March 17, 2017

Using design to help solve a community’s greatest challenges

Kounkuey Design Initiative provides design and planning expertise to neighborhoods in need

Kounkuey Design Initiative's Productive Public Space project, like this one in Oasis, California, transforms formerly unusable space into community centers. Photo courtesy of Kounkuey Design Initiative


Meet the finalists for The Atlantic’s Renewal Awards, underwritten by Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $100,000 in grant money. Five winners will be announced March 30 at The Renewal Summit in Washington, on, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Chelina Odbert started her community work in kindergarten, organizing the kids on her Sacramento block into committees tasked with making their neighborhood safer.

Today, the 39-year-old is the Executive Director Kounkuey Design Initiative, a design and community development organization. The nonprofit supports underserved communities in the U.S., Africa, and Latin America through design and development.

Meet Chelina and follow Kounkuey on Twitter @Kounkuey, Instagram, and Facebook.

This questionnaire has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe your community:

I am fortunate to be part of many communities. However, there are two communities that I am particularly committed and connected to–Kibera, an informal settlement in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Eastern Coachella Valley in southern California.

When did you start your community work?

Informally, when I was in Kindergarten. Formally, in 2006 when I was in graduate school.

What inspired you to do this work?

In design school, I had the opportunity to do what I thought would be a two-week independent research project with five classmates but turned out to be a life-changing experience. That project took place in an informal settlement called Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, where I spent every day with residents, learning about their community’s priorities and that biggest challenges they faced in meeting them. Through engaging with residents and learning about the deep knowledge they had of each challenge and the nuanced solutions they had already considered, I was inspired to help them reach their goals. Once back home, I became committed to figuring how I could use my skills to support the community and how I could make a career out of doing similar work.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

I provide design and planning expertise to communities in Kenya and the U.S. to help residents envision and implement transformative projects where they live. In addition to my technical expertise, I also help community groups access the political, financial, and social resources they need in order to realize these transformations and maximize their communities’ potential.

What do you love about your community?

Residents in Kibera and Coachella—though thousands of miles apart—share a common trait that I value and love: hospitality. For example, a visitor can never leave without an offer of food, a place to stay, or someone offering to help with whatever needs doing.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Through my work, I have realized how limited a picture can be in fully capturing the spirit of a community. In Kibera, where I’ve worked for 10 years, the outside world mostly sees images of tin shacks, muddy streets, polluted rivers, and excessive trash. These images often give outsiders the impression that people living in those areas don’t value a clean environment and are lazy or uneducated, but those impressions could not be further from the truth. Kibera is home to a resilient community filled with diversity, boasting a thriving commerce, strong community networks, and truly inspiring people that are committed to improving their quality of life.

Similarly, residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley, or ECV, live in impoverished conditions despite the area’s picturesque landscape and prim golf courses. Although the ECV is one of California’s most fertile agricultural regions, many residents lack access to healthy food, and, moreover, their daily challenges are often unseen. While responsible for gathering the food that families across the country put on their tables nightly, these residents are left aside, marginalized in their daily struggle for access to decent shelter, social services, and the income to meet their families’ basic needs.

What leader or leaders inspired you?

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.
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