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Lisa Abendroth

MSU Denver Professor

Designer. Community Builder. Roadrunner.

For Lisa Abendroth, the practice of community-based design asks a fundamental question: How can we enable transformation in times of need?

To do this, the communication design professor and program coordinator empowers her students to act as change agents in CDES 4100: Community-Based Design. Together they employ a public interest design framework throughout the course, working with civic leaders, planners and neighborhood residents and find solutions to real-world problems.

“It’s an issue-based approach, where we translate local challenges into the global conversation,” Abendroth said “The point is solving the world’s most critical problems.”

This broad application opens up a host of opportunities for students and communities alike – from improving water quality to increasing participation in elementary education.

Incorporating economic, environmental and social considerations into a triple bottom-line perspective grounds each challenge. By working directly with stakeholders, her students get an applied approach to project-based learning with the people impacted by it most.

And according to Abendroth, this involvement is what makes all the difference.

“The only way to arrive at the solution is through conversation with community members,” she said.

It matters because historically, not everyone has had a seat at the table, with design decision-making often catering only to corporate entities or clients with substantial resources. The approach Abendroth and her students adopt help change this.

“Questions of equity come through that lens,” she said. “What happens when you consider the needs of stakeholders without the same levels of funding?”

The result, she detailed, is a disruptive approach to applying the lens of design from a grassroots level. It’s evident in the collaborative partnerships Abendroth continues with the Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network, and curating “Substance: Diverse Practices from the Periphery” at the acclaimed Center for Visual Art.

This comprehensive change creation works because it starts from within communities. And as Abendroth noted, the reach extends far beyond a single project.

“By solving one problem, we create multiple ripples of impact,” she said.

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