University of Oklahoma Faculty Awarded $500,000 EPA Grant


NORMAN, OKLA. – Open Design Collective, a non-profit organization founded by Gibbs College Professors Vanessa Morrison and Deborah Richards, was recently awarded an Environmental Justice Government-to-Government Grant from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA’s EJG2G program funds community-based organizations to support government activities that involve environmental or public health issues.

Open Design Collective is the first and only Black and women-led, non-profit design firm in the state of Oklahoma that works to support the social and spatial needs of Black communities. As built environment and social impact practitioners, Open Design utilizes the technical tools of Urban Planning, Architecture, design, cultural preservation and storytelling to collaborate with community members in addressing built environment inequities and advancing neighborhoods towards liberatory futures.

Open Design will receive $500,000 to engage, support and strengthen community-led efforts in the historically Black John F. Kennedy Neighborhood in Northeast Oklahoma City. In collaboration with the JFK Neighborhood Association, the NEOKC Neighborhood CoalitionCulture Coffee, the Oklahoma City Urban Renewal Authority, the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality and the University of Oklahoma, Open Design will address air quality issues in the region through an environmental placemaking and restoration project. For the project, Open Design will design and build a park called Culture Park.

“It’s validating to have national recognition and financial support to do these projects. This amount of funding is transformative for projects and helps them come to life in communities that are limited in resources, and in some cases, financial support,” said Morrison. “This is a project that’s connected to multiple efforts that we’ve led in this area with community members, and we’re just excited to see it all come together in a tangible way while addressing needs.”

Members of Open Design began working with residents in NE OKC in 2016, and more recently, completed the South of 8th Street Masterplan (So8th). The goal was to collaborate and engage with community members to cast a new vision for a thriving community and repair the cultural erasure, disinvestment and loss of Black wealth caused by decades of urban renewal and highway development in the region.

The main community priorities discovered through the So8th project were the need to address environmental inequities and to have more communal spaces to strengthen social connections. The Culture Park project has been designed to directly address these issues.

In the past several years, Morrison and Richards have initiated several other community engagement events and restoration efforts. Notable projects include the 2018 NEOKC Storytelling Project as well as the Jewel Theater Project, where they secured a $1 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to save Oklahoma City’s last surviving, historic Black theater.

“Our work is really dedicated to supporting the social and spatial needs of Black and marginalized communities,” said Morrison. “We hope that as we successfully complete these projects, we will continue to get more opportunities to serve communities that are oftentimes overlooked.”

The inspiration for Open Design’s recently funded project was sparked by the popular Black-owned coffee shop Culture Coffee, who had the initial vision to transform a nearby OCURA-owned lot into an outdoor expansion for their business. Additionally, the project was inspired by the environmental justice organizing work led by the JFK Neighborhood Association in the past several years.

Open Design saw the opportunity to bring in resources through this EPA project, not only to support these existing efforts, but also to address the need for safer and more connected neighborhood green spaces. Through this project, the lot will be transformed into a park with space for a Culture Coffee food truck.

Alongside the Culture Coffee food truck, the park will feature pavilion structures for community gatherings as well as greenery and native plants. Open Design will also monitor the local air quality, which has been a longstanding environmental issue in the region.

“The air quality issue has been one that Denyvetta Davis, who is the president of the Northeast OKC Neighborhood Coalition and JFK Neighborhood Association, has been working on for a long time alongside the community,” said Richards. “This project is creating awareness about environmental justice issues in Northeast OKC and making demonstrations on how to resolve those.”

Both Morrison and Richards emphasized the importance of elevating local voices and building trust within these communities. “The only reason we are able to go after these grants is because of the trust that we have built up in the community,” said Richards.

“There’s already been so much foundational work and organizing done by this neighborhood association,” said Morrison. “It’s a very strong and high-capacity neighborhood that does a lot to protect and support neighbors in this community. We’re just happy to be able to bring in this resource to support and strengthen the work that’s already being done.”

This project is still in the early stages of development, but Open Design hopes to begin the community engagement and design phase in the coming months. Morrison and Richards have already been working with the project team to discuss their vision for the park and plan community events.