Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

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Human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public

Lulu Mickelson

A civic leader bringing change to NYC through design

Lulu Mickelson, 22, began charting her course in community organizing and civic engagement early on, when riding her chartreuse beachcomber to school in Santa Monica, California. Surrounded by the notoriously smoggy, clogged freeways outside of LA, she noticed the bike racks at her large public high school were nearly empty and was instrumental in organizing “Bike It” days, getting half the school to go car-free by the time she graduated, and helping score a grant from the state for special bike lanes. It was then, she says, that “I got to understand the power of working at the grassroots level, and the local impact you can have when bringing together different stakeholders.”

Her drive for civic-minded public service only went into high gear as an undergrad at Barnard College, where she led one of the inaugural Design For America chapters in looking at improving relations between Columbia University and the residents of West Harlem living near the school’s ongoing construction. Through a Creative Art Works program, she collaborated with 30 kids from the neighborhood, employing 15 high school students for a semester. Each student created a piece of art that would go on the fence around the university’s construction site, in a “narrative historical mural of what’s gone on in the community.” Getting people invested in their surroundings at such a young age, she say, makes for “ambassadors for the future”—as she knows from firsthand experience.

Now the recent grad is hard at work in local government in New York City, where she holds the title of Assistant Press Secretary. As a special advisor to the commissioner of the NYC Department of Small Business Services, she is helping to elevate design as a practical form of civic engagement and getting the public involved in the creation of new, more responsive public services.

Mickelson is playing a critical role in the WE NYC initiative (Women’s Entrepreneurs of NYC), which launched in March. She and her colleagues have been taking it to the streets, setting up forums for conversations with real women entrepreneurs throughout the five boroughs in a fact-finding mission to implement better programs that will help women start, operate and grow businesses in the city. “We see WE NYC as the beginning of our commitment to really strengthening our relationships with the community, and making sure that government is designing services that are responsive and effective in this collaborative process,” she says, noting that “human-centered design is one of the many tools that we can use to better engage the public as we create programs and services to serve New Yorkers’ needs. I think we’re going to see government shifting a lot to be more responsive, transparent, collaborative and participatory.” She’s helping lead the charge. And true to her childhood ideals, she’s doing it while getting around the city “by foot, and public transportation.”

Illustration by Jason Ratliff, images courtesy of WE NYC

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