Mobile City Science

March 20, 2017

Reflections from Remi, Part 3

This is the third in a series of blog posts authored by Remi Kalir, External Evaluator of the Mobile City Science project. For previous entries, see Remi’s first and second posts to the MCS Counter Mobilities Blog.

MCS and Design Charrettes

Young people’s participation in Mobile City Science (MCS) is organized around three broad sets of mobile learning activities. Youth begin MCS by collecting data about their communities through, for example, walking audits and historic geocaches. Then they analyze their data via activities like asset mapping and, as described in my previous post, GPS drawing. And finally, they use their data to make spatial arguments. So as to support young people in arguing from data about their experiences in and analyses of everyday places, the MCS curriculum features counter-mapping activities and a final community-based design charrette.

Typically organized as the final day of MCS programming, community design charrettes serve multiple purposes. First, participating youth are provided a distinctive forum to present their mobile learning experiences and artifacts (like counter-maps) to local adult stakeholders, such as urban planners, community designers, educators, parents, and other professionals. Second, young people are supported in making data-driven arguments for changes they wish to see in their communities. For example, suggested changes may advocate for increased learning opportunities across formal and informal settings. Third, youth are able to engage with civic leaders through approximations of professional practice. For instance, interactions with urban planners can provide youth with insight into the ways in which these professionals identify pressing needs, discuss and analyze challenges, and propose solutions that inform community change.

From Design Charrette to Community Presentation

I recently traveled to Chicago and observed a community presentation featuring the Digital Youth Network (DYN) and a few high school students from Evergreen Academy.* Why a community presentation and not a design charrette? This decision was motivated, in part, by Evergreen’s Principal Lawrence, who invited MCS students to present at a previous civic-oriented school event and had anticipated greater turnout from invited community stakeholders. In my discussions with DYN staff, I learned of a struggle among some public high schools in Chicago to robustly engage community stakeholders around student accomplishments (whereas it is easier to quickly garner attention and broad support when more negative events afflict a school’s community). Aware of this dynamic, it is Principal Lawrence’s agenda to take advantage of opportunities whereby community members can learn more about and develop a stronger connection to Evergreen and its students. As such, it was Principal Lawrence’s idea to have her students present about MCS at an established community meeting; if Evergreen students engage adults in a community forum that typically lacks a youth perspective, then perhaps those adults and other stakeholders will visit Evergreen to support and celebrate student learning in the future.

The cumulative design charrette-turned-community presentation that I attended featured two students from Evergreen and showcased three months of MCS programming in the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville. The following narrative is based upon my fieldnotes, and highlights key moments from the presentation. I also include sample slides produced by youth participants (some slides have been lightly edited, when necessary, to conceal identifiable information about Evergreen and its students).


DYN’s Recent MCS Design Charrette

An early Thursday afternoon: I have arrived at Coppin AME Church in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. Coppin AME was founded nearly a century ago, in 1919. Next door to the main sanctuary is the Coppin Youth Center, built in 1962, an aged structure whose entryway features formal portraits of clergy, records of church history, and posters with information about local community services. Down a narrow hallway, past a few cramped offices, is a large meeting room with worn wooden floors. Eight rectangular tables are arranged in a large “U,” with approximately 20 chairs spread around the outer edge. At a separate set of tables, two church staff organize sandwich platters near a punch bowl and large baskets of potato chips.

I’m accompanied by Tene Gray, DYN's Director of Operations and Professional Development. We are the first meeting attendees and are welcomed warmly by the church staff who instruct us to find a seat. Tene and I – along with DYN’s Elaina Boytor and a few high school students from Evergreen Academy – are attending the second Faith-based Community Meeting of 2017. These meetings are one type of community-engagement opportunity facilitated by the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (or CAPS), with the faith-based meetings organized by CPD Officer Esther Halloway and facilitated by Pastor Ronald Benjamin. Eleven Faith-based Community Meetings have been scheduled for 2017, and they rotate monthly among different host churches in Chicago.

Shortly before 1 PM, Tonya and Easton, two freshman from Evergreen, arrive with Elaina. As we set up a laptop computer and projector, Elaina, Tonya, and Easton review the presentation. I learn that a third student was planning to present, but left school earlier in the day (there is some last-minute shuffling of presentation responsibilities). There are about 10 people in attendance when the meeting starts – a mix of men and women, all of whom appear to range in age from their 50s to their 80s, most dressed in formal suits. The meeting is convened by Pastor Benjamin, who notes that many in attendance are also clergy. His welcoming words are brief, and he calls up Officer Halloway for additional comments. She emphasizes the importance of youth involvement in the community.

The MCS presentation begins with an introduction by Tene Gray, who details the overarching goals of MCS, the involvement of additional teams at the University of Washington and in New York City, and emphasizes that “to really understand the Bronzeville community” the students at Evergreen “did research.” Specifically, DYN staff encouraged students to grapple with the question: “As a teenager, what would make you stay in this community, particularly after school?”

Easton presents first, sharing a summary of information about MCS in Bronzeville (Sample Slide 1), a timeline of partnership programming at Evergreen, and the core purpose and curricular components of MCS (Sample Slide 2). While he mostly reads the slides verbatim, when describing walking audits Easton relaxes into his narrative and describes the importance of this activity in greater detail; he’s quite dynamic when speaking extemporaneously and drawing from his personal experience. He riffs about his investigation of a local Popeye's restaurant (Sample Slide 3), asking: “Why is it there? Why should it be there? Should something else be there?” It's a powerful moment that captures the purpose of MCS and his passion as a participant. Throughout Easton's section of the presentation, another four meeting attendees arrive.


Sample Slide 1: Summarizing MCS activities in Bronzeville


Activities: Data, Interpretation, Sharing
Sample Slide 2: Summary of MCS activities at Evergreen Academy



Sample Slide 3: Detail about walking audit activity, with emphasis on Popeyes restaurant


During Tonya’s section of the presentation, she reads from her prepared notes and hits a stride when talking about the MCS curricular components of asset mapping and counter-mapping. Tonya emphasizes: “We brainstormed what assets were missing.” This “brainstorm” was possible because of the assets she and her peers had already mapped throughout Bronzeville (Sample Slide 4), including parks, banks, restaurants, cultural institutions, and other businesses. And among the community assets she and her peers determined to be missing from Bronzeville – and that would keep them in the area after school – a recording studio, jobs, a mall, and a place to get a job after school (Sample Slide 5). According to Tonya, “These are some things that we would like in our neighborhood.” This is evidence of Tonya, and her peers, using mobile and geospatial technologies to write their city.


Sample Slide 4: Screenshot of asset map, including placemakers, descriptions of locations, and student quotes about community assets


Counter Mapping
Sample Slide 5: Counter-mapping identified community assets missing from Bronzeville


Tonya also details specific aspects of how she and her Evergreen peers deepened their counter-mapping analysis. She emphasizes three missing assets: a) greater opportunities provided by after-school jobs, b) easier access to recreation centers (Sample Slide 6), and c) increased use of artistic studios (Sample Slide 7). Tonya underscores the importance of youth employment, noting: “We should have jobs closer to our school” because “jobs are good for resumes, especially at an early age.” As she says this, there are noticeable murmurs of agreement and head-nodding among the meeting attendees.

Recreation Centers
Sample Slide 6: Counter-map detail about recreation centers


Sample Slide 7: Counter-map detail about studios for music, dance, and art

Tonya and Easton come to the end of their 21-slide presentation in about 10 minutes. As they offer their thanks, all the adults in attendance offer warm and encouraging applause. Prior to the presentation, both Tonya and Easton asked Elaina and Tene about questions; it was clear they were both pretty nervous, and seemed a bit unsure about answering questions posed by adults (and, in particular, adults they didn’t already know). Perhaps as a means of preempting such a circumstance, or perhaps because he was curious, or for some other reason (and I regret not following up with him about why), Easton steps toward the attendees and improvises: “I have a quick question for all of you… How was the community before all the change… I want to know how much change you've seen in this community as a whole?” It's a dramatic moment that amplifies the room’s energy and the presentation’s resonance. Easton’s well-informed statement reflects the impact of his participation in MCS while also serving as an invitation for conversation with this important group of community stakeholders. The attendees, perhaps surprised, take a moment to respond; for a minute it seems as though no one will engage with Easton’s question.

An elderly gentleman, later referred to as a doctor, slowly stands and speaks: “I've been in this community since 1971.” We learn that he is not originally from Chicago, but has worked in Bronzeville for over 40 years and during that time has witnessed “dramatic change.” He continues: “We've lost lots of low income housing, [they’ve] tore down public housing along State street.” He pauses, before adding: “My question to you: What do you have as boundaries for Bronzeville?” Tonya and Easton aren't sure and Elaina fields his question; for the purposes of MCS, she says, the boundaries of Bronzeville were defined primary in reference to where students could easily walk from Evergreen Academy. The gentlemen responds to Elaina, “That's a very small part of Bronzeville.” This important exchange ends on a curious note about place, scale, and mobility; not only does DYN facilitate programming across Bronzeville (and, for that matter, the city of Chicago), MCS emphasizes the analysis of place from the perspective of youth and how they move about their familiar and everyday locations.

Then a second gentlemen responds to Easton’s question. There are a “huge number of residents [from Bronzeville] that have left,” he replies, “Displaced is really the word I want to use, because of public housing being torn down.” He pauses before continuing, “That's something that has affected the neighborhood in many ways. We're talking about voting, working people, the whole gamut. And people who have long-term connections to this neighborhood. The housing crisis has increased dramatically.” It’s notable that he also mentions affordable housing. Moreover, his comments echo some of the themes that youth identified and used to guide their MCS participation, including gentrification and diversity. In this respect, Evergreen students’ data collection, analysis, and argumentation efforts align well with some of Bronzeville’s enduring challenges, suggesting their MCS experience provided an accurate perspective on place, community identity, and processes of change.


Approaches to Engaging Community Stakeholders

The current iteration of MCS programming with DYN has now concluded in Chicago, and MCS implementation begins (this week!) in New York City through a partnership with the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI). As such, it is an opportune time to consider how the MCS curriculum structures engagement with community stakeholders through design charrettes and other forms of public presentation. MCS researchers and facilitators know that professionals (like transportation engineers and urban planners) and local stakeholders (such as parents, educators, elected officials) can be receptive to young people contributing to community planning processes during public and participatory design charrettes, and particularly when youth recommendations for change are supported by data. So what are some of the (emerging) approaches to this aspect of the MCS curriculum? And what may be the advantages associated with different approaches?

It appears as if there are four primary means of structuring either design charrettes or other forms of cumulative community-based presentations:

  1. One-time events organized by the implementation team, likely in partnership with professionals and other community stakeholders. This event may take place at a school, community organization, or in a municipal setting, and is organized around the type of hands-on design work that allows youth to approximate professional practice while simultaneously sharing artifacts (such as counter-maps) from their MCS experiences.

  2. A final showcase event organized by a participating school, which invites participation from professionals and other community members. The event will likely occur at school, and may combine elements of both hands-on design work and a cumulative presentation. This type of event may provide easier access for other students and educators from the school to learn about MCS activities and outcomes.

  3. Presenting MCS programming at a standing community-based meeting, such as Evergreen and DYN’s presentation at the CAPS Faith-based Community Meeting. This approach has the advantage of amplifying youth voice in settings that may (for various reasons) typically lack young people’s perspective, and brings youth into conversation with diverse audiences (such as the clergy present in Chicago).

  4. Walking charrettes: A new idea provisionally discussed by MCS researchers and facilitators are walking charrettes, whereby youth would accompany stakeholders out into neighborhood settings and highlight particular city assets and improvements. In this approach, youth might share with adults mobile augmented reality designs, and use these guiding digital artifacts to spark and sustain their argumentative practices.

The learning opportunities afforded by these different approaches to public participation are distinct and, in the case of walking charrettes, yet to be enacted. Whether by the team in New York City starting implementation, or others leading mobile learning efforts, these approaches to public engagement should be considered carefully as concerns bolstering youth voice and participation in community decision-making, supporting youth in sharing data-informed findings about their own cities, and helping young people engage with a variety of professional practices.

*Evergreen Academy and the names of its staff and students are pseudonyms.