Community-Based Design

It's a beautiful thing when students work in the real world to effect change. And the thorns are amazing learning opportunities.

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In our class, Fallon Plunkett and I teach our students to design things to improve life at home or at school, first.  Then, we apply what we've learned about human-centered design to empowering community voices, helping to create systems, connections, and relationships that will bring about positive change.  We teach seniors in New York, a state that requires public policy (government and economics) to graduate.  What better way to learn civics than to actually get out there and DO it?  Our role as facilitators of these experiences has evolved since we began two years ago.  The first time we did our community-based project, it was a block study, from which students defined a problem, and had to convince classmates that they had the right problem at the right scale to solve for people  on the block.  But then we didn't have them solve for that.  We let them choose what they wanted to solve...from the entire city!  Many of them started with a solution, and then tried to find a problem.  Very few of the solutions became real. The second year, we let the kids decide which of the problem statements they heard was compelling enough to solve.  My entire class worked on different aspects of the Harlem block where they found a large playground, two schools, an active community center, and a man with a vision. But it was just luck that they found Michael, and he saw in them an opportunity to move his community forward.  It took most groups a very long time to find the right people, and to get their attention.  This year, we have tried to "pregame" a little more.  Instead of letting the students try to find people to talk to, we are giving them a starting point.  Working with the City Parks Foundation and some school officials, we will be offering them a menu of community ideas to facilitate, and a contact person for each one.  We don't know how it will turn out, but we have high hopes.  Any advice out there?

[Optional] Synthesize a little! What's one take away or insight to leave people with?

1. Very tough to do community-based design when you do not live in the community, but a terrific experience in empathy. Our students have to confront stereotypes going both ways, and they have to listen first. Logistically challenging to fit a community's pace and timeline, but we found that we could see it like getting on a train, helping to fuel it, and then revisiting as appropriate. Try to think of ways to make it do-able, and then don't give out from the supports you have.


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Photo of Maggie Favretti

Thanks, Donna.  We start the year with the spaghetti-marshmallow challenge so we can recall how much fun it is to make mistakes and reiterate!

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