U of Michigan and Detroit Community Schools: A Design Partnership

reflections from collaborative work Fall 2011, with great appreciation to the schools and students involved, and big shouts out to Charlie Michaels, John Lonsway, Eric Thomas, Bart Eddy and Candyce Sweda.

Jenn Silverstein:

 Throughout the course of my semester in Design For Change, I have had an
incredible transformation in my creative mindset. I began the semester with
an open mind, but also had never thought about how this course (a required
A&D outreach) could be so influential in my life. I entered this school
year contemplating applying to Teach For America, mostly because graduating
is intimidating, and I wanted the security of having post-graduation plans.
However, after our first visit to DCS, a spark lit inside me and I knew
there was no looking back. I felt an enormous adrenaline rush of enthusiasm
and passion, a spark that I had been missing in other aspects of my
creative life in A & D.
        The past two summers, I have interned at a prominent  product design firm
in Manhattan. The projects were cool, the people were alright, the pay was
decent. In general, I was unsatisfied. I knew my creative abilities could
be put to better use but I thought product design/industrial design were at
the top of the pack. After this course, I KNOW that my creativity abilities
are best put to use in the ways that I am most passionate, and I am most
passionate about my work in Brightmoor and my future in TFA. I value
working with others, making an impact, and feeling directly connected to my
work. With product design, you solve problems right, such as a new
aesthetic for Dove Skin Care. However, when I graduate I now want to use my
creative abilities to sole the RIGHT problems. In Brightmoor, I felt the
connection grow every week between myself and Destiney (a friend at DCS!).
I felt her become more comfortable with me as she began to open up about
her aspirations, family life, and future goals. High fives turned into
hugs, and my dreams turned towards teaching, design thinking, and impacting
others lives.

(Jenn’s group project, BAM—Brightmoor Active Mentoring—created and implemented a highly popular shoe design workshop and program at Detroit Community School that is continuing this semester. The team included Jenn, Zack Moscot, Mithula Naik, Dan Gold and Neil Zemba who is leading the project currently.)

Stephanie Schutter:

In working with the DCS students, I got a crash course on the difficulty of teaching and of capturing and retaining attention. Many students were fast paced, quick learners, and easily distracted, which made for an interesting time. I must say that I now have an even greater appreciation for the speakers and teachers I have found engaging and inspirational; it is no easy task. As I worked with the teens, I also came to understand the power of listening. We have two ears and one mouth for a reason and simply being attentive and engaging makes a world of difference to others. Being at the school also reminded me of the insecurity I had as a freshman in high school, and I had more than one moment of surprise at how much I’ve changed since that time. Those moments of realization also gave me great hope for the students we worked with. They are going to be amazing adults.
Working with the students has also made me aware of the fact that most of my projects in college have been just that: projects. Never once has my work extended beyond my grasp to truly impact someone else until now. Yet that is what I desire all of my work to do, which means I am grappling with the implications for my future work. Because of the DCS students, I now am considering perspective on what it means to have longevity and sustainability.  Altogether, the experience with the students was a fun, upbeat, and exciting ride that I’d redo in a heartbeat.
(Stephanie’s team worked through many generations of prototypes and ultimately designed and implemented a building workshop that taught soldering and solar technology to the 9th grade class to manufacture bicycle mounted solar lights. The team included Stephanie along with James Reich, Sunny Kim, Oleg Kolbasov and Lara Slotnick. The project is continuing with a new crop of 9th grade students in Detroit. )

Alana Hoey:
            Working with DCS students, it became apparent that designing for a group of people cannot be done without continual collaboration between the designer and the “customer”. It would have been easy to decide for the students what the “problem” was and create a solution on our own, but that solution would most likely have no significance in the community. I discovered that the true worth of my work would be determined by the students’ connection to it.
            Meeting and working with the DCS students gave me a confidence in designing and creating that I never had before. This confidence developed by taking risks with the motivation of improving the students’ lives. Specifically with the pizza oven, the desire to follow through on my promise to the students and help their ideas become reality drove me to do whatever it took to create something functional. This helped me to realize that I work better with the knowledge that my work matters in the world. I have always wanted to work directly with people but I have also been afraid of being incompetent as an artist and designer and it was great to see that people actually inspire me in both the ideation and realization of work.

Chris McKenzie:
Working with the DCS students over the course of this semester has given me an opportunity to reconnect with my youth. They have opened up my eyes once more to the simple things in life. With the opportunities to talk and work with them as well as the walk around Brightmoor it makes one appreciate how privileged we are. It also showed how we do not need all of our “needs” as we think. The students are content and happy with what they have and make the best of it. I believe that we have learned far more from them than they have from us. We needed to learn how to take their ideas and make them reality. What was difficult about this process was that we had to really listen to what they were saying and how they were acting to truly get a sense of what they desired.
I now am even more eager to get into public policy and urban planning after having met the DCS 9th grade students. They are the individuals in which I want to make the policies for. They are the reasons I want to advocate for sustainable social change. They are the leaders of tomorrow and I want to do my best to provide as many opportunities for them to grow as possible which means creating policy which provide doors for them to walk through; or by getting rid of policies that chain them down into their current situation inhibiting them from making progress.

(Chris and Alana were part of Project Pizza. Along with Nairi Bagdasarian, Ran Li, Allyson Zelinski and Vaishu Ilankamban they designed and built a fully functional mobile pizza oven at which they taught pizza making skills to the 9th grade. The oven will fire up again soon as the project continues with an ambitious set of connections to locally sourced basil and tomatoes as well as to being a community hearth, a gathering place and a source of creative exploration through good eating.


What can you do?

Last summer our car was roaring. I took it to a national chain muffler place figuring it would be cheap and they said 500-1200, that there was a hole in the muffler. I found the whole, maybe the size of a half dollar and asked if they could patch it. They looked at me as if I had asked something possible, but highly specialized and unlikely. How? they asked. Weld a patch over it, I offered. We can't weld was the response--I mean, we don't have a welder we just install.

This struck me then and now as somehow sad, but entirely possible--that the simplest and most direct method of making something work was not an option. This shop on Burt Road near Outer Drive has this very promising sign (see above.) I came upon the place and the sign last summer after the roaring muffler had been silenced by more extreme means (that's another story.) Today that sign is flanked by a number of hand lettered signs advertising individual abilities--snow removal, lawn clean ups, roaches exterminated. 

If you had a sign, what would you want to put on it? What would you offer to share with the world (for money or for barter) that you can do?


Detroit Bus: Creative Response to Critical Condition

If you're in Detroit and rely on public transit you have a long wait as part of your day (even those riding the well-served routes east west along Jefferson by the river, and the north south axis of Woodward Avenue.) In recent weeks, the situation has become even more trying, including a week day during which all bus service was either suspended or encumbered with delays of up to 3 hours (this day followed an incident in which a driver was involved in a physical altercation with passengers.)

As is most often the case, the city's neighborhoods with the fewest resources bear the brunt of these shortages. Further from downtown density, further from the affluence that is providing Midtown with feet on the street and the development around the Wayne State/ Tech Town areas.

In Brightmoor, a neighborhood in the northern fringes, bus service is a vital link--to get to work, to school. Waiting is for the patient. This hand made stop is one of several along Outer Drive that I admire for its creativity. And its padded seats--a nice touch for offering comfort in the cold.

With a physical infrastructure that extends physically and financially beyond the city's current capacity, the public transit system is burdened by a rising cost/declining revenue challenge. I started thinking about how the network of buses, drivers and stops could be utilized in a way to leverage this infrastructure and offer this bus plus scenario, by which buses participate as delivery services, food drops, roving resources.


Detroit's Art & Design School

A few weeks back I pondered the potential of a question posed by visiting New Yorkers: What would an ideal creative education look like? Well, it may not look the same everywhere--something that all of us who teach something creative should pause more than once to consider. Renaissance draftsmanship or Bauhaus style workshops tend to be our studio models whether in NYC or Paris or Beijing. But can that really either be effective or even interesting? Flattening local knowledge and specificity in pursuit of idealized skills leads to atomization and an art world separated from everyday life, producing more producers of potential luxury or alienated avant-gardists. I propose a modest adaptation--rooted in local skills and vantage points, a creative education can be grounded in, well, the ground, without sacrificing ambition.

This is something that at first pass sounds like regionalism or provincialism, but, ultimately, I'd argue, augers more towards innovation fed by, but not limited by place. One thing I have learned from teaching art in Detroit public schools is that the distance between street and studio, home and class, lesson and use can be vast. Skills learned to cope in challenging neighborhoods may be at odds with a classroom, so let's not make everyone live bifurcated lives, but rather, let's see how we can leverage those skills.

Here's a start of the sure components of a Detroit city based creative arts-design and thinking curriculum with local influences:
Unit or Focus I (not in hierarchical order of any sort) might be

Words and Image
Look at the wealth of visual acuity tempered with graphic sophistication and chromatic vigor in the work of many of Detroit's sign painters (my examplar is the East Sider Bird.) With a good legion of skilled hands painting huge signs for everything from dry cleaners to party stores, the ubiquity of the painted word currently outstrips the printed vinyl banner world of easy graphic design enabled by Kinko's (no offense to the service bureau.) Fuse these skilled hands with the verbal dynamism of freestyle and composed rap and street cypher battles, and our visual/creative education has hands and mouths and ears engaged, dynamic and Detroit.

Next week: Unit II: Building, Joinery and Assembled Meaning


A creative education: Part II

In the last post, a creative education (see below) I wrote about what I saw as a missed opportunity to talk about ideas for a more creative art education in Detroit.

Following up on that opportunity, here are some models that are inspiring:

Trade School is in NYC and is based on a barter system. Know something? Teach something. Share something. The emphasis is on a social exchange of sharing skills.

From Trade School's values:

  • Practical Skills (action over abstraction, enthusiasm over experts)
  • Reciprocity (everyone has something to share: anyone can teach, everyone can 'afford' the barter because it includes labor)
  • Rigor + Humility (unempowering and empowering work for all)
  • Community Space (share food/tea, make furniture, you know the organizers because we are sitting in class with you)

How we work:

  • Design for the community you are part of (it's easy to make bad decisions if they don't effect you) [at the end of school we met with all our students/teachers]
  • Work in a Small Group (each person added to the group doubles the amount of time it takes to make a decision. ex: 6 people for Trade School, but really 3 people plus students/teachers


A creative education

Last week I was eager to attend the Detroit leg of a cross country expedition led by the Bruce High Quality Foundation and sponsored by Creative Time called Teach 4 Amerika. The premise was/is that art education tends to be limiting rather than expansive, and tends towards the prohibitively expensive. The Bruce High Quality folks have started a school in NY, and their cross country journey (in groovy bus, see image left by Jeffrey Bussmann) is aimed at asking questions around the US in search of ideas and dialogue for an alternate educational model that fosters creativity. Agree.

I had to leave after 2 hours--the conversation may have exploded after that, or it may have stayed mired where it was. Where it was was off track--we didn't get to talk about art education, and instead focused on micro-local issues of whose landlord as good (or evil) why the city makes it hard for artists. The conversation promised did not happen--and maybe what did happen points some fingers towards problems and solutions for creative education.

Effectively, the gathered were the privileged in many ways, who demographically reiterate the prevailing assumptions and media images of the image of the artist as white, well educated middle class---and in the general tenor of the group, they are misunderstood and their good efforts at starting up galleries and parties are not adequately encouraged by the City. The voices heard were products of art school dialogue and discourse, as were the guests. As such, there was little need for expansion, and the conversation became short hand. The few notes of discord left earlier--there were some great comments from educators at CCS and people who worked in other arenas, but as they left, so left that line of inquiry.

What would an ideal creative education in Detroit look like? How could it borrow and build from the assets of the city (and by assets I mean not only cultural institutions, but cultural questions about the role of art in society) and how could it foster art/work/life that is vital and responsive rather than circumscribed or doctrinaire? Stay tuned.


painted walls

It was an unbelievably beautiful afternoon in Detroit, and I had a chance to stroll a bit after picking up mangoes at HoneyBee Market on Bagley (these were for students to carve at Ceasar Chavez Academy--truly delicious edible works of art that attach themselves to many senses, more later on that.)

On the backside of a small cluster of short buildings on Michigan Avenue, I found these painted walls (see above) which triggered all sorts of memories for me. One was of growing up in a New York City that, at the time, was covered in graffiti (I read recently an analysis of my neighborhood that suggested that neighborhood youths felt powerless and manifested their feelings against an environment that was hostile to them with corresponding hostility. )
The other was of a visit to an alley in Southwest Detroit a few years back that one of the students I currently teach mentioned to me just this past week. While the smell of all that aerosol is hard on the nostrils at times, these painted walls are pretty glorious--visual splendor that seems less hostile and far more welcoming and vibrant than I had remembered.