Linking Designers and Organizers: Christine Gaspar, Center for Urban Pedagogy | MIT Center for Civic Media

Linking Designers and Organizers: Christine Gaspar, Center for Urban Pedagogy

Liveblog by @schock with help from two anonymous people on the etherpad. In this talk, Christine Gaspar, ED of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, provides an overview of their methodology, pedagogy, products, and project areas, drawing on key examples in areas including food, sanitation, telecommunications, education, policing, housing, development, participatory budgeting, and more. All errors: ours!

Our speaker today is Christine Gaspar, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Pedagogy. CUP is a nonprofit based in NYC whose mission is to use "the power of design and art to improve civic engagement." CUP creates accessible, visually based tools to help people understand how the city works. In other words, CUP's goal is to help folks understand the policies that shape the places where they live. There are many barriers to understanding urban policy and processes, but CUP wants more people, and more diverse kinds of people, to participate in decisionmaking, which they believe will lead to social justice outcomes. In this talk, Christine is going to provide an overview of CUP's methodology, pedagogy, products, and project areas, drawing on key examples in areas including food, sanitation, telecommunications, education, policing, housing, development, participatory budgeting, and more.

Day to day, CUP works in very specific ways: mostly, in projects that people bring to them. In other words, they're not trying to go out and get random people to be civically engaged in an abstract sense, they're trying to work with those who already are interested in some type of policy process, and then amplify that. Christine shows a series of images from projects ("Sewer in a Suitcase," "What the Cell," and "The internet is serious business" (video below).

The Internet is Serious Business from the Center for Urban Pedagogy on Vimeo.


Cup works on interdisciplinary projects, and they spend a lot of time shaping these projects and collaborations with diverse kinds of actors. For most work, their process begins with a call for partners. That might be a community organization, advocacy group, teacher, or group of students looking at something impacting their school. Then, they look for graphic designers, artists, industrial designers, and other people with funny glasses! They work together to break down the topic and ensure that everyone involved in the project really understands it, then create and distribute a visual tool to help others understand it. Christine emphasizes again that CUP starts with a particular need that comes from a particular group, so that, at the end of a project, there is a group of people who will actually use the work. They build this in from the beginning of the project. They've learned this formula over time.

Program Area: Youth Education

All of their projects start with the question: "How Does the City Work?" Their youth education efforts focus on low income communities of color in NYC High Schools. Some questions they have tackled include: "Who runs the internet?" and "Where does the water go when I flush the toilet?"

In the Bodega food project, in the Bronx, they noticed that lots of people were talking about food deserts but no one was talking to young people about food access. Their youth projects begin with training - specifically, training young people in how to conduct interviews. Christine feels that youth are great interviewers because they are less hesitant about asking questions. CUP will work with a team of students to create documentation via video, still cameras, and more. They interview various stakeholders: for example, they interviewed NYC commissioner Ray Kelley. They get access to high profile people. The goal is to have students understand the places where they live, and understand that decision making is done by individuals - real people, who have assumptions and biases, and can be known and talked to.

Bodega Down Bronx from the Center for Urban Pedagogy on Vimeo.

In the Bodega project (video above), the youth interviewed bodega owners, food providers, and representative Nydia Velazquez, to gather information on the topic. In this case, the teaching artist was a filmmaker named Jonathan Bogarin.

Pedagogy and Products

From this work, CUP has produced a series of videos, curriculum guides, and other materials. Christine passes some of these around at this point.

In the food case, they worked with an animator who created illustrations and images of the corn system, for example. There's a final presentation: the students always share the work they've created with a broader audience. This might take place in a museum or gallery, where they get a sense of the value of their work in an art context, but also in community spaces where they can see the value as an organizing tool. Then they package and sell the products on their website, which helps to fund continued production of more materials.

These projects are called "Urban Investigations." They take about 80 hours of contact time with the students. They also have shorter projects calls "City Studies" that take place in an afterschool context.

Program Area: Community Education

This kind of project is driven by Community Based Organizations (CBOs) that come to them with particular questions or needs. Making Policy Public has been a key example of this kind of project. Once a year they do an open call for advocacy groups that are working on social justice topics that would benefit from visual explanation, and are working directly with a constituency that is affected by the issue. This is to inform the project, but also so that the most impacted groups on the ground are the ones guiding the process.

Next, they bring in juries composed of two people who are in design backgrounds, and two in organizing backgrounds. The jury reviews the applications togther (both the advocates and designers) and choose who they'll work with. The conversation that happens on the jury is important, and influences people's thinking. Through the conversations on the jury, the advocacy partners often come out the other side and think differently about designers, and vice versa.

Policy in its native habitat
Christine shares the background of a project they started with street vendors, called Vendor Power! She starts with a picture of "policy in its native habitat:" It's a list of street names in a small, barely readable font, taken from the Borough of Manhattan street vendor policy. This kind of policy information is incredibly difficult to navigate. People don't read these. The impact: Christine shows an image of a box full of tickets for illegal vending, given by NYPD. A single ticket can cost $1000, and food vendors only make an average of $14,000 per year. The police often don't really know the details of the legal code either! In response, the Street Vendor Project (SVP) applied to Making Policy Public with this issue. The Executive Director of SVP had boxes of tickets, many of which were incorrect or based on minutae, such as "4 inches too close to the curb," and so on. They selected a designer, and worked closely with SVP and their members. Christine mentions that it can be an interessting process for designers, who don't always have "clients who call bullshit on your work." They get real feedback. In one iteration of this project, the design was fairly cartoony, but the vendors said "we want to be able to pul this out and show it to the police and have them take us seriously," so CUP redid the design.

As a side note, Christine mentions how in another instance, CUP worked with Community Voices Heard, who gave them feedback about the standard design practices around (for example) the Census, which tend to talk down to the audience.

She shows the image above, of the Know Your Rights pamphlet for street vendors that was produced through the partnership with SVP: image centric, with very little text (the vendors speak many languages). The pamphlet became an advocacy tool. People like the street vendors in NYC, but don't think about policies that impact them. Brick and Mortar shops don't like vendors, and get policies passed that negatively affect them. So the material is also good for public education. The pamphlet has been in distribution for about 3 years. At the end of the project, CUP distributes materials in various ways, including passing them out on the street. An organization called the Midtown Community Court came to CUP and did a bulk order, to use the guide in a training program they run.

CUP now has a number of Making Policy Public guides coming out, including on the NY Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, Fracking, and immigrant access to financial services. They have a comic book guide to the juvenile justice system, which provides a roadmap for young people who have been arrested. It was picked up by the Department of Corrections itself, who distribute 20k copies a year now to youth as they enter the juvenile justice system.

In another case, CUP got a grant to distribute a fracking infographic as a subway poster. They got a takedown from the fracking industry, which they're now fighting.

Envisioning Development Toolkit

The last project Christine wants to show is the Envisioning Development Toolkit. CUP worked with an advisory group of different community organizations to create this. Many groups are working on development, but it's complex, often involving a great deal of quantitative data. CUP found themselves explaining the same concepts over and over, and this becomes a problem: in an hour long meeting, you spend half the time clarifying concepts. So they realized they needed some standard tools.

The first tool they worked on was an affordable housing toolkit. They started with a database that no one reads, and thought about how to make it understandable. They came up with a big felt chart, they put small felt peices on it to create an understandable infographic of affordable housing, housing costs, eligibility, and availability. This workshop includes learning about median income and other concepts. People place the numbers from their own neighborhood on the chart using small felt squares. Each square represents 1k families; you're able to quickly build up a picture of income distribution in your neighborhood. People put their own square on the board, that helps engage and also helps with memory. There's an additional tab for eligibility for various programs. This all becomes a tool to talk about housing policy, proposed development in relationship to income levels, and in general, to facilitate conversation in specific detail about what people want to see in their neighborhood development process. The whole workshop comes with a guidebook, and the toolkit comes in a plastic lunchbox:

They designed it so other groups can run their own workshops, and they're curently adapting it for Chicago. At the end of the project, they also made an online version, one if the few they've made. It includes the income charts: if you select a neighborhood, income levels pop up.

Christine describes attending various other workshops, to see how their materials are used and adapted, and mentions that they're going to launch a zoning toolkit soon.


Becky: Who's on the team? How many designers are part of CUP?

Christine: CUP aren't the designers, they are more the facilitators, researchers, etc. The 5 full time staff have varied backgrounds(planning, architecture, graphic design, finance). They're hiring a 6th person, based on an NSF grant. They spend a lot of time breaking down the language of design for partners.

Becky: Do you make your methodology available?

Christine: we're working on it. We're going to do a DIY youth investigator toolkit. We want to be more clear even within the programs about our process.

Nick: Your stuff is so awesome! My mind is "boom." I'm blown away by how beautiful, personal, connective it all is.

Christine: It's the partners!

Q: How often do you work with the instutions that make the policy you write the informal user guide to. You work with lots of organizations who are strugging against these instututions. What about planners who might be working within these institutions? How often do you get requests from the City?

Christine: Now that former DUSP colleagues are working in City Hall we're getting phone calls. There is a generational shift happening, with the new people having more exposure to public education concepts. We struggle with this - the answer so far is that the officials should hire CUP to help, rather than apply to our pro bono programs. Many agencies have approached us about project collatborations. Sometimes, institutions can use our materials, but cannot hire us directly. Sometimes, Departments are using our tools, as in the juvenile justice system work.

Q: How do you finance your projects?

Christine: We fundraise a lot. We are primarily grant-funded. We have 2 core audiences -- the planning and organizing world and the design world. Our youth education programs sometimes have 3rd party funders.

Sasha: I love CUP's work, and am also a fan as a former project partner! The VozMob team had a great experience working on our component of the "Dialed In" Cell Phone Literacy Toolkit. Currently, I'm teaching a collaborative design studio course here at the Center for Civic Media to use these kind of methodologies to design civic media projects with community partners. I'd like to ask a difficult question: it'd be great to hear your thoughts about the story that gets told about these kinds of projects later. What does that mean for ownership? How do you challenge the pre-existing tendencies for larger institutions to become the most visible player in the project narrative after the fact? How do we change poor credit-sharing practices?

Christine: We try to be really careful about credit -- there are always really long lists. We try to be very inclusive to make visible our belief that you can't make these things without all of these people. We do see that people are using our materials without knowing that we had a role in the product, and that, for us, is a mark of success!

Q: Do you get more resistance in sharing credit from any particular partners?

Christine: Depends on the partners. But, in part, we ask people to apply to be a partner at the outset. We bring resources to the table to make room in people's lives to make the project happen. At the end of the day, it's all about personality. There's always the part where everyone hates you. *laughs.* Projects get to feeling out of control, unfinished, ugly. Just being more aware that the process is messy, there are parts that are uncomfortable, and that's OK, and you have to say that out loud!

Rogelio: What structures do you use to foster leadership among the high school youth you work with?

Christine: We have two core programs that work with youth. Urban investigations and City Studies. The first is really long, 80 hours. They're intensive. The City Studies vary: between 3 sessions to 10 sessions. When they're in class, they're tied to a particular curriculum. We did the Field Guide to Federalism, with a 9th grade class. We work not in arts classrooms or civics classrooms, but bring those skills in to other kinds of classes. In terms of the second question, on leadership: we're getting better and better at measuring the imapcts of our programs. How do you take what you've done and deepen the impact, for example, connect youth we've worked with to internships? We're looking at a year long video program. Getting youth more hands on with the technical parts of things.

Q: This is really exciting! One question I have: the other half of making your own policy isn't just about understanding existing policy; can this document or process or toolkit inform how policies are made? Can you talk about that aspect?

Christine: Often the groups we partner with are working specifically on policy change. We see ourselves as working with them to produce tools that increase their own capacity to do that work. These tools can be used by them to advocate for their own needs; we're not the ones doing the advocating. The affordable housing toolkit had an interesting moment: two groups, with different definitions of affordable housing, were both using this tool to organize people in their neighborhood. We know people will disagree, that's part of democracy. We make educational projects. We spend a lot of time working in low income communities, with groups that haven't had a chance to participate. We might not agree with everything they advocate for. We are involved in some policy processes, as I mentioned, city agencies sometimes want to talk to us. We're broadening inclusion.

Rahul: Sometimes, if you have really good looking outputs, how do you think about the outcomes that are about the people who participated? The students, the community members, scaffolding their learning.

Christine: we try to take advantage of that phenomenon. If there are people who just like the object and want to buy it, great. But yeah, how do we think about impact? For our community education tools, most of the impact is out of our hands. We started to get better at pre- and post-project evaluation: getting specific goals from our partners about what they want to do with it. If our partner has specific metrics, we try to understand those. We measure the things we can: the number of things we distributed, measure what we can count. But you're talking about longer term impacts. We do follow up evaluation between 6 months to 1 year after the project with the partner, to better understand how it is being used. Youth education is complex, b/c we don't have access to the students after a while. FB has been great; students stay in touch with us after events. During the time we have access to them, we're looking for the shift in perception. We want them to look at the environment they're in and see it as something they can change. We also have "civic engagement day" in all of our programs, where we just focus on that. It turns out to work well. The conversations we have are more reflexive, since we started doing that.

Catherine: You mentioned that you've only developed a couple of digital tools. Why? Is there less demand, or it hasn't been relevant to the problems you're focused on?

Christine: The groups we're working on really want print tools they can distribute broadly. We work in communities that have pretty low use of technology, although more people have cell phones now. VozMob does incredible work with low tech cellphones. We have a project with multiple formats, including an interactive web application. No one has applied to take that one on yet. Especially in low income communities, the organizing work happens through face to face interactions and meetings. So, you want something to hang on the wall, hand to someone. We've done some animations, they do well online. Students made financial literacy stop motion animations. I'm interested in taking on more digital stuff in the future.