When my studio was chosen by Women for Women International to design their Women’s Opportunity Center (WOC) in Rwanda, I knew I was embarking on a life-changing journey.

Rwanda is a fascinating country, filled with astonishingly beautiful scenery, yet unimaginable suffering. After the genocide, Rwanda became female-dominated (today women make up more than 50% of the population). The women who were left behind not only had to mend their own lives, but also help repair a fractured nation. Once our team started to research and visit the country, we started to feel a deep sense of connection with the local women, and knew that we wanted to create something that transcended the traditional idea of design. Since 2008, we labored over each design that would come together to form the WOC.

Empowering these women was essential to the project, so we created a new brickmaking technique and trained the women in this process. The very women who will utilize the center had their own hand in creating the bricks used to build it, allowing them to connect to the center while providing them with a valuable skill to generate future sustainable income. I have traveled to Rwanda many times over the course of the design and construction of the WOC, and after each visit I left reinvigorated by the progress being made and the hope that was present on site.

Woman's Opportunity Centre-Rwanda

Sharon Davis at the Women’s Opportunity Centre (WOC); Rwanda

As my team and I arrived at the opening ceremony on June 28th 2013, we could feel the excitement and pride rippling through the crowds. Music and dance filled the air. The audiences sat in rapt attention listening to each speaker who graced the stage sharing how their involvement in the center already had, and would continue to, impact the lives of countless individuals. Many of the people in attendance were the very women who had helped build the center. They too had come to celebrate their amazing achievement. Local members of the community, Rwandan and foreign officials, family members, and friends gathered to mark the opening.

It was a surreal experience to walk through the site and see our collective vision come to life. The market bustled as people perused the goods – fruit, jewelry, and handmade art – which would become a source of income for the participants. As we gave tours of the site, we watched as attendees eagerly explored the farm and kitchen. We listened to the intrigued discussions about the benefits of the rainwater harvesting and composting toilet systems we designed. We enjoyed the cool breeze as we sat inside a classroom and visualized all the good that would take place in that very spot.

In designing the WOC, we sought to create a place where the women of Rwanda could come to feel empowered, enthused and secure; a place where they could learn, share, and recover. We worked with all of these goals in mind, while simultaneously seeking to honor the tradition and heritage of the country—and the women who would call the center their own. The Women’s Opportunity Center will forever serve as a source of inspiration and a reminder to continue utilizing design to change lives for the better.

In the process of designing this center I witnessed the power of design with a purpose. This project is one that I will never forget.