Most BCL blogs shine a light on the learning experience by spotlighting students' voices. Along with recent posts, Purpose & Audience and Why Synthesize?, this piece is part of an intermittent series that pulls back the curtain on BCL theory and practice.
Each semester, after an early phase of community-building and onboarding, we dive into studying the city itself. The place we call home is immediately accessible, relevant, and interesting. It also invites both systems thinking and an inquiry mindset. But that’s not all. Studying city systems also provides a rich opportunity to apply an equity lens. Social Justice is one of BCL’s core themes, and once students see it, it’s suddenly visible everywhere.
Consider transportation. When students are first asked to consider how people move around Burlington, they begin to describe streets and cars and buses… However once we apply an equity lens, the entire system comes into focus. Students know from their own experience that the system works better for some people than it does for others; they’ve just never been invited to tell that story, nor to be curious about how deep the inequities run. In early February, BCL10 students spent time digging into these questions.
To frame our study, Peggy O’Neill-Vivanco, from Vermont Clean Cities Coalition, introduced students to the 8|80 City. The idea is simple: If we design our cities for 8 year-olds and 80 year-olds, then those cities are actually healthier, safer, and more sustainable for everyone. In this design framework, our youngest and our oldest residents are “indicator species.” If those two groups are thriving, then we all are thriving. If they aren’t thriving, then our city is hurting its most marginalized – and everyone suffers.
Students took to the streets of the Old North End, holding pencils and an 8|80 City Audit. In small groups, they analyzed broken sidewalks, confusing intersections, and treacherous bus stops (most of which were piled high with ice, forcing commuters to wear crampons, or risk injury). They timed crosswalks, and watched as bikers navigated streets with inconsistent bike lanes. It didn’t take long before students saw with their own eyes that despite our best efforts, Burlington is still primarily designed for cars.
Next, students headed up the hill, to explore archival materials housed at UVM Special Collections. Research Guide and Vermont Studies specialist, Prudence Doherty, curated dozens of 19th century maps, archival photographs, and postcards. Students were immediately enthralled. It was actually hard to get everyone’s attention, to introduce our community partner, as everyone scoured the maps at their table to find where their house or apartment would have been in 1890, 0r in 1830.
With a firmer grip on both the present and the past, BCL10 students were ready to play a lead role in a series of public dialogues. Our goal was to animate the idea of the 8|80 City for a variety of stakeholders, and to amplify the voices of those at the margins: 8 year-olds and 80 year-olds. To do this, we partnered with 4th graders at Burlington’s Sustainability Academy, an elementary magnet school just down the street from our O.N.E. Community Center classroom, and with Seniors from the CORE Adult Center. And while students could have been the only recipients of these two groups’ insights, we wanted to add both purpose and audience…so we invited ten community partners from across the Burlington civic and transportation sectors to join us as witnesses. The goal was to use BCL10 students’ empathy questions to spotlight the lived experience of the system’s end-users, and for systems decision-makers to listen more deeply to the voices of those at the margins.
Questions for the 4th graders included:
- How do you feel when you cross the street?
- Is it easy to get to school?
- Do you feel safe where you walk? Are you aware of any danger?
- Do you find the sidewalks easy to use?
- Do you feel safe traveling alone?
- How long of a walk is too long?
- How do you use your bike in the city?
Questions for Seniors included:
- Are places you want to go (like stores) close enough together that you can easily walk to them?
- How important is driving for you in Burlington? (How often do you drive? How often do you get a ride from a friend or family member?)
- Do you find the bus accessible?
- Do you think the state of the infrastructure (roads, etc.) is safe?
- How do the seasons impact how you get around the city?
- How does our transportation system impact people with disabilities?
- Do you have enough time to cross the road?
- How long of a walk is too long?
As the hour unfolded, patterns emerged in both locations. Seniors discussed their frustrations with the buses. Their concerns ranged from culture and tone to the feeling that the timetable is often more important than safety. (Buses began rolling, they said, before they were able to find their seat.) They also discussed the need for clearer information and communication. Overall, there was a feeling of voicelessness, and a hunger to be seen and heard. If a successful meeting is measured by the number of passionate conversations in the room at the moment the gathering is adjourned, then it was a rousing success indeed.
Meanwhile, the 4th graders discussed the danger of intersections. One child eloquently described how when cars are moving, they are predictable, but when they are stopped at a stop sign they are more dangerous. (Another student chimed in, saying “Cars stop at red lights, but they don’t stop at stop signs.”) Other themes included the fear of moving around after dark, the wish for stores to be closer, and the importance of sidewalks. In Ms. Lucey’s class, a boy began to dream out loud about a levitating bike lane that would hover over the whole city. What began as an offbeat riff soon gelled into a powerful insight: bikes need to be separated from cars.
Unsurprisingly, BCL10 students were remarkably impressive. With the Seniors, some of whose frustration was palpable, students were kind and supportive. With the 4th graders, whose responses ranged both in volume and in depth, BCL10 students were patient and warm. No matter what the energy was in the room, BCL10 students were curious, focused, and attuned. They used open-ended questions to create space for stories, and probing questions to go deeper. All the BCL teachers did was to create the conditions for them to step up. Students brought the rest.
The two sites had different flavors, but in both locations, students, community professionals, and end-users all had to accept non-closure. If anything, the empathy interviews opened far more questions than they answered. It was clear to everyone that this wasn’t a bracketed activity with a natural end-point. If anything, it was an opening, a beginning.
After the listening sessions, BCL10 gathered with our community partners in our second classroom. Together, we surfaced salient insights and take-aways. We also did what we always strive to do after a rich experience — we invited reflection on what it was like to have this experience together. Students shared feelings of empowerment, empathy, and gratitude. (One student also shared that it was frustrating to ask questions and then not be able to engage in dialogue, or help fix the problem.) Community partners shared that the experience was intense, but energizing and gratifying.
What follows are longer-form reflections from a number of community partners.
How powerful it was to join with a group of students from Burlington City & Lake Semester at the ONE Community Center to listen as a passionate group of older Burlingtonians described the obstacles they face in getting around. One take-away that has been running through my mind since is about the relationship between mobility and sense of dignity. What I perceived from many of those who spoke up at this session was a deep connection between one’s ability to get around with ease and grace and one’s sense of how much their community values and cares about them. Also, I was tremendously impressed with the students. Yes, they asked good questions, but more importantly, their reflections afterwards were perceptive and well-stated and demonstrated that they had been listening carefully throughout the session.– Jon Copans, Executive Director, Old Spokes Home
I really enjoyed working with BCL and the 8 year olds at the Sustainability Academy. The key insight I am taking away from the session is balance. The need two balances the perspectives of our youth and our seniors, and balancing the needs of all stakeholders, so in this care walkers, bikers, bus riders, and cars.
- Will Clavelle, City of Burlington Economic Development Specialist
As City staffers, we often interact with a specific subset of the Burlington community, those that are working age, so it was a very valuable experience to listen to a discussion on getting around the city between Burlington’s high schoolers and 4th graders. While there is usually a general consensus that more and safer bike lanes or wider sidewalks are a good thing, more often than not there is resistance to the initial disruption and inconvenience that results from such changes. Listening to the 4th graders make the case for more and safer bike lanes so that they can bike safely to school and around the city served as a timely reminder as to why such projects are important and necessary. These are members of our community that don’t have cars or drive and are not concerned with parking and wish to be able to move around the city safely. By giving the 4th graders a voice, this project empowered them and hopefully will inspire them to be engaged constituents in the future.– Johanna Schneider, City of Burlington, Small Business Support Specialist
As public works planners and engineers, it regular practice to hold public meetings, attend late night discussions of policy, plans, and design reviews with boards and committees. It is regular practice for us to organize community meetings around big projects and try to reach people where they are by going to farmer’s markets, libraries, and parks to make sure what we’re planning & designing ‘works’ for the public we’re here to serve.
But all too often, those meetings reflect the views of narrow slices of the population – those with time and awareness of how to engage with the civic system, or those who happen to be at a given farmer’s market or street outreach table.
This past Wednesday, however, we had an all-too-short opportunity to break out of those ‘typical’ approaches and hear from 8, 18, and 80 year olds on what makes or break the transportation system within and surrounding the City of Burlington. It was a rare and valuable opportunity to listen to a beautifully broad gradient of this city’s residents.
- We heard about a need for public transit to work better for the public.
- We heard about the mobility challenges that snow clearing creates.
- We heard about children and adult’s appreciation for safe and separated bike paths.
- We heard wise observations about the challenges of working with human nature in our transportation systems.
And that’s just the beginning of my notes.
Thank you for the opportunity to engage, and please let us know how we can continue this conversation in a productive way.– Dayton Crites, Senior Transportation Planner, City of Burlington Department of Public Works
Overall, this experience was a powerful, respectful, and joyful interaction between BCL students and their community. BCL’s “popcorning” questions kept the energy up, and the insight of the 4th graders was keen, especially around issues with sidewalks and crosswalks.
I always come away from sessions like this energized, and this one was no different.– Victor Prussack, Coordinator of the Burlington School District Office of Engagement
As these quotes indicate, these were powerful experiences, rich in substance. Everyone walked away with a richer perspective on how/whether the transportation system serve those who actually use it–especially those at the margins.
But educators also find themselves reflecting on design, pedagogy, educational philosophy, and evidence of learning. Did this particular real-world learning design lead to a successful experience? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t missed opportunities. Elements that the BCL Team is still reflecting on include the following:
- Even though Student Consultancies and Design-Thinking Sessions are challenging to design and facilitate, having students serve as interviewers in front of an authentic audience added even greater complexity. Using empathy interviews to spotlight marginalized voices narrowed the lane for BCL students’ involvement. Was there a way for BCL10 students to take on more leadership in these sessions?
- With both the 4th graders and the Seniors, it was challenging to achieve true “equity of air time.” In one 4th grade classroom, using a talking piece ensured that everyone participated…but it slowed the pace and energy. (As Victor Prussack reflected, “It also seemed that each student felt a need to talk, regardless of whether or not they really had something to say.”) In contrast, relying on volunteers increased the energy, but resulted in unequal participation. We know that everyone has an insight… How important is equality? Is designing for equality unfair to those who are more extroverted or more compelled? (Dayton Crites shared an interesting design idea: “Future conversations might benefit from smaller group ‘tables’ that then rotate from subject to subject to better allow more voices to come to the surface.”)
- It’s also worth reflecting on the energy and tone of the sessions, especially at the Adult Center. While we wanted to elicit authentic, valid responses, merely asking the first question opened the sluice gate of frustration. Would it have been better to offer a prompt–even a simple “Rose, Bud, Thorn”–which, despite being artificial, offers more balance?
- While our closure was meaningful, we didn’t lay the groundwork to maintain our momentum. Two opportunities come to mind. The first is to help the end-users stay connected to the transportation system professionals. Second, from a learning-design perspective, it would have been powerful to provide an opportunity for BCL10 to follow up with some of the city officials and transportation planners. The guiding question for this session could be “What are the barriers to making the changes that the 4th graders and the Seniors suggested?”
- A related opportunity could be to facilitate greater intra-sector dialogue between the community partners who attended. It’s easy to imagine how generative a conversation would be between bike lane advocates and Green Mountain Transit, for instance, or between transportation planners and the City Economic Development Office.
- In terms of student skills, there remains an opportunity to delve deeper into qualitative research methods. (In what ways were our findings valid? Why might they have been skewed or biased?)
There are always things to reflect on. The beauty of being a community-based educator is the complexity of the natural learning environment. There is no pretense of being a mere “teacher.” Out here in the wild, everyone is a learner.
Gratitude to our community partners!
Christina Erickson, Local Motion
Jon Copans, Old Spokes Home
Christopher Damiani, Green Mountain Transit
Johanna Schneider, City of Burlington Community and Economic Development Office
Will Clavelle, City of Burlington Community and Economic Development Office
Samantha Dunn, City of Burlington Community and Economic Development Office
Victor Prussack, Burlington School District
Dayton Crites, Burlington Department of Public Works
Julia Uraski, Burlington Department of Public Works
Jen Lucey, Sustainability Academy
Julia Marchessault, Sustainability Academy
Sarah Carter, CORE Adult Center
And to all of the 4th graders at SA, and the Seniors at CORE!