Interview with Rosemary Dolata, LHB
This week's local activist architect is Rosemary Dolata, an architect with LHB, Inc. in Minneapolis. Rosie has been active with the AIA's Search for Shelter charrette and is also very involved in her local neighborhood organization. Here are her responses to our interview:
Activist Architect: Please describe the type of activism you participate in.
Rosemary Dolata: My “activism” primarily focuses on the issues of affordable housing and homelessness, and sustainable design. Two places where my passion has found a home are the Kingfield Neighborhood of Minneapolis and the A.I.A. (American Institute of Architects) Minnesota Housing Advocacy Committee.
In my Minneapolis neighborhood, I have been very instrumental in guiding redevelopment policy. As a neighborhood organization, we have implemented a “Kingfield Neighborhood Affordable Housing Statement” and “Kingfield Neighborhood Design & Development Guidelines.” These tools, combined with a proactive redevelopment committee and supportive board of directors, have allowed us to develop positive relationships with developers, resulting in new housing opportunities within the neighborhood.
As a member of the Housing Advocacy Committee, I have helped to facilitate 15 Search for Shelter Design Charrettes. These charrettes connect volunteer design professionals and students with agencies serving poor and homeless people. The pro bono designs created over the span of a weekend allow these agencies to better serve their clients and envision new facilities and homes.
AA: When did you get involved with this activity? What inspired you to participate?
RD: A bit of serendipity led me to the Kingfield Neighborhood Association. In 2001 an individual approached the A.I.A. Minnesota Volunteer Clearinghouse seeking assistance in evaluating a vacant nursing home as the potential site for a residence intended to help transition young people from foster care to independent adulthood. My role was supposed to be to find a volunteer. But looking at the project I saw myself. My architectural thesis project had been creating housing for homeless youth. I lived in the same neighborhood as the proposed site. And, at work I was beginning a project reclaiming a vacant nursing home for affordable housing.
After visiting the facility, I attended my first neighborhood meeting with the visionary foster mother leading the project. At that meeting, I learned about a proposal to raze two single family homes in order to make space for a parking lot. I raised my hand and asked the property owners to please consider relocating, rather than land-filling, the houses. I offered to make some phones calls. And, thus it began. Before I knew it, I was part of an affordable housing group and a member of the redevelopment committee. In 2003, I was elected to the board of directors. When the office came open mid-year, I was selected to be the vice president.
My initial connection to the A.I.A. Minnesota Housing Advocacy Committee (formerly the Search for Shelter Steering Committee) in 1991, was much more straight forward and took the form of old-fashion arm twisting. As a basic design student (pre-architecture), I had had Dennis Grebner as a professor. Dennis was one of the original organizers of Search for Shelter in the mid-1980’s. He recruited many of his students and former students each year to participate in the annual design charrettes. Recognizing that I had a particularly strong interest in homelessness and affordable housing, Dennis invited me to join the steering committee and even provided transportation for me from the University to International Market Square for the monthly meetings. I’ve been an active member of the committee ever since, including being the committee’s publication editor for many years.
AA: Is this something that you do as part of you professional practice, or something that you do 'on the side'? If it is something on the side, does it influence your professional practice?
RD: The activities I’ve described here are both “on the side;” however, my volunteer life and work life very closely parallel one another. In my professional role at LHB, I work exclusively on housing projects, the overwhelming majority of which are created specifically for low-income renters and home owners. I think my professional work experience helps my volunteer work and visa versa.
AA: We are interested in those times that an architect steps of the 'normal' role of architectural practice. Do you feel that it is important for architects to do this? Is it important for architects to be community activists?
I offer the following story as an example of my own experience.
In 1994, I attended a conference of the National Coalition for the Homeless, which was held in Minneapolis. The event, entitled “Homelessness: Renewing Our Commitment,” brought together experts and activists from all over the country. When participants I met there asked me how I was connected to the issue, I responded that I was in my final year of architecture school, believing I had answered the question. In return they looked at me quizzically and asked, “What does that have to do with homelessness?” I was dumbfounded.
These well-intended conference goers understood housing as a social justice concern, an economic problem and a policy issue, but they failed to recognize the value and opportunities inherent in the physical world we create. That’s where we as architects and designers must step forward.
AA: How do you financially support your community activism? (e.g. grants, sponsorship, personal financing, etc.)
RD:Of course, my personal time is all pro bono. Fortunately, each of the organizations I’ve described has a budget that allows for some paid staff support.
In the case of KFNA, the Kingfield Neighborhood Association, funding has come predominately from the Neighborhood Revitalization Program. As we recognize this funding to be finite, one of the Board’s current goals is to seek alternative funding sources in order to maintain the organization’s staff. (Click here for information on Kingfield's involvement with the Center for Neighborhood's Corridor Housing Initiative.)
The Housing Advocacy Committee is provided with a staff liaison by A.I.A. Minnesota. A.I.A. Minneapolis and A.I.A. St. Paul offer financial assistance for our charrettes and publications.