Michelle Geiss

Name
Michelle Geiss

Employer
Impact Hub

Position
Co-Founder and Executive Director

How long have you been in the Baltimore/DC area?Nearly 8 years. Well, nearly 8 years in Baltimore. I lived in DC for 6 years before moving here. Baltimore quickly captured my heart.

How did you get into design? I don’t know if I would say that I am in design. My background is in public health and social marketing. I got interested in the design process through an innovation training years ago. I reached out to Jen, the director of NDC, not too long after she had taken over that role to see how design thinking worked in the design context. I signed up to be a volunteer to learn from her about how to apply those tools in my own practice for social impact work.

How did you first get involved with NDC? What is your history with the organization? I was looking through the MICA Center for Social Design list of lecturers because I was interested in that as a field and in expanding my own skills. I reached out to Jen through NDC and when we met up she was really interested in my partnership and program management background. So my initial volunteer projects with NDC involved a little bit of a actual design work, but also going to meetings with Jen as she was thinking about the future of NDC, and helping to take notes and be a sounding board. I would say that if I label myself as any kind of designer, I tend to label myself as a program designer and process designer. I believe that design is actually in everything and that when you are doing strategy work you are actually making a lot of design decisions whether you know it or not.

What motivates you to volunteer with NDC? I love engaging with the process that NDC uses for their work. What I think really makes NDC stand out is their history and the values that they bring to the work. Of course there is more that has kept me involved in NDC, but in the beginning I was reaching out to learn.

Before arriving in Baltimore, most of my work had been in global health. I wanted to translate my background into a domestic career, and took my time to explore how that might look for me, particularly in Baltimore. I was trying to figure was how to translate this skill set from a totally different context into the context that I was now in, thinking about what I could offer and how I could plug in.

What do you find most rewarding about your work with NDC? I love talking to strangers. I think it’s really fun. As a volunteer, I supported outreach on North Avenue by giving out free Snowballs. That Snowball event was a standout because literally every single person wants a snowball for free—everybody. You can be the most serious grown-up or the littlest kid walking down North Avenue, and if someone offers you a free snowball, you will stop and talk to them. I’ve seen that in the social impact world a lot of decisions get made about people and there are not a lot of opportunities to listen closely and deeply to what actually makes people happy, what they want, what they experience. So I love to be part of opportunities that bridge people’s lived experience to people who might be making a strategy or a set of decisions about resources.  In Baltimore neighborhoods, people may want to engage but not have the time, so if you can meet people where they are, and help to amplify their voices, more people will be heard and better decisions will be made. That was the genius about the snowball stand.Those spontaneous interactions offer a different quality of information. Whether you are reaching people who have been engaged in a processes for ten years or people who are just walking down the street, it’s really cool to be in a position where you get to ask a certain question and watch the answers unfold.

What is inspiring your work now? I’m increasingly convinced that the only way we are going to get somewhere new in social change is by actually understanding each other and knowing each other. The work that I am doing at Impact Hub is about building connections on a day-to-day basis between people who might not otherwise meet. On a macro level, those interactions can spawn more collaborations, stronger ideas, or more resources for people. But in that there’s also the micro level of actually just liking each other, knowing each other, and knowing what’s on people’s minds as whole people. It’s vital to have welcoming spaces to build those relationships.

Has working with NDC changed the way you practice design? If so, how? Having NDC as a partner to Impact Hub and working alongside  Jen and her team has often helped us be a little more creative or a little more connected to efforts we wouldn’t otherwise know about. They connect me to resources in communities I may not know about, and I can lead folks to NDC if they need design support. I had a chance to help plan the ACD conference this past year and I felt proud of how the event showcased Baltimore’s incredible thought leadership on equity, social justice, and community-driven design. We have the privilege of working alongside so many amazing community leaders every day, and I absolutely love sharing their work on a national stage.