Tara Grebe: Navigating Paths of Design and Engagement

In classrooms and lecture halls across Michigan Engineering, you might find Tara Grebe, a graduate student, serving as a graduate facilitator for the Center for Socially Engaged Design (C-SED). Born in Phoenix, Arizona, and raised amidst the charms of Kansas City, Missouri, Tara’s journey to Michigan was serendipitous, “I actually came to Michigan never having been to Michigan, I’ve fallen in love with the state,” she said.

Story by Lawryn Fellwock

Tara pictured with the Agora Planning Journal Team (Tara served as the Co-Creative Director)

Armed with a Bachelor of Science in Design from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she ventured into a dual-degree program in Architecture and Urban & Regional Planning at Taubman College. Drawn to Michigan’s ethos of people-centered design, Tara sought to bridge the gap between sustainable urban placemaking, affordable housing, and participatory planning.

Tara’s involvement with C-SED was a natural progression. Introduced to the center during a course called Design Activism taught by Craig Wilkins PhD, she recognized its potential to galvanize the work she is so passionate about. Seizing the opportunity, Tara joined as a graduate facilitator in the early fall of 2023, eager to foster interdisciplinary collaboration and student empowerment.

Tara celebrating her contributions to Taubman Fellow Kevin Bernard Moultrie Daye’s exhibition

In her role, Tara gained knowledge in socially engaged design theory and methods, facilitated workshops and case studies on a variety of topics, and tailored these educational opportunities to meet the learning objectives and expectations of faculty across the college. With a background in architecture and planning, she brings a unique perspective to the table, enriching discussions on community impact, environmental justice, and urban development.

“I really seek out those opportunities that are interdisciplinary, where there’s a slightly more technical focus on the work and a different viewpoint from my very high level regulations and policy standpoint,” Tara remarks, emphasizing the joy she derives from facilitating engaging activities. “I feel like I learn from the students, too.” Specifically, her introduction to biomedical, chemical, and electrical engineering has only fueled her interest in exploring more fields that intersect with her work.

Tara pictured with some work from the Agora Planning Journal

Tara’s career trajectory has been a testament to her curiosity and holistic approach to design justice. Initially drawn to engineering, she pivoted towards architecture, craving a blend of creativity and technical expertise. Starting as an architecture intern at Black & Veatch‘s federal division, she worked on military contracts. Her time there was an experiential boon because whereas most architecture firms outsource their engineering work, Black & Veatch’s federal division actually works alongside the engineers. This experience allowed Tara to work side by side with different engineering disciplines like civil, mechanical, and electrical.

Tara in front of her contributions to Taubman Fellow Kevin Bernard Moultrie Daye’s work designing tactical urban interventions for unhoused individuals in LA

Her journey continued in her first summer at Michigan where she served as a project coordinator for a Michigan alum, Jim Kumon, with an interesting combination of responsibilities: part incremental developer, part conceptual designer, and part sustainability consultant. This unique mix of disciplines in her work allowed her to work alongside engineers, architects, and city officials, fostering a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of urban planning and sustainable development. From revitalizing Texas strip malls into vibrant community spaces to spearheading affordable housing initiatives in Kalamazoo, MI, Tara’s work reflects her dedication to creating environments that promote inclusivity and livability.

Currently at Teska Associates, Tara continues to champion community-driven design through comprehensive planning and neighborhood revitalization efforts. “Through these experiences, I’m graduating with renewed hope in the community-driven design process and fueled with the idea that I can use the toolset I’ve gained to truly make a difference in the world” she shared, acknowledging the evolution of her professional journey.

Tara pictured with the other Dow fellows in 2022.

As Tara delved deeper into her dual-degree program, she remained committed to her ethos of inclusive design and community empowerment. In addition to her role at C-SED, Tara was a Dow Sustainability Fellow with the UM Graham Institute in 2022, where she joined a multi-disciplinary team focused on coalition building in energy equity. Now she has two exit projects underway exploring innovative approaches to urban development, challenging traditional paradigms and amplifying community voices. One of these projects is Tara’s planning capstone in which she is partnering with the Ypsilanti Senior Center to build more intergenerational community connections in the area. This work also includes collaborating with a variety of different stakeholders, yet another indicator of her professional values.

Her thesis is also nearing completion and proposes a new model of the architectural design thinking process that is a lot more rooted in site analysis and community co-design. Within the context of Chicago, Tara is investigating the impact of the architects role in creating public art and greenspaces and their tendency to neglect the needs and desires of the local residents. In her thesis abstract, she poses the questions, “What if architects instead worked hand in hand with neighborhood groups when making design decisions in order to promote community driven ownership? How can architects use their skills to promote public agency in a context characterized by complex systemic oppression?”

As Tara prepares for graduation, C-SED is excited to see her impact continue to reach far beyond the confines of academia. With her inquisitive nature and unwavering dedication, she remains a steadfast advocate for equitable design, shaping a brighter future for communities near and far.


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