Maya Bird-Murphy, founder of Chicago Mobile Makers (CMM), considers herself lucky to have grown up in Oak Park, Illinois, home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio. But that’s not the case for many; without having grown up in the shadow of the masterworks, she asks, “Why would you ever think about architecture, or know what it is, or say ‘I want to be an architect’? You would need someone to plant that idea in your head.” She founded her nonprofit organization in 2017 to do just that.

A student makes a collage of what a "healthy community" looks like to her. Photo courtesy CMM

Offering free design programming to children ages 8-18 in diverse Chicago public schools, program facilitators (who are architects or designers) visit classrooms once a week, for up to 10 weeks, at the teacher’s invitation, to lead students through the design process—including mapping and analysis, drawing floor plans, and building models. Leaders choose sites that the students know and have access to—like an intersection outside of the school, for example—so that participants can create positive change for a familiar place.

The organization was built on several questions: “How do we diversify the architecture and design fields? And how do we improve the disinvested communities that have no [prominent] architecture? And then can these things happen simultaneously?” Bird-Murphy believes they can: in 2019 alone, the organization engaged more than 650 youth, most of whom were people of color through over 150 workshops.

The next phase for the young program is converting a former USPS truck into a mobile design studio called the “Makerspace.” The truck will be outfitted with power tools, a laser cutter, and a 3D printer, to facilitate multiple stages of the design process. Bird-Murphy says that she hopes to host a design-build program later this summer, COVID-19 permitting.

Inside the Makerspace, photo © Tom Harris