From the issue feature, "Empathy Fire and Spades: Design for Social Innovation."
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benches at probation center

In a new probation center model, outdoor benches offer breathing room and replace rows of bolted chairs. © David Sundberg / Esto

As the former New York City Department of Design and Constructions chief change officer and founder of SeeChangeNYC—a joint (Bloomberg) Mayoral initiative—Lonni Tanner has been waiting in waiting rooms for almost four years, studying food stamps offices and shelters, senior and probation centers. Were talking thousands of hours at hundreds of service facilities and the neighborhoods they touch: observing, interacting, listening. And then intervening—in some small but pivotal way that shakes up a place, changes behavior, makes waiting sane, pushes people forward. And then she waits some more. Intervenes. Waits. Intervenes—or not. At some point, even rooms have to live on their own.

I approached Lonni and asked her to share her “diary” about the challenges that come with making “change”—even the smallest transformations—in a City environment. Her personal journey—its ups and downs—has eventually led her to a City agency that takes to her ”wrong” thinking: the NYC Department of Probation. Meet Lonni:

I am now a baker without an oven. Mayoral support and interest for my program has come and gone. With a budget the size of an ant, I make up a better title for myself and my program and use the Mayoral “stamp” to get in front of City agency officials. I look for partners. I count on my imagination to win them over, the backing of designers, the ability to generate donations to prove I can add value to whatever problems they’re solving. Even with all that, it’s slowgoing.

I keep at it: peddling sol­utions—​not rehabs. Maybe I need a cart.

Eventually someone has to bite. Right?

Name calling: I am the crazy one during introductions. She wants to pay clients to play Maitre D’ in the dining hall, concierge for the shelter? A sideways playground on walls at a food stamps center, is she crazy? One staffer says, Meet the woman who’s like the guy who keeps trying to roll the rock up the hill. What’s his name? I hate the word crazy.

Finally, a taker: I hear through the grapevine that the Department of Probation—already in the midst of a sea change—has money that fell from the sky at the end of the fiscal year. It’s use it or lose it. The goal: Revamp their 22 probation centers. Time to do it? Almost none. I want in.

juvenile probation center

Before: The state of a juvenile probation center. Photo: Lonni Tanner

probation center waiting room

Before: Adult probation center waiting room. Photo: Lonni Tanner

juvenile probation center

After: Probation center model, designed for replication. © Albert Vecerka / Esto

Cafe probation center

After: Cafe atmosphere reduces tension at a model juvenile probation center. © Albert Vecerka / Esto

A ticking clock makes me salivate. Is it because I want to be a hero?

The Department of Probation proves to be a rare partner in the world of City agencies. The commissioner, a maverick. We need more mavericks. Is a maverick just someone willing to fail?

I cut to the chase, bringing in Biber Architects to do the probation center revamping. Jim Biber does killer interiors, is a superb problem solver and an ace under pressure. $5k is all I can pay him, but he relishes the challenge: Turn probation centers into un-probation centers.

Biber brings on James Victore for the graphic design piece—to create new posters, new language, a new typeface, new tone. Victore is smart as a whip. He agrees to work for peanuts too.

probation center with poster

A new model for probation center waiting rooms features posters designed to serve as conversation pieces. © David Sundberg / Esto

We go on a road trip to look at probation sites. Everything is broken. And I’m not just talking about the furniture. I leave one and throw up.

Even though things are humming along, this is usually when money gets pulled—without notice, without care for how far along a project is, or understanding of how much work designers have put in and manufacturers donated. Where the money goes, why it goes, is a mystery. But it happens, often.

Here we go again: The money starts to dwindle. Overhauling 22 probation centers becomes 12, then 6, then 1. Thankfully, Biber and Victore are designing a blueprint that can be replicated if, and when, the money comes back. (It does: Later we shake up 8 more sites.)

Baby steps. Fuck that.  Start small, don’t think small.

We present our plan to a roomful of probation staff. The neon sign crazy starts to glow on our foreheads. One of Victore’s posters—a riff on hang in there, with a kitty hanging from a branch—gets killed off. I see the word doubt start to glow on staff foreheads. Make it go away.

Biber makes smart but simple moves to change-up the probation center environment. Every move is purposeful and inexpensive. He removes the bolted-down chairs to increase trust, adds carpet to soften, installs new ceiling tiles to brighten, replaces bulbs instead of fixtures. Chairs now accommodate wider seats, but he cuts down the number of seats to add breathing room. Pops of color—like the bright green outdoor benches—rid the room of the institutional feel. (Green is not a gang color? Wrong. They all are these days.)

juvenile probation center

Inviting juvenile probation center respects "falling down." © Albert Vecerka/Esto

Bulletin boards are meant to display important information and discourage taping notices to walls. Sign-in boards are hung on the wall rather than strewn across a desk. Victore’s typeface creates order. His posters: stunning, original, unexpected. A new canvas starts to take shape. And it cost peanuts. Donations keep the cost down.

It’s friggin’ hard to buy things at the last minute. City Procurement is a killer.

Ingenuity isn’t expensive. Fear is.

A Welcome sign is now the first thing clients see when they walk into a probation center—instead of the word NO.

welcome sign probation center

Positive tone, access to resources. © David Sundberg / Esto

One month in: The new environment hasn’t created the expected havoc. Probation officers were leery of the lightweight chairs. Now it will be easier to throw a chair through a window, throw it at us, throw it at another client. And the benches: We don’t like people sitting across from or near each other. They’ll stare each other down, start fighting. They were right to be apprehensive, but it hasn’t played out—yet. If it does, I’ll take the hit. Can’t it be a teaching moment? Maybe I’m naïve.

Is a “nice” space a right or a luxury?

The probation center feels so different post-rehab, I wonder if clients notice or care. Some staffers say there is less acting out; clients are calmer. Some clients say, I just wanna get out of here. Some come over (as I am a fixture) and say, You do this? Yup. Thank you.

probation center bathroom

Whimsical bathrooms deter graffiti. © Albert Vecerka / Esto

What does success look like?

When budgets are tight, where do you invest: the places where people have to be, want to be, need to be? In what do you invest?

Where does technology fit in?

Though the waiting room has changed, the culture isn’t changing at the same speed. The staff needs time to adjust. Not only to the room.

Fuck. Clients are sleeping. Do something.

I start handing out kids’ books to dads, poems by ex-cons. I walk around with baskets of bananas and bottled water. Some brush me off. Some want to talk. They want jobs working with their hands. I pretend their stories don’t bother me. The staff tell me not to believe everything I hear.

Some call the waiting room Romper Room because of the bright colors. Some say it looks like a daycare center. In visits to hundreds of waiting rooms, I see a mishmash of old furniture, a barrage of notices. Dilapidated and dreary. You like that better?

Three months in: no graffiti—yet (but gum hides under the benches). The shock of bright green brings me back to life. I think of my friend’s backyard in Seattle. A living room. What I wish the back offices looked like.

The Victore posters: I ask a client to read the Langston Hughes poem. What do you think it means? Why do you care? he asks. The guys around him laugh. A client comes over with an answer. Who knows, maybe he pities me. Conversation pieces, that’s what the posters are for.

More snoring. Wake-up, damn it.

probation center chairs

No money for new furniture? Overhaul the old. © Albert Vecerka/Esto

Stale bread: Since opening, after six months the info on the bulletin boards hasn’t changed. Why?

Note to self: Can we hand over TV programming in probation centers to National Geographic or Animal Planet? Maybe Sundance: Movies about overcoming obstacles. Can clients run the show? After all, they’re the ones who have to watch while they wait. People forget: TV is a place.

I see a mom, her baby and little girl sprawled on the green benches. The girl is coloring while probation officers shout names and the security guard barks orders. Will this day stick in her memory?

Clever graphic designer Paul Sahre repeats the word well 50 times in a poster that hangs at one of the newly rehabbed juvenile probation centers (by Biber Architects). It means, All’s well that ends well. Is it? Does it? For who?

I head to the lobby—again. Dismal, me and the exit. God, it’s ugly. But that’s another project. I walk out into the cold.