I had an experience during my first year working in a school that both broke my heart and changed my perspective. I was working for a literacy organization that worked directly with students five days a week, during the school day. To encourage students to become more interested in reading and writing, we would have them create short stories that were turned into handmade books that they could add to their personal libraries. My role in this process was to guide students in the story writing process, and for those that couldn’t yet write well enough, I would transcribe their stories on to paper.
I was working with a kindergartner, a 5-year old girl who I’d seen before, but didn’t have much interaction with. The process began the same as with any other student; she chose a character she wanted the story to revolve around. She chose Pink Panther, and in her story he was a painter. He painted all types of things including people, animals, and places. I asked this kindergartner to tell me about one of these paintings and she described a sunny field with green grass and flowers. After a pause, she added that there were trees with birds sitting on the branches on the left side of the painting. I asked her if there was anything else in the painting, and again she paused to think. She then described a big house with one blue door in the front and eight windows. She then looked at me in a way that confused me. Her look was one of hesitation and fear. I asked her what she was thinking, and in a very small voice, she asked, “Can I live in that house?” I was shocked by her question, but immediately responded “Of course you can! This is your story! You can do whatever you’d like!”
She smiled and continued to tell me about another of his paintings that featured a dog. After she finished telling me about this painting, I asked her what Pink Panther did with his paintings and her response was that he had parties so he could show them to other people. I asked her where he had these parties and she said at his house. I then asked who he invited and she responded, “white people.” I did not expect that response at all. I quickly turned to her and asked, “What about you? Do you want to go to this party?” She looked at me with the same hesitation and fear to ask, “Can I go?” Again I responded with “Of course you can! This is your story!”
At the time, I couldn’t process why this little 5-year old was asking me permission to be included in a story that was her creation. Every other child that I worked with told fantastical stories that were limitless. Why did she feel the need to ask to have access to certain things in a make believe story? I wondered what happened in her short life that made her think and feel the way she did. The more I thought about this little girl, the more I thought about other related experiences I had with students:
During a conversation after an art class where the 5th grade students learned about Picasso and his techniques, I told students that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) had an exhibition of Picasso and Matisse’s work. Students asked me what the DIA was and where it was located… We were only 2.6 miles away from the DIA!
In the Fall, I asked students if they knew about the Detroit Design Festival (DDF) and again they asked what it was and where it was located.
Around the holidays, I asked another group of older students if they (and their families) were going to check out Noel Night. Only one student knew what Noel Night was!
These incidents made me start to question why these students (and the communities they grew up in) were so ill-informed of public spaces and events that were no more than 5 minutes away. Did the students, their families and communities have no interest in these types of events? Or did these entities fail to reach out to these communities?
During a Culture Lab Detroit event in 2012, I was able to hear world-renowned architect David Adjaye, Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates, and design studio Estudio Campana (Humberto and Fernando Campana) speak their thoughts on the effect design and physical environments have on communities and the psyche of its residents. This again made me think about the students I worked with. I began to wonder how spaces/events/experiences might be designed so that any person would feel welcome to be a part of it.
As I’ve gained more experience in community development, I’ve realized that it’s not one answer, it’s all of the above. The work we as fellows partake in during our time with Challenge Detroit forces us to consider these questions as we attempt to provide solutions for communities that many of us are just visiting. No matter the project, I will always think back to that little girl who asked me for permission to include herself in a story she was authoring, in an effort to remember that children are often left out of conversations that can have a significant impact on their childhoods.