Recently featured on Barnard’s campus online magazine, we get a close look at Lulu Mickelson (’14 Urban Studies. Concentration: American History)

What has been your role with Design for America? 

After my first year on campus, I was frustrated with the top-down approach to community service most student organizations employed. I felt like undergrads were volunteering a few hours and calling it a day, slapping a band-aid on local issues rather engaging with the complex nature of our community’s shortcomings.

Sophomore year I co-founded Design for America (DFA) as a way to re-imagine college community service. We partner passionate, interdisciplinary teams of Barnard and Columbia students with community partners to develop a product, system, or program that helps address a local issue in a more sustainable manner. We move beyond the classroom to harness the next generation of American social entrepreneurs, using our energy and resources as college students to design and implement local, tangible projects collaboratively with our community.

After two years of serving as Co-President for the Barnard-Columbia DFA Studio, I have the pleasure of watching the organization thrive in the hands of an incredibly talented and visionary Student Exec Board. I am serving as “Senior Advisor” for my last year on campus, helping usher in the next generation of social impact designers to our campus.

What’s the most interesting and special part of bringing Design for America to Barnard/Columbia? 

Consistently, I am in awe of the power and potential of student creativity.

Starting our third year on campus, we have over thirty students working on nine community projects: prototyping board games to improve the quality of instruction in PS/ MS 135 classrooms, implementing re-designed condom packaging in three Harlem clinics, creating interactive waste receptacles to improve recycling rates, and developing a product line to encourage healthy eating in local after school programs.

We just completed our Fall 2013 DFA Retreat, a day-long event that introduces the thirty-five student members of our DFA Studio to the “human-centered design process” that we use as our DFA road map for social innovation. As part of the event, our students had to put the process to the test by developing solutions to a local, real world issue. In just three hours, DFA studio members had developed seven viable options for making food trucks and carts in NYC more sustainable.

All this go to show that exciting progress within our community is possible when you give passionate young citizens a platform to think critically and creatively about the problems they see around them.

When did you first get interested in this kind of social activism work? 

For better or for worse, I have never possessed the ability to be apathetic. When I encounter something broken or unjust in the world, I immediately start to problem solve. I just can’t help myself. And when I believe I have the insight, means, and energy to fix a problem, I often jump in head-first to take action.

As freshman in a massive Sothern California high school, I was disgusted to see the streets around my campus clogging with traffic and reeking of exhaust during school pick-up and drop-off hours while a measly twenty bikes filled the school racks. To encourage the use of alternative transportation among students and faculty, I helped ignite the Bike It Initiative, which served as my first foray into local community organizing. By the time I graduated, over 100 bikes filled the racks of my high school reach day, 3000 participants chose to go car-free on district-wide Bike It Days, and we had won a $1 million Safe Routes to School Grant from the California Department of Transportation to underwrite bike-friendly infrastructure in our city.

How do you see your work with DFA influencing your future career?

My time with Design for America has solidified my interest in working professionally on issues of urban innovation and local problem solving. For the past few semesters, I have served on a DFA Project exploring the ways in which development and construction impact urban communities, particularly focused on Columbia University’s expansion into the Manhattanville neighborhood of West Harlem. Based on this challenging and rewarding experience, I plan to work within or in collaboration with local government to help build more vibrant and participatory communities in New York City once I graduate.

What’s one thing that working for DFA has taught you about yourself and the world? 

Invest in people. Design for America presents a more sustainable model for social impact – instead of volunteering a few hours, we work collaboratively to create tools that can address issues long-term. While I love this methodology, launching and leading DFA has taught me that it really comes down to the people. I believe that empowering others to be engaged members of their communities serves as the most sustainable way to make the world a better place. I am thankful to have had the opportunity to create an organization that invests in students’ change-making, teaching and inspiring undergrads to engage as life-long problem-solvers in the world.

 Now for some fun questions:

Favorite Place to Study on Campus? 

When I want to be distracted, Joe Coffee or Brownie’s Cafe in the basement of Avery. To get down to business, the wood-paneled fourth floor of the Union Theological Seminary Library serves as my secret retreat.

Favorite Restaurant on Campus? 

Jin Ramen on 125th and Broadway has become my go-to option around campus – love the ramen as well as their pork buns and tofu salad. I also like that it serves as a watering hole for Columbians and Harlemites alike.

Go-To way to keep yourself warm in the winter? 

I always have a thermos of green tea for those winter morning classes. When out on the town, Irish Coffee and Hot Toddies are fun seasonal treats.

Favorite band?

This is a tough one. I actually DJ a music program for WBAR Radio, so my list of favorite artists is always in flux. Right now, I am listening to the new EP from Solange and I am also loving Wild Nothing – I think their album Nocturne was my unofficial soundtrack for the summer. Quick personal plug, you can tune into on Sunday from 10pm to midnight to catch my show this semester!