On a hot summer afternoon in a rough neighborhood in South Chicago, a group of local teenage girls picked up power tools for the first time and started to transform a vacant lot into a new playground. As they worked, others in the community came up to help—everyone from gang members to cops—until the playground was ready for play.
The project was part of the Tiny WPA program from the organization Public Workshop, which looks for ways that youth can make a unique contribution to the design of their neighborhoods, not just by doing a little volunteer work, but by doing something meaningful that adults might not necessarily be able to. Because the girls were from the community (and because they were female, and seen as non-threatening by gang members), they inspired the whole neighborhood to take action.
Tiny WPA projects (named for the New Deal Works Progress Administration, which paid for civic improvements and art during the Depression) have included school redesigns, more playgrounds, new bus stops in Flint, Michigan, and a bright green tree-inspired shade canopy at a farmers market in North Philadelphia. Like the name suggests, each project is a small-scale creative intervention. While a design-build project often takes just a couple of weeks, they always happen in partnership with deeply-rooted local organizations who do what Public Workshop’s founder Alex Gilliam calls "the slow work" of long-term engagement.
Each project happens in full public view, so the students can get feedback and motivation, and, like the playground in Chicago, inspire their neighbors.
"We're wired to copy one another," Gilliam says. "When you’re visibly making and doing, it’s infectious. Couple that with the fact that we often see this attitude that 'If a kid can do it, why can’t I?' It’s a really powerful thing. It’s especially powerful when the result is design that has another bottom line from simply beautifying—it's meeting a legitimate need in that community. And when it’s stuff that no one thinks is possible—whether that’s aesthetically or structurally—that totally changes the conversation."
The work isn’t easy. Last summer, a project at a struggling school in Chicago was delayed as the principal lurched from crisis to crisis; by the time the project started, summer school was over, and the group had lost the community they needed for full participation.
Students are often resistant at the beginning, since they’re used to being told what to do, and the process with Tiny WPA is open-ended and iterative: They’re asked to jump in and start building, failing, and building again. But they quickly adjust, Gilliam says. At the end of the first week of one project, after giving students a page to fill in that said "The hardest thing was ..." one student wrote, "The hardest thing was building through play when I never got to do that as a kid. But if I’d had this experience when I was younger, it would have been transformative."
Along with the design-build projects, Public Workshop is also encouraging students to pursue other design work. At a maker space in Philadelphia they call the Department of Making and Doing, the group has started working with students to identify local problems to solve. Teenagers working with a food bank, for example, were given $75 and a couple of days to find and solve a problem. They ended up making everything from a sturdier bag for delivering food, to sweatshirts to help market the program in the community, to a 3-D printed trophy to help honor volunteers.
While the program gives students a chance to design, Gilliam also points out that sometimes it's just as valuable to give kids the opportunity to work even if it’s as simple as painting or a little repair. He points to a project 10 years ago that helped launch Tiny WPA at a struggling school in rural Alabama.
"Students were so embarrassed by the school that they wouldn’t mention its name in public, and in fact, they’d tried to burn it down twice," Gilliam says. He went into the project with visions of redesigning everything, but then realized that students were excited to start even with the simplest improvements, like scraping old paint. As they worked, teachers told him they'd never thought the students would do that type of work; they hadn't seen them that way.
"That was a powerful moment where I thought everything needs to be about making and doing—and finding those moments in cities where young adults can have a contribution—because look what’s happening just with this simple stuff," Gilliam says. "I realized my failure of imagination of thinking that kids would find value in just painting, and I think that is endemic in society. How can we see peeling paint as an opportunity? How can we see that unloved bus stop as an opportunity? We can rethink education and rethink the role that youth can play in cities."