Detroit Collaborative Design Center wins NEA Grant to support Design Futures Student Leadership Forum

May 01, 2018

The Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy recently won a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the 2018 Design Futures Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum. The Detroit Collaborative Design Center at University of Detroit Mercy recently won a $35,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the 2018 Design Futures Public Interest Design Student Leadership Forum. This forum takes place from May 21-25 on the University’s McNichols campus.

This is the sixth year that the NEA has funded this forum. Additionally, this is the first year that Detroit Mercy is hosting the event and the first year the University received NEA funding to support it. This NEA grant will support the development and implementation of the 2018 Design Futures Public Interest Design (PID) Student Leadership Forum hosted in Detroit. The PID Student Leadership Forum is a five-day, interdisciplinary forum that brings together student leaders from across the country with practitioner and University faculty who are leaders in the Public Interest Design Field.

The goal of the Forum is to nurture future leaders in the field of Public Interest Design. The DCDC will work closely with Design Futures to plan and hold the forum. This sixth annual event brings together student leaders from across the country to discuss and explore public interest design — known as PID — both as it is today and what it could be for the future.

Will Wittig, dean of the School of Architecture, believes this nationally recognized NEA grant will bring greater awareness to the program and help to build the 'public interest design' movement in the next generation of architects.

“The Detroit Mercy School of Architecture has always been committed to community engagement and developing graduates who posses deeper insights into the role that the physical environment plays in the health of our communities, and the role they will play as leaders in advancing our cities and neighborhoods in the future. We have also been a national leader in this movement, and we are very pleased to have the opportunity to host the Design Futures Forum, which gives students from across the country access to state-of-the-art practices in the realm of public interest design,” Wittig said.

Detroit Mercy is one of the founding schools behind the forum, but it is the first time the University has hosted the event or won a National Endowment for the Arts Grant to support this endeavor.

“Public interest design is essentially making sure the design of the world around us involves all people, not just those who can afford to build,” explained Dan Pitera, professor of Architecture and executive director of Detroit Mercy’s Detroit Collaborative Design Center (DCDC). “It’s basically what the DCDC has been doing for 25 years, which is why we’re so supportive of this project.”

Only 70 students are chosen from those across the country who apply. The students are chosen from among many disciplines, not just architecture or design. Business and political science students also participate because, Pitera said, “a policy maker can have a major effect on the built environment.”

The only cost for students is transportation and the rest is paid for by the partnership of universities that host the event and grants from several philanthropic foundations.

“The intention of the forum is to be relatively small,” Pitera said. “With only 70 students and 30-40 faculty, we can have the type of conversations over the course of the week that can be inspiring to both student and faculty. We all thrive on that.”

The students return to their colleges and universities inspired to lead and share their knowledge and thoughts about the forum. Pitera said Detroit Mercy students make a presentation based on their experience at the leadership forum.

“The definition of ‘leader’ in our world needs to change,” Pitera explained. “That’s what we’re trying to do here. We help move the student forward and help show what leadership could look like.”

Alumni who have attended in the past have praised the experience as much for what it inspired in them in terms of their profession, but also for what they learned about themselves.

“It made me ask if I have been in the passenger seat or the driver’s seat when it came to my education,” said Jacob Theut ’17, who attended the forum in 2016.

“I worked with a bunch of people who are all concerned about the same thing,” he said. “I learned how to do community meetings and speak to the interests of the neighborhood. It was essentially a weeklong crash course in compassion in design.”

Samantha Szeszulski ’16 attended the forum and said the conference confirmed for her what she said she already knew: “Even more so than design, my passion is for helping people.”

At the forum, “we explored ideas around race, culture, wealth, privilege, gentrification and so much more, as these topics pertain to design, development and the future of the built environment.,” Szeszulski said.

Theut and Szeszulski both said they call on the people they met at Design Futures when approaching an issue with their daily work; both are design professionals working in metro Detroit.

“The values embodied in the Design Futures conference influence my work every day,” Szeszulski said. “If not directly, then by causing me to ask ‘how can we be doing better?’”

To learn more about Detroit Mercy’s School of Architecture, please visit