The Heart of Hale County

For 20 years, young design idealists have descended on this sad and gorgeous place with the best intentions. What have they wrought?

This place is so lovely.


Cross the Hale County line driving north on the rolling two-lane Alabama State Route 61 and you can’t deny it: the kudzu, the catfish ponds, a picturesque old store called Newbern Mercantile Co. It’s as visually seductive as any rural patch of the so-called Black Belt (a name derived from properties of soil) that stretches across several southern states.

And yet this place is so tough. The 15,388 people who inhabit Hale County’s 644 square miles face all the same challenges as residents of similar counties across the rural South, as America becomes ever more urbanized. Jobs are scarce; per-capita income is low; the poverty rate is high; affordable housing is a problem. Most of these places have been largely forgotten. Hale County has not. This is, you could say, by design.

Over a period of two decades, 600 or so students have participated in Auburn University’s Rural Studio program, which is headquartered in tiny Newbern. The students have built more than 150 structures here and elsewhere across western Alabama, blazing a new trail in thinking about what today might be called social design–pushing architects to figure out how to use their talents to serve a greater good. The often striking and inventive results have been featured in two books (with a third on the way), a documentary, the Museum of Modern Art, and countless articles in the design, architecture, and mainstream press.


More recently, Rural Studio has inspired a broad variety of design-based social experiments in Hale County, many of which focus on things other than housing. The “design blitz” program Project M, which assembles squads of young designers in various locales to whip up fresh projects in two to four weeks, created a local campaign to fund running-water access for needy residents, as well as a pie-and-coffee experiment that led to a new restaurant on Main Street in Hale’s largest town. A team of industrial designers from the University of Kansas devised a sleek bamboo bike and raised $40,000 on Kickstarter to manufacture it here. Groups of students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and elsewhere have visited with their own revitalization projects.

Those of us interested in design as a spark for social change have been hearing about all this, in dribs and drabs, for years: feel-good, drive-by reports of a particular project’s completion–or, at times, even its mere proposal. There’s something about the apparent incongruity of cutting-edge design thinking and rural America that we find irresistible. “Avant-Garde in Alabama,” marvels a Wall Street Journal guide to Rural Studio works. “Pie + Design = Change,” asserts a New York Times Magazine feature about that Main Street pastry destination. Wired Design declares that the Kickstarter campaign will deliver “a bamboo bike designed to lift people from poverty.”

What the enthusiasts don’t do much is follow up on these breathless reports. But if you do linger here, surprising, useful, and sometimes troubling things come into view. Over a period of several months, I visited Hale County twice and interviewed dozens of people to try to get something more than a “drive-by” perspective on the many architecture and design efforts here. The singular history of Hale County offers a chance to confront the most important questions that could be asked about design as catalyst. Are social designers most successful when they swoop in with the fresh thinking of outsiders? Or do they need to be embedded in the communities they aim to enhance? To use a business analogy, sometimes the rhetoric around social design suggests it can do for challenged communities what Jony Ive did for Apple. So what has really worked in Hale County? Has it improved the lives of the county’s residents?


After I managed to find a space to sit amid the epic clutter inside his Honda Fit, Rural Studio director Andrew Freear drove us up Route 61. The studio is based in Newbern–not far from Newbern Mercantile, the town’s general store, which stands across the street from a pair of contemporary Rural Studio–built structures: a clean-lined volunteer fire station from 2004, walled with translucent polycarbonate panels under angled cedar slats, and an inviting town hall completed in 2012. Impressive buildings for a town of 186 people.

Freear hooked left onto Hale County Road 16. He wanted me to have a look at the results of the studio’s current focus: designs for quality homes that would be genuinely affordable to the poorest residents of Hale County and beyond. The first of the dozen existing “$20K Houses” was built back in 2005. Freear hopes to have eight more complete by April, when Rural Studio celebrates its 20th anniversary.

An off-campus extension of Auburn University’s architecture department, Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by professors Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth as a design/build program (meaning students don’t simply devise pie-in-the-sky renderings for imaginary clients; they make houses and other structures for real people and organizations). Its earliest creations–homes for needy families, community buildings–often incorporated unusual materials, such as hay bales, corrugated cardboard, salvaged road signs, or old tires. Their jarring angles and exotic silhouettes often made them distinctly modern additions to the region.

The Newbern post office was erected in 1940, and is still in use. (left); In 2009, Rural Studio built this mobile concessions stand, which serves the baseball, peewee football, and rodeo crowds in different locales. (right)

This work was widely celebrated–Fast Company’s own enthusiasm goes back to 2000, not long after Mockbee had been awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, when the magazine sent Curtis Sittenfeld to visit. A fifth-generation Mississippian with a big beard and a charismatic accent, Mockbeee, widely known as Sambo, was a charming crusader, passionate about architecture and the South; he spoke of soulful and spiritual building, and was easy with words such as justice and dignity. He died of leukemia in 2001, but his name remains practically synonymous with Rural Studio.


Among other things, Mockbee stressed to Sittenfeld, now a novelist, the importance of knowing a place and its people: “You can’t just blow in. You don’t have to be from here, but you do have to understand the community in which you’re going to build.” He, his small faculty, and the dozen original students spent time on modest repair projects as they got to know the locals.

Freear, who joined the studio in 2000 and took over as its director after Mockbee’s death, seems as different from his predecessor as possible. Tall and rangy with tousled gray hair, the 46-year-old hails from Yorkshire, England. With his measured demeanor and sly sense of humor, he’s an incongruous figure for the Deep South. But Freear has absorbed his predecessor’s commitment to place, which grounds his deeply held convictions about architecture, his educational mission, and his Alabama home of 15 years–and how those things should relate to one another.

Rural Studio students “get embedded,” Freear told me: “Staying here. Being a neighbor.” So does faculty, a point that sank in for him when he took over the role of director just as the earliest studio buildings were starting to show wear and tear. “If a toilet leaks in Marion, I hear about it,” he said. But that’s part of being the “town architect.” He has the cell-phone numbers of the probate judge and the area mayors, and knows mail carriers, government clerks, and so on. But what matters more, he continued, is that they know him: “We’re a resource now.”


In keeping with his goal of fitting in, Freear’s Rural Studio is creating notably less eccentric work than Mockbee’s. A $20K structure called Dave’s House, which was completed in 2009, is a crisp and modern gabled structure. But it is not nearly so distinct as some of Rural Studio’s most famous 1990s projects. The only exception to this is a batch of four $20K Houses clustered in Greensboro, which were built in 2008–when Freear was on leave. They were “more idiosyncratic than we can afford,” Freear says. “Also more idiosyncratic than we want.”

We took another left onto Alabama State Route 25, passing through the 98-person hamlet of Faunsdale, just over the Marengo County line, to look at four more recent $20K Houses on three different sites. We overlapped with Rural Studio students seeking evidence of what was working and what wasn’t, both to ensure a long-term commitment to its structures and clients and to improve future designs. “We’re in a position to be iterative,” Freear said, “and build on a body of knowledge.”

The next day, I visited Rural Studio’s classroom and workshop spaces: a couple of ramshackle buildings on Route 61, their walls coated in architectural renderings. Freear, wearing a newbern mercantile T-shirt, led a series of demanding critiques of his students’ work. During the first, a presentation intended to explain the $20K House concept, a detail tripped Freear up. “Are you just going through a fucking checklist?” he asked. “You need to be clearer, because I don’t understand that at all.” The students took this in stride, reacting with engagement rather than defensiveness. “If that’s the argument you want to make,” Freear finally concluded, after a long back-and-forth, “hit me in the face with it.”


The next group was the set of students we’d bumped into the day before while looking at the $20K Houses. They summarized their findings, and Freear put them through the ringer too. But eventually: “I’m pleased,” he said, “because I think you’re starting to look closer. So, how do you keep looking closer?”

Something in that remark struck me as central to Freear’s philosophy. For a dozen years, he has had the unenviable task of both protecting and transcending Mockbee’s legacy. He has done so by holding close the “town architect” idea. The studio has etched itself into the landscape as, says Freear, “a place of many voices”: students, citizens, area officials. “It’s easy to oversimplify what happens here,” he says. Hale County “is a can-do place. The farmers just do stuff, and that’s infectious.”

This struck me as pretty much the exact opposite of the popular image of the rural South. Freear cut me a wary glance and pivoted back to the $20K House project. It is not, he said, an undertaking designed to aid victims; it’s not disaster relief; and it’s not charity. The idea is to discover a solution that makes genuine economic sense for all concerned. “And we’re not going to solve poverty,” he added. “Because architecture can’t do that.”


For a contrary approach to the social-design idea, all you have to do is drive some 10 miles north of Newbern, past a farmers’ market (with unusual mobile stalls, created by Rural Studio), a Piggly Wiggly, and a sign welcoming you to Greensboro, the county seat (and “Catfish Capital of Alabama”), population 2,497. On Main Street, you’ll find Pie Lab, where lots of smartly designed T-shirts are for sale; and a pushpin map indicates the far-flung hometowns of visitors to this “pie and conversation” spot. It’s a gorgeous space, even if it does feel more like an attraction than a hangout. In an effort to stop losing money, the managers (there have been several since the Lab was opened a few years back) now charge $4 for a slice of, say, Chocolate Bourbon Pie. As any number of locals mentioned to me, that’s pricey for Hale County.

Andrew Freear directs Rural Studio. Hale County “is a can-do place,” he says.

Pie Lab is the most prominent result of Project M, which was founded in 2003 by John Bielenberg, who, with chiseled features and cropped gray hair, has a laconic demeanor that belies a somewhat bullheaded contrarianism. Based mostly in Maine, he is cofounder of a Bay Area design firm that works for major corporate clients. Peripatetic by nature, he frequently appears at design conferences where he makes an appealing case for what he calls the philosophy of “think wrong.”

Bielenberg says he was inspired by Mockbee and Rural Studio to found Project M, but his approach is very different. He wanted an outlet to explore the potential of design and design education, operating outside the constraints of his professional studio. Project M was conceived as a one-month program: Using a unique “design blitz” methodology Bielenberg had created, design students and grads gather to devise and execute a social-impact project in a specific place, under the guidance of like-minded advisers.


Project M is about jarring participants out of their creative comfort zones to land on truly original ideas and solutions. It’s effectively the opposite of the “embedding” idea: Participants must adjust to an unfamiliar place, collaborate with a team of strangers, and do something, quickly. Various exercises force them to have conversations with locals and reveal trust-building secrets to their fellow “M-ers.” The whiteboard and sticky-note version of brainstorming is verboten. Mistakes and false starts are expected.


The first time Project M came to Greensboro, in 2007, just about nothing was accomplished in the first 27 days or so. “They worked on weirdo videos and, you know, just stupid things,” laughs Pam Dorr, the head of a local not-for-profit (the Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization, or HERO). “Every day it was something new.” Finally, “there was a huge fight,” she recalls, about what the group should actually do. Only then did something click: a campaign to raise money for Hale County residents in need of water meters. (Lack of access to running water was a problem HERO dealt with routinely.) A flurry of last-minute activity produced a starkly effective flier that solicited donations to an M-devised service called Buy a Meter. The project raised some $50,000, and helped dozens of families get hooked up to clean water.

The same process–this conversion from chaos to concept–happened this past July. I was in town at the same time as a half dozen college-age members of a Project M crew and about a dozen M alums who were passing through for a shorter visit and a reunion of sorts, celebrating the initiative’s 10th anniversary. My first night there, the participants, alumni, and advisers looked to me as if they had collectively stepped through some sort of portal leading directly from the Mission District into a lot just off Main Street. They were drinking beer, lighting sparklers and Roman candles, setting off obnoxiously loud cracklers, and taking video of one another riding bikes through firecracker smoke. It all seemed more summer camp than cutting-edge social design. Bielenberg later explained that the M process always begins with a heavy emphasis on team building. A radical change of course halfway through is fine, but sometimes the only path to a good idea leads through several bad ones.

The M-ers were supposed to devise marketing strategies for the upcoming Kickstarter campaign to support building a bamboo bike in Hale County. “Thinking wrong,” they had invented a semivillainous neo-folklore character named Catfish Jones, a Greensboro daredevil who disappeared mysteriously long ago. The idea became that a Catfish Jones bike would put you in touch with the inner courage of this mythic figure. The firecracker videos tied into this. That night, everyone gathered again in a house Bielenberg owns near Main Street to watch the edited Catfish Jones videos. They were, to my surprise, delightful, weaving together the antics of M-ers wearing Catfish Jones helmets, in ways that humorously communicated the notion of unlocking fearlessness. Catfish Jones seemed like a pretty appealing branding gimmick.


The idea of a bamboo bike manufactured in Hale County has, believe it or not, been kicking around for years. Bamboo was introduced to Alabama just over a century ago and is seen locally as something of a weed. But designers love bamboo’s combination of strength, lightness, and flexibility. After a couple of years of working with Project M-ers in Greensboro, Lance Rake, a professor at the University of Kansas, developed a sleek design that involves planing thick bamboo stalks and gluing them into hexagons. He calls it the Semester Bike.

Having a design is one thing. Having the money, know-how, real estate, employees, logistics, and sophisticated touch with local politicians is another. And this brings us back to Pam Dorr. “It’s obvious,” Rake told me last summer, “none of this would have happened if Pam wasn’t there.”

Pam Dorr was a Baby Gap designer in San Francisco until she left to try and make a difference in Hale County.

Dorr arrived in Hale County in 2003. Originally from Half Moon Bay, California, she’d spent 20 years in New Hampshire and San Francisco creating products for such companies as Victoria’s Secret and Baby Gap. “I was a pajama designer,” she once said. Dissatisfied with this life, she’d become drawn to the idea of the Deep South as a place where a difference might, and should, be made, after watching an HBO documentary called Lalee’s Kin, a profoundly stark account of poverty in the Mississippi Delta.


By then, Rural Studio was a growing mix of third-year architecture students staying for a semester, fifth-year students who remained for a year or more, and a yearlong “outreach” program for professionals and postgraduates, including nonarchitects. Dorr was accepted to the program; by her own account, her Rural Studio project, which involved home gardens, went nowhere. “People had food stamps and didn’t want to grow their own food,” she recalls. “It wasn’t convenient. It didn’t feel like I had done much, or as much as I could,” she says. So she stayed.

What low-income Hale County residents were interested in, she found, was housing. “People were in some of the most substandard housing in the nation,” she explains. Dorr took a job with HERO, which at the time focused on social-service issues, such as mental health. She learned to write successful grant proposals, became the executive director, and refocused the organization’s mission toward housing. HERO now has 33 employees and has built just over 100 houses.

Dorr, 51, is a curious presence. Brown-haired and dark-eyed, she radiates energy, rides a cute green bike that she leaves unlocked outside her office, and generally gives the impression of being in a hurry. No Southerner would mistake her for a local, but she has the not-unsouthern knack of punctuating practically every sentence with a huge and sometimes disconcerting smile–even if she’s just said something depressing, or even cutting. It’s only when she gets going on a passionate point that the smile tumbles away like a dropped mask.

For years, HERO and Rural Studio teamed up regularly: HERO’s office on Main Street and nearby facilities and playground were all designed and built by the studio. But these days, HERO’s relationship with Rural Studio is “not so good,” Dorr says, then quickly hedges: “I’m not sure that’s a good description. Myself, and HERO, are open to working with anybody, anytime on a given project.” But the bottom line is there’s been little collaboration between the organizations in recent years, an untidy truth that the design press coverage tends to ignore. The reasons for the disconnect are both understandable and provincial, involving an accumulation of perceived slights. Best intentions don’t always lead to the best relations.

Dorr is clearly embedded in Hale County–but she also supports the idea that design thinking from the outside can drive change. That’s why she agreed to help Project M conduct its first design blitz back in 2007. Since then, Dorr has welcomed Project M back to Greensboro every year, and gradually made connections with a variety of design and other programs that bring bright and energetic outsiders to town. (HERO has a “bunkhouse” building where these visitors can stay, and Dorr serves as a practical guide to the county.)

Dorr believes social-design interventions are far more complicated than the excitable–and, to Dorr, “frustrating”–drive-by accounts suggest. “You don’t come up with an idea and it magically appears,” she says. The most useful notions are unique responses to issues that emerge from the community itself. And even those ideas mean little without long-term follow-through. Without Dorr, Pie Lab (which HERO owns) would now exist solely in the portfolios of the designers who created its original pop-up-style iteration. And as Rake readily admits, Semester Bike would have been just another pie-in-the-sky bamboo scheme without Dorr and HERO.

Dorr always seems enthusiastic about new ideas–but in practice she’s canny about what she really supports over time. Many young designers, she concedes, show up with preconceived notions, little or no knowledge of Alabama, and a propensity to define “problems” on their own terms. Dorr admits she has found a number of visiting groups irritating–partly because they expect her to be responsible for carrying out their creative brainstorms.

Way back in 2009, Freear, Bielenberg, and Dorr were all at the Aspen Design Summit in Colorado to discuss creating an official rural-poverty design lab in Greensboro. They agreed that this was a bad idea for Hale County–but didn’t agree on much else. That’s no surprise, because each represents a spectrum of approaches to the intersection of design and social change.

Freear, in my conversations with him, flatly declined to offer any direct opinions, on or off the record, about Project M or any visiting-designer group Dorr has worked with. I pressed on, arguing that even if purely by way of inspiration, these efforts are a de facto element of Rural Studio’s legacy. “I’m anxious about all of that,” he finally said, sounding weary and maybe disappointed at the question. Acutely aware of himself as an outsider with “a silly accent,” Freear has spent 13 years focused on helping Rural Studio prove its genuine worth to, and respect for, the community. “I don’t want you going out there telling people how to live their lives,” he tells his students. “It isn’t about you. It’s about figuring out what is the appropriate thing for us to do out here–and what you leave when you leave here.”

Freear wouldn’t extend this to the obvious criticism of more fleeting, blitz-style projects, so I will: Some work, but many don’t. Even those that do can have mixed side effects. The stark imagery in the Buy a Meter campaign irritated some Hale County residents who didn’t care to see the place depicted as a land of poverty and blight. Publicity posters for Pie Lab that read fuck cake, eat pie, not surprisingly, offended some locals. But at least Pie Lab and Buy a Meter led to something.

ON MAIN STREET, IN GREENSBORO, MANY OLD STORES HAVE BEEN GIVEN A MODERN TWIST: Rural Studio finished the HERO Resource Center in 2002, fashioning its awnings out of a defunct conveyor belt
from the old cat fish plant. In the 1950s, this was a flower shop. Now it’s the wholesale bakery for Pie Lab, a Project M creation. (Right)

In 2011, Project M teamed up with an entity called Common–an umbrella for social entrepreneurialism created by Alex Bogusky, the advertising superstar who abandoned that profession to pursue greater-good initiatives. This led to an idea dubbed Common Hoops, which involved guiding local youth through a process of creating basketball backboards from reclaimed materials. An upbeat video shot in Greensboro depicts one such backboard installed in a playground not so far from Main Street. It does not depict the people in nearby homes who demanded that the new backboard be removed immediately: They didn’t like the idea of the playground as a gathering place. As of my last visit in October, there is no backboard in that Greensboro playground.

As it happens, I introduced Bielenberg and Bogusky, and that was probably on my mind when I asked Bielenberg: Isn’t it legitimate to wonder whether the blitz approach glosses the crucial issue of responsibility? Even if it’s sexy and gets a lot of press, is it fair when you factor in the many failed projects?

“An opinion has been formed about what we’re doing that is misinformed,” he answered. He reminded me that he owns a house, built by a Rural Studio professor, in Greensboro. (Further disclosure: I stayed in this house.) “We’re an institution there just like” Rural Studio is, he continued. “If you include Pam–she lives there.” That’s an important caveat, and it came up over and over when I talked to M alumni: Flashy design ideas hog the attention, but few (in Hale County or anywhere else) amount to anything without a committed, local, long-term partner on the ground.

Lately, Bielenberg told me, he’s been talking to universities about partnerships that would establish regular, semester-long programs, in conjunction with HERO. This scenario, he continued, meant Project M could evolve from one-shot-oriented graphic-design campaigns toward creating more “micro-enterprises” like Pie Lab–potentially lasting contributions to the community, ideally creating some jobs, as Pie Lab has. It would be “kind of the way Rural Studio works,” he said.

Charlie Cannon, who teaches industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design, moderated that rural-poverty discussion in Aspen in 2009. In 2013, Cannon was part of a group that developed “a kind of matrix,” he says, addressing “what role designers might bring to the innovation process.” This matrix clarified differences between one-off projects and efforts aiming for transformative change that require deep partnerships with nondesign institutions. So judging something like Project M against the standards of significant social innovation may be missing the point: Its real impact is more educational. Short-term efforts demonstrate to young designers “that you can work in a community on something you think is important and be entrepreneurial,” Cannon continues.

Talk to a cross-section of young designers who have spent time in Hale County, and it becomes clear that, for many, their time in the place has had a lasting effect. Often that includes confronting the pros and cons of differing design-for-change philosophies. And it almost always includes the realization that designing for change is a lot harder than the hype suggests. But the net effect seems positive. As Bielenberg says, “Well-meaning, well-intentioned people trying to do good work is always better than nobody doing anything.”

Alabama native Jack Forinash picked up the “design/build bug,” as he puts it, during a semester at Rural Studio and has gone on to cofound a housing-resources organization called Epicenter, in the tiny town of Green River, Utah. Megan Deal is a Flint, Michigan, native who was part of the early Pie Lab team and ultimately spent a year in Greensboro on the Ameri­Corps Vista program. She recently cofounded a Chattanooga, Tennessee, firm called Tomorrow Today, which helps civic-minded foundations focused on urban-renewal projects. Serah Mead is another M veteran who stayed on in Greensboro through Vista and “did a 180” on the place-time-design dynamic; she and her partner work for a not-for-profit building affordable housing for Moab, Utah. Her summer with Project M was, she says, “my blissful summer of inspiration. It took being a naive, overexcited, idealistic young designer to end up where I did.”

It’s safe to say that Hale County has done a lot for design.

But what has design done for Hale County?

Residents here have had enough of being a featured attraction on the map of Problems to Be Solved. Greensboro, in fact, is where James Agee and Walker Evans based themselves while researching what would become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. And as recently as 2013, This American Life chose Hale County as the setting for a depressing report on government disability payments.

A few weeks after my last Hale County visit, I gathered updates on the most recent projects there. Rural Studio, in addition to the $20K House effort, is at work on converting a vacant building on Route 61 into a Newbern Library, finishing an expansion to the Greensboro Boys & Girls Club, and completing its latest additions to a big public park. The bamboo Semester Bike effort met its Kickstarter goal; Dorr says that bikes will start shipping by February–prices start at $850. The Catfish Jones branding strategy, meanwhile, has been paired with a different Project M effort called the Nada Bike, which Bielenberg says will go on sale in January for $450. (Both bike projects are focused on online sales to far-flung buyers, with revenues going to HERO.)

That’s fodder for a slew of upbeat dispatches–but what does it add up to? I asked dozens of designers and architects who have worked (or still work) there and in other social-design contexts how they judge success. Most replies acknowledged how frustrating it can be to try to answer such questions definitively. But in Hale County, at least, the irrefutable responses involved personal stories: This person got a house; that person got a job. On an individual level, for sure, design and architecture have changed lives in this place–definitively, and for the better.

Pull back, and it gets harder to gauge the impact. Not long after my second trip, I stumbled across the results of an earlier visitor’s efforts to untangle some of the same questions that interested me. “Understanding the Impact of Social Design Practices in Hale County, Alabama” is the title of a 2012 master’s thesis by a New School student named Ansley Whipple, who spent seven weeks poking around the place and interviewing a number of the same people I eventually spoke to. Whipple, too, found that the effects of Rural Studio and HERO–related projects tended to be on an individual level: “The surprising result of this research was that these design organizations have produced very little measurable impact on the community as a whole. . . . The quality of life for the majority of the community has remained relatively the same.”

If you think about it, though, why should we find that surprising? Perhaps it’s because the discourse around social design has become overly idealistic. We see wonderful-looking projects in the press, described as creators of high-impact social change. It’s inspirational. But does it square with reality?

While in Greensboro, I met a man named André Muse, who grew up partly in a Newark suburb and partly in Greensboro, a place he’s now been familiar with for about a dozen years. “Greensboro hasn’t changed at all,” he said. A local drugstore has become a CVS; there’s now a McDonald’s and a Subway. And–as pretty much everyone I met in Greensboro mentioned at some point–the catfish processing plant shut down a few years ago. That’s about it.

His aunt, Barbara Muse, was familiar with Pie Lab. She’d even visited–once. She can afford a $4 slice of pie, she assured me, but finds the price absurd. Neither she nor André knew much about the Nada Bike. André raised his eyebrows at the concept of an $850 bike. “A bamboo bike?” he asked. “People around here don’t ride bikes.”

They steered the conversation to more big-picture matters: young people moving out, maybe for a job at the Mercedes plant in Tuscaloosa, 45 minutes away, maybe for something even further away; Greensboro losing its Greyhound stop; the dearth of job-training programs. André, an Army veteran with some college education, had recently finished a seven-year prison sentence. People facing challenges, he said, “just want someone to say, ‘Look, we care about you.’ ” Barbara nodded. They agreed that HERO and “Auburn” had done good things for some–but for the majority, nothing had changed.

Then André mentioned that Walmart had eyed a Greensboro location, but after encountering resistance chose to open in Demopolis, one county over. I wasn’t quite following the point he was making. Walmart? Did he want a Walmart in Greensboro?

“Now you’re talking!” Barbara said. André chimed in, rattling off the variety of jobs that would create. Both of their moods brightened visibly. The whole tone of the conversation shifted–suddenly it was all about the potential of Greensboro, the opportunities that could be created. Optimism.

A Walmart spokesman could find no evidence that the company had ever considered Greensboro; Demopolis sits at the intersection of far-busier highways. But that’s hardly the point. André and Barbara weren’t skeptical of the general notion of a catalyst for profound change. They just found Walmart a lot more convincing than design microenterprises. The store would have been pure and positive judgment that this is a place with a future.

Maybe those of us interested in design as a spark for social change could use a reality check. It’s worth celebrating design’s social successes, but it’s also worth openly assessing the limits. The potential of design to enable change has been established; maybe the promising paths forward involve the humility to recognize that lasting change is harder than it looks, and the willingness to openly debate and disagree on how to integrate differing design approaches into more wide-ranging solutions with a range of partners.

Finally, this turn in the conversation made me realize I’d misread the Muses’ take on Greensboro itself. Sure, this place is tough. But their view wasn’t gloomy, hopeless, or even pessimistic. They not only wanted it to thrive but believed it could, and should. That’s common ground with the best intentions of embedded designers and short-term visitors, too. In fact, it’s the common ground.

We wrapped things up, and when we got outside Barbara Muse stopped me to add one more thing. She and her husband really enjoy living in Greensboro, she said, beaming. It is, she told me, such a lovely place.