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Engaged Scholars: Susan Melsop

May 5, 2023

Engaged Scholars: Susan Melsop

Susan explaining perspective drawing at Central Community House.

Engaged Scholars is a series highlighting Ohio State faculty who have made an impact in our communities through their community-engaged research and teaching.


Susan Melsop
Associate Professor
College of Arts and Sciences/Design
Faculty Affiliate
Sustainability Institute

Design Matters engages university students in design-build pedagogy to serve communities in need. Its purpose is to cultivate transformative learning and foster social impact. The program has evolved from a local service-learning course engaging urban youth from TRANSIT ARTS to an international community-engaged learning (CEL) course using design and creative place-making as tools to advocate for human rights and social justice for the PopRua, a homeless population in Brazil. The first iteration of Design Matters took the design studio to Central Community House extending education to urban youth and providing them opportunities to envision and design new interior spaces for a community center. To build the culturally inspired furniture, the urban teens came to campus and worked alongside students in the studios learning basic construction skills. 

In Brazil, Design Matters engages university students from Ohio State and Mackenzie University with members of the PopRua, (National Movement for the Street People) in So Paulo to help them convert a dilapidated and abandoned metro station into a viable resource center for the homeless. Using co-design methods, students and the PopRua envision and design spaces for social inclusion. By engaging with the PopRua and building-out the interior spaces, Design Matters demonstrates a commitment to social justice, advocating for human rights through the built environment.

Why is it important to engage the community in your research and teaching? 

My engaged scholarship oscillates between macro and micro scales of inquiry and making. This praxis is informed by thinking broadly about critical global issues and examining these at a local level. If we understand that complex, wicked problems (social injustice, climate crisis, racial inequity for instance) reside at the macro scale, it's imaginable to understand how place-based education for social change can operate at a micro scale to address the unique needs of a community. In this way, my praxis of engagement and reflection is informed by thinking broadly about critical issues and second, by translating these as they relate to community-identified needs. My approach to pedagogy leads my students and I to consider the Big Picture: Why does it matter? Who does it affect? What is at stake? How is the engagement done ethically? This process of contextualizing makes the relationships between the macro and micro more visible. Understanding what is at the heart of an issue is often revealed through listening and ongoing conversations with community partners (i.e., non-profit, NGO, community association) prior to any student engagement. By looking at specific challenges and opportunities facing communities, we gain a more nuanced understanding of these issues and the ways they intersect with larger societal, environmental, political factors and influences. This process often reveals how design can be leveraged as an agent for change. 

What led you to the path of engaged scholarship? How did you get started?

Honestly, "engaged scholarship" was not a term I was familiar with when I developed a service-learning course years ago. At that time, I was doing design work as an architect for Central Community House, a non-profit organization on the eastside, and was transitioning into a tenure track position in the Department of Design. The creative work I was doing then for Central naturally evolved into engaging my students in the design process responding to the non-profit's needs. What began as a traditional role of providing design services for the non-profit quickly flourished into a design-build process with TRANSIT ARTS teens from Central.

Through my work with various community partners, I have seen firsthand the transformative impact of engaged scholarship. Not only does it provide students with valuable learning experiences and skills in the field, but it can help address real-world problems and contribute to positive social change in communities. 

Overall, my path to engaged scholarship is driven by my desire to use my skills and expertise to make a positive impact and to inspire my students to do the same. It is not an easy path, but I have found it to be the most rewarding part of my tenure. I continue to be inspired by the innovative and impactful work of engaged scholars and community partners around the world.

How has your scholarship benefited from engaging with community partners?

The role of design is evolving, and as designers we must take more responsibility for the social and environmental impact of our work. Designers play an increasingly strategic role in shaping a more just, equitable and environmentally sound future. 

Engaging with community members and learning from them is key in understanding how our work as designers can contribute to positive social change. Community partners bring their lived experiences and perspectives; this sheds light on aspects of the situation or problem that may not be apparent from a purely academic perspective. 

By working alongside members of PopRua in So Paulo, we discovered how significant our engagement was. Not only did our design projects serve a practical need by supporting their mission, our university-community partnership brought long overdue attention to this marginalized population and the injustices inflicted on the unsheltered in So Paulo, including a national media story and a visit from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This is a testament to design's capacity for activism, standing in solidarity with the PopRua advocating for their human rights. 

What has been a highlight of your community engagement experience?

Social impact. The highlight of my community engagement experiences is witnessing the social impact the engagement has on students and community members alike. Students selecting design as a major don't necessarily enter the disciplinary field with an awareness that design can be an agent for social change and environmental justice. When they get turned on to community-engaged design and authentically lean into concerns and issues expressed by community members, students are often re-ignited with a renewed sense of purpose and passion for design. 

Another highlight is bringing a design project to a close with a reflection circle. At this point, all students and community members share how the interactions impacted them and reflect on how they've changed in the process. I refer to this as life-affirming design.

What advice would you give to faculty and students who are interested in engaging the community in their scholarship?

Trust is the foundation for authentic community-engaged scholarship. Building trust requires time, patience and excellent communication skills. Assume nothing. Co-create everything. Spend time listening, then listen more.

Sample engaged scholarship

Melsop, Susan. Bertolini, Juliana. Pedagogical Strategies for Social impact Design, Designing with the PopRua. Cumulus Conference. Bogota, Colombia.

Melsop, Susan. Educating the Next Generation of Social Impact Designers. Making Futures International Journal, Plymouth Art., UK. 

Melsop, Susan. Bertolini, Juliana. Expanding Horizons for Social Innovation Through Design Pedagogy. FAUBAI Brazilian Association for International Education Conference: New Trends on Internationalization of Higher Education. Porto Alegre, Brazil. 



Melsop, Susan. Community Design Matters: A New Model of Learning. Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal


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