The Charger Blog

Alumna, Professor Reflect on their Passion to Make a Difference

As an undergraduate, Savannah Dominguez ’17 took part in a design project for a course taught by Professor Jamie Slenker that proved to be especially transformative. They reunited recently to share their moving personal stories and how the project has impacted them as part of an interview captured by the nonprofit organization StoryCorps.

June 16, 2020

By Renee Chmiel, Office of Marketing and Communications

Image of Savannah Dominguez '17 and Prof. Jamie Slenker
Savannah Dominguez '17 (left) and Prof. Jamie Slenker shared their stories as part of an interview captured by StoryCorps.

When Savannah Dominguez ’17 was a senior studying interior design at the University of New Haven, she worked on a project that transcended design and enabled her to gain a deeper understanding of the meaning of community, as well as the challenges that some of the most vulnerable face on a regular basis.

The assignment, developed by Professor Jamie Slenker as part of her senior-level interior design studio course, challenges students to focus on library design by using the New Haven Free Public Library as a hypothetical project site. While taking the course, Dominguez realized how important the library is to the community, and the role it plays in providing a safe space for the homeless and fostering inclusion and opportunity.

Image of Savannah Dominguez ’17
Savannah Dominguez '17 (left) took part in Project Free Love’s “Midnight Run” event in New York City.

After graduating, Dominguez moved back to New York City, where she continued to focus on helping the homeless. She and a friend created Project Free Love, which endeavors to bring services and support to those in need and to give, spread, and create unconditional love. They held a “Midnight Run” event in the city, renting a van and serving homecooked meals to those in need while giving out care packages.

“This project was so important because the homeless are so much more than that,” she said. “Homelessness is not a character trait, it’s a situation. Project Free Love was about not only providing them with necessities to get through another night and day, but to offer a space and a conversation as well. We wanted to remind them that they’re human and they matter.”

'I was very excited to have been chosen'

In early March, Dominguez and Slenker reunited at the New Haven Free Public Library to reflect on the library design project from a few years ago and how it has impacted each of them. Their discussion was captured by StoryCorps, a nonprofit organization endeavoring to preserve and share humanity’s stories to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world. Their interview was one of 15 that StoryCorps recorded at the library shortly before the coronavirus global pandemic forced the library to temporarily close its doors.

"I hope future listeners will be reminded that even the smallest gesture can make a huge difference to someone."Savannah Dominguez '17

Supported by a gift from the Institute of Museum and Library Services as part of the 2019 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the StoryCorps interviews recorded at the library will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

“I was very excited to have been chosen,” said Dominguez. “The work I did as part of the course reminded me of the causes that are close to home for me. It means a lot to me to continue to feel connected to the bigger issues in our world.”

‘I realized how much it would mean to me to share my story’

Prof. Slenker’s work with the New Haven Free Public Library and the design class began shortly after she joined the University in 2010. The daughter of a book manufacturing company superintendent, she says books have always been important to her, and she believes the physical space of libraries holds significant meaning. She wanted to find a way to retain these important community gathering places as the world continues to evolve technologically.

As part of the StoryCorps interview, Slenker shared with Dominguez the challenges her own family has faced, which include homelessness and addiction, and her firsthand experience of the humanitarian impact that design can have. Slenker has endeavored to use her work to give back, and she has volunteered her time on several projects that benefit the community, including in cities such as Boulder, Colo., and in Hartford, Conn.

“I realized how much it would mean to me to share my story,” said Prof. Slenker. “I often only think of myself as the facilitator of my students’ work, and I have never shared my deepest personal motivations for the project. The opportunity to tell my story was very emotional and a bit therapeutic.”

Local libraries, in particular, are spaces that Prof. Slenker is passionate about working with, since they are so crucial to many of a community’s homeless. Her half-brother in Las Vegas faces homelessness, and she has a strong personal investment in helping others who struggle with it.

“It’s a way for me to not feel helpless,” she told Dominguez in the interview. “I can’t help him specifically, but I can help the issues he faces.”

‘I see design as a tool for social change’

Prof. Slenker challenges the students in her advanced interior design studio course to focus on the library’s users – including patrons and staff members – and consider their values, wants, and needs. Students spend time at the library and observe, which, Prof. Slenker hopes, will help them cultivate empathy.

Image of Prof. Jamie Slenker
Prof. Jamie Slenker

Students meet Prof. Slenker at the library 15 minutes before it opens on the first day of the project, enabling them to see how important the library is to the community. She says one of her students likened the group of people waiting outside for the doors to open to “Black Friday.”

“I feel the term designer is synonymous with ‘humanitarian’ because we have such a profound impact on the interaction between people and their environment,” she said. “I see design as a tool for social change. A library is not just a warehouse of books or an access point for technology. It’s this place we go to where we’re embraced in a community.”

As the coronavirus pandemic has forced many libraries – including the New Haven Free Public Library – to temporarily close, Prof. Slenker believes this highlights the importance of the role libraries play in communities.

Dominguez, who now works as a design strategist for Infinity Group in Hartford, focused her library design project on promoting safety and interaction. She says she’s seen firsthand the positive impact libraries can have on a community, and her project included a space that would be open to community members 24/7.

“It was important to share my story with StoryCorps to keep this conversation and topic alive,” she said. “I hope future listeners will be reminded that even the smallest gesture can make a huge difference to someone.”