The Ship’s First Shape Was a Raft

What does it mean to make a thing for ourselves?


The first fear / being drowning, the / ship’s first shape / was a raft, which / was hard to / unflatten / after that didn’t / happen. It’s awkward / to have to do one’s / planning in / extremis / in the early years – / so hard to hide later: / sleekening the hull, / making things/ more gracious.

“We’re Building the Ship as We Sail It” by Kay Ryan

The Ship’s First Shape was a Raft (SfS), was a two-year collaboration across three learning communities: formerly incarcerated young people at The Fortune Society, public high school students at Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), undergraduate students at The New School / Parsons School of Design, and teachers from each. This project emerged from our prior experiences working together, and a shared interest in creating something meaningful for participants’ lives where that meaning wasn’t externally imposed. It was critical to include differences of privilege, access to resources, and experiences with structures like racism, poverty, education, and the criminal legal system. We grounded our service-oriented design project with three framing questions, not knowing where they would lead:

  •  What does it mean to make a thing for ourselves?
  • How do we tell our own stories?
  • How do we use this process to create new, and strengthen existing, communities?


 Creating our own definitions of “community”, “power” and other critical words, using the Working with People project . Creating our own definitions of “community”, “power” and other critical words, using the Working with People project.

Beginning with the premise that “community” is a complex and contested subject, this project utilized the critical pedagogy of our “Working with People” Keywords project as a framework for developing design-based community-making, -articulating, and -driven projects on site at The Fortune Society and at WHEELS. Throughout the project we used a cyclical, recursive reflection process, which allowed timelines to emerge as both fixed and in flux and allowed us to be responsive when new ideas arose, or new participants joined. It created the possibility of making together in emergent, imagined, and real spaces.

We take the Kay Ryan poem above as a reminder that some things are made as you go, first with a sense of having to work fast so as not to falter, and then with pockets of space or time for reflection as the building continues and the made thing is remade and changes shape – as a kind of call to arms, a willingness to begin with the presumption that the best things are made in this way, and with the full participation of all those involved. It is also a reminder that the work is about both what we are making and the work of making it, the process and the many possible outcomes. The metaphor of the ship allows us to remember that we are, in fact, intending to move – to move people, things, ideas, and possibilities – and that both the process and the things made require everyone to move in the same direction together, even and especially where we are different and bringing our different experiences and worldviews together. 


“The Ship’s First Shape was a Raft”, a timeline of cyclical reflection, making and re-making in collaboration.

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