Based in Brooklyn, the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) is a non-profit agency specialising in making public policy information accessible to marginalised communities. It was incorporated in 2001, with current executive director Christine Gaspar joining in 2009, since which time staff numbers have expanded from three to eight full-time. It has a mixed funding structure, including private foundations; local, state and federal government grants; a small number of grants through the social responsibility arms of corporations; fundraising from donors; and partner commission fees.
Mission: using the power of art and design to increase meaningful civic engagement among historically underrepresented communities
Although design is central to its activity, CUP isn’t a design company; there is an activist impulse to its work, but nor is it quite like the grassroots community organisations with which it collaborates. Instead it is a connector between the two, using that role to break down what executive director Christine Gaspar describes as the “many different barriers to civic engagement – especially to really meaningful engagement where people get to be part of the decision-making that impacts their communities. Our work focuses on how hard it is to understand the public policies, processes and planning issues that shape most people’s neighbourhoods and the kinds of systems they have to interact with on a daily basis.”
Primarily CUP works through two sets of programmes, both focused on New York City. Through its youth education programmes in public high schools, “students use art and design to do investigations into issues impacting their communities”. And in the community education programmes, CUP collaborates with designers and “community organisations that are working on the ground, who come to us with the particular issues that they are struggling with. We work together to create visually based tools that help people understand how those issues work, so that they can better navigate those systems, or get better outcomes from them, or advocate for change.” Those community groups might represent domestic cleaners, nail salon workers, people who have intellectual developmental disabilities, or people navigating the legal system; they might want tailored and specific information about labour rights or housing rights or the process of seeking asylum. The tools CUP creates for them range from posters to pocket-sized booklets, interactive websites, motion graphics and board games: always with the emphasis on “placing the power of design in communities’ hands and using it to support their needs.”
“CUP is creating tools that are placing the power of design in communities’ hands and using it to support their needs.”
Gaspar estimates that CUP has up to 20 design projects active simultaneously, and while the time spent on each varies, it always includes audience testing and consultation. Projects created under the Making Policy Public strand of the community education programmes tend to run for a year, while projects in the Public Access Design strand finish within four or five months. Activity toolkits created under the Envisioning Development strand, which support community organisers to run educational workshops in issues such as affordable housing and zoning, might take three years to develop, because “we don’t create them with one particular partner, but in collaboration with an advisory group of lots of partners, testing out the tools as we develop them”.
Building trust through long relationships
CUP’s community education programmes primarily invites applications through open call; not only does this mean that “community organisations come to us with issues that are important to them”, but “we’ll get applications from groups we’ve never heard of, on topics we didn’t know were pressing, so we learn a lot about what’s happening on the ground.” Projects are chosen on the basis of impact: “We look for groups who are working on a real social justice issue directly with impacted communities, so that they understand the issue and can bring community partners into the process, but also so that they can distribute the work at the end.” It should also be an issue that “would benefit from a visual explanation”, adding value in terms of design, but also by “bringing those resources into places that don’t have access to that”.
“We’ll get applications from groups we’ve never heard of, on topics we didn’t know were pressing, so we learn a lot about what’s happening on the ground.”
Breaking down jargon – whether of law and policy, or of design – is integral to CUP’s process: “Our staff facilitate the conversation and do a lot of translations to make sure everyone understands each other.” Similarly, testing the design with the target audience is integral: “We hear about things that we would never have perceived, because we’re not of that community: for instance, this colour represents this for us, or triggers this reading. We’re careful about the way we represent people in the illustrations, making sure that it resonates and feels trustworthy to them.” For Gaspar, trust is the critical word here: “Often when people talk about this kind of work the focus is on the product and not the process – but if we didn’t develop the relationships and build trust with the community partners we wouldn’t get to the point of having a successful product.”
“Often when people talk about this kind of work the focus is on the product and not the process – but if we didn’t develop the relationships and build trust with the community partners we wouldn’t get to the point of having a successful product.”
That requires a lot of expectation management from the very beginning of the project. Gaspar has developed a system whereby: “On the first day, when everyone is really excited to be there and likes each other, I say, ‘There’s going to be a day when you hate us, you hate the project and you think it looks terrible – and that’s a normal stage in the design process. It’s iterative, not linear; we will go backwards, and don’t be scared when that happens: we’re going to get you through it, and it’s OK for you to be mad at us, that’s also a normal part of the process.’ It’s great because no one gets mad any more: instead when it happens they laugh and say, ‘this is that day’. We manage those expectations as much as possible, so people know what they’re getting into.”
Many strands of change
As Gaspar describes CUP’s working practice, four strands of change emerge:
- Change in individuals
Through the Public Access Design strand, CUP has worked with Housing Court Answers, a group providing assistance to people involved in Housing Court procedures, whether because their landlord is trying to evict them or is claiming back rent, or because the landlord has broken habitability laws. Often in these procedures, members of the public are negotiating with the landlord’s lawyer, “so there’s a big power imbalance”. Housing Court Answers wanted to be able to give people information on their rights and protections in a take-home format, so worked with CUP to make “a pocket-sized comic book that went through some of the most common scenarios in which they see people’s rights being violated or people getting pushed into agreements that are not in their best interests, even though the law is actually on their side”. That booklet was later successfully used by a woman as a negotiating tool with her landlord’s lawyer, securing her housing and credit situation as a result.
- Change in city agencies
In 2017 CUP worked with a city agency for the first time, “because we saw where it would have a tremendous amount of impact”, but insisted on retaining its usual collaborative and testing process with community partners. Says Gaspar: “It was interesting to see how our involvement helped that agency change the way that it sees its work, and how it might increase the capacity of such partners to do future work like this directly with the designer, without us at the table.”
- Change in communities
In the past few years CUP has carried out several projects related to the legal system, and to consolidate that work applied for a one-off grant to create a series of interconnected legal tools. “We ended up working with several organisations on three projects: the projects were much richer because of the collaboration, but we also realised there was a huge benefit to the organisations in working together – because even though they were all working in the same space, and knew each other, they had never collaborated. It really started to change their relationships.”
- Change in CUP
Every project begins with CUP inviting the community partner to “lead us into understanding the topic from their perspective: what happens when people interact with that system, where does stuff go wrong, what are the consequences when that happens?” Over the years it’s developed an expertise among the staff: “For example, several of our staff members are real experts on housing policy now because we’ve done so many projects on that.” Similarly, whereas the decision to use “visuals, interactivity, humour and playfulness to help people learn about things that are challenging was intuitive to the founders of CUP”, Gaspar has since found research into the neuroscience of this. “The more I read studies that talk about how the brain processes visual information versus text information, and how you’re able to absorb and retain much more of it, the more we can build on those concepts in our work.”
“Several of our staff members are real experts on housing policy now because we’ve done so many projects on that.”
There has also been a change in how CUP “applies the values of equity to how we act as an institution. We try to make it be a place where people work 40 hours a week – that’s unusual in the US in general, but especially in the non-profit sector.”
As its reputation has expanded, CUP has extended its work beyond New York, whether by “working with local city-based organisations on a national issue”, or “sharing our methodology with people who want to try and replicate it in their own locations”. It’s now considering how it can do that and “have the most impact on social justice”. Gaspar also wants to continue to develop the multi-organisation collaboration model CUP began to explore on the legal system toolkit project, “to see where we can add value by bringing folks together”.
Although most of CUP’s work is with “community organisations that are either directly critical of, or working against existing policies or public systems that are ineffective or unjust”, the experience of working with a city agency has raised interest in “thinking about whether we could be working both an inside strategy and an outside strategy at the same time, where the tools that we create help people interact with a city process that is hard to understand and the city actually benefits from that explanation also”. This question of scale is also being sharpened by a project working with the Department of Justice on creating materials for children who have to testify in court: Gaspar is seeing this as “a bit of a test” for how CUP might work on projects at a national scale.
Image courtesy of CUP.