Tag: Design

Reflections: The Bridge Builder

Reflections: The Bridge Builder

By Julia Thompson, Ph.D.

Recently I’ve been seeking ways to facilitate spaces that intersect the technical and the heart. I eventually want to run retreats on the topic.

A few weeks ago, I met with two close friends with similar spiritual and engineering tendencies. I wanted to talk about doing a workshop together, building off the Courage and Renewal (C&R) framework. I talked through a current C&R facilitator in preparation.

We ended up talking through the poem, The Bridge Builder (below). This poem refers to an older man, who builds a bridge, to help those coming behind him bypass the difficulties that he faced.

I love this poem because it speaks to all of us who are creating a world, in hopes to help others and, in the process, help ourselves. We can use this poem as a way to talk about ourselves and the bridges we are building, both metaphorically and physically.

I want to build a bridge that supports individuals to live out their calling in life. Engineering is often not seen as a job that is connected to personal calling, and those who may see it as such rarely discern their work as one who is a minister might.

Yet, I argue much of engineering has a deep impact on the world. Engineers ought to see how their design, their analysis ,and work contributes to the world they seek to live. I believe only when all jobs are sacred, we can start to heal the world we are living in.

We are going to meet again next week, talk about another poem, and invite others to join.

What bridge are you building?

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide. 
“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!


Useful reflective prompts:

What part of the poem stuck out to you?

Who are you in this poem?

Where are you in this poem?

What is the chasm?

Who is the young man following behind?




Photo: “The Sunset Boulevard Bridge Spokane WA: from Empire Builder” by  Loco Steve license under CC2.0

Quakerism and Design: Creating community – Reblogged

Quakerism and Design: Creating community – Reblogged

Pickett Endowment Grantee Blog: Quakerism and Design: Creating community: By Julia Thompson

In April to mid-June, I was working with an organization called Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) to support the design and build process of an outdoor art space referred to as an ArtLot.  YSA is an organization that is committed to empowering homeless and low-income youth through art job training in Berkeley, California.

My personal passion is to explore the intersection of engineering and spirituality. I hold a Ph.D., and have researched extensively using service-learning as a way to teach engineering skills. The Pickett fellowship has allowed me to expand on this work, and to work directly with a community on a design project, one that was rooted in Quaker values.

Through this experience, I was able to work with youth, staff, community members, and architects to push forward the design and build of the ArtLot.  We threw out rubbish that had been collecting in the area, weeded, stained benches, stabilized benches, and built trellises.  We had a number of meetings to discuss the space, and volunteer days to get things built.

Personally, the experience has given me a lot of insight into my gifts and limitations. I experienced the chaos, mess, and love that are present through life. Below are three lessons: my problem-solving mindset, me as a community organizer, and a valuable lesson of homelessness and God.

The ArtLot when I arrived (April 2016)


Two youth using the space to practice poetry and music 


My Problem-Solving Mindset

There were a number of things that needed to be figured out associated with building the ArtLot, and I loved putting on my brainstorming hat and can-do attitude to accomplish these tasks.  For example, there were beautiful benches, which had been designed by an architect student, and there had been a series of volunteer days to build them before I got there.  One of the first weeks I was there, a number of volunteers worked with youth to stain them. However, there were a number of structural issues with the benches.  The benches were designed to fold up, yet the front legs would collapse if you leaned back, the bench was wobbly, and the front legs were shorter than the back – each one being different heights. One of the professional architects and I examined them closely and figured out a way to make them stable. First, we measured each front leg to determine how far off the ground it was. Based on this measurement, we cut off that height from the associated back leg. We also attached nylon webbing and made it taught to reduce the wobble and make sure the front legs would not collapse. Currently, all the benches are relatively flat and stable.  This process of identifying an issue, figuring out a solution, and following through with it, was completely satisfying, and I recognize this as something that aligns well with my gifts and skill sets.

The benches
The volunteer day where we constructed the trellises

Me as a community organizer

This experience was a bit more than I expected. I put myself out there on a number of occasions and felt drained when things did not go as planned. Many times I felt like I was pushing the project too fast, and others were not as interested in being engaged. In the process, I learned a lot about myself; however, I often felt that I had jumped into the deep end.

I would like my next experience to be more in the terms of wading. I am opening myself to opportunities to assist in facilitation experiences, working under mentors who have gifts and experience of holding space. Also, I want to work with communities who have a desire and intention to be present.

My current goal is to run retreats in the next three to five years where artists, designers, architects, engineers, and others can reflect on what it means to build the world with integrity.

Raising up the trellises

God and Homelessness

I would say the most profound lesson I learned about homelessness was talking to one young man.  He arrived in Berkeley from New Jersey, following a meditation guru. He spoke of his love for this guru, and his devotion to meditation and yoga.  Up until that point, there was a naïve and arrogant part of me that believed that it was only through my privilege in this world that I was able to seek God the way I have, and strive to live out my vocation. As I talked to this man, I was touched and I recognized how human is this urge which I have, and how it is not limited by wealth and privilege. We are all children of God.

Community event- Voices Unfliltered: An art exhibition of Humanity (August 6, 2016)

Overall, I am extremely appreciative for this opportunity and the incredible support from various communities. Many people supported me in various ways throughout this journey, from holding me in the Light to giving me places to stay.  I am deeply blessed and utterly grateful.

Designing with communities – a bit of advice

Designing with communities – a bit of advice

A few weeks ago a friend of mine told me about Clear Village, an organization based in London that, “provides creative regeneration services to social landlords, local councils, community groups, funding agents and other organisations that work with communities.

Clear village appeared to have completed projects akin to the proposed work with YSA, so I reached out to them and talked with Frank van Hasselt. Frank had plenty of experience working with community projects and was a gold mine of information.  Here are a few things we talked about.

1. Get clarity of the larger aspirations

Way of Being: introspective, sincere

The first advice he gave was to have clear aspirations for the space. Have the community members articulate their core rationale. For example, one of the components is a stage –  What is it about the stage that people are interested in? Is it to have community functions? To give young adults a space to tell their stories?

By articulating these rationales, the project has a clear goal. Different people designing may be bogged down on details, like size or color of an item, and so clarity on the larger goals will create a sense of unity. If everyone agrees that we want a space to come together, we can go back to that goal while figuring out the size and color. Additionally, these larger aspirations can be used to figure out the appropriate monitoring and evaluation protocols (advice #3)

Overall, I see the process of articulating the larger aspirations as an opportunity for the community to reflect on their deeper values. I would hope that we can talk about the importance of creating space for community, sustainability, equality, etc. in our local environment, and then expand this notion to the world. Additionally, the process is an opportunity for the youth to learn project management and professional skills, important life lessons for job training (a desired outcome of YSA).

2. Creative Phase

Ways of being: quirky, fun, joyful

Once there is a clarity in the aspirations for the group, we can start the creative phase. Using brainstorming techniques (with a lot of post-it notes and large paper), along with case studies of other projects, we can think of ways to create those desired outcomes through physical space and programming. To find case studies and potential sources for workshop material, we talked about simple google searches, Project for Public Spaces, and the IDEO.

Honestly, I am more nervous of this phase, and I do not know how much work YSA has done thus far. I perceive my strengths are in the reflective space. I love being creative, and can get there… but it is not as natural. I may connect with friends and colleagues, to get some thoughts on how to harness this type of creativity.

3.Fundraising and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E)

We also discussed the importance of M&E for fundraising now and in the future. I did not mention this in the conversation, but this was a large interest of mine during my time working for a Jive Media in South Africa. I would definitely like to make a solid M&E plan so that I can have that experience and added benefit to YSA. In our conversation, we went through the things that they gather within their organization and the general importance of data.

Qualitative data: The basic information that should be gathered is the stories and testimonials after the project. How did the project impact the youth’s lives? This can be done through audio recording, through videos, or having them record themselves.

Quantitative analysis: Gathering data over time, such as the impact of the project on the youth’s confidence, teamwork, job prospects, etc. are important. This is where identifying the aspirations from above really help. We are essentially gathering evidence that the project achieved the desired aspirations. Asking the same question over time, or giving surveys are useful, and funders greatly appreciate it.

4.General advice

  • In facilitation, make sure that everyone’s voice is included and heard
  • There is generally more work than it looks like
  • Make sure everyone’s on the same page on desired goals
  • Governance can be tricky – specifically when it comes to juggling different stakeholders desires and expectations
  • Having people hyped about the project makes everything go smoother
  • The community experience will change project to project, sometimes it works well, and sometimes not… its part of the process
  • Have designers and experts in the creative phase to assist in the design phase and provide input on what is feasible.


Image source: “Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept” by Scott Maxwell is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Quaker Design Process: Making Place and Space with Youth in Berkeley, CA

Quaker Design Process: Making Place and Space with Youth in Berkeley, CA

I have had a spiritual leading (i.e. calling) to look at the intersection of spirituality and design for some time. One of my interests is exploring a communal design process that is grounded in Quaker values.

This leading integrates my dissertation research and my spiritual convictions. My research was on the motivations, structures, and the nature of engineering community engagement partnerships. Specifically, I analyzed the interactions and activities between engineering service-learning programs and communities. The nature of interactions can be described by the Transactional, Cooperative, and Communal (TCC) Framework. In transactional interactions, there is a heightening of the boundary between the community and the program; an “us” and “them” relationship is present. In Cooperative interactions, the boundary between the community and the program were intentionally blurred, and the community members and program members came together, each offering skills and expertise to the project. In Communal interactions the roles of the individuals are transcended and different participants groups are connected through deeper needs of the individual and community as a whole. In these interactions and activities the individuals saw beyond an “us” and “them” and recognized the process as a “we,”developed friendships, and gained a sense of ownership.

As the title suggests, my spiritual convictions are connected to Quakerism (I also have a mindfulness meditation practice). For those of you that do not know Quakers,  some of the fundamental testimonies are: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship of the Earth (note: there is discussion among Quaker spaces that these testimonies simplify an integrated experience of God, and should not be categorized, yet I believe the categories do help in the understanding of Quakers). There is also a tradition of going inward to listen to that of God within each of us.  So when thinking of design, I am wondering what technology may look like when we take these Quaker values, within a community, and design something. What beautiful things can we create together!

A few months ago, I reached out to some Quaker connections to see if anyone was interested in exploring the intersection of Quakerism and design. I was introduced to the Director of Youth Spirit Artworks– an interfaith organization that supports over 50 low income and homeless youth in green job training. She is a Quaker and well known as a homeless activist in the San Francisco Bay Area. The community has identified a number of projects they want to build, and interested in working with me. From there, I submitted an application for a Pickett Fellowship, an endowment that supports Young Quakers to follow their leadings.

In early April, I will be attending Strawberry Creek meeting as a Pickett Fellow. During this time, I hope to (1) educate youth on professional skills and sustainability concepts, (2) build communal art space in an under-resourced community using repurposed and sustainably sourced materials, and (3) strengthen community through empowerment, networking, and relationship building.

More specifically, I have identified three projects that I will work on during this time:

  1. Supporting and mentoring youth through a project-based learning experience that integrates sustainability concepts into the design of an art lot (a community outdoor art space located in the picture below). The youth have already identified components, including an art fence, gate, stage, barbecue pit, and a tiny home that they would like to build on a lot they lease. Through this project, the youth will be divided into groups to lead and manage the design of one of the components. They will be asked to: reflect on what sustainability means within the scope of their work, use participatory design brainstorm methods, and research environmentally sustainable materials. When appropriate, the youth will practice mindfulness in nature and contemplative practices for design inspiration. Based on their research, youthful leaders will make design decisions for the projects.

    Future home of the community outdoor art space
  2. Plan, coordinate, and organize volunteer days to build the designs initiated by the youthful leaders. The YSA is affiliated with a number of other religious groups who have already stated that they would like to support the construction of an outdoor Art Space (i.e. the fence, gate, stage, tiny home, and barbecue pit) through volunteer support. I will work with the youth and contractors to plan and support these build days. This includes clarification of which steps can be done through volunteers, and what needs to be done through licensed contractors to ensure the safety of the builds. Members of Strawberry Creek, Berkeley Friends Church, and Berkeley meeting will be asked to volunteer for these builds.
  3. Connect with Quakers to host a series of gatherings on weekends and/or evenings where we will worshipfully design a project together. Members of BFC, Strawberry Creek, and Berkeley meeting will be invited to attend. This process will include: sitting in worship, listening to what we are guided to build, discerning, seeing if the design holds true to our values, and working together to build the design.


I am excited about this opportunity, and also saddened to leave my partner who will be staying back and finishing her dissertation. I hope that this opportunity feeds my deep hunger to be in vibrant spiritual community, and that it will open more doors for me to find a job and be able to move back to the East Bay. Leaving my partner is hard, and there is an emptiness to think about being there without her.

Would you like to help?

The Pickett Fellowship was able to support my travel and part of my cost of living. A Friend has also said I can stay with her from April 23rd to May 17th. I am in need of a few things: (1) a place to stay near Berkeley, CA from April 5th to April 23rd, and from May 18th to June 10th, (2) volunteers to help build the designs that the youth create, (3) Quakers to participate in a Quaker design process, (4) insight or suggestions based on experience of doing communal design process, and (5) funding for the materials for the projects that the youth design.

Personal Background

I grew up in the South Bay, and have an undergraduate degree from UC Berkeley in chemical engineering. In the pursuit of this degree, I had a personal epiphany that engineering curriculum did not include the social context. I realized that this was detrimental to our society because students were trained with highly technical skills, but were unaware of the social implications. Since that time my personal leading has been to contribute to our society by bridging the gap between technology and its social impact. After working for a few years as an energy consultant in Downtown Oakland, I decided to further my education. As a Ph.D. student in engineerign education at Purdue University in Indiana, I found Quakerism and became a Convinced Friend. I started to get involved in the wider Quaker community, including Quaker organizations that focus on the environment and lobbying at the federal level. My dissertation research focused on the partnerships that formed in engineering community engagement programs at three sites in the United States. I am using this fellowship as a way to explore my passions, and see opportunities to move back to the Bay Area.