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Lender Center Fellowship Offers Students an Opportunity to ‘Work Locally, Think Globally’
About three years ago, Seyeon Lee was invited by CenterState CEO, an economic development organization in Syracuse, to help design a women’s wellness center on the North Side of the city.
Lee, an associate professor of environmental and interior design in the School of Design in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA), met with northside residents to conduct what is known as a design charrette—a wide-ranging discussion to determine if the design of the building matches the needs of the people who are going to use it.
The Northside Women’s Wellness Center, which is run by the Central New York YMCA, opened in the fall of 2020 as “a welcoming and accessible space in the heart of the North Side, where women from all socio-economic backgrounds, ages, and ethnicities can purse wellness,” according to the center’s website.
That was the goal, but is that the reality? Is the center being utilized as intended, and if not, what else can be done to maximize its use? And what lessons from that building can be applied to other spaces in the city that are available to residents but not necessarily accessible?
Those are the questions that will be asked and answered by Lee and a group of Syracuse University students who will be selected to participate in the 2021-23 Lender Center for Social Justice Fellowship. This is the Lender Center’s third fellowship and Lee will follow Casarae Lavada Abdul-Ghani and Jonnell Robinson as faculty fellows for the program that was created to critically explore contemporary social issues and develop sustainable solutions to pressing problems.
“The core idea of this is, how can we use this space as a hub and connect it with other parts of the community?” says Lee, who is also the George Miller Quasi Endowed Professor in the School of Design. “There is a ton of community space that is underutilized, a lot of pockets of opportunities that are lost, and that’s where I would look to engage with the students with their different perspectives and backgrounds.”
Kendall Phillips, co-director of the Lender Center, says the two-year timetable for the fellowships is to allow for the faculty fellow and student fellows to spend a year identifying a problem and the next year trying to fix it. He said Lee’s project fits nicely with the previous fellowships that focused on justice messages on social media, and designing more equitable food systems.
“This new focus on health and wellness for women demonstrates how widespread issues of social justice are in our contemporary world,” says Phillips, a communication and rhetorical studies professor in VPA. “This new project will explore these issues of global importance here in Syracuse, which is a great example of working locally while thinking globally.”
The fellowship is open to any Syracuse University undergraduate or graduate student who can commit to the two-year project, and selected students will receive a stipend of $500 per year. For interested students, or faculty and staff who know students who are passionate about social justice, more information is available on the Lender Center Fellowship application page. Five students will be chosen, and the application deadline is Oct. 15.
Emily Stokes-Rees, director of the School of Design and an associate professor in the Museum Studies Graduate Program in VPA, says Lee is enthusiastic about teaching and mentoring students about the many ways design can have far-reaching effects by working for a social good.
“Perhaps the most important thing to know about Seyeon’s research is that underpinning all of her work is a passion and commitment to social justice and sustainability,” Stokes-Rees says. “It is part of who she is—her core values—and it infuses every aspect of her academic life.”
Lee says that while the title of her research that led to this fellowship is “Access to Women’s Wellness,” she wants to emphasize that the fellowship is not about women’s fitness. Lee encourages students of any gender identity from across the University to apply because the project will require many talents and viewpoints.
“It’s all-around wellness: physical wellness, mental wellness, what’s happening in the family, what’s happening outside of the family, child care, does the child have access to better education and extracurricular activities?” Lee says. “With the dynamics and characteristics of the North Side neighborhood, we have found it’s the women, the moms, who really need this type of access.”
The student fellows will observe wellness and health opportunities in the North Side neighborhoods, talk to residents and work in partnership with local nonprofits YMCA, YWCA and Hopeprint, a family empowerment organization, to identify and help close the gaps between wellness and health opportunities available in that community.
Stokes-Rees says Lee has a history of involving her students in every aspect of her work and exposing them to community-based projects. Over the past four years, these projects have ranged from researching and designing sustainable low-income housing to creating a fully accessible community garden to improving access to health and wellness services for low-income, ethnically diverse women.
“One specific example of this is a project she undertook with her EDI 451 Community Design Project class, in which Seyeon and her students transformed vacant houses into transitional refugee homes for a local organization, Interfaith Works, learning about the impact of abandoned properties on the local economy and the lives of refugee families,” Stokes-Rees says. “Having the opportunity to cultivate empathy and relatedness are indispensable values in a university education that prepares students to be professionals as well as civic-minded global citizens.”
For Lee, the faculty fellowship connects her love of design with her passion for social justice. A former architectural and interior designer and project manager, her professional portfolio includes residential, commercial, retail, hospitality and urban planning projects in the United States, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
While working on a Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, Lee studied ways to improve the quality of living for low-income families. And she spent much of her professional design career on affordable housing development.
But often, Lee says, the missing piece in design and architectural work is the voice of the people who will be utilizing those spaces. The 2021-23 Lender Center Faculty Fellowship will give her and the student fellows an opportunity to listen to those voices and impact those lives.
“As I was proceeding with this project, I came about a lot of areas that I didn’t know about–a lot of social issues, a lot of political issues, a lot of about social justice and equity issues that are all wrapped in this topic,” Lee says. “The Lender Fellowship allows me to explore social equity and access from a design standpoint and engage students through participatory learning so they really understand what’s happening in our backyard.”
An informational meeting for any student—undergraduate or graduate—who is interested in learning more about the 2021-2023 Lender Center for Social Justice Fellowship will be held from 4 to 5:30 p.m. Sept. 27 in Sims Hall 123. For more information on the informational session or to apply for a fellowship, visit the Lender Center website.