In social innovation, as in life, things don’t always turn out like you plan; but the ensuing struggle often results in something greater. This spring, a team of DSI students experienced this first-hand when they partnered with Community Solutions’ Brownsville Partnership to develop a project about placemaking on one of Brownsville’s fledgeling commercial corridors, Belmont Avenue.
The Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville has complex community issues. Over several years it has garnered a negative reputation among the rest of New York City for having high rates of poverty and crime, but the incriminating statistics are only a small part of the story. Nadine Maleh, a senior advisor at Community Solutions, explains, “Brownsville is all of the data that you read about — but Brownsville is not just the data. I know people that are solving really complex problems everyday just to get to school or work; there are amazing problem solvers in Brownsville and amazing resiliency.”
The relationship between DSI and the Brownsville Partnership has been in the works for several months and was catalyzed by program Chair Cheryl Heller and Community Solutions’ President Rosanne Haggerty seeking an opportunity to collaborate. In the mutually-beneficial arrangement, the Brownsville Partnership provides DSI students with data, connections to community stakeholders, and time with key staff members; in turn, DSI students create innovative tools, solutions, and strategies that will help advance the work of the Brownsville Partnership. Both organizations hope that this is the beginning of a long-term relationship that will ultimately lead to more sustainable development in Brownsville because the longer they work together, the more impactful their collaborations will be.
For the Communication Design class in the spring of 2015, taught by Heller, students could choose 1 of 5 clients to work with for the semester. The students that chose to work with the Brownsville Partnership — Manolo Ampudia, Kyle Calian, Lauren Gardner, Margarita Korol, and Rinat Sherzer — came to the table with backgrounds from a wide variety of disciplines, including: research, international development, design, art, and entrepreneurship.
In addition to the Brownsville Partnership, there are numerous organizations working in the neighborhood to address its issues and to try and elevate a counter-narrative of hope and possibility. The students were also introduced to the Brownsville Community Justice Center, Made in Brownsville, and the Municipal Arts Society; these organizations come together as an informal coalition, the Belmont Task Force, that is working to activate Belmont Ave. through placemaking. Representatives from these organizations became the students’ “client” for the semester.
Initially, the students were tasked by the client with creating a placemaking project. The team launched into extensive research by talking to the partners, youth groups, community leaders, and residents. It turned out that the community already had many placemaking projects in the works. Team member Lauren Gardner explained, “After that process, we developed our insights as to what we thought was actually needed and we didn’t see us doing placemaking as the most beneficial use of our skills. The placemakers are already in the community and that didn’t need to be us.” They presented their research and insights to the Belmont Task Force, which began to clarify the project objectives. Maleh remembers, “The students very quickly showed us all the work that we were doing in a graphic way that was very easy for us to digest. So that changed the trajectory of what the students worked on throughout the semester.”
So if the DSI students were not doing a placemaking project, what would they do? Gardner explains, “We presented the idea of doing a workshop to develop a clear vision of what Belmont could be in the future. But Rosanne Haggerty, the president of Community Solutions, sat in on that meeting and her first comment was ‘this community is really workshopped out, so that might not be the best way to go.’ We walked away from that meeting kind of stumped. We had been talking to people for so long and had developed this idea of a workshop. That was a really big hurdle for us to get over that point.”
The students regrouped with their professors and each other to figure out how to arrive at a unified vision for placemaking on Belmont. Gardner says, “Through a long process, we decided on just designing the vision ourselves — what we already heard from them of what they wanted placemaking on Belmont to be.” This vision, which they branded “Be on Belmont,” took the form of a strategy and communications plan, which included:
- An “organizational dashboard,” that formed the backbone of a strategy moving forward. The dashboard visually mapped out all of the steps for a placemaking project, how each of the partners were involved in these steps, and how they could proceed in a more efficient way.
- A “Be on Belmont” logo, supported by a character and a voice as well as sample imagery to strengthen the vision
- “Your Guide to Placemaking on Belmont,” a booklet based on a literature review and included best practices for placemaking, case studies, and a list of references tailored to Belmont Ave.
- A “Placemaking on Belmont” map for the organizations to distribute at community events. The map announces upcoming projects, gives a timeline for the projects, and lists “10 things you can do on Belmont.”
- “Call to Action Cards” to be dispersed to residents and business owners explaining “Be On Belmont”, how to get involved, and upcoming activities.
These elements come together as a platform that the organizations could plug into. Maleh explains, “It’s definitely not something we thought was necessary in the beginning, but now that we have it all laid out ahead of us, it totally made sense that it is what we needed. We have a slogan, fliers, and an absolutely transcendent communication plan.” She continues, “It was nothing that I had ever thought of before and something I am definitely happy to have; it’s going to be our lead-in to this great work that we’re doing on Belmont. It ended up being this place that we could all connect into in a way that we hadn’t before.”
There are countless examples of projects where students develop an exciting and innovative idea for a community partner; but all too often, these projects are never implemented because the community partner does not have the resources to incorporate the new idea into their already thinly-stretched budgets and staff. Fortunately, these DSI students were able to deliver a fully-formed, complete package that the client began using immediately. Gardner credits this to the personal connections they made, “We were very concerned about what would happen to this project after us. A lot of that is because we met with so many people [in Brownsville]. By developing relationships with people, it really strengthened the desire to make it for them as opposed to for us, which is the whole point of our program. But sometimes you can lose sight of that in a semester-long project.”