In our latest alumni interview, we catch up with former students Kimberly Pelkofsky (1983) and Shareen Elnaschie (1980), who completed our program in 2013. Two years ago, they started up their own NGO, an architecture and design organization that facilitates skills sharing with refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos. Read on to learn about how they founded the initiative and how they are supporting learning and boosting professional opportunities in design for refugees.
Name: Kimberly Pelkofsky / Shareen Elnaschie
Age: 35 / 38
Nationality: USA / UK + USA
Occupation: co-founders of Office of Displaced Designers
Location: Lesvos, Greece
What have you done since graduating from our program?
K: After graduating Shareen and I returned to our home countries and took up positions similar to the ones we had before the masters, with the added goal of funding a collaboration together. We combined our portfolios and pursued a couple of different grants, research projects, and competitions to see what would take off. We learned a lot during that time, refining what was important to us and thinking about how we wanted to work. Then in 2016, the opportunity arose to pilot the Office of Displaced Designers.
Tell us about how it all started.
K+S: Becoming co-founders of an NGO really came about as a result of being open to all kinds of opportunities as they arose. The day to day reality of that position is extremely varied and because we’re such a small team, it naturally means we’re involved in all aspects of the organization.
After the initial pilot project we knew we needed to formalize in order to access funds in the form of donations and grants to institutions. We registered in the UK as a restricted charitable fund under the auspices of a UK charity called Prism the Gift Fund. They essentially act as a fiscal sponsor, ensuring our compliance with UK charity law and providing transparency for our activities. They take a small percentage of the money we raise to cover their service costs.
How did you fund it?
K: We agreed to make an initial investment with our own funds. Our goal was to see what we could make of ODD in one year and then re-evaluate. Once we formalized, we launched a fundraising campaign which added to our seed money. Most of the contributions came from our family and social circles. An R+D grant from the European Cultural Foundation and support from Civic, a change accelerator, with whom we are collaborating on a community mapping initiative, helped secure our first year and then some.
S: ODD is still run on a 100% volunteer basis. In order to secure our future sustainability, I have recently registered a Community Interest Company in the UK, Displaced Designers CIC, which provides the legal framework to undertake relevant commissioned work internationally, with taxable profits going back into the charity.
Tell us more about what your work involves.
K+S: We try and divide the work in ways that plays to our individual strengths and interests. When it comes to program development I take the lead on technical/ practical projects and Shareen leads research and mentoring. For the administrative work Shareen focuses on the legal and accounting aspects while I tackle data management and human resources.
For the past two years we’ve been hosting design workshops that have related to the built environment, protection, and/or cultural understanding. Last year we won a R+D grant from the European Cultural Foundation for the Alternative Atlas of Lesvos. We piloted a mentorship program that paired aspiring designers with more established professionals in a specific design field. We shifted the focus of our role from skills facilitators to connections facilitators. Over the course of three months nine pairs of mentors and proteges got to know each other and develop individual projects- focusing on the specific goals of the proteges. Most of the pairs were remote, and it was a great opportunity for the proteges (many of whom are not permitted to leave the island) to expand their network to include designers across the globe. We’re continuing to facilitate connections with the development of a digital prototype of a mapping tool that aims to unlock the potential of the island, to promote co-creation, and spark new ideas.
Are you living full-time in Lesvos?
K: Over the last two years I’ve spent a year in Lesvos in total. I haven’t been able to secure a long-term visa, so I’ve been “commuting”. I spend six weeks on Lesvos then six weeks out. I’ve used this time to visit other countries in the region and work remotely.
S: After a lot of initial back and forth between Lesvos and London, I have been living in Mytilene full time since Easter 2017.
In what ways did the master program influence your professional life?
K: For me the impact of the masters on my professional life is pretty obvious. Very early on in the program Shareen and I were placed together on a group project that was looking at the challenges faced by those living on the periphery of Barcelona, in Ciutat Meridiana. We clicked instantly and haven’t stopped collaborating since. But beyond that, the diversity of the students in our year exposed me to new working styles, resources, and references that I wouldn’t have otherwise known.
S: I was particularly drawn to the practical aspects of the masters program and for me the internship was a highlight. I worked with a small NGO based in Manila, Philippines, called TAO Pilipinas. They are a technical assistance organisation supporting informal settler communities. Whilst there I was able to contribute to research on social housing models and support community led mapping and upgrading projects. I really appreciated their community centered approach and found it inspiring to see how careful they were about ensuring that all their decisions were for the best of the communities they were working with. They are great role models and that experience has played a big part in shaping how I work now.
Tell us one of your most memorable experiences related to your work.
S: In one of the first workshops we held, we were discussing resilience and vulnerability. There was a moment when a refugee and a local were talking about quite personal events. They realized through this discussion that even though the causes of their vulnerabilities were quite different in terms of context, their experiences of it were very similar. Both had lost someone close: one through war, one through illness. It was a touching moment and really highlighted the importance of giving opportunities for people to connect across cultures in meaningful ways.
Are there any mistakes you have learned from?
K+S: Saying “yes” too often! Being open to opportunities means saying yes a lot and in the beginning we said “yes” to almost every potential project that came our way as part of our testing period. It was exhausting but we were negotiating uncharted territory on the island. People didn’t really know what to make of us. Now we’re much more clear on our ethos and have a tested methodology. We are able to apply those lessons in our decision-making process and say “no” to projects that fall outside of our vision with more confidence.
What have you found to be the most challenging aspects of your job or of working in development in general?
K+S: Lesvos is still a transit setting so we have seen needs, interests and people change a lot over time. The island is very much caught between emergency relief and development. Short-term planning and reactionary responses are still the norm more than two years after the EU-Turkey deal and the height of arrivals to the island. It’s incredibly frustrating. You can see how with a little imagination it would be possible to create opportunities for everyone to flourish. We are constantly trying to push for long-term approaches and solutions while evaluating if what we are doing is still relevant and if not how we can innovate. It’s difficult to find truly sustainable solutions when the underlying politics of how emergencies and refugees are perceived remain unchanged.
What advice would you give to our students or anyone interested in a similar career path?
K+S: Just go for it. It is very rare that circumstances will ever be “perfect” enough that it will be a comfortable decision to strike out own your own. But that uncertainty is also a great motivator to keep pushing yourself. If you think of projects as experiments, this gives you the permission you need to take risks and fail forward.