Chicago’s First Annual Sukkah Design Fest Brings Together Social Justice and Design

By Zeki Salah, Facilitator, Mutual Aid Collaborative

The first annual Sukkah Design Festival was held on October 9-16, showcasing North Lawndale’s Jewish history and providing social services to the community. Reshorna Fitzpatrick, 2019 Chicago Peace Fellow and Executive Pastor of the Stone Temple Baptist Church, was a member of the organizing committee, which included both community-based organizations and design firms. Together, they brought the community together to explore the history of North Lawndale through collaborative design projects and built relationships centered around social justice. 

Pastor Reshorna was connected to the Sukkah Design project through the Lawndale Pop-up Spot, a community museum housed in a shipping container created by Chelsea Ridley, Jonathan Kelley, and members of the Lawndale community. The Lawndale Pop-up Spot is housed on land owned by Stone Temple Baptist Church and when Jonathan and Chelsea approached Pastor Reshorna about getting involved in the Sukkah Design Festival, she gave an enthusiastic yes.  The Festival was held in a lot owned by Stone Temple Church on Douglas Boulevard from October 9th to October 16th. A series of events were held around the Sukkahs centered around social justice and exploring cultural legacy through design. 

The Sukkah Design fest created three Sukkahs, temporary outdoor structures, to celebrate the Jewish holiday, Sukkot. Sukkot is a holiday that celebrates the end of harvest time and involves the creation of Sukkahs where members of the community can gather, eat, and celebrate. The Festival split participants into three teams which each collaborated to design a Sukkah with a social justice element. Each team included a Chicago-based design firm and a community-based organization. 

The Young Mens Educational Network partnered with the firm Human Scale put together a pop-up “Giving Sukkah” where people could get food and flowers that were grown by members of the community. This Sukkah has now moved to YMEN’s headquarters on Pulaski Boulevard.  

Stone Temple Baptist Church worked together with the firm New Office to design a micro-museum that explores the history of Stone Temple from 1926 – present. The exhibit explores the various stages the building went through as both a synagogue and a church. Current community members also got involved in the design of the exhibit by exploring what they love about the neighborhood of North Lawndale as a way of bringing the present state of the community into conversation with its history. 

Men Making a Difference and Open Books – North Lawndale Reads both partnered with the  Chicago Design Office and Made In Englewood. Together they created an intergenerational “book nook” where people of all ages could come together to read or play games. Collectively, the three Sukkahs tackled the issue of food accessibility, explored community assets, and built relationships between people in North Lawndale. 

Programming at the Sukkah Design Festival brought members of the North Lawndale community together through meals and conversations about their neighborhood. Food was often a central element of the programming: Stone Temple held their weekly “Soup for the Soul” food drive within the festival ground and interfaith dinners were scheduled throughout the week. Pastor Reshorna noted that, “nothing brings people together more than food,” a sentiment that also inspired a community clean-up event in which participants celebrated their work picking up trash with a free meal and conversation about environmental justice. 

As people gathered around food, attention was often drawn around the built environment around them. Tours of the Peace Parks of North Lawndale were given and the designers of the Sukkahs held guided tours during Open House Chicago. By gathering the community around food and leading discussions about their neighborhood, the Sukkah Design Fest inspired conversations about how Chicago is segregated by design, while also showing ways in which these conditions can be addressed by members of the community. 

The Sukkah Design Fest built relationships amongst residents in North Lawndale and connected them to different organizations around the city as they planned music, food, and cultural programming. Architects, community members, and community organizations all came together to unite diverse groups of people that would have otherwise not likely come into contact with one another. The fact that the festival was planned around Sukkot, a holiday associated with food, gathering, and the harvest, allowed for North Lawndale’s predominantly Black population to explore their neighborhood’s Jewish history alongside traditions of fellowship and kinship. These relationship-building events showed how community members could be empowered to make a difference in their community and plan social justice projects from the ground up. 

By uniting such a diverse range of actors to work together in North Lawndale, the Sukkah Design Festival provided valuable assets to an underserved community and empowered members of that community. The Stone Temple Baptist Church would like to make the Sukkah they designed alongside New Office a permanent mini-exhibition within the church. This would memorialize the cooperation achieved through Black and Jewish communities through the design festival and provide a valuable asset to North Lawndale, which could be used by members of the community to explore the neighborhood’s history. Stone Temple is currently collecting donations to help fund the installation of the mini exhibit.