New gift brings design education to underserved youth

Lori Kanter Tritsch and William P. Lauder, University of Pennsylvania Trustee, have created a new program for PennPraxis, the practice arm of the Stuart Weitzman School of Design at Penn.

Teenage students working on a scale design model.
Design to Thrive gathers students ages 13 to 18 four days a week for an intensive design and making studio, where PennPraxis Design Fellows teach design skills and approaches, including welding with blowtorches, creating ceramic molds for porcelain bells, and building a precise topographic model. (Image: Gaja Papa for The Fresh Air Fund.)

The University of Pennsylvania today announced a $7.5 million commitment from Lori Kanter Tritsch, and William P. Lauder, to support Design to Thrive, a youth development initiative centered on design education and career exploration. Lori Kanter Tritsch is a Penn alumna who holds a Master of Architecture and is a current member of the Board of Advisors at the Weitzman School of Design, and her partner and fellow Penn alumnus is William P. Lauder, who holds a Bachelor of Science in economics from the Wharton School and is a Penn trustee.

Design to Thrive began as a two-year pilot in New York and Philadelphia in response to the limited educational and recreational opportunities during the pandemic. With this gift from Lauder and Kanter Tritsch, Design to Thrive will be a permanent enrichment program produced by PennPraxis, the center for applied research, outreach, and practice at the Weitzman School. Their commitment includes $500,000 in challenge funds from the Weitzman School that was created to encourage support for the program.

“We are incredibly grateful to Lori Kanter Tritsch and William Lauder for their generous support of Design to Thrive,” said Interim President Wendell Pritchett. “Their commitment will extend Penn’s ability to respond to challenges in our built and natural environments—and the communities that inhabit them. Design to Thrive delivers career-oriented arts education to local youth. It brings skills and concepts from art and design to young people who may not have had much exposure to those fields.”

The Design to Thrive pilot programs were made possible in 2020 and 2021 through initial support from Lauder and Kanter Tritsch, and gifts to the Praxis Design Fellows program, and through partnerships with The Fresh Air Fund in New York City and Philly Thrive, a leading community voice for environmental justice in Philadelphia.

In the latest New York pilot, youth aged 13-to-18 met four days a week for an intensive design and making studio in a beautiful outdoor classroom on Governors Island. There, PennPraxis Design Fellows imparted a wide variety of design skills and approaches, including welding with blowtorches, creating ceramic molds for porcelain bells, and building a precise topographic model.

A group of teenage students working on a table scale model.
Image: Gaja Papa

Lauder, The Fresh Air Fund’s chairman of the board, and Kanter Tritsch, a longtime Fresh Air supporter, introduced The Fund to PennPraxis and facilitated the program pilot. Since 1877, The Fresh Air Fund, a not-for-profit youth development organization, has provided life-changing summer experiences in the outdoors to more than 1.8 million children from New York City’s underserved communities.

“During the pandemic, there was a growing concern about today’s youth missing vital educational and growth experiences,” said Kanter Tritsch. “Bringing together talented Weitzman students and Fresh Air Fund youth was an obvious solution in my mind. I am thrilled that Design to Thrive will have a significant learning impact on the young people who participate, as well as on the Weitzman students who design and teach the programs.”

Design to Thrive will follow the studio model of design education. Students will engage in drawing, painting, model making; digital design; shop classes in welding, casting, and woodworking; and environmental justice workshops and field trips. Participants will receive supply kits, computers to support homework, lunch, and public transit fare. Students from families with limited means will receive stipends to cover income loss for enrolling in lieu of summer work.

“This gift will enable PennPraxis to have an even greater impact in communities that design does not typically serve. We are all so excited that we can deepen and diversify the learning opportunities we offer through Design to Thrive, adding major design/build projects to improve public schools and The Fresh Air Fund’s camp facilities for young people with modest resources and limited access to arts education. With the help of Weitzman graduate students and alumni, and our local partners, we help young people build skills and confidence in building, making, critical thinking, and communication,” said Ellen Neises, executive director of PennPraxis.

A portion of the gift will also endow and name the Lori Kanter Tritsch Executive Director of PennPraxis, the position currently held by Neises.

Weitzman graduate students and recent alumni will serve as teachers and mentors leading intensive Design to Thrive studio classes over the summer. The program has been highly popular among Weitzman students enrolled in different degree programs as an opportunity to collaborate across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

“Design to Thrive epitomizes our school’s deeply holistic approach to the built environment and commitment to the public good. Through this program, Weitzman students in architecture, landscape architecture, city planning, fine arts, and historic preservation come together to nurture creativity and problem solving in communities that have historically been left behind. What’s more, introducing people from diverse backgrounds to our fields earlier in life is also critical to increasing diversity in our schools and professions,” said Fritz Steiner, Dean and Paley Professor of the Weitzman School.

Key components of Design to Thrive will include skills certification by Penn; portfolio and resume development; career advising; and introductions to high school, community college, and undergraduate design programs. In the fall of 2021, two graduates of the PennPraxis pilot program enrolled as freshman in architecture and engineering programs at City College of New York and Drexel University.

The 2022 program will begin on June 27.