When Sabrina Dorsainvil considered the path that has led her to the Mayor of Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, she at first thought it serendipitous. “I at looked back and thought it was all just reacting – I just happened to walk down a certain hallway, or just happened to bump into a teacher doing a sign-up. But when I had the opportunity at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to tell my story through the work I’ve done, I realized that this has all been brewing for years. I could see that there has been a common thread I’ve been following even when it felt like I was just doing something because it seemed fun.”
The thread has been unfurling since Sabrina’s parents, Gladice and Wilson, immigrated to the United States thirty years ago from Haiti. They initially settled in Boston and then moved with their five children to Prospect Hill in Lawrence when Sabrina was in 6th grade. They enrolled her St. Michael’s school in Lowell believing that she would receive a better education in a parochial school.
“Education was incredibly important to my parents. They had their own dreams, like everyone, when they came to the U.S. They’re incredibly hardworking people and never lingered in terms of fighting for our education and making sure we had everything we needed.”
Sabrina’s parents always encouraged their children to remember their roots. “They came from such a culturally rich place – it’s in their food, their music, and their churches. Coming to America wasn’t about them forgetting their past. It was about having a new opportunity and finding a way to be themselves here.”
Her heritage wasn’t always something she was comfortable or confident in. She would often hear the negative comments such as it being the poorest country in the western hemisphere. “As I got older I had the opportunity to engage with the idea of what does it mean to be Haitian. I picked the country as a project one year and I was able to see the other side of the story. These are people who stood up for themselves, and they may not have ended up with the riches and spoils, but they retained their freedom and culture.”
Sabrina’s aunt suddenly passed away and she had the opportunity to mourn with a large extended family that she had never met. “I think the biggest thing I took away was the beauty of family and extended family and the children – they’ve taken in so many young people whose families have been lost in the natural disasters.”
The Dorsainvils had hoped that she would enroll at Central Catholic High School. But while at St. Michael’s she became exposed to the educational offerings the local technical school. “I was really fascinated by art and by the thought of doing things and what it would mean to be in a binary between public school and private school. I realized there was this thing in the middle called technical school.”
Dorsainvil entered GLTS and studied in the Graphics department under the tutelage of Peter Kostoulakos. “I’m so grateful for the ‘surprise’ opportunity of being at a technical school. I would always doodle, but at GLTS it was more than just an art class – I was able to spend every other week thinking of art through the lens of pre-press operations and I could make a pastel drawing.”
She excelled at GLTS where she played volleyball and ran indoor and outdoor track. Sabrina was a student representative for the School Committee, vice president of the Student Council, a member of the National Honor Society, Diversity Club, and Peer leaders, a two time Student of the Month, a recipient of the Outstanding Youth Leadership Award, the Jewish War Veterans Leadership Award, and the Girls and Women in Sports Award.
Sabrina joined Groundworks Lawrence’s Green Team where she took part in projects such as the Spicket River cleanup. An opportunity to join Movement City soon presented itself and she jumped at it. This led her to a deeper interest in the environment and social justice. “I began wondering how it all plays out? How do you think about housing and environmental advocacy and art impacting folk’s lives? There were Mass Art graduates there and they were thriving and loving what they did and I began thinking that my ‘hobby’ could be a real, practical skill.”
Sabrina graduated fourth in her class and enrolled at Mass Art in Boston planning to study either graphic design or maybe architecture. “I took the tour and the Architecture Department was on the same floor as the Industrial Design Department and I was so enraptured by the idea that I could think about peoples every day experiences and about how the design of everyday objects impacted their daily lives.” Industrial Design it would be.
At Mass Art, Dorsainvil continued her involvement with student leadership and government. “I spread myself in a lot of ways as it related to the question of using community development and social justice and advocacy. And by the time I was a Senior I knew that that had to be a part of what I did for work and not just a ‘nice thing’ that I did on the side. That motivated me to think about grad school.”
She headed to New York City and enrolled in The New School at Parson’s School of Design where she earned her Masters of Science degree in Design and Urban Ecology. This studio-based program studies the “intersection of cities, services and ecosystems using interdisciplinary methods to prepare students to design collaborative processes and interventions that lead to tangible urban transformation,” according to the school’s website.
“Basically,” Sabrina explains, “it’s really about how to bridge the gap between sociology and design by bringing together people from all different backgrounds to think about solving the world’s wicked problems. Our cities are filled with contradictions…you have the poorest of the poor people sitting on the stoops of the world’s richest banks, what does it mean to work together and really think about problems like immigrant rights, how people of color navigate through public space, thinking about climate change, worker co-ops, community land trusts….”
In NYC she was impressed that despite all the terrible problems that existed “there was a massive amount of people who were trying to accomplish good. There was an urgency to do good.” She earned her M.S. in 2014 and headed back to Boston, very interested in seeing how she could fit into the city’s context with this “new lens”.
She took a position at a design and innovation consultancy firm as an “Envisioner”, conducting research for private corporations in the healthcare field. “I was getting closer to what I wanted to do but I still wasn’t there. I needed to find a way to ask some of the bigger questions and not have ‘a’ project here and there, but really find a way to care for the social good and improve people’s lives.”
A friend referred her to The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) in Boston City Hall. The office was formed in 2010 and had just recently received a grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies to build a smaller innovation group within the team. Sabrina answered the call and became MONUM’s Civic Designer.
Under Mayor Walsh, the office has expanded the breadth of their research and design work to cover a vast range of issues and mayoral priority areas, including civic engagement, racial equity, city infrastructure and education. MONUM is able to take “risks” that traditional City departments might not be able to take. When an experiment works it becomes a permanent service, when it doesn’t, it’s documented and shared with civic organizations around the world.
“A lot of the work I’m doing right now is on Third Spaces – places that aren’t home and that aren’t work. When we did our housing research people said to us that home isn’t just four walls and the roof over their head. It’s the feeling that they belong in the City – that they’re part of the city. That can mean supporting a space for people who are in active recovery, sometimes it means designing benches for older adults, and sometimes it means thinking about play and playfulness in the City as a way to build community.”
Too often urban planning focuses more on the project getting done and not on the actual needs and desires of the community stakeholders. Residents need to be part of the conversation, insists Dorsainvil. “People need to be invited to the table where these big decisions are being made so they can ask questions. It happens all the time to young people – we don’t give them a space to have their voice heard when they have so much to say.”
Sabrina doesn’t forget where she began to use her voice and ask questions. “I love Lawrence – I saw so much beauty and excitement and motivation and passion there. And GLTS really gave me access to thinking about art and design as a practice that I could actually not just make a living at, but I could really impact the world with. It was an incredible step in this journey that I’m still on.”