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Real World Studio

Can eight designers bridge the gap between high design and the basic needs of rural Alabamans? To find out, Alissa Walker visits Project M in Hale Country, Alabama.

Main Street in Greensboro, Alabama, feels abandoned. Not just empty-it's as though half the shopkeepers up and left at the end of a business day, and never came back. On this mid-June afternoon, it's not hard to see why. Even the locals agree it's way too hot, and the governor has issued a drought warning, making it a particularly unusual time for the small town of 2,700 to have big-city visitors.Convened here nonetheless is an unlikely group-eight students and recent graduates from across the country with a month to accomplish something meaningful; something that they hope will make a difference for the people of Greensboro and the surrounding Hale County. By day 18 of their stay, however, that "something" is yet to be determined. In a county where 34 percent of children live below the poverty line, a quarter of the residents don't have access to clean drinking water, and the biggest employer is a catfish-processing plant that is rumored to be closing, the team has lots of issues to choose from. The scope of problems here is immense, but a consensus over which to address is nowhere in sight. Further complicating the task is the fact that these students are not budding teachers or architects-they are graphic designers.
The Rural Studio's Community Center at Mason's Bend in Hale County, Alabama.\n
Operating out of the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization headquarters-which doubles as an internet café and is one of Main Street's few bustling storefronts-the students are part of an annual summer program, created six years ago by a designer named John Bielenberg. Tall and tan, with white hair, Bielenberg runs Project M for young designers, charging them to bridge the gap between design for design's sake and its ability to change lives. "Graphic designers can get too intoxicated by the craft of design-the magic of the artifact or the smoothness of typography or the beauty of the photography," says Bielenberg. "They're not so interested in how it lives in the world or how it changes someone's feelings or how it makes something happen." Project M's goal is to inspire designers by proving that their work can have a positive and significant impact on the world. Or, in this case, on Hale County.Project M was modeled after the Rural Studio, a program founded in Hale County in 1993 by the architect Samuel Mockbee so that architecture students from nearby Auburn University could design and build innovative houses in poor rural areas. After hearing Mockbee speak in 2000, Bielenberg got the idea to create something like it for designers. "Design uses communication to solve problems," he says, "so I wanted to be able to apply what I knew how to do toward solving a problem I cared about." Later that year, he moved his family to Maine to start Project M, which runs out of a converted farmhouse in Belfast. (The "M" refers to its origin, location, and intent: Mockbee, Maine, and messages.) He now commutes from Belfast to C2, a San Francisco design firm, for work.
A resident of Mason's Bend\n
Each year, Project M tackles a new cause: books for a rainforest preserve in Costa Rica, a green space in East Baltimore, gathering and distributing design supplies for displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. This year, Bielenberg brought the project back to the home of the Rural Studio, giving the group a one-month full immersion in Hale County.On that morning of day 18, the Project M design-ers are thinking about creating a manifesto on the concept of designing for a greater good. Ben Barry, Tim Belonax, Laura Prelle, and Dana Steffe had trekked to Birmingham earlier this morning to buy silk-screening materials, while Ellen Sitkin, Wendy Smith, Sagarika Sundaram, and Nate Turner pored over printouts of various other groups' statements. But by the time the group reunites around a picnic table for a family-style spaghetti dinner and some NASCAR-branded Budweisers, the manifesto idea is losing steam. Barry, a recent graduate of the University of North Texas who raised more than $2,000 in donations to fund his trip to Greensboro by selling limited-edition posters, is more blunt than the others. "I didn't come here to write a stupid manifesto," he yells. "I came here to help people!"\n\n\n
Graphic designers can get too intoxicated by the craft of design.
Two days later, at Project M's studio, a schoolhouse behind the HERO's office, the designers scribble quotes from local residents across massive sheets of white paper. There is a list of people they want to reach with their project ("Influencers: Oprah") and another list of potential projects they could take on to help Greensboro. Project M's team already has a skill; now all they need is a client. After agreeing that it would be best to focus their energy on helping the single most inspiring person they have come across, they know exactly who to call.
Greensboro, Alabama, appears abandoned on a hot summer afternoon.\n
With her outdoor-adventure wardrobe and can-do attitude, Pam Dorr could easily be mistaken for a Project M participant. In fact, she came to Hale County from San Francisco with the Rural Studio three years ago and never left. As the director of HERO's housing resource center, she counsels hundreds of the poorest people in the county, and is also an advocate for residents' access to clean water. "Families here don't believe that there is help available," she says. "The most important thing I do is bring faith." Dorr's second project, it turns out, was what the team feels needs them most.Residents will tell you that the man who installed the water system in the 1970s later admitted he was drunk while he did it. The pipes are made of a cheap, low-grade plastic that breaks easily, and contaminants-fertilizer runoff and coliform bacteria, which can indicate the presence of E. coli-creep in through leaks. From time to time, the contamination is so bad that the city issues an order to boil the water before drinking it.
Project M founder John Bielenberg (bottom right) and his students lived and work together off Main Street in Greensboro.\n
As unreliable as it can be, city water is better than the alternative. One quarter of Hale County's residents are not connected to the municipal water supply, and many have access to the water but can't afford the set-up fees, to say nothing of the bills that will come later. They drink from shallow wells that are almost certainly contaminated by their septic systems. The very poorest families don't even have septic systems and are leaching sewage directly into their own wells.Dorr says she knows of families whose shallow wells have dried up completely. Right now, during one of the worst droughts in Alabama history, some families have been walking to the nearest gas station to fill up buckets and bottles with water for drinking, cooking, and bathing from the station's overtaxed and possibly tainted well. "It was one of those things Pam [Dorr] mentioned pretty early on in our trip, and we were very surprised by it," says Wendy Smith. "But it seemed like a very complicated issue. How can you really help people who have access but can't afford it? It seemed too much for us to take on."
The front page of Project M's water meter pamphlet\n
Little more than a cluster of trailers at the end of a red dust road, the town of Mason's Bend has been immortalized in glossy architecture books because of work done there by the Rural Studio. The town's water is almost certainly tainted. Though they have no alternatives to the shallow wells their families have used for generations, the Mason's Bend residents have been told not to drink the water. A few Project M students head out to find out if they do anyway.Jackie Green welcomes them in. Living off Social Security, she says she receives between $500 and $700 a month to support her family, making it impossible for her to afford to connect to the municipal water supply. Even if she could afford the set-up fee, she might still be priced out of a monthly bill-because Hale County is so rural, the cost of water there is one of the highest in the nation.
The Project M students collate their project by hand.\n
"We were all united by our shock over the hard truth that in America [clean] water is not a right," says Ellen Sitkin. "That people here living in run-down trailers have large-screen TVs with access to satellite cable, but they don't have clean water." At the office of the city water board, right across the street from Project M's temporary home, the designers discover the missing link: a $23 water meter. With labor and installation, the total cost to bring water to a home in Hale County is $425. This meter-an antique-looking piece of hardware with a huge gauge-becomes the symbol for their message. Everyone we know has a water meter, they think. Oprah, they joke, definitely has one.And then an idea is born: They will pair striking images they've come across in Hale County with the names of celebrities who no doubt have their own water meters. "We felt it was a more unique approach than just showing pictures of impoverished families or shocking statistics. People tend to tune those out," says Ben Barry. "The juxtaposition of the names with images was to keep people guessing about what all of these people had in common."
Images from the water meter project.\n
Newsprint, which had intrigued them as a medium since they started, carries the message. "By the time you've read the piece, your hands are dirty," says Smith. "It's not polished, it's not slick, it will get wet and ruined and fall apart. It's raw. If we wanted to create a message about [Hale County], then it had to look like [Hale County]."\n\n\n
The process has resulted in unique products that merge high design with handicraft.
A flurry of production follows, as they design the newspaper-sized piece and create, where people can buy a water meter for a Hale County resident with one click (After determining a criteria for need, HERO will give credit and budget counseling to those who have demonstrated they can pay for their water bill; They will only get a meter if they do this). Three days later, 2,000 copies of Project M's 24-page piece spin off the Goss Community press and the designers collate them until their hands turn black. They then package shipments to Project M's vast network of alumni, advisers, and "influencers." Indeed, Oprah is among them.In the final hours before the Project M designers scatter, they silk-screen shirts reading "425" to take with them, to garner a little more interest in the project. But how many meters will it take to know if Project M actually works?
The water meter in question.\n
"If enough money is raised to help one family buy a meter, the project will be a success," says Dorr. "We can make the change one family at a time."

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