Humans of Sweet Water...Meet Natalie Zepeda

Photo by SWF Artist-in-Residence, Jordan Campbell

Photo by SWF Artist-in-Residence, Jordan Campbell

Meet Natalie Zepeda...Natalie is an architecture student at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) who has been interning at Sweet Water Foundation (SWF) since December of 2017. After discovering SWF’s pop-up shop at the Chicago Design Museum in the Block 37 mall, Natalie found that she fit right in with the Sweet Water team. Natalie has been using her skills as an architecture student to draw designs and build 3D models of various spaces at the Perry Ave Commons which spark creativity and show possibility. She recognizes the incredible impact Sweet Water Foundation is making and hopes to be part of the team for as long as possible. Read on to learn more about Natalie.


Tell us a little about your background:

I was fortunate to have seen so much of the world at a young age. We moved around a lot because my dad’s side of the family owns a construction management company and they have projects everywhere, including outside of the country. I spent many summers in places like Belize, Brazil, and Denmark. They were fun and exciting, but also exposed me to the neglect that many parts of the world experience. I was shy as a child, but meeting people and seeing everything they and the world had to offer, helped make me more confident.

The experiences I had growing up pushed me to find something that could impact the world on a larger scale. I think that may be how I found architecture. That, and my innate reaction to find the “pretty” parts of my dads job. Architecture gave me the flexibility to work with “both sides of my brain” while doing something that is intrinsically rooted in the needs and experience of others. It’s a holistic field, and it allows me to learn new things with every project. Diversifying my knowledges if one of my consistent goals.


How did you get involved with Sweet Water Foundation?

I was visiting the Chicago Design Museum at the Block 37 mall downtown and stumbled upon Sweet Water Foundation’s popup store at the Chicago Design Market. I was stopping at each store, but it was almost time for class so I thought, “I’ll just skip the last one.” But, then, I peaked in and saw a ton of green, and I like green. I walked in and saw furniture that I could tell was handmade, and tons of pictures of people with vegetables. I met Rudy and Devonte, and they started telling me about what Sweet Water Foundation does. They told me they teach people throughout the community and shared stories about the positive influence they have on people. When I heard that the organization’s Co-founder and Executive Director was an architect and this whole thing was driven by an architect, I knew I wanted to get involved. They told me to email Emmanuel, which is exactly what I did.

I started coming to Sweet Water Foundation on December 27th. I sat down with Emmanuel and he asked me what I wanted to do here. I told him, “Anything. Everything. I just want to learn.”

I stumbled across Sweet Water Foundation at a really important time when I was questioning architecture, what I wanted to do, and the influence I wanted to have. I had been dismissed from IIT because of grades, and at the time, school was everything I knew. Being dismissed made me start to question a lot about myself and what was important to me. Finding this place has helped build my confidence and also helped me find my place in architecture.


What’s your role here at Perry Ave Commons?

I’m on SWF's design team. I am a fourth year architecture student at IIT. So, I am taking what I am learning about the general process of design and applying it to the work of Sweet Water Foundation. I am examining the  history of Sweet Water Foundation and the community, where we are now, and where we’re going in the future to inspire change and instill possibility. One of the ways I do this is by taking the things Sweet Water Foundation makes and put them into forms of media that can reach people. For example, I created digital collages of various spaces here which help people to imagine themselves in those spaces.  


What have you learned since being at Sweet Water Foundation?

I constantly grow at Sweet Water Foundation. I’ve learned a lot about my own design process and how to implement others into that process. As I mentioned, I’ve also learned a lot about myself and the things that are important to me.


What do you want to do with the skills you’re learning here?

I think a lot of architectects want to get famous and rich. It’s really hard to find movements like Sweet Water Foundation that use architecture in a way that impacts the community. So, I see myself working here until I’m not happy anymore. I don't even think that will happen. The work we’re doing at Sweet Water Foundation is really fulfilling.


Why is the community so important to you?

I believe we can develop as individuals to a certain point, but then, there’s a disconnect... an emptiness...something missing. What really makes life important is how you decide to leave your mark on the Earth and on others, which involves working with many other people.

My personal goal is to build a healthier collective consciousness. There are three parts to this goal: 1) allowing people to have self expression without judgement, 2) caring for the environment, and 3) creating collective well being.

In general, these are healthy habits for everyone to have. If everyone holds these things in high regard, we can make a great impact on the communities in which we live.

My personal goal is to build a healthier collective consciousness.
— Natalie Zepeda, Sweet Water Foundation Designer

Do you think the people of Sweet Water Foundation are working toward a collective conscious?

Yes. Everyone here brings something to the table in one way or another. The people who work at Sweet Water Foundation teach each other and respect each other. The connections we make here and how we make them is with the purpose of serving everyone the right way. I really want to be part of the change that’s going on here as much as possible because I've found what’s really important. I feel an equality when I come here.


If Sweet Water Foundation had unlimited resources, what project would you want to do?

I think we’re growing at the rate we need to and as we need to. As we grow and take on bigger projects, we create more room for different things. But, as we bring more people on and get things started, there’s a lot of chaos and a lot of order. And that’s the way we work and bringing people in and working with natural disorder, from which we can collectively be creative.

Jia Li Pratt