Big City Forum at Camino Nuevo’s Miramar High School

It gives me great pleasure to report back on the Big City Lab project funded by the SPArt Foundation between February and June of 2016.

Big City Lab is an education initiative that functions as a school-based residency in middle and high schools. Through Big City Lab students explore the history, storylines, and social conditions embedded in cities and their neighborhoods by examining issues related to mobility, density, migration, public space, and cultural capital. The goal in designing this model was to facilitate experiences for students that bring the built environment to life connecting to professionals in the design disciplines and engaged in public space. Through this students gain a sense of individual and community based solutions to everyday social challenges. The project also engages their imagination by creating dynamic new ways to create personal narratives around transformation and self-empowerment.

In late 2015 I approached Ana Ponce, Executive Director of the Camino Nuevo Charter Schools, with the possibility of collaborating on a design based classroom residency for either her middle or high school students. She immediately suggested Camino Nuevo Charter Academy Miramar High School and got me in touch with their principal Ms. Marisol Pineda Conde. She felt Big City Lab would be a great fit for her school since their vision is: “The mission of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy is to educate students in a college preparatory program to be literate, critical thinkers, and independent problem solvers who are agents of social justice with sensitivity toward the world around them.”  She decided that the best fit for the project would be to work with Mr. Ron Espiritu and his Ethnic Studies classroom.

Thanks to the support of the SPArt Foundation we launched Big City Lab in March of 2016 at Camino Nuevo’s Miramar High School. Over a period of 16 classroom visits students developed a high level of interest on the investigation pathways opened up by the project on issues related to their own personal lives which included social justice, gang prevention, food justice, indigenous rights, access to more arts and culture, and women’s leadership.

It was incredible to work with students at this school. All of them Latino immigrants to Los Angeles living in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city, Pico-Union/MacArthur Park area. Throughout the entire project we investigated how Los Angeles presents a fascinating set of contradictions. It feels as if it’s always at a pivotal moment of transition and transformation. Students began to see how housing, transportation, education, power and water, and many other aspects of urban infrastructure are matters of concern and growing debate in the region and how all of these are interconnected.

By working with professionals in the areas of architecture, urban design, photo journalism, creative writing, and graphic design students were able to use tools in these disciplines to develop an entire research methodology that allowed them to understand how these issues impact their own communities and begin to shape their own perspectives and build a sense of how they can impact change. Most importantly the project allowed the students to develop their own critical thinking about these issues by putting forth artful strategies in which they could express their perspectives through the creation of neighborhood and city models, planning and mapping models, photo-journalism field experiences, and the design of large scale banners that visually communicated their own opinions.

Big City Lab culminated with a student exhibition at Art Share LA, a non-profit gallery space in downtown Los Angeles. There students had their work exhibited in the environments of a professional gallery space and through a final culmination event, performed written works and gave testimonials on what the project meant to them.

Throughout the project I heard from the lead teacher how much these students would continue the conversations throughout the week as it reinforced the way in which they used critical thinking skills across other subject areas.  It also brought students closer as it pushed them to work in collaboration by building research groups around each of their areas of investigation. In testament to the success of the project, the Executive Director and administrators at Camino Nuevo Charter Schools met after to debrief Big City Lab and decided they wanted to expand the project to other middle and high schools that are part of this charter network in the Pico Union and MacArthur Park areas of Los Angeles.

As a final piece we were able to produce this short video clip that gives a beautiful summary to the whole project.

Leonardo Bravo, October 2016

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