MAYA Volunteer Day: A Few Hours Can Make a Big Difference

August 16, 2016 in Notes from the Field
Bridget Monahan
Senior Designer & Researcher

Recently, the Human Sciences team left the office for a day of manual labor and ditch digging—literally. This summer’s team volunteer effort involved working for a day with GTECH [Growth Through Energy and Community Health] Strategies, a nonprofit dedicated to both green space and community development—turning vacant spaces into green places with help and input from community members. We worked with the GreenPlayces Wilkinsburg project where the GTECH team is engaged with Hosanna House to turn a hillside area into an educational and recreational space for children. The two main efforts for the day involved digging into the land to build amphitheater-style seating in front of a chalk-board/teaching space, and painting used tires brilliant shades of yellow, blue and green and then inserting those into the hillside for climbing and play activities.

Like many, we work inside, in front of computers for most of our day. So a day in the sun, working with our hands, lifting and moving dirt was welcome. So, too, was the ability to see how just a few hours of concentrated labor can produce change. What happened throughout the day was incremental progress. Similar to how we work when we design, it was an iterative process of digging and testing to see if the wood was level. By the time we left, there were colored tires anchored in the hillside and planks of wood for seating emerging from the earth where there had been nothing before.

Incremental Progress and Collaboration

What also happened that day was highly collaborative. What alleviated the difficulty, the sweat, and the back-breaking time were the people with whom we worked. As a Human Sciences team, dedicated to understanding people’s behaviors and motivations, we might be more predisposed to appreciating the human element. But it’s never obvious how teams might gel and work together. The GTECH team we worked alongside was thoughtful, hard-working, and fun to be around. Near the end of the day, we had two additional helpers from the neighborhood join us. These girls, ages 7 and 9, were amazing. They jumped right into the fray, asking what they could do to help as part of the team.

Important Reminders, Foundational Truths

  1. Incremental progress can be slow and hard, but it is progress. You can see evidence of your efforts.
  2. You’ve got to start with a good foundation. It was important that we build on top of a level surface, for both of the efforts. Our work would not have been worth much if the materials weren’t set level into the ground, if the seating and tire steps ended up slanted.
  3. With good communication, even a team with members who never met before can do great work together.

These aren’t brilliant new insights. More like important reminders; foundational truths. Things that were made much easier to see and remember because we were working with our hands and shovels and dirt. Our field, design and technology innovation, so often feels dizzyingly fast. But the day-to-day is similar—we make incremental progress along product or service goals. We design and test, design and test, design and test to make sure our efforts come out right. The end result may be a big change, a break from how things were before, but the process of getting there is always incremental and collaborative.

A great team + the right tools = a great project!

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