Urban Investigations

Urban Investigations

Urban Investigations

Center for Urban Pedagogy, Inc.
232 Third Street
Suite D201
Brooklyn, NY 11215
Phone: 718.596.7721
E-Mail: info@welcometocup.org
URL: welcometocup.org

Focus: Design, Humanities, Media Arts

Annual Number Participating: 65

Ages: High School

Annual Budget: $167,563

Partners: Academy of Urban Planning; College Now at Hostos Community College; International Community High School; Lyons Community School; Resilience Advocacy Project

Funders: Deutsche Bank; Digital Ready; Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund; New York City Department of Cultural Affairs; The Bay and Paul Foundations

“Who owns the Internet?”

“Who decides where homeless shelters go?”

“Why is there a lack of fresh food in South Bronx?”

Questions like these are usually reserved for reporters or politicians. But, every day, philosophers and humanities scholars address the underlying ethical issues that these questions raise. In fact, some of the most creative investigations of fundamental questions about New York City’s social and economic environment—and some of the most accessible, humorous, and visually interesting “reports” to surface on these issues—are coming from a surprising source: teams of high school students. As participants in the Urban Investigations program, these teens are exploring similar ethical issues that philosophers and ethicists confront and consider in their work as humanities scholars.

Run by the Brooklyn-based Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP), the Urban Investigations program enlists students from under-resourced public high schools to tackle important social justice and pragmatic questions about the places where they live. Working closely with teaching artists, the teen investigators choose an issue, make site visits to examine the problem, and then interview decision makers and stakeholders to gain various points of view.

Over the course of the intensive after-school program, the teams incorporate history, theory, and criticism of design with media tools, to create posters, publications, or videos that capture and communicate their findings in lively and accessible ways. For a project on the cost of borrowing money, students developed quirky paper characters and created humorous animated scenarios to discuss loans, interest, and the cost of fringe banking services, such as payday lenders and check-cashing businesses. Christine Gaspar, CUP’s executive director, remarked that it was one of the clearest explanations of how interest works that she had seen. And, the students’ playful approach and “weird visual sensibility” helped enliven the otherwise serious topic of economic theory and practice.

These projects are much more than an academic exercise. At the investigation’s conclusion, teams present their results at a public event. Their findings are posted on CUP’s website, and, sometimes, neighborhood and advocacy groups use the students’ work to educate others in the community, all for the common good.

Urban Investigations participants go back to school or on to jobs armed with greater self-confidence and stronger research, analytical, and visual-communication skills. In addition, they have gained real-world experience in how communities work and learned that they can give voice to their civic engagement with what goes on around them, Gaspar notes. “Urban Investigations gives them an avenue to say, ‘There are ways for me to be part of this decision-making process and to hold decision makers accountable,’” she adds.

This project reinforced my belief that young people can tackle really difficult questions and come up with meaningful, insightful artworks and design to teach others. Every day, they would [tell me], “Oh my gosh; I can’t believe this is going on,” or “I’ve never thought about this stuff ever.”

Patrick Rowe Teaching Artist, Shelter Skelter Project, Urban Investigations