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Oak Park native brings passion for architecture to kids with mobile workshops

Looking to create new opportunities for students in underserved neighborhoods, Maya Bird-Murphy started a nonprofit, Chicago Mobile Makers, designed to allow youth to explore the possibilities of architecture and design.

Maya Bird-Murphy likes to say she “acquired architecture.”

Bird-Murphy, 29, was born and raised in Oak Park, where she’d regularly see tourists invade her hometown to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and the nearby houses he designed. She played with Froebel building blocks, attended architecture camps and heard her community frequently and reverently talk about architecture, all of which motivated her to pursue a career in the field.

She attended Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and believed she was in the right place. The architecture program was strong and Bird-Murphy enjoyed the content, but she began to notice the lack of diversity. The majority of her peers were white, as were the architects they were studying. After graduating, Bird-Murphy returned to Chicago excited for a change but found the same lack of diversity in the professional world. This discomfort led her to examine what it means to be an architect and the role it plays in communities.

“I just kept thinking about all of these thoughts and experiences from the years of growing up in Oak Park, and in college and the profession, and it all just came together like, I’m going to make a nonprofit that really addresses the issue of diversity in the design fields,” Bird-Murphy said.

Executing her vision proved challenging. As she talked about it with others, many were confused as to what she was trying to do and how she would carry it out. She shelved the idea until she returned to graduate school to complete her master’s degree and got support from her adviser. Bird-Murphy implemented her vision into her thesis.

“I was trying to create this new thing that doesn’t really exist anywhere. And there are a few examples that are similar, but the biggest challenge was figuring out how to reinvent architecture and design and what practice was going to be for me,” Bird-Murphy said.

It soon laid the groundwork for what would become Chicago Mobile Makers. Bird-Murphy put her thesis to the test and began running workshops in elementary school classrooms and laid the groundwork for how to engage students in the world of architecture.

As her programming developed and expanded, she began to receive inquiries from other schools and donations started to follow. Just as things were taking off, the pandemic hit. Everything that was planned for the year was shut down.

Luckily, they had already begun planning to expand their reach with a mobile workshop and by mid-2020 Mobile Makers had finished converting a former USPS truck into a design studio that could be parked at events with all the necessary tools and building materials for kids to explore architecture and design.

Maya Bird-Murphy poses for portrait, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021 in their newly acquired space at Kimball Arts Center in Logan Park.
Maya Bird-Murphy sits in the newly acquired space for Chicago Mobile Makers at the Kimball Arts Center in Logan Square earlier this month.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Chicago Mobile Makers’ most recent initiative, the Youth Design Leadership for Community Safety, invites students in the Garfield Park area to participate in the brainstorming and building of a structure that will be a part of the upcoming skating rink in Garfield Park.

“So they’re using design to create this fun and safe place in a place that has been troubled with crime, and the youth in the program are going to be designing a large, 3D art piece for this roller rink,” Bird-Murphy said. “It’s going to permanently sit there, they’re going to be able to see that when they drive by. It’s going to give them some ownership and pride, and show them that design can really change things in communities.”

The students decided on their design — the word RECLAIM will sit nearly 8 feet tall at Madison and Pulaski when the rink opens in 2022.

That’s the main effort behind Chicago Mobile Makers and Bird-Murphy’s programming, to lay the foundation for kids to see how architecture and design affect the community and that they have a place in that process.

Now, the venture is finding its footing with a permanent space that will allow prospective students a place to gather, learn and foster community engagement. The space is set to open next year at the Kimball Arts Center in Logan Square.

“​​I hope that this space is seen as a safe space where kids can come even if they’re not doing a workshop, hoping that, you know, we’re going to work with community organizations to figure out what the actual needs of the community are and then maybe we can help fill some of those gaps. And so we’re hoping to be just a positive asset in this community and in young people’s lives.”