On the first day of the Environmental Justice Summer Institute, high school students from Lennox, Hawthorne and Inglewood gathered in a room at the Lennox Library. As a partnership program between non-profit groups and USC, each student had to apply for this opportunity – and give up three days a week for 5 weeks of their summer vacation to participate.
While the students would be learning the more technical side to environmental health and justice in the following weeks, on day one they took a deep dive into their memory, to understand their experiences, values, and intuitive sense of the environment. James Rojas was the leader who guided the students through several learning experiences using "PLACE IT!," a design-based urban planning initiative. For the initial team building activity, students were asked to build their favorite childhood memory. He noted that this was an “urban planning exercise,” even though they did not realize how they could envision at this point what their environment might look like, instead of what it DID look like. This exercise revealed the students’ history of who they are, where they come from, and what they value.
Click here to read more about EJSI from a previous blog post.
“We are going to look at the places where you live – but through a unique perspective,” Rojas said. “Let’s start with all of you creating a memory. What was the most fun activity you remember doing as a child?”
Using construction paper as a base and choosing from hundreds of small items with which to build, the participants were given fifteen minutes for their creations. This short period of time allowed them to think on their feet to build the physical and social details that created their memories. As participants finished building the representations of their childhood days, they began to talk, look around at the other dioramas created by their colleagues and pull out their cell phones to take pictures of their models.
Rojas asked each participant to share his/her memory with the group. Builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling, entertaining stories illustrated through the objects, colors, textures, and layouts of their models. Everyone listened with enthusiasm to these visceral details that engaged the group visually and orally. The group members began to learn about each other by sharing these stories and bonded through common themes. They commented:
“My childhood memory was when I would go to a park with my dad and my brother. I learned that being a child and being outside is a lot better than how kids my age [today] are always inside and on their phones/laptops. I used a lot of grassy material to represent the trees, flowers, and a blue toy to represent a pool.” -Vanessa Sanchez
“My memory was building cars with my dad, going to the zoo, playing with dogs and going to the beach. I learned that every kid played with friends and didn’t worry about [pollution from] planes or factories. We used toys. I used little wood cars to represent me and my dad. I used animals to represent the zoo, and snakes for my memory of Santa Monica. I used a spring because I used to go on trampolines and jump off.” –Eder Juarez
“I learned from my experience that little by little without us noticing, beautiful places are not part of our surroundings anymore. I like the park with flowers I constructed, but there are no such beautiful parks that are accessible after I get out of school just to release some stress. I learned from my experience that many people don’t have the opportunity to relax in a good place like a park, and therefore have a stressful routine of going to work and then going home every day.” -Abigail Diaz“My experience of building a favorite childhood memory was fabulous. I built my favorite zoo location. Thanks to the activity, I was able to remember all the sweet memories that I have with my parents. I never thought I would ever think about those memories, due to the fact that life is too busy for anyone to sit down and think about the past. I’m very appreciative of this activity.” – Khan Nguyen
Participants discovered that as children they had very similar experiences created by interactions with people, and the built and natural environments. They realized they had a deep relationship with nature around them. As children many of the participants sought fun, intimacy, shelter, and challenges in the environment.
Through this activity participants were able to personalize the urban planning process based on their experiences and imagination. This approach gave everyone access to the exercise and validated their knowledge of the built environment. This acknowledgement supported their contribution to the planning process: everyone had something to share and contribute.
“The memory I built was the moment when I first cooked a special meal for my grandmother. What I learned from this experience was that that was the first time I created something for someone else. I feel that cooking for oneself is boring but to cook for someone else is fun and it makes it special.” –Eduardo Vazquez
Through the activity, participants were able to see the greater potential within themselves and their colleagues with which to draw upon in the coming weeks of the Institute. The workshops provided a foundation that the content of the institute will further build upon in order to educate and empower the students to seek paths toward environmental justice in their respective communities.
Students were then placed into two teams and asked to work together to create their “ideal city.” Each team had time to reflect, examine, and build a city that was designed to promote environmental health and justice. To achieve this they again used construction paper and hundreds of pieces of toys/building blocks provided by James Rojas to build their solution. The teams were given no constraints or rules.
Team One built a city centered around “activities.” From basketball courts toroller coasters as one time member said “We never get bored.”
Team Two built a city based on “experiences.” It was clean and green, full of flowers, plants, and gardens. They build a beautiful mono-rail system with other urban design enhancements.
Once all the teams presented their projects, Rojas synthesized the findings and asked the participants what they learned about themselves, each other, and the built environment. By building together, students identified many opportunities and challenges in the built environment. The workshop brought out the students’ intuitive sense of the built environment.
For participants, these exercises turned the city into a blank canvas, letting students build their own images of healthy spaces.
The hundreds of small colorful, vibrant, tactile, objects triggered the participant’s emotional connections to the built environment. Participants connected and synthesized how they experience urban space by seeking and touching these objects. They created small vignettes of urban life. The high school participants gained satisfaction from this process because they were able to translate memories, visions, and ideas into a physical form. As soon as students realized this connection, they realized they could actually transform their environment. One participant asked,“Why isn’t the city I live in like the city I want to live in?”
Stay tuned for future blog posts documenting the students’ activities over the course of the summer.
by James Rojas and Wendy Gutschow