Dorn co-founded etsy.org and served as the Managing Director of the non-profit it incubated, Good Work Institute, where she designed and led a first-of-its-kind bioregional leadership program in New York’s Hudson Valley. She serves as Board of Directors for Third Millennium Alliance, an organization that’s working with local communities to preserve the last remnants of coastal Ecuadorian rainforest.