Joe Kunkel (M. ARCH ’09) has been named a 2019 Obama Foundation Fellow, a prestigious and highly competitive program that brings together civic leaders solving the world’s most pressing problems.
The two-year non-resident fellowship offers hands-on training, resources, leadership development and a powerful platform for fellows to amplify the impact of their work and inspire a wave of civic innovation.
Kunkel is the Executive Director of Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative (SNCC), an organization dedicated to closing the housing gap in American Indian, First Nations and indigenous communities. Through planning, architectural design, technical assistance and research, SNCC helps tribal communities gain self-sufficiency, improve their impacts on the natural world, and develop healthy and culturally responsive communities.
"We are excited and extremely proud that Joe Kunkel has been chosen as an Obama Foundation Fellow for 2019,” said School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s Donald Linebaugh, Dean, ad interim. “Joe has been doing amazing things since he graduated, and his work is having significant impact across the country."
"It is not surprising to see Joe being awarded an Obama fellowship" said Brian Kelly, Director of the Architecture program. "Ten years ago when he was working on his thesis for a Northern Cheyenne community, Joe was already exploring ways to bring high-quality design solutions to his First Nation brethren. We are extremely proud to see that others, particularly The Obama Foundation, have recognized Joe’s fantastic potential and contributions to community."
The 20 Obama Fellows, chosen from over 5000 applicants in 160 countries, represent a diverse mix of disciplines ranging from architecture to economics to immigration. “I think the one thing that connects us all is the ability to engage with our community,” Kunkel said, who added that the fellows share a passion for “creating opportunities for those who are in need and making sure that everybody has an equal voice in society.”
“The 2019 Obama Foundation Fellows are tackling big, complex issues in unique and inspiring ways but all share the common practice of making positive change in their communities,” said David Simas, CEO of the Obama Foundation in a press release. “After welcoming an inaugural Fellows class last year, we are excited to bring together a new group of civic innovators and amplify their work. These leaders are taking off, and I look forward to working with this remarkable group and watching them transform the world for the better.”
Beyond architecture projects, Kunkel and his team spend time mentoring the next generation of tribal leaders in the design, planning and construction fields. The organization also disseminates best practices around native design through research, case studies and online tools. The end goal of this work is to help tribal leaders realize affordable housing development as a path to economic stability and tribal sovereignty.
Kunkel said that architecture as a profession has not done enough to advocate for those in need, and that architects historically have not paid enough attention to marginalized communities. “It's more than just beautification,” he said. “We as architects should think how to change the built environment through policy change and how good design is afforded to everyone.”
Kunkel will continue his work at SNCC through the duration of the fellowship, where at four multi-day gatherings fellows collaborate with each other, connect with potential partners and collectively push their work forward.
“The mission is closing the wealth gap in Indian country,” said Kunkel, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, "and providing opportunities for tribal communities to be in charge of their own wealth creation. That is fundamentally a design problem."
-By Dan Novak