Student blog of the Stanford University Urban Studies Department

The story of how I nearly broke both ankles

Written on Saturday, August 15th, 2015

Huzzah, I made it through my first gallery opening on Thursday night–the weekend has never felt so deserved!

It’s a perfect Saturday morning in New York. I woke from the dead around 10:30AM, and after a shower, managed to watch three episodes of Gossip Girl while packing up my stuff and sorting through the trash I needed to take out. Gossip Girl has been an unfortunate constant in my NYC free time; it started out as a guilty pleasure, and now I’m in a hurry to finish the last season so it stops ruining my life and making me pick up bad habits like speaking in hyperboles.

I’ve been in the Lower East Side for about a month, but I’m moving out of my apartment today. I’ll be in Nolita now, which is nice, because it’s a lot closer to many of the things I enjoy about the city—including my internship.

In other news, Saturday vibes are the best thing ever; the city has a very relaxed and nap time aura this afternoon. Sunday has the tendency to feel pretty dismal because of the impending workday, but Saturday is like the prime of summer.

I’m checking out this café in LES called “el Rey” this morning. I’m munching on some salty coconut granola and downing my first green tea in over a month. I’m reflecting on this past week of work, and thankfully Friday was a pretty chill day—that is, after the madness and excitement of Thursday.

Our office has been working hard to prepare for the opening of our current exhibit, Measure, and it’s maintained a very easy-going workflow up until Thursday when everything exploded. The best way I can describe the feeling is like when you’re holding your baby nephew for the first time and he’s all smiling and gorgeous right before he poops, pees and throws up on you all at the same time. Beneath all that mess between you and the baby, there’s still an incredibly beautiful bond forming–however much of disgusting mess it is. I digress.

The day of the opening —

I came into work thirty minutes early. My supervisor gave me a list of items we needed for that night and I made some calls at local stores to see if they had what we needed in stock–A table runner to display fruit in increasing size, and 400 plastic wine cups.

After calling ten different places, I found a party store in NoHo that carried just what we needed. I walked to the gallery to pick up an associate’s credit card and headed for the party store. Amid the fifteen-minute walk, the sun was shinning, there were plenty of tourists out, and I was pretty happy to experience NYC during a time I normally would be in my office space. For the same reason, I didn’t mind when I headed in the wrong direction three times before getting on the right track.

I get to the party store, and chose a tablecloth, piled on 400 wine cups into a cart and checked out. Between my workbag and my purchase, I carried 30 pounds back to the office.

I get back to the office, I sit down, and then the phone rings.

I have to go back to the gallery and return the credit card.

I go back to Nolita, drop off the card, and go back to the office.

The phone rings again.

Apparently someone left an art piece at the office? I deliver the piece, the 400 wine cups and the table runner… but I give in and take a Lyft this last time.

Before coming back to work, I get food and coffee. I need it.

The office gets ready to go to the gallery around 4:30PM but I need to go pick up fruit for the table display, so I leave early and stop by the grocery store with an associate. Someone told our director about an app that provides a system of measuring baby development by comparing its increasing size to a different fruit. So at the third week, the baby might be the size of a blueberry, and several months later, a grapefruit, a squash, and then at last, a watermelon! Our director thought it was cute—and since our exhibit has to do with all things measurement, it was appropriate for the table where we sold books, served free drinks, and gave out bits of fruit to munch on.


By the time I got to the gallery I finished setting up the fruit display and took a hold of the camera to shoot pictures for the night. I’ve recently shot photos for A Little Fawn, an episode we were filming for one of our television productions on Storefront TV.

Although I’m good at plugging away and doing logistical things, I love shooting. It’s so much fun for me to be in a crowd of people and catch reactions like laughter, conversations, and random things like someone twirling their mustache or taking a nap on the street—yes that happened (there was free wine, after all).

The gallery went from an intimate private opening, to a crowd of 300+ people coming in and out of the gallery, sweating, laughing, and merrily sipping wine. It was crazy—but controlled. Fighting the crowd was difficult, but the greatest challenge of the night was taking photos in 6-inch loafer heels and climbing up a stepladder for photos.

I left with my supervisor at 8pm to go to the private reception, and after another long trek in heels—carrying ice and seltzer—I shot more photos and was essentially done for the day.

I decided to take a Lyft home, and at 10:45 I arrived at my apartment. I collapsed on the bed, peeled my feet away from my shoes, and melted the layers of sweat off my skin in a steaming hot shower.

Nothing makes me feel more grateful than being able to rest and take care of myself. I’ve been so appreciative of the little things lately: like not having to wear flip-flops when I take a shower, having toilet paper, sunglasses… small things a lot of people aren’t privileged to have. I’m even incredibly thankful for this internship because I’ve learned so much! It’s given me a lot of insight into the non-profit arts sector and helped me see how all the logistics and planning fit together.

The photos I shot for Storefront for Art and Architecture’s, Measure, ft. 30 drawings from 30 architects around the world, is on display on our flickr page. You may view the photos here, but please enjoy the sampling attached to this post.

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Measure is now open and will be on display until September 12th, 2015. Our gallery space is located on 97 Kenmare St. in Nolita/SoHo. Please feel free to come, take pictures, and of course talk about it on social media using the hashtag #MeasureStorefront.

the beginning of farewell

Last week, I said goodbye to the brightest stars in my orbit after an immensely successful final week of class, against all odds! We had a huge set back early in the week. On our way up to the Bronx on Tuesday, Christy and I got a text from the teaching artist, Christina, that she left her purse containing the class hard drive with all of the interviews, materials, and animations…. on the train. Stress is an understatement.

The purse has yet to return, so we had to figure out how to work with what we had. We have audio from all of the interviews, some photos, and video from 2 of the interviews. So from there, Christina managed to come up with a plan to have the students produce all the art that we would need for the lapse in video. It was a really ambitious plan, but she organized the days really well and they got through all of the content!

This week I really started to see some of the compromises in learning that the CUP model necessitates. In exchange for a really polished, reusable product, the teaching artist has to take a really strong vision in the last stages of the project. There’s just not enough time in the projects to walk students through the process of writing a script and brainstorming ideas for what to film and create. They needed every last second to create the art that we needed for the video. I have no doubt that with a lot more time, they could have come up with awesome ideas to bring the information we gathered to life. Unfortunately, funding is already tight and extending the time means using more money.

This is going to be a problem in my project as well, I already know. Luckily, my overhead is a lot lower than CUP’s, since I don’t need to pay anyone. But I will be battling time, since Courtney, my host teacher, has a lot that she needs to cover in her curriculum. I can see a lot of the work that I’ll be doing between sessions as interpreting and packaging the generated materials to help students internalize the information during the time we have together. I guess my battle in the next few weeks of curriculum development/revision will be to pin-point what the most important learning goal is for the project so that I can make sure I’m trimming the right fat out of the process.

I’m going to save the sappy end-of-internship post for next week, after I’ve left New York and feel at my most intensely nostalgic. So be ready!

In the meantime, here are some excerpts from my snapchat story from the last few days of class. See you next time!


last day selfie!


hooray for civic engagement day!


my favorite doodle from the class… transit tales featuring the bean bag people.

It’s been a busy three weeks – Introductory Q&A, life as a NYC arts intern

Hello, Urbanter readers!


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Just being myself.

I’m one of the newest contributors to the blog. My name is Julia Espero and I’m an intern for Storefront for Art in Architecture this summer in NYC. I’ve been on the job since July 14 and I’d love to catch you up with my life thus far. Since so much has happened, I feel that a proper introduction is due. Just to have a little more fun with this intro and deviate from the typical format, I’ll provide an introspective Q&A with questions I gathered from my wonderful friends and family. To make this even more exciting, please submit your own questions in regards to my life, internship, thoughts, etc. in the comments below. My goal is to make this blog as interactive as possible so I’d love to communicate with you.

Q: What made you interested in art and urban studies?

A: I’d say I’ve always been very creative and artsy. I was home-schooled for several years before high school and I worked on a lot of arts and crafts and small projects that my mom and I just did for fun. Before I even started school I remember looking through my parents closet and finding my mom’s old high school art portfolio and there was this one very large and beautiful mono-chromatic blue portrait she painted of my dad in water colors. I remember being really impressed by that and telling myself I’d get good enough in my art practice to be able to create something as sentimentally valuable.

In high school I became more interested in art history and theory so I read a lot of books in my own time and continued to draw and paint in my own time. Since coming to Stanford I’ve really learned to appreciate arts as an academic subject through the courses I’ve taken, and I see the value in using art as a tool of communication with the general population.

As for urban studies, that was an interest that grew very organically out of  my interest in a variety of subject matter. I had a really hard time deciding whether I wanted to be more of a liberal arts or technical student, but Urban Studies is the right mix of all the things I love–design, social science, and politics.

Q: [As an urban studies major and an art minor], how do you think urban studies and art relate? How do you plan to connect the arts with the social discipline of Urban Studies?

I think art and urban studies have the potential to be parallel mirrors that reflect and magnify discourse.

I think the better an artist understands their environment and the world they live in, the more they can relate relevant work. I feel corporations and governments also have the potential to become more personable and relevant by utilizing design principles and valuing art.

Q: What has your internship taught you about the neighborhood you’re living in?

Through experience, I can say that New York City is such a happening and exciting place. I’ve always heard of this before, but after living in a variety of cities from San Francisco to Las Vegas, I think NYC is the best. Keep in mind that I’ve been here for only three weeks, but I still think it’s amazing how continuously engaged and inspired I feel by simply walking down the street. In just one block within the Lower East Side you can find hand-picked boutiques, local bookstores with shelves of hand made magazines, artisanal coffee shops, grocery stores teeming with different languages, etc. It can have the potential to feel overwhelming, but if you learn to swim in it, NYC is a very fun and energetic place to discover who you are and what you want to do.

Simply doing research on the artists we’re working with as a small gallery is really inspiring as well. These artists are the type of people who think of ridiculous things like covering themselves in q-tips and pouring colored dye all over themselves to look like an exotic bird–but then they actually do it and document it, and it’s really such a magical and humbling process to see. You can really see that everyone is like a little ant working towards a larger purpose.

Q: How have you been challenged by interning in a city you’ve never been to before?

I just want to explore everything; go all to the free concerts, try all the coffee shops, visit all the gallery openings–but there’s only so much time. I work from 11AM-6PM, Monday-Friday, so most days I go out and eat, hang out, and explore after work and by the time I come home it’s already 12AM. After that I work on my own personal projects for about an hour before I sleep. I wake up around an hour before my internship, and then go out and do it again. The weekends are very packed as well and it can feel really difficult to find self-reflective time which I think is really important to produce good work and find purpose in what I’m doing, so I try to make the most out of all the alone time I have.

Q: How do you envision practically applying what you’ve learned during your internship with your career goals?

I love learning everything and I’m a firm believer that careers are like clothing–you change them based upon your mood and what’s most convenient and comfortable at the time. I may be a communications and development intern at the moment, but I really enjoy the organization I’m working with because it’s so tight-knit and flexible, which then let’s me learn and discuss different topics and skills with a variety of people that come from different backgrounds. I think at this point in my life this internship will help me learn a lot about managing a non-profit organization and give me insight into the non-profit sector and the NYC art world. If anything, so far I’ve learned that I’d love to live in New York after college… but I’m definitely learning more each day–will update you as progress is made.

Want to know more? Ask your questions in the comments! I’ll be answering questions every Wednesday from now on–so ask away!

Julia Espero

Social Media

Instagram: @juliaiespero

Youtube: @Snazzlet

Wrapping up (Week 8)

It’s hard to believe, as always at the end of something you weren’t waiting for, but it’s already my last week at BBB and of the Urban Studies Fellowship period. The past weeks really had a great routine and rhythm going, and now as we approach the end that rhythm is breaking into all kinds of new energy.

In the last few weeks I’ve been finishing up some design projects and meanwhile getting some good time in with the neighborhood kids!

We give the crew a little task every day so that they can finish their second kid-sized bamboo bike together. This day they helped each other measure and align their bamboo before sawing for the next few days.

I also got to support another one of our interns, Yuyuan, in putting on an extra workshop for some of the 5th grade kids in the community. There have always been BBB’ers who have suggested using our leftover bamboo for crafts and even bike accessories like baskets and racks, so Yuyuan took charge of organizing an instructive morning crafting workshop. She partnered with the local neighborhood committee, which is required to host events that fall under certain banners for the community and was all too happy to make phone calls to the families in the area with kids of the right age range. They presented the workshop as part of the community’s 环保 (huanbao / environmental protection) programming. Yuyuan allowed the kids to split into groups and taught three simple bamboo crafts to warm them up: pen/chopstick holders, flowerpots, and windchimes. From there it was an intergenerational free-for-all, with kids, their parents, and grandparents helping each other saw, drill, and paint.

The main takeaway I had from this event was that speaking the language of your community is everything! This project was originally one that I was taking ownership of, and it was being proposed to a bilingual research group as more of a design-thinking and somewhat mechanics oriented project. That would have been taught in English to an English-speaking group, and probably would have worked out fine that way except that it didn’t end up happening. It was amazing to see Yuyuan adapt bring this kind of activity to the kids in the community, which feels more in line with the spirit of BBB anyway. She presented everything in Chinese to her Chinese-speaking audience, and everyone else took a supporting role. I think this was key to the whole activity’s success in the end– often we are able to offer some kind of service or workshop in English to primarily Chinese-speakers, and they often seem to run smoothly, but it never feels like both parties fully sink into the activities and community at hand when that kind of language dynamic is at play.

Last night, we held a year-in-review dinner, which gathered all the BBB leaders of the past year or more since it all started in March 2014. It was a time for a leadership hand-off, lots of reflection on the past and future direction of BBB, and most of all, continual recognition and appreciation for all the people in the room. There was a no-crying rule, and some people followed it. I was reminded how important it is to spend time and space recognizing what people do, and to be emotionally invested in any work that we do.

BBB leaders, with many not present. An amazing group of people who all joined on at different times and kept coming back to volunteer time for any number of reasons. This was one of the first times we got everyone together talking big questions like this.

BBB leaders, with many not present. An amazing group of people who all joined on at different times and kept coming back to volunteer time for any number of reasons. This was one of the first times we got everyone together talking big questions like this.

"Bodystorming" to generate ideas of what the future of BBB is hoped to look like. Might look a little wishy-washy from this photo considering that I'm supposed to be a flying bicycle--but truly a helpful activity to generate insights and discussion!

“Bodystorming” to generate ideas of what the future of BBB is hoped to look like. Might look a little wishy-washy from this photo considering that I’m supposed to be a flying bicycle–but truly a helpful activity to generate insights and discussion!

During the meeting we also spent some time revising a mission-statement-in-progress and translating it into Chinese. As it stands, version 0.1, which has not been released yet, focuses on empowering and teaching people to think with their hands together and build a community that is part of a new mobility culture. As we discussed the current mission statement, I kept recalling the first blog post I wrote when I got here. I feel just as strongly as I did then that the space currently fulfills the empowering and community aspects of its mission statement, but what’s new is an even stronger sense of what a community can be in a city like Beijing. Although most of the communication among those in the community is virtual over WeChat, people at the dinner kept on stressing the importance of being called together in person to work together. The workshop as a physical space has always felt somewhat magical, and my experience in it every day is that the people there are trying to raise each other up. Everyone shows up to help everyone else be better and believe in each other, and not only in terms of hands-on learning, as the mission statement might have one believe. I feel so moved and grateful to have been able to show up there every day so far this summer, and I truly hope that any readers who get the chance to visit the workshop in Beijing will get to soak in this sense of collective belonging as well.

Thank you so much to Deland, my wonderful advisor over the last few weeks, and the Urban Studies Fellowship and community for making this incredible learning journey possible. I never forget how lucky I and we are to have opportunities like this!

Happy summer,

a mish-mash of feels & happenings

I turned 21 last week! It’s a weird thing to have a landmark birthday thousands of miles away from the majority of people who care about you, but it makes it easy for me to see the people in my life that are truly the realest. I’m always humbled and thankful for the immense amounts of love that I have in my life.

Things with my project have been slowly but steadily creeping forward. I finally(!!!!) nailed down a teacher that is willing to host me in their classroom, which was a huge relief for me. I’ll be in a World History class with 10th graders, which is already changing my plans quite a bit. Learning about the actual history of the world changed my life and my mind has been buzzing with all of the ways we’ll be able to teach and learn and collaborate this upcoming fall.

I’ve been sitting in on out-of-classroom meetings and curriculum development sessions with Christy and Christina, the teaching artist for the Bronx, and just observing has been really helpful in thinking about what works and what doesn’t. One thing that Christy repeats over and over again is that you only have students’ attention for at maximum 2 minutes of straight talking. Lecturing and powerpointing at high school students is completely ineffective, unless it’s done in an intentionally collaborative manner. And you have to be REALLY, really clear with instruction. It’s a really powerful intention to want to co-create knowledge with the students, but as the teacher, you still need to have structures so that we all know where we’re headed. More importantly, so that at the very end of all the activities, students are receiving both the knowledge that they uncovered, and the knowledge that will help them better critically acknowledge their world.

It’s a hard line to walk. How much direction is too much? Watching Christina teach has been great because she’s not an expert, so I can see where things can change or be more or less collaborative in any given moment. But she’s also brilliant! Her activities are really creative and innovative, and push my limits of what I think our students are capable of.

Last thing: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it’s going to be like coming back to Palo Alto. It kind of makes me want to throw up.

Stanford has afforded me so, so many blessings. The best friends I’ve ever made, life lessons, school lessons, mentors, perspective, this internship, my health, food and shelter for the last three years of my life – I will always owe a debt to my university.

But Palo Alto has never been my heart’s home. When I’m at school, I drive off campus almost every weekend in search of new dumplings, people whose accomplishments don’t come with a piece of paper to validate them, the thick mixture of accents of all kinds that echo through the memories of my childhood. New York, for all of the things that I love and absolutely can’t stand about this place, has pulled me a little closer to the place that I think I’m looking for – and in turn, has pulled my heart even further away from the alienating perfection of the bubble.

I’ve been doing a really weird dual-feeling countdown. Three weeks left until I reunite with my family, my friends, and my boyfriend, all of whom I miss very dearly. Three weeks left in this perplexing, magical, and altogether overwhelming place. That weird mix of savoring every day, while also willing them to pass… bittersweet at its finest.

Til next time, when I’m sure my nostalgia for my New York will begin to start hitting me before I’ve even left.

adulting sans profit

This past weekend, I did something pretty out of character. I found myself in a eucalyptus-scented room heated to 95 degrees with 30 other people bending myself into weird positions and wondering about all the choices I made that brought me to this place. Yep. Hot yoga. I was there on a free trial, but the other poor souls in the room had each forked out $22 for the class. While I was signing up for the class, I immediately ran through all of the things that I could do with the $66 per week that these people spend to sweat (and like, for their health and stuff).

I could have 4 dinners out in New York. Probably 5 in Las Vegas. 3 in Palo Alto. I could buy a one-way ticket from San Francisco to Las Vegas to see my family. I could buy 4 awesome dresses or two pairs of shoes that I would wear until they were threadbare.

And those are the luxury things – as for my necessities… that’s two days of rent at my current apartment. That’s my entire car insurance payment. 10 trips by car to Independence High School to teach. 33 trips on the subway. 1.5 weeks worth of groceries to feed myself.

But I really liked the hot yoga class. It made me feel refreshed, centered in my body, and clear-headed for the first time in months. I seriously hate exercising, but this class was a revelation.

Now, back to the internship: in the office, there are some jokes about how little non-profit life pays, the high rate of turnover and career changes, and how the only way people can hack it is if they’re really, really passionate… or they have a sugar daddy.

Here comes the point: I work at a non-profit. I’m probably going to work at non-profits for a large portion of my career. That’s the unpleasantly too-true description of my reality.

For a long time, I joked about how I was always going to be poor and I was okay with that. I’ve got more than my fair share of anti-capitalist sentiments, and I kind of felt like being successful but poor was going to be my lifelong F U to the system.

My revelation this week was that I am a selfish, ridiculous child and it’s time for a new plan. Am I going to subject my children to poverty so that I can have my untarnished moral high horse? Am I going to be that woman who relies on their partner to do the dirty work of being financially successful so I can pretend like I’m above it? Am I going to pretend like that view is going to work for more than the first five years out of college, and like it’s not going to end up with me inevitably “selling out” into a higher paying career, where I can afford to take hot yoga classes AND eat dinner?

That’s not the person I want to be. I want to work to help show people that this is not martyr work. It’s not the extra stuff. It’s absolutely essential and it should be a sustainable career path for those who want to give their lives to service. So… this week, I’ll be looking into non-exploitative paths for personal finance and find out how to make the absolute most of my meager resources. I’m going to find the most compassionate pathway through our capitalistic reality so that I can spend my life working all the while towards something better.

Oh yeah, and I’m signing up for a hot yoga studio in Brooklyn. It’s kind of a revolutionary act in context, right?

Hutongs and Supercities

The New York Times recently published an article titled “As Beijing Becomes a Supercity, the Rapid Growth Brings Pains.” The article opens with a story in one of Beijing’s sleeper towns, Yanjiao, in which a 62-year old retiree gets in a bus line at 5:30 AM every day to save a spot for his son who will take the spot an hour later and squeeze into the bus for a 3-hour commute into Beijing. The story is meant to typify the commuting experiences of those in Beijing’s ever-growing exurbs, which are residential communities separate from actual job centers. The article then segues into a description of Jing-Jin-Ji, a newly planned supercity with a land area over six times that of New York City, which will link the main urban hubs in Beijing, Tianjin, and Hebei province by high-speed rail and re-organize job centers by industry in each city. By spatially redistributing job opportunities, and even the city government, planners hope to alleviate the stresses experienced by Beijing’s growing commuter population, perhaps as well as the air and the trafficked streets.

City of Yanjiao, by the New York Times

City of Yanjiao, by the New York Times

Seeing the photos of Yanjiao brought to mind the huge contrasts that can be found in juxtaposition all over the city. My daily reality looks so different from this image, but it doesn’t take too long of a bike ride outward to be reminded that most hutongs have been demolished outside the Second Ring Road, and residential and business high-rises often dominate entire regions.

Hutongs, for those who are not familiar, refer to the narrow alleys of low, courtyard-style buildings that have most prominently been associated with Beijing. While they used to cover the entire city, most have been demolished in the past decades to make way for new development, and many of the remaining hutong areas have been remodeled and designated as protected cultural areas. Having mostly visited the popular tourist-attracting hutongs in past visits to Beijing, I now get a very different glimpse of life in hutongs afforded by routine. Every day I turn left on my bike from a busy street into the alleyway, and immediately the sound landscape changes completely. The sounds of car traffic disappear completely, and instead I hear bike tire swishings on the pavement and chatter between vendors and pedestrians. So many services are concentrated here that you don’t need to go far out of the neighborhood to find three print shops, or housewares, and neither do these small businesses need to be listed on Baidu maps for those outside of the neighborhood to find. The business owners often live in their own shops, so they stay put and deliver friendly greetings. Though this behavior is unique to warmer months, many social activities are conducted right on the street, on stoops and on small plastic chairs–majhong games, children’s card games, hair washing, vegetable markets. Residents can often be seen treating the street like an indoor living room, feeling comfortable using power tools to attach fixtures on the concrete walls and into the asphalt roads. I also don’t mean to paint a totally idyllic picture. The streets of this hutong in particular are just wide enough for the width of two cars, so there are often rows of cars parked up and down the alley while other cars squeeze through the remaining space, forcing everyone else on the street to interrupt their activities and move out of the way. From what I understand, new walls have gone up in past years and blocked off certain buildings and paths from others. Still, the type of social life enabled by the built environment and distribution of services seems to mirror much of what the U.S. New Urbanist model of urban design aims for, and the process of placemaking is often seen in action by residents using their own tools on the streets. All of it may seem a world away from the Times’ descriptions of Yanjiao, but it’s worth considering that hutongs themselves, often seen as a totally organic and grassroots built environment, were also master-planned by emperors during and before the Yuan Dynasty, and even in top-down planned cities like Yanjiao, we see pictures of citizens programming the public space in their own ways, such as the scene in the article depicting women doing their morning plaza dance.

Old Beijing Hutongs by Jiri Tondl. This view of the rooftops of a hutong neighborhood should give an idea of how narrow the alleyways between are!

Old Beijing Hutongs by Jiri Tondl. This view of the rooftops of a hutong neighborhood should give an idea of how narrow the alleyways between are!

Hutong Life by Beijing Xingang, showing some of the social life of the neighborhood street.

Hutong Life by Beijing Xingang, showing some of the social life of the neighborhood street.

What “Engineering and Social Justice” pedagogies may have in common with Urban Studies

Hello and happy halfway point of the Urban Studies Fellowship period!

The last two weeks I’ve been sinking deep into the nitty gritty of a few design projects as well as bike building and other kinds of bamboo building, so much so that when it came time to write this post I felt like I suddenly woke up in a new reality, one that prodded me loudly and asked, “Wait, what have you done that is worth sharing on an Urban Studies blog? Why are you doing what you’re doing, again?” Very good question to be asking often, it turns out, because as with any task it becomes easy to lose sight of bigger pictures when you get immersed in your work.

This question is familiar to me from being in school. I had a late introduction to Urban Studies at the end of my sophomore year, at which point I was a Mechanical Engineering major, and since then I have been attempting to combine the two majors in an individually designed major in engineering. There is a constant need to justify the existence of this major to administrators, in other words to find and articulate the relevance of each discipline to the other. In the past year, I’ve not found so many instances of technical knowledge and practice from engineering classes translating in any significant way to the questions we ask in Urban Studies classes, but I have found so-called Urban Studies or social sciences questions important in interrogating the kind of engineering work that I, my peers, professors, and others in the area are engaging in, namely: What really is the agenda of this project? Who does it benefit, and who does it exclude? Should it be done in the first place? As a side note, the leaders of BBB come from Anthropology and English backgrounds and are constantly asking these questions of their work. Furthermore, they don’t consider any of the work they do as “engineering,” even though it would fit that label by some standard definitions of the discipline (as opposed to the profession.) I find the labels we use for technical design and manufacture work to be interesting (engineering vs maker vs DIY) in the context of this quote by Donna Riley from her series of lectures called “Engineering and Social Justice”:

“The profession of engineering in the United States has historically served the status quo, feeding an ever-expanding materialistic and militaristic culture, remaining relatively unresponsive to public concerns, and without significant pressure for change from within. This book calls upon engineers to cultivate a passion for social justice and peace and to develop the skill and knowledge set needed to take practical action for change within the profession. Because many engineers do not receive education and training that support the kinds of critical thinking, reflective decision-making, and effective action necessary to achieve social change, engineers concerned with social justice can feel powerless and isolated as they remain complicit…”

Why would this be the status quo? I see value in comparing the engineering education process at BBB versus traditional engineering education in schools. (By engineering I’m specifically referring to mechanical, to avoid overgeneralizing.) In schools you learn the core curriculum first — one that establishes a base set of standardized knowledge that can lead to a certification, and one that Riley argues originated in and continues to be funded by the military and private defense contractors — and then you work on “real-life” projects, which often does mean a majority of job opportunities at defense contractors, if college job fairs are any indication. Once funneled into these systems of management, Riley argues, it is near impossible to question the nature of the work you are doing.

I see an opposite model at play at BBB, which essentially started with one person who wanted to teach others to build bamboo bikes so that they would love and feel ownership of their chosen form of urban transportation, and then built the necessary engineering skills around that goal. To me, it is significant that the organization makes a specific engineering education accessible to anyone who walks into the door, instead of keeping it gated in what is often seen as an elite field of knowledge. (Some might argue, What you’re doing isn’t engineering, it’s Making. And some magazines say about BBB, “It’s not exactly a Maker Space.” There’s contention over these terms, the low-down for me is that at BBB you design, you CAD, you manufacture, and you constantly refine the inefficiencies in the manufacturing process for multiple people. You need to use an intuitive rather than textbook understanding of materials, stress, and failure. So to me, for all intensive purposes, BBB is a kind of engineering education workshop.) Secondly, it truly is a site in which what we build is constantly being interrogated: who is it for? Are these the people we want to reach? If the answers to these questions don’t align with the mission statement, then the project is rejected. Much of this ability to question and be flexible obviously comes from the small size and structure of the organization, but it’s still been a valuable lesson in bringing some of Riley’s ideas about transforming engineering pedagogy to life, and much mirrors what I’ve seen done in Urban Studies classes.

More questions that have come out of this reading: How does the concept of social justice change in a Chinese versus U.S. context? What does urban mobility mean here versus the U.S.? I come across these questions as there is bountiful literature and language surrounding social justice, transportation justice, and urban mobility in the U.S., mostly concerned with centering the needs of those who have been most marginalized by the racially codified planning histories of U.S. cities. As Chinese cities formed out of very different planning policies and histories, there seems to be a much different language in the (academic) literature around just transport and mobility, namely that the words used are never “social justice” but “sustainability” and “social equity.” What does this difference tell us about what the important questions are to ask of Chinese cities’ mobility futures (and histories)? What is the starting point to identify these questions? Some food for thought, and if you have feedback, I’d love to hear it!

measuring genius

Thanks for all the love on my last blog post! I don’t think I really fully stated my views, but that was a bit of catharsis that I definitely needed to start moving forward with my project. And, ironically, last week, I started assisting in the Bronx with our Urban Investigation. Christina, the teaching artist, is really awesome. She’s so different from the students, is probably the most amazing thing to me. Oftentimes, I think of teachers needing to relate. Christina has a background in fine art and performance art – she has a billion degrees and is off to Harvard to get another one in the fall. She’s both academic and artistic, and that blends to be a presence that is pretty different than our vivacious students. However, I feel like contrary to pushing them away, the contrast between them draws the students in. It’s been great to work with her.

Speaking of the students: they are truly, truly incredible. They are lively, engaged, hilarious, and outrageously creative. They are amazingly critical thinkers and leaders. I honestly think they are the most intelligent group of high school students I have ever worked with. And you know what? They all live in the Bronx. Some of them immigrated to the United States as recently as 2 months ago. Many of them are English Language Learners. And wow, are they incredible. In the past week, I have watched them create storyboards, produce a stop motion animation, conduct and film a professional interview, ask critical questions about race and inequality, and endlessly surprise the whole teaching team with new ideas and perspectives.

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editing their animation together on premiere.

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christina helping a group with steadying the camera.

kacey, daryl, and javi shooting their penguin transit puppet stop motion animation!

kacey, daryl, and javi shooting their penguin transit puppet stop motion animation!

We went on a field trip to Grand Central station on the third day of class. We barely even had to supervise them in Grand Central. Every group was on task, got through their visual scavenger hunt, and was back in our designated meeting spot right on time at 11:45am. This never happens. Students are never all back in the meeting spot on time. And yet, here they were!

On the train ride back, I had a lengthy conversation about inequality and success with two of the students, Deanna and Kacey. I was barely doing any educating. When Deanna mentioned that “successful” people were more capable of taking means of transport other than the subway, the thought had barely entered my mind to ask her to think more on her definition of “successful” when Kacey piped in to do just that and push back on societal standards of success. Like, what? It took me until my sophomore year of college to really start vigorously questioning my environment in the way that obviously has come so naturally to them out of their circumstance.

I find myself coming back to question the ways in which we measure the “achievement gap”. Before this summer, I often found myself still falling back into this type of deficit mindset often – seeking the ways in which students are underperforming to the standards. It is in those moments that I felt most uncomfortable at Stanford. Because at Stanford, I am shown statistics and pictures and graphs about how students of color are failing in every single one of my classes, every day, I have a moment where I think about how I can change them to better fit what these old folks want out of them.

One of my goals was to abandon this deficit mindset for good, and I think that my students in the Bronx have been essential in helping me do that. I know that when I am with my students, I do not see their failures. I do not see low test scores and the ways in which they are eternally not performing white enough. I see their triumphs and their resilience. I see the incredible amount of love and care in their homes, and the inhuman amount of work that their parents and other loving adult figures do to provide enough for them to succeed.

With my next three weeks with them, I can only hope I to give them even a fraction of the perspective that they have given me.

the jury is out (and they ain’t coming back)

As I mentioned in my bio & post from a few weeks ago, I’m working on my senior capstone project for Urban Studies concurrently with my internship at CUP. Here’s the abstract for my project so you can get a handle on the topic:

Monument to Change is a community-based project that seeks to empower youth through hands-on engagement in the investigation of their communities. The intended learning outcome of this project is to empower youth with the knowledge of how to create change in their communities through participation in the civic process. To accomplish this, students will investigate a mode of change and historically how change has been made and continues to be made in their spaces (both figuratively and literally), whether that be a neighborhood, their school, or more widely in their city.

After a few weeks of working on these projects, I’ve had to start thinking about my fundamental goals for the project and how my project differs structurally and idealistically from the CUP model.

At CUP, the teaching artists do most of the teaching on youth ed projects. The benefits of having an artist as a central part of the project is clear in the beautiful and amazingly educative materials that are produced through CUP projects. These tools make sure that the information lives on as a resource for students and teachers.

TA dillon & students from ichs on set of Now Boarding!

Some of these artists come into the program with teaching experience and that’s preferred, but some of them don’t have any teaching experience. I would pile myself into this category of untrained or informally trained educator, since I have not gone through a teacher training program. Because of this, the process of curriculum design and revision is pretty intense, and most of the revision is done by CUP staff. Christy, the Youth Ed program director, taught art for 10 years at a public high school, and is absolutely incredible. Her edits on the curriculum are invaluable, and her feedback to teaching artists after observation is truly transformative on their teaching. Urban Investigations are primarily after-school programs and the work is more centered on creativity and observation than critical content research. Because of this, paired with the strong mentorship and feedback mechanisms from CUP, I think that the use of a non-teacher educator works well in this context.

For my project, I’ll be teaching in a classroom during the normal school day, as part of a required academic class. My curriculum is based in a lot of critical content research and texts. And recently, I had to confront that some of the mechanisms for feedback and co-creation of curriculum that I had tried to establish at the onset of my project were now falling through. Now, that is an entirely different monumental can of worms.

There are some pretty strong views about classroom teachers in this country. There’s this widespread narrative that our teachers are failing our children in America. Many people who have watched Waiting for Superman think that our school system is failing because of the tenure system, and that the solution is to fire 80% of the ‘underperforming’ teacher workforce and hire new educators. Some people say that we should fill these vacancies via the Teach for America model, which says that with a strong undergraduate education, a few weeks of training, and bright youthful energy, you too(!) can be a great teacher. (Are my politics showing yet?) There’s an overwhelming narrative that teaching is something that anyone can do.

To me, herein lies the problem. Great teachers and those on track to become great teachers, have years of specialized training and education on teaching. They learn the complete pedagogy of teaching in their subject area – the ins and outs of what educative activities look like, fair assessments, how to structure a lesson plan, how to lead a discussion… the more I learn about teaching, the more amazed I am that I have had teachers who make it look effortless. They have a unique and specialized skill set, in the same way that other professionals do. Not just anyone can teach.

To put this in context, would someone let me function as a pediatrician before attending med school? Would I be able to practice law without passing the bar? And yet, I am let in front of our most malleable minds, to teach them how to see and exert their presence in the world, with basically no credential at all. In fact, people often applaud me for this act.

I am guilty. So why did I even embark on this whole thing in the first place?

I often call myself an ~educator~ in a really nebulous way when probed. Really, that’s my way of saying i have no idea what i’m doing but i guess i’m doing it anyway. It’s my way of dodging the question about what my presence as a 20-year-old-with-no-teaching-credential means when I’m in front of a classroom. For those of you tapping your chins, don’t worry – I, too, call this hypocrisy.

Here is my truth: we have textbooks that fail to illustrate the immigrant experience, that hide injustices under rhetoric of democracy, and conveniently leave out the ways in which the struggle is still ongoing, the ways in which the history in the text has shaped the experience of those reading it. If there is failure in our system, it is with standards of success that are rooted in systems of oppression and too often fail to prompt meaningful civic engagement in students after they leave school.

Justice. Empowerment. Resistance. Those are the values at the root of my project and at the root of what I believe makes an education go from useful to transformative. My students deserve to know how to stand up for themselves when they are denied their rights. They deserve to feel like they matter in the eyes of their government. Above all, my students deserve to know how to seek justice for themselves.

Despite how much I have thought through my impact, I understand that I still may do more harm than good. But so many teachers are overworked and underpaid. They have a million people to please, between parents, administration, and the ever critical public. Must they bear the complete burden of this as well? Maybe it’s my place to be the outsider who focuses on this issue and pushes, just a little bit, because I have been afforded the privilege to do so.

I don’t really know. The jury might always be out.

In the meantime, I’ll get to work.


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