February 15 2023

Through Community Catalyst project, Step Up interns build something long-lasting

Step Up interns and supervisors at a community garden in Minneapolis

Last summer, HGA Architects, SRF Consulting and Ten X Ten Landscape Architecture and Urbanism came together to provide three Step Up interns with a unique opportunity to turn knowledge into community action.

Under the mentoring wings of Luke Nichols and Stephen Himmerich (HGA), Isaac Hase (SRF) and Rachel Valenziano (Ten X Ten), Step Up interns Naima Mohamed, Paupau Darboe and Jaden Wright got hands-on landscape design experience on a variety of creative projects. Then using their newly acquired skills, they designed and built a new sign for the FairShare Farm Community Garden in the Southeast Como neighborhood in Minneapolis to replace the weathered one that used to stand there.

Known as The Community Catalyst project, Stephen from HGA summed up the experience. “It was a great opportunity for the interns to facilitate the design process and engage in a community project. Most internship activities are on paper, but when it all comes to life and they see the reality of what they’ve created, it shows them what’s possible.”

Rachel from Ten X Ten agrees. “Our companies are unique,” she said. “We’re different sizes and do different work. The Community Catalyst project allowed us to expose these interns to three design firms who could benefit from their skills in the future, so it was great for them and for us, as well.”

“We approached it as a six-week educational opportunity to execute their own designs,” HGA’s Luke explained. “We met with Naima (SRF intern), Paupau (HGA intern) and Jaden (Ten X Ten intern) every Tuesday at one of our three offices, and one firm would take the lead on the meeting. This gave the interns a chance to see three different offices.”

In addition to teaching the design process, the mentors accompanied interns on site visits to the community garden and also made a trip to Home Dept to buy supplies. “We constructed the sign at HGA and held our last meeting on site at the garden,” said Luke. “The interns were able to experience the design process from start to finish.”

The most rewarding thing for Luke was seeing Paupau, a senior at Southwest High School, grow and gain confidence. “The interns did research and drew out the signs designs they liked. Then Paupau rendered views of the models which we used in a client presentation. The neighborhood organization approved it and we moved forward.” 

“We loosely guided the project,” said Rachel. “But creating the design and all other elements were left to the interns. They also got hands-on experience in a fabrication lab and woodshop, using tools that were deemed safe. They collaborated in a group, listened to one another and learned to compromise, a skill that was very useful to them.”

Meeting other young people and building friendships was a plus for all three interns. They said it was great to work with peers on the project every week, doing hands-on work and making a difference in the community. They also like the fact that they can return to the garden any time to see their work. “They were blown away to think they really built the sign,” said Isaac. “They were stoked about it!”

In addition to the Community Catalyst project, the interns were exposed to the day-to-day operations of each of their designated firms and had the opportunity to interact with other staff members in addition to their assigned mentors. They also worked on design projects that would normally be tackled by more experienced interns.

Isaac says his intern, Naima, a senior at Edina High School, had the opportunity to work in AutoCAD and do traffic modeling in Excel on bus rapid transit projects for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT). “A big part of Step Up is about defining what you want to do, and Naima worked on a broad range of projects this summer," said Isaac. “She was exposed to things she enjoyed and things she didn’t enjoy, helping her further define her interests.”

Jaden, a senior at Minneapolis Public School’s Transition Plus, was involved in a research project on Interstate 35W and the impact it has had on predominately black neighborhoods in Minneapolis.” Rachel says that based on his interest in animals, Jaden also “created a catalog of facts and habitant information on animal species for reference within landscape architecture projects. Jaden got on-the-job experience, interacted with colleagues and learned about expectations and accountability within an office environment.”

Paupau came to HGA with design experience he gained in his first Step Up internship at the Science Museum of Minnesota, where he used design software to create a scale model of a museum. His work there prepared him for his internship at HGA. He said, “Before my internship at HGA, I was most interested in interior design. I hadn’t thought about landscape design, so it was a great eye-opener and a good experience.”

Rachel, Isaac, Luke and Stephen say their firms are excited to continue working with Step Up.

“Ten X Ten supports Step Up because our social justice, equity and community outreach missions are aligned,” said Rachel. “It’s a big world, and we’re working to make our profession more inclusive. We also want to get more interns into design settings to feed our pipeline for future employment.”

“We all had a vision of a project that would be both manageable and impactful to give our interns something they could design and then build,” said Isaac. “We’re grateful to our leadership and all our colleagues who helped make it possible, and we hope to find another project for next summer’s Step Up interns.”

As champions of the Step Up program, Luke, Stephen, Rachel and Isaac have played a key role in shaping the futures of these three young interns. We’re so grateful for the opportunity to support these amazing young people in collaboration with such outstanding design partners!

Learn more about Step Up and how you can hire Minneapolis youth.