Yesterday was Mike Ford Day at Cass Tech High School in Detroit, and the Hip-Hop Architect celebrated by giving away a $10,000 scholarship.
Ford, who founded his Hip-Hop Architecture Camps in Madison in 2017, graduated from the magnet school in 2001 (as did his wife Gail Ford, who is now director of the UW’s PEOPLE program). The school’s 2,400 students are mostly Black, Ford said, and he’s remained engaged in giving back to his alma mater.
As a result, the principal declared a “Mike Ford Day” in 2019, and again in 2020, when Ford couldn’t travel to Detroit due to the pandemic. He was back yesterday, though, with a big surprise in hand: a $10,000 scholarship for senior Sarah Shaw-Nichols, provided by interior design firm Herman Miller.
Shaw-Nichols was not available for comment, but Ford had video running live on Facebook:
Students at Cass choose their own curriculum on which to focus. “It’s like a major,” Ford said. “Students can pick accounting, various engineering (disciplines), chem-bio, chemistry and biology. Architecture is one of the curriculum focuses that you can select.”
And Ford wanted to send a student from the architecture program to college, asking the school to select the student.
“I totally trust the staff there. The staff are very involved with our students, even since the days I was there. So they’re aware of what students are doing,” he said.
The scholarship comes with no strings attached, except that it’ll be used for college tuition.
“It is not tied to any specific college or university,” Ford said. “Once she provides notification of the final college that she’s selected we will pay it no matter what college it is. So she doesn’t have to go to a school in Michigan or a school in Wisconsin. Doesn’t have to be an HBCU. It’s just the school that is the best fit for her needs.”
Shaw-Nichols’ father took some time off of work to be there for the moment when Ford, accompanied by Detroit City Council President Mary Sheffield, had her pulled out of class to spring the scholarship on her.
The funding for the scholarship came from Michigan-based design firm Herman Miller, which is best known for its high-end furniture. The company has been working with Ford on a variety of projects — a partnership “born out of pandemic,” said Strategic Relationship Executive Lauren Maki, who’s based in Milwaukee.
Ford was one of the artists chosen by the City of Madison to create art for the State Street area in the wake of protests last summer.
“I had actually seen Mike on the Madison news this summer of 2020, and I was newly tapped to be president of (American Society of Interior Designers) Wisconsin, and I wanted to work with him. I knew at least that. We’re an organization of largely white females and we wanted to expand our reach and understand how to diversify our industry. And that really grew from just a professional organization to realizing how beautifully his work aligned with the philanthropic arm of Herman Miller.”
For example, Ford redesigned an Eames Lounge Chair, emblazoning the simple black design with the names of Black people killed by police, and took it on tour, making it the centerpiece of the “Conversations for Change” program.
And when presented the opportunity to fund the future of another Black architect, Herman Miller took it.
“We collectively realized as a brand … in order to diversify the design industry, we have to start young. We have to expose underrepresented youth to the concept of design and that they can have careers and futures and impact the world and the way it looks,” Maki said. “So that was simultaneously something that had been brewing. And then we met Mike … he had long understood that before us and was well on his way. So it was a real natural fit. Once we learned there was a Mike Ford day at his Alma Mater in Detroit, we decided to jump right on that and offer some funds for a student to attend a school in architecture.”
Maki sees it as a long-term investment.
“I think any designer — pick a medium, graphic design, interior, architecture — they’d say they’re problem solvers and there’s a lot of problems out there. And if only one group of people is focused on solving, let’s say the built environment for architecture or design, then our world is largely going to look one way. So I think there’s real power in diversifying that. Stay tuned, it’s a long game for sure,” she said.
Now 20 years removed, Ford intends to retain those strong ties to Cass, and help more students in the future.
“The reason why I go to Cass — besides just the fact that I graduated from there — that architecture program has created a large number of Black architects around the country,” he said. “A lot in Detroit, but a number of black architects have come out of that program. We all try to give back at some type of capacity.”