My work with Jovenes, Inc. has been a long-lasting collaboration.  Jovenes provides housing and support services for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles.  A former students of mine, Eric Hubbard, is the director of development at Jovenes, and through his hard work, the partnership has kept going for four years now.  As part of my course Field Studio A, students from the Art Center MDP/Field track work with youth from Jovenes, learning with and from them about their lives and stories.

Using a community based learning approach, the partnership is one that is designed to meet the needs of the organization and the needs of my course.  Sometimes it takes us a while to really do the work it takes to make sure that one set of needs is not displacing the other.  Designers ultimately need to make things, but what they need to make for my course may not always be something that the organization identifies as useful or important to them.  I try to make sure that as we do our design research, the work “throws off” material that is easy to identify as useful.  Sometimes that might be interviews that Jovenes, Inc. can include on its website, or high quality photographs.  Another time it might mean scheduling a special tour of our studio for Jovenes clients who want to see what an art school looks like.  We also occasionally design things that our community partner needs — like a calendar that can be used for fundraising — because that is an important part of the reciprocity involved in working with community partners.  Some of the odd, speculative gizmos my students might explore for their own work may not seem useful to Jovenes.  Similarly, for my students, designing a calendar is not an especially gut-busting challenge design-wise, but might be very much worth doing because it helps to support the partnership at large.

There are many challenges for my students.  They must confront their own assumptions about who is homeless, what homelessness looks like, and how homelessness happens.  They are also challenged because they are not allowed to make use of the typical design strategy of making a thing that solves a problem.  Their task is to meet the guys, engage with them on a very human level, and then use design both as a means to conduct this engagement, and a medium through which to create new ways to engage the idea of homelessness. That kind of critical thinking is central to the teaching we do in MDP/Field.

In our first year, now-alums Jeff Hall and An Mina developed a very simple, yet very effective tool for facilitating and documenting life stories.  They wrote about it on the ethnography matters blog in a post entitled “Designing for Stories.”  I continue to use that tool they developed with successive groups of students, to show them how design research materials can be invented and used.

In a successive year, another group of students completed a successful project called”Caminemos Juntos.”  I have coauthored a chapter with them about the Jovenes partnership and their project; It appears in the book Participatory Digital and Visual Methods.

Traffic Jam

Since beginning my travel to Uganda, I have been collaborating with dancers there on a set of projects I loosely call “Traffic Jam.”  Many of the dancers are or were students at Makerere University.  Others are members of Lifechangerz, a gospel and hip hop group based in the Kivulu slum adjacent to the university. The video below is from 2014, and takes place at Treasure Life Youth Center in Kampala.  The music is from the Jovenes project “Caminemos Juntos.”  I took that music with me to Kampala and my friends there wanted to choreograph something to it.  They were very excited about the idea of connecting to the stories of the homeless youth from Jovenes Inc., in Los Angeles.  Many of the Ugandan dancers were dealing with struggles of their own.  We had hosted a research event at TLC, and the dancers were due to perform at the end.  Everything took longer than we had anticipated (not unusual in fieldwork!), and so by the time it was time to dance, the sun had set.  Luckily, we managed to talk a passing ambulance driver into parking on the soccer pitch with his lights on long enough for the dancers to perform.  I love how the strong lights in the darkness add to the feeling of the dance.