and MIT

What happens when you combine a defunct prison, a dedicated nonprofit, and creative social innovators from MIT?

Founded in 2011, GrowingChange is a nonprofit  that is breathing new life into the defunct Wagram Correctional Center in North Carolina by transforming the space into a working farm and community center. Visit the GrowingChange website and you’ll see a simple layout that highlights many complex ideas (youth services, farming, the arts, and veterans services, to name a few). Though some volunteers might shy away from tackling such immense topics, the organization’s big ideas are exactly what spurred a group of MIT architecture students to get involved.

This spring, Stephanie Lee (Architecture '19), Joey Swerdlin (Architecture ‘19), Alex Bodkin (Architecture ‘19) and Milan Outlaw (Architecture ‘17) attended a DUSP-sponsored event featuring a presentation by Noran Sanford and Seth Heffern, founder and operations manager of GrowingChange. After seeing Noran and Seth speak so passionately about their work, the group knew they had to be involved.

“Their mission covers so many issues of justice and equity--socially, politically, environmentally,”  said Joey. “We wanted to explore architecture that goes beyond the luxury client that architecture typically serves.”

“Hiring someone to do [architectural] drawings can be expensive so we wanted to help them out however we could,” said Stephanie.

After adding John Fechtel (Architecture ‘19) to the team, the group began to plan how they could help GrowingChange on site. While they were willing to lend their skills and talents free of charge, the MIT team knew that traveling to North Carolina, buying food, and securing lodging would be costly. With a population of just 810 people, Wagram is a far cry from the resources of the Greater Boston area. The team turned to the PKG Center to seek project advice and to apply for financial support to get their boots on the ground. They were soon awarded a LEAP grant that helped to cover some of their larger expenses.

“We’re excited when a grant of a few hundred dollars can help MIT students to put their skills to use in real complex settings, particularly when those projects serve communities that lack easy access to specialist skills such as architectural drawing,” said Alison Hynd, Director of Programs & Fellowship Administrator at the PKG Center. "Projects like this are also a great forum for mutual learning between the students and the community.”

Once they arrived at the project site, the team from MIT spent much of their time collaborating with staff from GrowingChange to help them plan and utilize existing structures and open spaces. “We determined that the roof was structurally sound enough to have a greenhouse on top and we helped them figure out a way to add another community meeting space,” said Joey. “We also helped to plan ‘The Hearth,’ an open-air pavilion formerly used for inmate exercise that will now house a smoker and grill.”

The project was not without its challenges. Modifying existing structures, especially those with such specific connotations, requires different skills than starting from scratch. “We really had to think about ‘how do you let a building preserve a memory but give it a new life?” said Stephanie.

Additionally, as a five-person team, the whole group could not be on the site for the entirety of the project. “Slack helped us to organize ourselves,” said Joey. “Sometimes we were in multiple timezones which presented logistical challenges. When we could all be in the same [virtual] place, it felt really good to do a collective brainstorming so we could push out ideas faster.”

Though their LEAP project period has now ended, Stephanie and Joey hope their work was just the first step toward an ongoing relationship between GrowingChange and the MIT community. “We definitely want MIT to stay involved whether this transforms into a project for a class, or an extracurricular, or a way for GrowingChange to continue to get financial support,” said Stephanie. “I think it’s really nourishing for students to learn in a place that doesn't look like it does here and work with people who have different perspectives and have real architectural needs.”

In their spare time, Joey and Stephanie continue to support GrowingChange remotely. “Working with a nonprofit is difficult because you’re not sure when something will get funding, but it's helpful to have small goals,” added Joey. “Right now we’re making marketing images that help them demonstrate what they are looking to transform.”

Regardless of the service project, Joey (who also received funding through Community Service Work-Study) actively encourages his fellow students to engage with the PKG Center. “If you have a thought or idea about a project, set up a meeting with the PKG,” said Joey. “Have a conversation with the people here and they will definitely work out a way for you to get involved.”