the Neighborhood Design Center


June 1, 2020

Mentorship Matters: Reflections with Kelley Oklesson, LEED AP

Kelley Oklesson, LEED AP, Principal Designer at Groundsmith Collective, and former NDC staff member

How long have you been involved with the  Neighborhood Design Center?

I’ve been involved with NDC since 2009. I actually got my start as a summer intern going into my senior year in the Landscape Architecture program at University of Maryland. 

Tell us about your experience as an intern with NDC.

Well, I found out that 8 other people from my studio were interviewing for the position. I never thought I’d get it! However, I had a fantastic interview with Jan Townshend at the Prince George’s Office. She hired me, and that was the start of an internship that changed my life!

I love this organization for many reasons, but primarily the people I work with. Jan is one of the people that absolutely changed my life. She managed and led with such compassion and empathy. We got the job done with a boss who truly cared about our personal and professional development.

Kelley and manager turned mentor, Jan Townshend

Seems like Jan became a mentor to you. Tell us a bit more about her. 

I was raised in Prince George’s County, but it was not until I started working with NDC under Jan that I was able to see the value in my community that I had not previously seen before. I fell in love with my community all over again. It was a truly powerful realization.

Jan embodied the natural talent of reading people, connecting people, and forming deep relationships with people. Staff and community members would talk about her like she was a friend or family member. She was all about the personal human details. 

Being mentored by someone as special as her was a godsend. Mentorship is so essential for professional and personal development. I am still friends with Jan to this day!

So how did your role with NDC change after graduation?

I became a program coordinator for Community Design Works (CDW). In that role, I was the first person to plan a kick off program for that program. I also got to develop real preliminary program material, meet public works folks, and council members, too. 

Kelley planting trees with students

Jan really showed me the importance of relationships and how to navigate the political scene by getting to know the Prince George’s County Council folks. She trained me on how to thank them for funding and speak on behalf of other community partners doing amazing work. She also taught me how to write speeches on the fly.

I became a program coordinator for the Right Tree, Right Place (RTRP) program, formally known as the Bradford Pear Tree Replacement Program. In that role, I was the first person to plan and kick off that program which has planted over 40,000 street trees and is still very active today. I also got to develop preliminary program material, meet community members all across Prince George’s County, strategize with public works folks, and coordinate with council members, too. Jan embodied the natural talent of reading people, connecting people, and forming deep relationships with people. Staff and community members would talk about her like she was a friend or family member. She was all about the personal details.

Credibility matters. Jan really instilled that in me. Every relationship is built on credibility and trust. She believed that when you don’t show up, you’re invisible.

I transitioned to the role of Program Manager for the Community Design Works program funded by Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) from Housing and Urban Development (HUD) . In this role I got to really be in the community and manage a talented staff of designers. I realized how much I love people and I love teaching through training all the interns. I had a lot of freedom to try some really cool stuff!

Some of the natural opportunities turned out to be synergy that worked with my personality type and value structure, empowering! NDC operates in a forward-thinking conceptual world and I loved showing people how beautiful and smart they are and how to take calculated risks in a controlled environment. I loved being able to push young people to reach their potential!  Mentorship is all about helping others find and develop their confidence. 

Sounds like you were up to a lot. How did you cope with design anxiety?

I realized that much of design anxiety involves a lot of personal head talk. A lot of thoughtful, conscientious people struggle with design anxiety.  Women especially struggle with impostor’s syndrome, where we don’t feel like we are qualified to make important decisions. I was overly worried about perceptions of other people, when in reality good design is all about conscientiousness, trust, and learning how to sit with some discomfort.  People will trust you and you must learn to trust yourself to make effective decisions in the moment.

In the end I had an amazing team with me who I trusted fully. Great people doing great work.

So what happened next? 

I got an offer to work for a company that would help me to pursue licensure. I eventually left NDC to work for a design build firm which was private, high-end residential, and a very different environment. I got to execute projects and make calculated mistakes - learn from my design choices. Cultivating a client base that trusts you is the ultimate bargaining chip. I learned that design is always in flux. And that’s okay.  I learned about how to design practically, the gritty construction. It was so needed!

Having a community design background gave me an edge in the material choice and budget conversations. I was able to use that NDC experience to make very informed design decisions that did not compromise the design. I learned how to make what I had work.

And then you started your own business?

Yes. I had enough personal vision and motivation to start my own company, the Groundsmith Collective, in Fall of 2018.  At the same time I began the process of licensure and currently have passed 3 of 4 the exams – only one more to go! I do mostly residential design, although I have a few public contracts which are more educational based.

What else are you up to?

I also teach as an Adjunct Professor for the University of Maryland Landscape Architecture program.  Last Spring I taught Digital Design Tools (essentially Autocad) to a class of 12 students and this Spring I taught Designing and Assessing Edible Landscapes to a class of 100 students.  I’m not scared to talk holistically about how all of my experiences have coalesced into this moment now. I think the students appreciate radically authentic dialog, especially from an openly gay woman.

And what’s your connection with NDC now?

I’m back as a volunteer! I am the Public Relations Director of the Association for Professional Landscape Designers, MD, DC, and VA Chapter. Naturally, I ended up channeling our efforts toward a park revitalization project with Katryna, who manages the Community Design Works program for NDC’s Baltimore region!

Kelley and students at an installation celebration

I’ll always appreciate public interest design and  social impact design. It’s an amazing opportunity for education & advocacy.