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Mobile Dreams

Maya Bird-Murphy is creating a new generation of design and architecture changemakers with Chicago Mobile Makers

Chicago Mobile Makers

ON THE ROAD The Chicago Mobile Makers’ Makerspace is a retrofitted USPS van that is tricked out with solar panels, work surfaces, storage space, and design devices such as a laser cutter and 3D printer.

When it comes to turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, few have the unyielding passion necessary to make it happen. In 2017, architect Maya Bird-Murphy did just that—turning an ambitious aspiration born and fleshed out on the pages of her graduate thesis—into reality. Chicago Mobile Makers, a nonprofit organization that offers free and low-cost design and skill-building programs to the Windy City’s youth, is flipping the paradigm of possibilities for a new generation of makers and thought leaders.

“I was surrounded by architecture very early,” says Bird-Murphy. “It was talked about a lot and we had school field trips to Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio—that was my first exposure to architecture.” Bird-Murphy grew up in Oak Park, Illinois—a village that is home to the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures in the country, and she later recognized that she was fortunate to grow up surrounded by diversity and incredible architecture. If history is any indication, the places you live can influence your trajectory—and that is something Chicago Mobile Makers addresses. A summer stint at architecture camp during high school and a subsequent undergrad degree in architecture at Ball State solidified Bird-Murphy’s interest in architecture and design, but it also woke her up to the differences in opportunity available to people of color—she was one of only two black people in her graduating class.

The exploration of public interest design and finding a way to make it—and the field of architecture—feel accessible both economically and socially to all became a motivating influence. While working on her thesis for a Master’s in architecture, Bird-Murphy tackled these issues as well as the notion of making the built environment more equitable, especially in marginalized neighborhoods. A professor with a penchant for identifying good ideas encouraged her to take her vision into the real world. Bird-Murphy did so, thinking: “Why not put this program on wheels?” And so, Chicago Mobile Makers was born.

Chicago Mobile Makers - Maya Bird-Murphy

Founder Maya Bird-Murphy says that the point of the van “is to bring programming and high-tech cool tools directly to communities that cannot necessarily come to us.”

Today, Chicago Mobile Makers offers free and low-cost interactive workshops and skill-building programs that encompass design, architecture, digital fabrication, basic construction, and placemaking in underrepresented Chicago schools and communities. In 2019 alone, the nonprofit hosted more than 150 workshops, reaching more than 670
kids in 10 distinct neighborhoods. The goal, she explains, is to encourage Chicago’s youth to “to become advocates and changemakers, and think and analyze at a systemic level.” Workshops, which can range from a few hours to eight week courses, cover useful skills such as how to use various power tools, 3D printing, and how to fabricate, build, and design objects. But most of all, it teaches them how to problem solve. “We are always using our hands, no matter what we’re doing,” says Bird-Murphy. “We’re always drawing, and learning how to communicate through drawing or speaking.” Students are also taught how to create design proposals—allowing them to have a voice and learn how to turn a concept into a fully fleshed-out idea.

In June of 2020, the Chicago Mobile Makers Makerspace—a retrofitted, 108-square-foot former USPS delivery van replete with a boosted electrical system that includes four rooftop solar panels to provide renewable energy, ample work surfaces, and storage for all sorts of design tools including a laser cutter and a 3D Printer—debuted. The point of the truck, explains Bird-Murphy, “is to bring programming and high-tech cool tools directly to communities that cannot necessarily come to us.” A winner of Chicago’s inaugural Design Impact Grant— an award started to provide project-specific grants to individuals and organizations addressing pressing issues in Chicago’s communities through design—Bird-Murphy used some of the funds to finish her tricked-out design van. The rest will fund a design/build program on the South or West side of Chicago. The grant is a key component of Designing a Better Chicago, an initiative organized and supported by NeoCon and theMART, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), and the Design Museum of Chicago. “The grant program is awesome,” says Bird-Murphy. “To have these really big Chicago-based names invest dollars into these types of projects and have them focused on literally ‘designing a better Chicago’ is amazing.” Cities, she explains, “have the capabilities of providing something for everyone, only if and when they build for everyone.”

As for future plans? Bird-Murphy is hoping to create a permanent hub for all of the organization’s making needs. But ultimately, she says, “the hope for Chicago Mobile Makers is that some of these kids become changemakers in their communities later in life.”