What follows is an edited conversation on questions of community impact and value in engaged, short-term projects like the design-build study abroad experience Rebekah Radtke describes in her individual contribution to this issue. Joining Rebekah are Sylvia Gale, University of Richmond's Bonner Center for Civic Engagement and member of Imagining America's Assessing the Practices of Public Scholarship (APPS) research group; Stephani Etheridge Woodson, Arizona State University, School of Film, Dance, and Theater and also a member of APPS; and Jocelyn Zanzot, MOBILE Studio.
Sylvia: Our goal is to extend Rebekah's assessment of a study abroad design-build project, to consider together questions about community impact, outcomes, and relationships in such contexts. Rebekah alludes to these questions at the end of her essay. Rebekah, what was the process of identifying and engaging collaborators before students were in the picture? Tell us how this particular set of relationships came to be.
Rebekah: I did my masters in architecture at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I had a great mentor, Drea Howenstein, who was doing a lot of community-based initiatives, mainly through art, but in design as well. She invited me to spend a summer with her in Brazil, working with her and some collaborators. We produced a bus shelter, and a playground, and did a Master Park Plan for the small village of Igarai. After that project I noticed that we didn't have many study abroad programs [at the University of Kentucky] in the School of Interiors and those we had didn't include service-learning. This seemed like a good opportunity; I'd met collaborators in Brazil, and we could continue that work as a student study abroad experience.
Sylvia: What stakeholders are touched by the program, implicated in it, and involved? You named some of them in the piece, but I think there are probably more.
Rebekah: First, I'm thinking of what happened locally on our campus. We have a great study abroad office that helps with logistics. However, a lot of the planning happened through me, because this is a faculty-led program. I also had a friend who went with us and served as a translator. She had done her Fulbright in this area of Brazil and knew a lot of the people there. Our farm partners were the essential connectors, not only because we resided there and worked together, but also because they led us to other community partners. We realized that the local school offered a great opportunity to work with a lot of people. The principal was an activator; everyone loved her. She received funding that paid for necessary materials and supplies.
Sylvia: Were there other groups in the local community important to your work?
Rebekah: Yes, the Café "Igarai" was a women's collective creating embroidery products, rooted in the cultural traditions of coffee, in order to support their families. Our students spent a day with them, brainstorming ideas for products they could create. We spent another day with an afterschool group of high schoolers. There were local craftsmen who helped the students fabricate, and a set of brothers who lived and worked on the farm who were great supporters of the students' work, and were really entertained by the idea of students trying to construct their ideas. The brothers had their ideas and the students had theirs about how things should be made. It was great to see them come together and make something when they were speaking different languages.
Sylvia: It is helpful to get a sense of the landscape in which your students were interacting. I'm asking these questions about participants because one of the fundamental principles about the impact of engaged work in a community is that understanding who is really involved is often much larger than our one main collaborator or organizational partner. Asking "who" opens up the next question: What would we want to know about the effect or the role that this project played in this larger circle of lives? What might they themselves say was gained or lost because of it? What would we want to know, and what would we ask to find that out? Rebekah, can you tell us about the kinds of conversations you had with collaborators before you defined community outcomes? Were those conversations only about the physical outcomes—building the project—or were there other elements that rose up as valuable beforehand?
Rebekah: The farmer-owners that we worked with were community leaders, because so many people in the area depend on the coffee farms. This farm is looking broadly at sustainability to create change on a broader level. Years before we were there, they did workshops in which community members thought about where they wanted to be in 20 years. We aligned really well [with that effort]. I'm not saying that our short summer projects led to massive community change—a lot of activators who came before me set the groundwork so that the community was receptive to what we were doing and understood community-based design processes in a way that made a great environment for us to come into.
Stephani: I have some questions as a community-engaged artist. What was the community input into the students' evaluation of success; how do you know that the projects were successful? Long-term, defining success and failure—and I tend to default to rubrics for this—is super helpful because it allows people to think about, label, and evaluate relationships. It's useful to be very intentional about how relationships will work and what a healthy relationship looks like, particularly when white middle-class folk go into communities that are economically depressed or that are "othered" in some way, like children for example. Is this a transactional relationship? I get something, you get something. Is this a collaborative relationship where we're going to work together in a transdisciplinary fashion? Or does the project take advantage of a community? I use rubrics as a way to think very specifically about the gifts we bring but also what we take, and as part of an evaluative structure teaching students and communities to consider what it looks like to build healthy relationships that depend on mutuality.
Rebekah: Maybe a project can be a failure, but the perspective and the learning from it can be a success. So there's a value in failing often and frequently, especially in design work, and that students understand that. We had a lot of failures early on. Students come in thinking it's going to be one way, but when we get on site we realize we are coming at it with our own mindsets and worldviews and missing what was actually there.
Sylvia: It sounds like what you're pointing to, Stephani, is that it isn't about asking questions of the community next time around or in similar projects. It's more, how can we involve students in seeing and understanding those relationships that they've entered in a more critical framework as part of the evaluation of the project? It seems like you are saying this has to happen on the ground as students are there, starting to map and understand the relationships that they are entering.
Stephani: I would say yes and. I'm an advocate of the community being deeply involved in defining what success is, but I'm also an advocate of constantly looking at the health of the relationships. Particularly because you all are designers, there are ways to graphically map the ways that relationships grow so that labor becomes visible.
Jocelyn: I love the different framework that Stephani just offered. One term that I find valuable alongside transactional and collaborative relationships is this ideal of reciprocity. Reciprocity doesn't have to be an equal balance, but it needs paths of both giving and receiving. There are points of exchange that you describe in this studio: between students and farmers, between teachers, principals, and children—places where you might be able to hold the frame for a second and look at that exchange through the lens of reciprocity or ask about the nature of the relationships. Specificity would help unpack these questions. What, specifically, did students repair in the classroom? Was it the desk? the chair? a broom? If it was the broom, who do you go to in the village to understand how brooms are made? What is the straw, the binding material, the stick? The specificity of the exchange helps unpack the assets of the community. Asset mapping is valuable also for students' learning experience, so that they see their job as not only to provide the design solution, but also to learn from the wealth of knowledge of a place. Mapping the knowledge and understanding the resources empower the design solution.
Rebekah: That's a remarkable way of thinking about it. Also being explicit about the students' transformational learning experience. They understood, "Okay, we are the young design students, we don't really know what we're doing. You've been building furniture a really long time, and you're being really nice for making me part of the process." Our collaborators had an incredible amount of knowledge and inventive problem-solving ability. I think to some degree, with our students, it's, "Oh, let me just get a new X-Acto knife" or "I'll just go buy more." Whereas this is, "I'm going to go to a recycling center, find some spare pieces of wood, rehab this existing classroom furniture, and we're going to make this better." The idea of perfection as getting good grades shifts because we just need to do the best we can, to learn the most, and we're going to mess up but it's all part of the experience. We are not focusing on the artifacts, but more on this process of transformational learning.
Jocelyn: That really describes the students' experience well. But when you say, "the artifact doesn't matter or the quality doesn't matter, the kids are just learning to be resourceful," where are the standards of the thing produced? Why would the community not deserve the higher level, and how do you get there when you are working with young students? What does the community gain? Clearly they are giving. They become mentors, global citizens. They are giving a tour to young students who don't know a lot about the diversity and disparities of the world. They share their craftsmanship, homes, food, and culture. But about design and quality, the thing built, and the artifact made: do they not deserve more than that the students have a learning experience about resourcefulness?
Rebekah: Sure. It wasn't store-bought plastic toys that maybe we would see in a traditional US elementary school. These products were fashioned out of wood. Our students hand-painted and stretched fabric to make these classroom toys and classroom vignettes. I think that everything was better quality, exponentially, than what they already had, but it wasn't plastic engineer-manufactured quality.
Sylvia: I am not in design; how does that field understand the relationship between the designer and the community? What effect does the design process have on the relationship between designer and community? We're talking about how the program helps designers reach the standards and key learning outcomes in the field. Is there some role that the designer has as educator or catalyst in the community, bringing to light the community's own values and needs, or helping the community express or articulate its own desires?
Rebekah: Human-centered design process involves understanding how to empathize with users, defining the problem, taking an iterative design approach, and then prototyping and creating. The key part is the initial empathy and understanding of someone else's perspective, which this project gets at.
Stephani: Did you collaborate with the children and talk about how they want to play with toys?
Rebekah: Our students played with and talked to the students, but it was limited. They were young. What the teachers and the principal said was the focus.
Stephani: As a practitioner whose focus is young people, I see that they actually have great capacity beyond what adults often understand as possible, particularly around how they function in their social environments, including the difficulties. Part of being in collaborative engagement is expanding how we understand who our collaborators are. You may need different conversational techniques or practices, like drawing, to work with children in particular, but you are already negotiating language barriers and probably it would be easier to solicit information from young people. There is a UNICEF publication from the '90s called "Children's Participation" that sets out best practices for engaging young people and has design-specific suggestions (Hart 1997).
Jocelyn: That's exciting. We've collaborated with children here, too. In addition to being the experts on play, and the biggest dreamers of what could be other than what is in terms of both objects and spaces, their imagination and their knowledge are the source of a lot of potentially great design. Another way to think about the role of designer—and it's a little problematic as a word—is that you're empowering especially children to see themselves as designers, to see design as something that is available to them as young thinkers. It's a way for them to participate in the world. We've been interested in the role of a designer to expand the world of design. To make it more available to people, and to see that the world is designed, which children don't know intuitively. To know they can expand what is possible is a wonderful thing students can share with children. The difference between needs-based assessment and problem-solving, and assets-based design and planning is really important. It's not just that the toys are broken and need to be fixed. It's that there's great imagination, knowledge, and crafting skills in this community, so that we can, as we prepare toys, do something that couldn't have been done before. That may be part of what design is for, to help communities see and value the assets that sometimes are invisible, or forgotten, or not talked about, or not valued within the culture. Presencing the invisible—revealing or representing community assets (oft overlooked or undervalued) back to the community as valuable to design solutions—is something designers can do—it's a critical role of the participatory designer.
Sylvia: That is what I was trying to get at with my question about the role of the designer. The emphasis is on what students discover, in so much of what we do. Students discover the needs of the area, what design was desired. They do that in this deeply collaborative process. The unanswered question of the project is—what is discovered by the people in the community through that process? Rebekah, we began with you telling us about the context of some of the longer-term social change work in the area, and this raises the question, can projects like this have a role in making visible the strengths within the community, which then feeds that longer-term community development work? Is that link possible to explore in the evaluation that you might do in a three-week project? How do you begin to map, document, and inquire about these dimensions of the project?
Stephani: It's also about how the community and the students, respectively, define change. A community that thought, "Where do we want to be in 2020?" has a change model; how does a project like this slot into it? Can you do it in three weeks? I don't know the answer.
Jocelyn: The change for different participants might be operating on completely different scales and in different timeframes. You have three weeks, the students have four years in your program, and this is a piece of a learning experience and pedagogy. For the community, perhaps the most powerful thing is realizing that they can host student groups. It brings in an economy and other forms of knowledge. You potentially are just one of 30 groups they could start to choreograph throughout the year and that brings in—especially to a remote area—a wealth of transactions. It might be that the scale of impact for them is completely different, that the furniture and the toys is just the moment in which something bigger has happened that would be beneficial in their long-term planning.
Rebekah: That's a great point. We were talking, in a community planning meeting in Kentucky, about being on academic time and everyone else isn't. We organize our lives and our student expectations around a time schedule that may or may not be conducive to a community operating in a completely different frame. There are university and other community partners and the change is with all these people at the table. That's why for me to say this is an assessment of how much I have changed this community is really not correct, because it's the community doing the change. I'm using the word community for them as a whole, but it can be broken down into farmers, into this part of Igarai versus that part of Igarai. . . . It would be good to evaluate how our role is part of this, and that there is value to understanding this long trajectory of change over the past couple of years. We're just a little dot in that context.
Sylvia: I'm excited that you're making the distinction because this is a problem that we have in civic engagement work locally and globally. It's a problem of integrity around how and why you would even want to claim effects on a community. Sometimes there's a lot of pressure to do that, even from within the community. For example, our school-based partners would really like us to be able to claim and feed them data about how our tutors and mentors improved this or that, but we can't. It's not true; we exist in an ecosystem. There is no way that I want to tell that story about us, and our work, and its impact, in that limited way.
But the question that then raises is the same question you're asking. We don't just want to add a bunch of questions to your assessment about community impacts, and go and give a survey to the farmers. There's a complex change landscape that your students entered, that may not have been visible to them, based on the focus of the design/build project—and the project has to be focused, because you have three weeks to get a lot of work done. But are there ways that you can build into the experience conversations that help both the students and their collaborators to connect this project with other goals, with longer or historical or future change projects? Again, that sounds very abstract, but I think that it can be as tactical as having intentional conversations with people in the community who are in the position to make those connections, to illustrate that "you're the tenth group to come here and work in the school" or "these are the things that have happened before" or "this is what has/hasn't worked for us." This larger conversation needs to be mapped and made part of the experience.
Rebekah: I agree. Sometimes we see a community that needs something and we throw resources at it. But if those resources aren't matching the needs of that community, then no one's helping anyone. This goes back to the idea of looking at more of an asset-based model in the community. Planning is really important; it's more of facilitating and connecting communities to partners who can provide those areas of expertise that they need, rather than assuming, "Oh, every university will just go here and make this a great place." What's needed is intention around matching and connecting, trying to align what we're doing with the community's actual needs, intentions, and goals.
Sylvia: I think this is what Stephani was getting at by reminding us that part of engagement work is being transparent about the relationships that we have, and the expectations within those relationships. Maybe part of the assessment could be layered in here. It begins with how you frame those conversations before you even begin to set the parameters for the design project, so that you leave room for kinds of goals other than the physical structure or artifacts.
Stephani: Rebekah, I want to commend you for the immense amount of labor that you did in order to create this program for your students' participation. To create these relationships and do a project in three weeks in a different country in a different language involves immense rigor on the faculty's part. You talked about what your students learned, but what did you learn in the process?
Rebekah: Thank you. What's really hard about this work is that so much is Skype conversations and endless emails about organization and logistics. It's all-year-long, so that you can have three weeks go off as seamlessly as possible, knowing that things are going to happen that are out of your control. For example, we were there when the public transportation prices rose so there were riots. There are things you have zero control over.
Stephani: And it does not count as labor.
Rebekah: It doesn't count, unless you can find a way to make it work. A faculty-led community-engaged program is much more involved than a traditional study abroad program, because you are finding accommodations and figuring out meal logistics in a rural area without great computer access. Given the time that you spend, you are doing it because you want to, not because you're going to get your investments back tenfold.
Jocelyn: What you're providing for your students is world-changing for them, and that comes through in their journaling pieces in your essay. What is inspiring to you about this community? You said you do it because you want to. What is most compelling to you about being there, working there, learning from and engaging Brazilian design culture? What draws you to it?
Rebekah: It's a lot about what my students get. Many student participants had never been outside of Kentucky. Some had never been on an airplane. And while my essay is about Brazil, we don't need to go to Brazil to have transformative learning experiences. The following fall we did a studio in Harlan, Kentucky, and it was like traveling to another country for some of them. Harlan is in the heart of coal country in southeastern Kentucky. They are not going to go on a family vacation to rural Brazil or southeastern Kentucky. These are educational experiences that can inspire a trajectory in people's lives. I have had, now, students who graduated with these experiences and now are looking at more socially responsible design opportunities, or companies, or experiences. That makes it worth it.
Sylvia: So it isn't just about their individual awakenings, but also about how you are contributing to an expanded sense of the field; what design is for, what it means to be a designer.
Rebekah: Yes. I teach interior design and most of my students enter the program interested in traditional trajectories of the profession. Most of the general public thinks of interior design as decorating or largely residential. There's definitely a role for people to do that. But I think about interior design really broadly. Interior designers are advocates for people and are really good at understanding people and how they occupy space. That space could be inside, or the size of a city, or an app. The way that we transform that into design could be really broad. We have an opportunity to reconsider what interior designers mean and what they actually do. If I can get students and community members to think about interior design on a broad scale by doing it internationally and having these kinds of opportunities, we can define what my profession is—which is what I really like.
Sylvia: I'm so glad you said that. Even though it may have seemed like we were not talking about the larger assessment of this project, in fact we are, because when we focus only on student learning we contribute to making the faculty and administrative labor invisible—and we also obscure the larger field-building implications of engaged work. If you continue to draw the connection between this kind of small study abroad program and the local engaged work that you do, and your aspirations for your field, you make a big contribution as a designer, an engaged practitioner, and a scholar.
Rebekah: I feel so honored to be able to talk to you all and have this conversation about my work. Thank you.Rebekah: I feel so honored to be able to talk to you all and have this conversation about my work. Thank you.
Stephani: Structures like this one that transform the traditional academic model of individual competition to ones of collaboration are so incredibly helpful.
Sylvia: Thank you, Rebekah, Stephani, and Jocelyn, for pushing these ideas forward together.
Hart, Roger A. 1997. Children's Participation: The Theory and Practice of Involving Young Citizens in Community Development and Environmental Care. London: Earthscan.