PLACE Creates Engaged Citizens

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By George Zaninovich

From the Spring 2010 Caller

Often, during one of the first classes of a semester, after the chatter subsides and the room quiets, I grab a piece of chalk, turn towards the students and ask: What is community?

This is an important question. In the program I lead, PLACE (Planning and Leadership Across City Environments), students work to complete a plan that addresses a community need of a local nonprofit organization, school, or government agency. As the semester progresses, they use what they learn about civics, sustainability, public involvement, and social equity to walk in the shoes of a project client and understand the interests of the many different stakeholders in the project.
Five years ago, during Catlin Gabel’s Imagine 2020 visioning process for the future of the school, members of the community brainstormed PLACE (formerly the Oregon Urban Leadership Program) as a way to use Portland as a living urban laboratory. Portland is not only Catlin Gabel’s home, it is the perfect place for students to learn how to work with diverse communities. Portland is an engaged city. People participate. Citizens are involved. Communities care. In fact, public meetings in Portland are attended at a rate of three times the national average.
Engaged citizenship for youth is more than registering to vote at the age of 18. Engagement means participating, taking action to enhance communities, becoming a vital member instead of a passive spectator. Urban planning is a dynamic tool that empowers youth by creating real-life situations where they see communities as living entities. This includes spending time in the community in which they work, indentifying stakeholders, talking with them, and creating a plan to work with government officials as well as community members from diverse backgrounds. Engagement in this case is about identifying and strengthening community.

I hear “school” from one side of the room, and I write it down. I hear “neighborhood” from another, and I make a note. Sometimes a voice will mutter “family” and another “friends.” I add both to the list. I ask, can someone be part of many different communities? If so, how does one feel part of a community? And, by the way, what makes a community anyway? As I prepare to write at the board, student stares drift beyond the collection of communities on the chalkboard and out the windows toward different visions of the world around them.

Catlin Gabel students in the current PLACE class have teamed up with master’s students from Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning and the city of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services. Together they are working on a community needs analysis and site design for Zenger Farm, a nonprofit urban farm in outer southeast Portland. This educational experience is unique in the partnership of high school students with graduate students and a public agency.
Zenger Farm is in outer southeast Portland’s Powellhurst- Gilbert and Lents neighborhoods, two culturally and economically diverse areas. This project requires immense coordination among all of the entities and an understanding of a wide array of complex urban issues, including farming in an urban setting, food insecurity and how to address it using local food production, community involvement with non-English speakers, and how to motivate and involve youth of different ages and backgrounds.
As part of the project, Catlin Gabel students have had to figure out, in conjunction with their partners, how to engage the community in the Zenger Farm planning process. They created surveys for adults and youth. They went door-to-door in the area surrounding the farm to administer the surveys, and then planned and implemented a design workshop for community members. Our students created activities for youth of all ages, networked with teachers and principals of area schools to get youth input, led focus groups, and worked with the neighborhood association to get youth involved in the process.

After a few moments of window-gazing and silent contemplation, I sit down at a table near the students. The chatter picks up again. One student uses her hands to sketch a giant circle in front of her eyes as she explains her definition of a community and all of the different groups of people in it. Another student raises his hand and talks enthusiastically about the different communities he feels a part of as his arm continues to point upward. He finishes, and with a deep breath puts his arm back on the desk. One of the quieter students in the room mentions that familiarity and commonalities are the keys to feeling part of a community. I get excited and rush to the chalkboard. I write her comments down and ask one more question before class ends. Is it possible to understand a community just by talking about it?

To prepare for the Zenger project, Catlin Gabel students did a lot of reading and discussing. They read articles on Portland’s emphasis on density, the effects of Metro and the urban growth boundary on the region, the challenges facing growing communities, issues facing rural areas in transition, and the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood plan. The reading sparked lively discussion—but PLACE is about getting outside the four walls of a classroom. So that’s what we did.
This current project is a perfect example of what PLACE aims to do: empower youth to be engaged citizens by working on real-world urban planning projects in different communities throughout the Portland region. Catlin Gabel students learn from the world around them while doing important work that benefits the region—the acts of truly engaged youth who have seen their definitions of community expand.
George Zaninovich has been at Catlin Gabel since 2008.