Y-PLAN Africa: Reciprocal Learning in Action

Youths and Teachers Offer New Perspectives on Our City

 

Introduction 

Why, in the richest country in the world, are so many homeless people living on the streets with nowhere to go? 

 

We are surprised that American youths don’t know how to kill a chicken! 

These were some of the many questions and observations posed by 60 Sub-­‐Saharan African students and their teachers when they came to Berkeley last year to participate in a 3-­‐week intensive Y-­‐PLAN studio. This program—collaboration between CC+S and Ayusa Global Youth Exchange—brought young people and adults from Mali, Niger, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso to the university campus for the Youth Leadership Program with Sub-­‐Saharan Africa sponsored by the US Department of State. Two groups of 24 high school students and six educators were selected by school administrators in their home countries to come to Berkeley to participate in the 3-­‐week Y-­‐PLAN process—one in Fall 2013 and the other in Spring 2014.  

 

Bridging Cultures 

Y-­‐PLAN Africa was a global exchange in the deepest sense. This was the first time all of the students had been out of their home countries, on an airplane, and into an English-­‐speaking context. Only one of the teachers had ever been out of Africa and in the US. It was the first time Y-­‐PLAN had been translated into French, and adapted for use by students living in more rural settings and learning within classical pedagogical structures. It was also the first time that adult allies participated in the Y-­‐PLAN process side-­‐by-­‐side with the students—while simultaneously receiving coaching and feedback from the Y-­‐PLAN team along the way.  

The values and goals of Y-­‐PLAN were unfamiliar to both the students and the instructors. Accustomed to classrooms with 80-­‐100 students, this experience was radically different from their educational environment at home. The African educators were also greatly challenged, and even a little cautious, about participating in a new pedagogical process where they would be required to be as active and vulnerable as the students. 

Natsumi Iimura, our seasoned Y-­‐PLAN instructor—who is also fluent in French— worked with the students and teachers every day in intensive studios and workshops, and on field excursions.  Because her academic training included study in the French educational system in Paris, Natsumi was able to form a bridge between the two worlds. Following the Y-­‐PLAN methodology, Natsumi encouraged each participant to step up, speak out. She helped them actively interact with others, with the learning materials, and with the urban environment.   She also directed their learning toward social action and challenged them to articulate how they wanted to be dynamic leaders in their own communities.

At their core, Y-­‐PLAN projects open up traditional avenues of power and decision-­‐making to young people—especially those who are marginalized by city planning and political systems. This was especially daunting for the Africans.  Many were anxious about rigid political structures in their home communities, and felt powerless to make change. While they were cautiously concerned about all of this, it was also new and exciting to them.

 

Sean Cochrane, the Ayusa Program Coordinator, had just returned from a Peace Corps sojourn in Mali and Guinea. Within the Y-­‐PLAN context, Sean also helped forge bridges between cultures. He explained things like how to use crosswalks, locking doors, and shower handles to the Africans. And he helped those of us on the US side to understand how to be conscious of culturally specific issues such as religion, diet, and time. A majority of the students were Muslims, so right away on the first day, we realized we needed to adapt the Y-­‐PLAN curricula to allow time and space for three prayer sessions per day for those who needed it. Fortunately, Berkeley is a place where “halal” food is available, so we were able to quickly build in that dietary change as well.

Sean encouraged us to be patient as the students adapted to a new pedagogical culture and a more fast-­‐paced sense of time. He also gave us a heads-­‐up that many of the young people would be wearing their “flyest” clothes. He explained that fashion is a primary creative outlet for many young Africans, but he cautioned us that the students might not be comfortable participating in planned.

Each evening, after spending a full day in intensive studio-­‐based Y-­‐ PLAN sessions and guided field excursions, the participants faced additional challenges. Many had to navigate through various Bay Area transit systems (BART, bus, car, walking) to return “home” to a volunteer American host family (some of whom did not speak French)—some more than 45 minutes away from Berkeley.

 

Even with all of these challenges, miraculously all of the ingredients aligned.  For many of us, this was one of the richest, deepest and most meaningful Y-­‐PLAN experiences we have ever had—even those of us who don’t speak French! The students and educators came with open hands and hearts, ready to learn, ready to be active, and ready to return to their country equipped with deepened leadership capacities. And because of this, the Y-­‐PLAN team was energized and motivated to deliver a high level educational and emotional experience to each African participant.

 

Journey Along the Y-­‐PLAN Roadmap

We had the luxury of having a studio, and three weeks of eight-­‐hour days—including some weekends—within which to customize a Y-­‐ PLAN curriculum to match the needs and aspirations of the Africans. Natsumi, in her role as primary Y-­‐PLAN instructor was ready to dive deep into curriculum with rigor and passion.

 

The mission on both sides of the equation was to support the students (and their adult allies) to learn about Y-­‐PLAN’s strategy and action research initiative, while building knowledge and skills for college, career, and citizenship. While working under the guidance of Y-­‐PLAN instructors, the goal was for each student to use these skills to create action plans to promote healthy, sustainable, and joyful communities back in their home communities. As the students moved through the five-­‐step Y-­‐PLAN roadmap and methodology of critical inquiry they learned civics by doing civics. They also learned more about how to critically analyze and propose actions to improve the physical environments they occupy.

 

We were also able to build in more time for the students to digest and reflect upon the Y-­‐PLAN process.   We invited artist and seasoned Y-­‐PLAN TOMODACHI instructor, Megumi Inouye, to add new dimensions to the program. Megumi’s mission, which she embraced enthusiastically, was to create a context and a series of mixed-­‐media arts experiences to enable the Africans to savor, reflect upon and make meaning of each step of the Y-­‐PLAN experience.

Together Natsumi and Megumi thoughtfully integrated opportunities for deep reflection into the everyday curriculum. Megumi designed a sequential set of activities so that the participants could also build an artful portfolio documenting those reflections and the personal impact of Y-­‐PLAN on each individual.

 

Start Up

Engaging with an authentic client is a key to Y-­‐PLAN’s effectiveness. Therefore, we worked with the office of the Mayor of Berkeley as our civic partner. Because involvement with “place” is also at the core of civic engagement, Mayor Bates and his wonderful staff, Gregory Magofña and Sbeydeh Viveros, in turn enlisted the students to help them with the Telegraph Avenue Improvement Plan. The project question they posed was: How can the redevelopment of Telegraph Avenue create economic growth and make the City of Berkeley a great place for everyone to work, live, do business, and have fun?

 

Together with Gregory and Sbeydeh, we further refined the project question to train the students’ focus more specifically on transportation and public space in a six-­‐block stretch of the avenue adjacent to the UCB campus. For two weeks, the students worked in teams, to study and generate proposals for this complicated site.

 

During this early stage of the Y-­‐PLAN process, Megumi introduced the students to many of the tools and materials they would be using throughout the three weeks in the creative refection sessions: scissors, glue, recycled materials, accordion bookmaking blanks. She had many unforeseen challenges. The students who not only had limited exposure to art as a medium for reflection, they also had no experience cutting and folding paper or composing artwork from repurposed materials in this way. However, they really responded well, and were quite proud of their creations.

 

They made covers for their portfolios, and Sean photographed each participant so that they could​include a portrait of themselves as the opening page of each book. The adult allies, who also were participating in these activities, were surprised and favorably impressed with the students: “Their talents and capabilities came out right away, and they were more talented than we thought. We saw things we hadn’t seen before: how gifted, artistic and creative they were. We were surprised that they were so eager to present (their creations) and how well they did. “

 

Megumi built upon the success of these two early projects and used them as catalysts and confidence builders for further exploration throughout the three weeks.

 

“I was struck by the students' boldness and their immediate willingness to experiment. They all had an affinity for color and bold patterns. Their work had a vibrancy and energy that was uniquely their own.”

 

Making Sense of the City

In phase 2 of the Y-­‐PLAN process, the students conducted intensive research about Berkeley and Telegraph Avenue.  While they focused upon the project question about Telegraph Avenue, the learning experience also extended into the surrounding neighborhoods. For high school students, this focus on physical places feels real and concrete, and often motivates them to tackle issues and generate solutions with passion and verve.

 

Through lectures, research and observation they learned that Telegraph is one of the most well known parts of Berkeley—and this 6-­‐block stretch is the area that makes it famous. “Telegraph” is known throughout the world for its history of political activism, academia, and unique shops and restaurants. In recent years the street has become physically degraded, many businesses have left, and homeless people and transient youth often populate the sidewalks and nearby People’s Park. Still, many people consider this stretch of Telegraph to be the “heartbeat” of Berkeley. Through mapping, interviews, and ethnographic observation the Africans were able to gather their own data, and come up with their own analysis of the dynamics of the street.

The youth perspective on the city was very powerful.  The African adults took note reporting to the Y-­‐PLAN team that “They (the young people) were more observant than we were about what was around them in the environment and noticed details about the environment that we missed.” They had many thoughts and feelings about the many homeless people they saw and talked to. They were unafraid to interview shopkeepers, and ask them hard questions. And they were open.

 

When they were walking through one of the parks, they saw the many ground squirrels that people told them were overrunning public spaces, and that the City of Berkeley is trying to contain. On the spot, several of the students told us that they could demonstrate how to build squirrel trap, so that we could catch them and cook them, and that it would solve two problems at once.

As part of the formal Y-­‐PLAN curriculum, the teams created posters “Telling the story of Telegraph” from their perspective. The posters featured notes, observations, insights, and preliminary responses to challenges they saw.  The adult allies reported to the Y-­‐PLAN team that the authentic real world project and explorations were very meaningful to students. “The students were very serious. They were very excited and motivated to be doing a real project, and because it was so real, they were really involved in it. “

For the reflective portion of this phase, Megumi facilitated a workshop where the students and adult allies created maps of Telegraph Avenue, capturing their impressions with photographs, written insights, and artifacts. As a companion exercise, they created maps of their home communities. These maps, carefully created from “place memories” featured camels, home country flags, large mango trees and other representations of their home environments in Africa. “Their creative pages resonated with a strong, powerful love and loyalty for their African heritage. “

 

Into Action

Through lectures, hands-­‐on activities, and structured field excursions, the students learned first-­‐hand more about how the built environment is a physical expression of structural issues and systems shaping cities. We encouraged them to examine and find solutions to critical community issues through that lens. The process involved generating visions for change, and presenting evidence-­‐based proposals to respond to the project question.

We invited Susan Goltsman from Berkeley planning and design firm, MIG, to share inspiration from their re:Streets initiative. re:Streets is a multi-­‐disciplinary collaboration focused on the planning, design and construction of streets to improve the built environment. The initiative explores the future of streets and what America's roadways would be like if they were designed for living, instead of just driving. Goltsman’s lecture featured an analysis of the negative impact of cars, and inspiring case studies of streets redesigned as lively community public spaces. Her lecture and visual images spawned many heated discussions between the youth and the adults about what to do about vehicular traffic on Telegraph Avenue. The re:Streets data and case studies inspired the youth to develop alternative ways to use the street— by rerouting or calming vehicular traffic and emphasizing bicycles, pedestrians and public gathering spaces.  “but what if you worked your whole life to afford a big beautiful car, wouldn’t you want to cruise down Telegraph in it?”

During this phase of Y-­‐PLAN, Natsumi and team used the Bay Area as a “classroom”.  We took the students on field excursions into Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco—with a special emphasis on examples of great public spaces and innovative transportation modalities.  The students were extraordinarily appreciative, open, and engaged. In small groups, the Africans explored buildings,  streets, plazas, and parks. These focused walking tours also took them to inspiring youth-­‐led enterprises: the Edible Schoolyard at Martin Luther King middle school, Youth Radio, and TransForm. They explored cultural institutions such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum and Oakland Museum of California. And they investigated major public  spaces: Yerba Buena Gardens, Crissy Field, Lake Merritt, downtown Oakland, San Francisco Ferry building and the SF Embarcadero. Before and after the field excursions, Natsumi played a key role. as she interpreted WHY they went certain places. All the while, she prompted them to imagine not only how what they were seeing might apply to Telegraph Avenue, but also, “How does this apply to my life?” Additionally the students used Y-­‐PLAN curricular tools to assess how these diverse and linked ecosystems impact people every day.

 

Beyond the Y-­‐PLAN curriculum, these field excursions exposed the Africans to other dimensions of American culture.  For example on their visit to the Contemporary Jewish Museum, not only did they get to experience some cutting edge contemporary architecture but, when asked, they acknowledged that not one of them had met (or knew they had met) a Jew before. At the Oakland Museum of California, they were excited to be in such a respectful multi-­‐cultural environment. At OMCA, the adult allies found inspiration in the 3-­‐D hands-­‐on learning environments in the Gallery of California History and Gallery of California Natural Science. One of the African educators exclaimed, “The exhibits were so real, I felt like I have now visited Hollywood!”

 

As the group of thirty Africans moved through these local spaces and places —many of them wearing flowing, traditional patterned clothing and headscarves—they often caused quite a stir, all of it positive. African Americans on the street, working in BART stations, or running businesses were especially excited and full of prideful respect when they learned the young people and adults were from Africa.

 

Additionally, through slides and presentations, the students and teachers studied and gained inspiration from the best practices in transportation and public space design in cities around the world. All the while, Natsumi and the Y-­‐PLAN team helped them cultivate tools to look critically at these environments: photographic analysis, ethnographic study, interviews with locals, and intensive web research.

 

After they toured these inspirational places, met with local professionals, and examined case studies, they worked within their small project teams in charrette mode (intensive workshops in a studio setting) to develop their visions for change on Telegraph. This was their opportunity to synthesize the data they collected, and translate the information into innovative proposals and recommendations for the Mayor.

 

This process involved collating their research and creating low-­‐tech presentation boards to represent that information. The boards included their key recommendations for improving both the transportation and the public space along the six-­‐block stretch of the street. The final boards—all in English—were colorful, imaginative and full of modest, but visionary ideas.   One team drew a large camel to represent Telegraph Avenue. The “camel’s” tenacious and contradictory problems included:  lack of space for bicycles, too many cars and the absence of bicycles. When that team of students presented their board, the described the camel laughingly, saying it represented the challenges in solving the problems on the street.

 

Going Public

Natsumi and the Y-­‐PLAN facilitators worked with the African adult allies to align the work on the Telegraph Avenue project with core educational goals for the students in their home countries. Together we crafted the Y-­‐PLAN curriculum to augment learning objectives focused on applied academics and leadership development. Oral and written presentation skills were a key component of this effort. Each day the students gave interim presentations about their work in progress to their peers and the Y-­‐PLAN team. And we created multiple opportunities for the students to make oral and visual presentations, and to showcase their drawings, writing, and artifacts to professionals, professors, students, and other adults.

 

The first major opportunity was the formal presentation to Mayor Tom Bates and his staff, as well as students and teachers from a local French language high school in a public setting in downtown Berkeley. The students planned and prepared to show their presentation boards, and to speak about their research and recommendations to a panel of experts—in English and in French.

The Mayor and his team were struck by the level of care and thought that went into their recommendations to deal with homelessness, traffic, and pedestrian and bicycle access to the six-­‐block stretch of Telegraph. The Mayor noted that the Africans did not have the “compassion fatigue” common to many of us in the Bay Area. Instead they were deeply moved by the prevalence of indigent men and women of all ages living in People’s Park, and occupying the sidewalks and door wells along Telegraph Avenue. They spent a lot of time and care thinking about creative solutions to engage the homeless population, and to create opportunities for them to participate in the renovation of the area.  For example, one team proposed that People’s Park be transformed into a fruit orchard, maintained by homeless people, living in shelters nearby.  They in turn would have the opportunity to sell the fruit at weekend farmers’ markets and pop-­‐up stores in vacant lots along the avenue. The Mayor was extremely impressed with their ideas, their compassion, and their commitment to finding doable solutions.  He also gave an impassioned speech about how we are all part of a global community addressing these problems as well as problems such as climate change and sustainability.

 

Looking Forward, Looking Back

In the third week (phase 5) of the Y-­‐PLAN process, the students’ mission was to work on action plans for place-­‐based projects back in their local communities in Africa. The intention was to take them through a pedagogical process to develop awareness and skills that they could apply immediately to community development projects upon their return. They regrouped in caucuses based upon geography: where they live and go to school.  These teams then started to develop a menu of possible action projects.

The adult allies from Africa set the tone for this phase.  With coaching from the Y-­‐PLAN team, they were able to step back, and help the students see that “It’s about us!” Having their instructors working directly with these teams built in the scaffolding the students needed to provide continuity when they returned home.  In their eyes, the adult allies’ investment was crucial. It added legitimacy to the students’ proposals. Even though the students’ ideas for action were linked to larger political issues such as public health and national literacy, they felt more secure working within the structure of their local schools—with their instructors as allies. Together they crafted strategies for action, including identifying other adult allies in their “community of practice” back home.

The teams presented their plans at a final culminating event and exhibition to an audience of peers, interested community members, host families and a panel of professionals. The panelists—architects, social workers, designers, political scientists, urban planners and professors—gave each team detailed feedback about their plans.

 

Students organized their planned action projects around issues that were immediate and tangible within their school environments. They focused on public health and hygiene, sanitation, literacy, digital access, AIDS, and sex education. For example, inspired by their visit to Youth Radio, one team proposed to launch a public information campaign to clean up the schoolyards and gutters. This was a good example of the relationship between sanitation and public health. In their final presentation, they deftly explained to the audience that when trash blocks water runoff, pools form in the gutters around the school.  Disease-­‐carrying mosquitos breed in the stagnant pools. When queried by the panelists, the students said they were considering a radio PSA or poster campaign with the message tracing that linkage: “Carelessly throw litter on the ground ….. and you can die!”

 


Megumi played a huge role during this phase.  Through a series of artful activities, she enabled the students to deeply reflect upon their experiences along the Y-­‐PLAN roadmap. They were able tointegrate, synthesize and articulate what each step along the way meant to them, and how it applied to their lives.  She also used innovative approaches to help them visualize their action plan ingredients.  For example, they created “community of practice” origami mandalas.  Each spoke represented a community member who they will enlist to help them with their project.  For the steps of their action plans, they used a hand to represent forward motion and strength.

 

“What emerged from this artful dialogue with the students was an emotionally charged series of portfolio books, symbolically articulating what the students learned during the Y-­‐PLAN experience. It showcased everyone's hopes, dreams and aspirations.”

Epilogue + Lessons Learned

 

Natsumi: Reciprocal Learning in Action

Natsumi embraced and amplified the reciprocal learning process central to Y-­‐PLAN. She met the students where they were, and carefully helped them expand their knowledge and skills. Her planning was tight and she introduced the curriculum content in a formal way. But she was also flexible in the way she facilitated the students’ learning process. This allowed the young people to function within a more structured framework, but also challenged them to freely explore beyond their comfort zones. This process gave the students the confidence to think critically, which enabled them to assert themselves, to create and innovate, and most importantly to speak out.

 

Natsumi also exerted great discipline as an instructor. She allowed the students (and adult allies) to develop their ideas slowly, and intentionally.  She was deeply committed to making it possible for them to take what they learned in Y-­‐PLAN and transform it into a meaningful and realistic action plan for their own communities back home.  She also encouraged the students and teachers to do things they never before considered possible, such as asking local school administrators to support them in running public awareness campaigns, leading forums, or working with local radio stations. And remarkably, at the end of each session, Natsumi said, “I learned so much today!” Reciprocal learning in action.

 

Megumi: Exploring Deeper Dimensions of Heart and Soul

Megumi infused the Y-­‐PLAN experience with magic. In her role as artist in residence, she added new dimensions, rich with meaning and emotion, to the process.  At the end of each day she challenged both the youths and the adults to do things they had never considered. Her “creative reflection” helped the students understand Y-­‐PLAN, but also allowed them to see and appreciate their own growth. She also enabled the adult allies to be vulnerable, to explore,  and to express new dimensions of themselves as well.

 

The reflective art activities offered everyone an opportunity for cathartic expression. Megumi designed these experiences to honor the youthfulness and exuberance of the students. But they also gave the students the opportunity to showcase their seriousness, their talents, and their intellect. The process was also very revealing—as it touched upon each person’s emotions, energy, and commitment. Through their artful creations, the young people and the adults were able to express heartfelt love, pride, and hope about their communities, their countries, and Africa.

 

When looking back upon the experience with the Africans, Megumi had this touching insight: “I feel like the creative reflection sessions offered the students an overarching hug. The reward for me came out of the process itself and what it revealed: a transformational soulful journey of each student communicating a deep commitment to make a difference as leaders of change in their home communities.”

 

Sean:  Y-­‐PLAN through the African lens

Prior to the program, Sean had a series of questions and concerns: How would the Africans integrate into this learning environment? How would they respond to the goals and ambitions of Y-­‐PLAN? He felt that possibly the environment, the process and the values of Y-­‐ PLAN might be too “foreign” for the Africans.  Because the structure of Y-­‐PLAN was such a radical departure from their educational environments at home, he wondered if they would be able to respond and take advantage of the opportunity. Because learning toward social action was not a part of the educational environment at home, Sean wasn’t sure they would be up to this level of thinking and critical reflection.

However, in retrospect, Sean felt that not only were they were very receptive to this unfamiliar learning environment and new way of thinking, they wholeheartedly and enthusiastically embraced it.  He has been in contact with the students and adult allies who returned to their home communities after the Berkeley Y-­‐PLAN studios ended.

 

Sean reports that now that the students are back in Africa, they have the strong desire to continue the work. The young leaders are now working on their action plans. They are applying the knowledge they gained about planning and community development. They have a sense that taking meaningful action in their community is possible. Immediately upon their return they (students and teachers) had “show and tell” sessions in their schools. They also had the opportunity to apply for grants from to support their action projects. Sean has played a role in overseeing their applications. Eighty-­‐percent of the students applied for these follow-­‐up grants. In order to submit the application, all of them had to develop budgets, identify allies, identify the range of possibilities in support of their goals.  So far they have all surpassed his expectations, “……as a result of the entire Y-­‐PLAN experience and cultural exchange, the students (and their teachers) are different people! The seeds of change were sown.  The students are starting to think differently and to develop their capacity as leaders.”

 

Lastly, Baba Sy, one of the adult allies from Cote d’Ivoire (pictured left), gave a beautiful speech after the student presentations to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. His words capture the whole experience:

 

Good afternoon everybody

-­‐ Dear teachers and coordinators of the Y-­‐Plan Program

-­‐ Dear colleagues African educators

-­‐ Dear host families

-­‐ Dear students and other guests

 

We come to the end of three weeks working on the Y-­‐Plan program. For this, you have met and worked in peers to figure out your challenges.

 

That experience was a discovery for everyone to know one's skills and weaknesses. You caught this chance to learn more about the others and how to behave as a team.

 

Through this process, you walked around the city; you met people and visited many sites to gather more information. Then you set your action plan and made proposals for better changes.

 

Through this opportunity, I want you to understand that Y-­‐Plan should not stop here. It must go beyond this city, beyond this country, further and further.

 

When you go back home, you must remember that you have to sensitize, to teach the Y-­‐Plan process and set an action plan. Then, hand in hand go into the action to make changes for a sustainable world.

 

I'll catch this opportunity and say, On behalf of the African group, our thanks go to:

The Mayor of the city of Berkeley for his assistance
The teachers and coordinators of the Y-­‐Plan Program for their availability
The host families for their kindness
The students for their involvement
and all other persons who have made this achievement possible.

Y-­‐PLAN forever!  Thank you! Baba Sy