George Lucas Educational Foundation

Sparking Civic Engagement by Building in Public Spaces

Sixteen-year-old Alexa gains hands-on experience and leadership skills by collaborating on a play space for kids through Philadelphia's Public Workshop, which promotes community engagement and innovation.
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Sparking Civic Engagement by Building in Public Spaces (Transcript)

Alexa: I’ve always been interested in the idea of making things from nothing. When I was a kid I’d always grab my Lego box and try to make something totally imaginary, like a whole city or something awesome out of it. And so when I found out about this I’m, like, “Wait, I’m actually building a whole park, and not just a park-- a whole mini-world full of beaches and cities and forests. I’m actually getting to do something that I don’t get to do in school. It’s such an awesome feeling.

Alex Gilliam: We’ve got posthole digging. We’ve all this stuff. It needs to also be painted. So who wants to kind of lead what?

Tiny WPA is a program that we launched, which puts young adults at the forefront of stimulating engagement in civic innovation in their communities by empowering them to design and build things that improve their neighborhoods, their public spaces, their schools, etcetera. We have ten young adults, sixteen through twenty-five, who have been given this central space. I mean it literally is the central space in the back part of this playground, in the second oldest playground in this country, to create an outdoor “maker space” slash “adventure playground”. They are leading the charge on designing and building this space.

All right, where should the submarine go, guys?

Alexa: Basically, we’re creating an environment for children where you’re not taught how to think. I’m not saying that, like, this park isn’t nice. I mean, like, I love this park, I mean who doesn’t want to slide down that wooden slide? I mean, but, like, with slides and swings and, like, spinny things, that’s just telling you how to do things. We’re building sand castles so that they could build their own things. We’re making submarines so that they could have, like, their own little adventure and stuff. And we’re building jungles with, like, a bunch of pipes. They could just make-believe that they’re anywhere they want. We’re not telling you how to think, you’re showing us how you think.

Alex Gilliam: You gotta put yourself in that spot, in that mindset. If you squint real hard, you can see it, you can see the forest, you can see the mountains, you can see the trees, you can see the sand.

Alexa: So you want the city to be, like, near the forest?

Girl: Yeah, we want them to be, like, able to be adjustable by the children. And then our trees, we’re hoping, will be, like, bigger versions of this.

Alex Gilliam: All those concepts that are central to architecture and being a good designer-- scale, proportion, things like that-- we’re doing that here, and the way that they’re designing really allows them to test and fail and then fix it as much as possible with their own intuition. So we create this process where, you know what, how do you know whether this works? Well, you get in it and it’s a feel. You step out of it, you look at it. You jump up and down on it. Does it feel safe? We’re not going to talk about wood grain structure in an abstract way. We’re gonna stand on it until it breaks or until it gets close to breaking or feels dangerous.

All of our Tiny WPA projects, the sites really are these highly public hacker spaces, if you will. You know, where people can come up and offer their ideas, just like these little kids did earlier today.

So the road stops with the lake or goes over the lake?

Girl: We’re building a bridge right over there and then we’re making it go over a lake and then it’s gonna curve around here and go back into the city that we’re making.

Alex Gilliam: Where they’re sort of laying out roads and things like that. That wasn’t fully planned. I mean that’s the way we work, but the way they could just walk up and say, “Well, what if?” That opens up all sorts of other possibilities for us that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. And that’s really powerful then for the teenagers, for them to be able to see how a four-year old’s idea or a seventy-two year old’s idea could have real value. That’s a hugely powerful moment for them.

Man: Keep pulling that trigger, all the way, Yeah! All right, now that is not going anywhere.

Girl: At the other parks that I usually go to there’s a whole bunch of slides and swings and stuff. And it’s just there. Here, you make your park instead of the other people and it’s really cool.

Alex Gilliam: I saw you’ll all working together and everyone jumping in and getting stuff done and that’s what we need to do. This is gonna be a really hard project, and we’re gonna have to work really hard.

Alexa: I think schools are scared. I think that they just want to keep everything by the book and by the rules. And, you know, you don’t really learn until you have the experience. I mean, like, you could give me, like, a whole manual in, like, how to use a screwdriver, but I’m never really gonna truly learn till I actually use the screwdriver.

Basically, you take like this flat side and you want to hit the middle of the hole like that.

When I first started this I was just not very vocal, I’m more of an observer.

Throw all your weight into the hole.

But after I’d been to this program I am more vocal, I’m not shy anymore, I’m more of a person who takes stuff on. I’m not afraid to say what I think now.

Yep, Tunica, and then make a dirt pile over there.

I feel like people should now hear my voice.

Alex Gilliam: So what are some things we, you guys, are really excited about?

Alexa: I’m just, like, excited to see how this finally comes out, and those kids just wanted to play with it.

Alex Gilliam: Just to see how far Alexa has come already and what she’s already accomplishing in such a very short period of time, man, it’s like we’re doing something here. And the fact that she’s so passionate about what she believes in it’s just astounding to me.

Alexa: I think that school should be like this because I have learned a lot of things from this place that I could just apply in life anywhere. I could have a career in building because I got hands-on experience from this. That’d be really awesome.

Alex Gilliam: We’re trying to grow really empowered, motivated, tenacious, resilient citizens who will go out and do things. And, you know, that ties very much into the fact that pretty much nothing that we do is an abstraction. You know, we found time and time again that people are most motivated, they do their best work when things are real and when they have tangible impact and they can see the impact.

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  • Producer: Stephen Brown
  • Director of Photography: Matthew Beighley
  • Editor: Matthew Beighley
  • Associate Producer: Douglas Keely
  • Senior Manager of Video: Amy Erin Borovoy
  • Commissioning Producer: Zachary Fink
  • Executive Producer: David Markus

This video was co-produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television as a companion to the PBS special, Is School Enough?

Is School Enough? Video Series

Edutopia's new series profiles young people who are making their learning more authentic by taking it into their own hands, on their own time. This series is produced by Mobile Digital Arts and Twin Cities Public Television, as a companion to an hour-long PBS special that is now available to watch.

More Resources on Community and Civic Engagement

Philadelphia-based Public Workshop creates uniquely engaging opportunities for youth to shape the design of their cities and changes the way they participate as citizens and leaders in their communities. Tiny WPA is a Public Workshop program, launched in July of 2012, that encourages groups of young people to make a transformative contribution to their neighborhood. Keep up to date with Public Workshop on Twitter.

Visit the Is School Enough? series page to see more videos on informal learning.

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