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Validating the Immigrant Experience through Design

Artist and urban educator James Rojas of Place It was the keynote speaker at the League’s Future Bike conference. While in Pittsburgh, James also facilitated a planning workshop with community members. He shares his thoughts in this guest post.

 Validating immigrants’ and refugees’ lived experiences is critical to engaging and integrating them into the bike movement. Having them reveal who they are, where they come from, and what they value is the first step in building this relationship.

As part of Future Bike, the League of American Bicyclists partnered with Casa San Jose, a community resource center that supports Latino neighbors in need, to plan a Place It bilingual workshop in Pittsburgh. The workshop’s goal was to develop a new public engagement tool targeting previously overlooked stakeholders — and how to integrate those perspectives to redefine and grow the bike movement. 

Bike advocates, service providers, and dozens of refugees and immigrants from Latin America and Bhutan gathered in a government building’s basement in downtown Pittsburgh to participate in the workshop. The number of the families in the room was a testament to the organizing work of Casa San Jose’s Joanna Bernstein, who drew on her relationships of trust with community members to get them out for the workshop.

The room was transformed into a temporary art and design studio with families gathered at clustered tables and choosing modeling supplies from thousands of recycled objects such as hair rollers, buttons, yarn, shiny beads, pipe cleaners, blocks, and other things. We created a safe space for people to imagine, investigate, construct, and reflect on their own biketopia.

Even before the workshop started the participants’ children began tinkering with the mountains of small objects placed in front of them. This was a great start to the two-hour, high-energy, interactive workshop.

We began with no discussion, map, or PowerPoint presentation; rather, the participants were asked to complete a simple task: Build your favorite childhood memory in fifteen minutes. Everyone was encouraged to take part in this icebreaker activity, which is intended to minimize social barriers. Participants were assured that there were no right or wrong answers, which allowed them to think freely and to take ownership of the process. In addition this short period of time allowed them to build the physical details and social interactions that created those memories.

The grownups hesitated more than their kids had, perhaps because they were a little unsure of this new approach to learning. But once the builders started to seek out, touch, and explore the material in front of them, the creative process began. They started by choosing pieces that they liked, based on color, shape or texture. These objects would help them reconstruct an activity or experience from their lives.

The builders gathered pieces and brought them back to their tables, picking up speed once they’d laid out a few objects on the construction paper. Their hands began to move furiously as their ideas and designs became more developed and elaborate. Many participants went back to the materials to gather additional objects. For the next ten minutes the participants worked in a meditative state, reflecting upon their childhoods.

After ten minutes the flurry of activity slowed down as people became satisfied with their models. They began to talk, look around at the other dioramas created by their colleagues, and to pull out their cell phones to take pictures of their beautiful models.

Once everyone had completed building their memory, they were told to stop building. The fun and informative part of the exercise was about to begin, when everyone would present their childhood memory to the group. They were asked to state their name, the place, and activity of the memory, all in one minute. A one-minute presentation maintains the flow of the exercise by keeping the narratives short and allowing for shy people to participate.

The builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling, entertaining stories, which they illustrated through the objects, colors, textures, and layouts of their models. Everyone listened with enthusiasm to these visceral, vivid memories. The group members began to learn about each other by sharing these stories and began to bond through common themes.

The participants came from various parts of the world and from both urban and rural settings. Despite these differences, they discovered that as children they had a deep relationship with other people and with the environment through physical activity. From playing in refugee camps to hiding in the jungles of Guatemala from soldiers, the remembered children sought fun, intimacy, shelter, adventure, and challenges in the environment.

Sharing these found memories with each other brought the group together because they exposed personal insights into their lives. Through this activity participants were able to personalize the planning process based on their experiences and creative expression. This approach gave everyone access to the exercise and is important to building the bike movement:

  • Autonomy
  • Self-discovery
  • Legitimacy 

In addition, this method developed skills crucial to urban planning, such as critical thinking, creative problem-solving, collaboration, and civic literacy. In acknowledging that they had these skills, we supported their contribution to the planning process. Everyone has something to share and contribute. 

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