Posted on Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Pratt Women Organizing for Change: Ellen Ren of Pratt CBoard

As president of the Pratt Community Engagement Board (CBoard), Ellen Ren, BID ’21, reaches beyond the gates of Pratt in service of our neighbors. CBoard leads service, civic engagement, and social justice events both on- and off-campus tailored to the needs of our local community. She brings this outreach into her industrial design work as well, designing systems that add humanity to support services. Her project “Chosen,” which was shortlisted for a Lexus Design Award in 2019, reimagines food pantry services to address long wait times and a lack of choice in products, adding dignity to the pickup process.


Ellen Ren, BID ’21, (at center) with the Pratt Community Engagement Board (CBoard)

In celebration of Women’s History Month, Pratt is sharing the stories of women who are making history today by organizing in their local communities. Follow the Q&A series on the Pratt.edu news page and the @PrattInstitute Instagram for updates throughout March. This is the sixth in the series:

As president of the Pratt Community Engagement Board (CBoard), Ellen Ren, BID ’21, reaches beyond the gates of Pratt in service of our neighbors. CBoard leads service, civic engagement, and social justice events both on- and off-campus tailored to the needs of our local community. She brings this outreach into her industrial design work as well, designing systems that add humanity to support services. Her project “Chosen,” which was shortlisted for a Lexus Design Award in 2019, reimagines food pantry services to address long wait times and a lack of choice in products, adding dignity to the pickup process.

Why do you think creativity is important in community organizing? 

I think creativity is the key to generate resonance and awe in people without a barrier. Creativity comes in many forms and can exist to make powerful statements during any stage of political activism or community organizing. You could use artistic means to address an issue you see in society or strive to raise awareness. Whether it be a product, a graphic, or a concept, the importance behind these ideas is the innovative solutions that they propose. They might be experimental or speculative, but they actively demonstrate the need to confront the status quo and show the endless possibilities that can positively impact and transform the current situation. 

Last semester, while I was researching the e-waste problem, many creative projects showed up in the process; for example, the mesmerizing photos by Benjamin Von Wong depicting the impact of electronics on peoples’ lives and the environment. Some people might argue that these projects cannot accomplish anything as they do not directly tackle the problem. However, I think ultimately the effort is worthwhile seeing the amount of interest attracted by the sheer creativity of a project like Von Wong’s. They are reaching people who might not be aware of these issues and propelling them to learn more, and, for me, that is already a success. 

Is there anything about your experience at Pratt that influences your work?

I am very grateful for all the opportunities at Pratt as they changed my perceptions on various matters and motivated me to educate myself more about my local and global communities. When I first came to Pratt, I was not keen on activism or community organizing, nor was I aware of many social change goals that await our attention. However, many classes and activities I attended allowed me to open up to these topics. Remarkably, working on CBoard and participating in service events provided me with knowledge about issues such as homelessness, inequality, food insecurity, sustainability, and more. For instance, “Chosen,” one of my studio works, was based on my experience volunteering at food pantries. The project focuses on designing for people facing food insecurities and aims to shorten the waiting time at pantries, connect people with enough programs to feed their families with healthy and nutritious food, and maintain a sense of dignity for people. 


Ellen Ren’s “Chosen” project

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved in organizing in their communities?

It is helpful to educate yourself and share your ideas with others. You can use your knowledge to convince others when you fully understand the causes you are fighting for through careful research. On top of that, it is crucial to stay open-minded and listen. Listen to people from different backgrounds, and listen to people who hold different opinions. Keep learning in the process. A good starting point to get involved might be the clubs and organizations at Pratt. You can look for the topics you are interested in and participate in some of their events. For example, CBoard, Envirolutions, NYPIRG, and the History of Art and Design Department, just to name a few. 

How does being a woman inform your work as an activist and are there any historical women organizers you are inspired by?

CBoard is putting together a collection of Instagram highlights recognizing women who shaped world history and contributed to positive changes in the world. These talented women include Gloria Steinem, Henrietta Lacks, Maya Angelou, Laverne Cox, and more! Some of these are household names, while others might not be as familiar. Nonetheless, their accomplishments and contributions are great inspirations for all and should never be overlooked. Feel free to check it out @prattcboard

For more of the Pratt Women Organizing for Change series, see the previous Q&As with NYC Councilmember Laurie A. Cumbo, Mia Bruner of the Prison Library Support Network, Sarah Kanu of the Pratt Student Government Association, Elena Conte of the Pratt Center for Community Development, and Ashely Kuo of A+A+A Studio.