Photo by Jill Anderson
Jessica Fei came to HGSE eager to reflect and explore the challenges she often witnessed as in educator in New York City, both in schools and in out-of-school programs.
“I needed to better understand the roots of educational injustice and inequities, build knowledge about how to facilitate processes of healing, engage in resistance, and struggle towards liberation — and grapple with the complexity of this beautiful and necessary work,” Fei says.
That work took on an interesting turn, as Fei researched the idea of place and placemaking at the intersection of arts, community development, and education. She investigated community art programs as part of her dissertation, “Learning About Where We Are”: Pedagogies of Place and Placemaking in an Urban Community Art Studio.
How do you define placemaking? Place is a source of meaning-making that informs how we construct our identities and our life stories. We can see this in the way someone might talk about their block, their neighborhood, their city, or a broader region as a significant part of who they are in the world. Like other aspects of social identity, place can be personally meaningful even as it is connected to multiple systems of power and oppression. This is something that I learned first through my experiences as an educator, before I began reading theoretical and empirical research on place.
How so? When I asked my students about what the Bronx meant to them, I gained understandings of how they saw their present and future relationships to the place, and also acquired insight into how mainstream images and narratives of the Bronx were shaping their everyday lives and the opportunities available in their neighborhoods. Now that I have done research on the interplay of place, identity, and power, I believe that it is imperative for all educators to cultivate critical consciousness around place, and to develop a sense of themselves and their students as placemakers — people who can analyze the workings of power and oppression in their local context, and who will exercise their agency to create environments where individuals and communities can thrive.
Tell me more about community-based arts programs like Urbano — the one you studied —and its relationship to young people’s learning and development? My research on Urbano, a community art studio in Boston, revealed unique ways in which place-based arts programs can create opportunities for young people to develop their voice, cultivate their creative gifts, and collaborate with peers and adults. Many of the young people who participated in my research project described the learning and growth occurring in their art programs as radically different — and significantly more meaningful and impactful — than the education they were receiving in their schools. They valued the family-like relationships that they built with one another, the freedom they felt in voicing their cares and concerns through different modes of self-expression, the activities through which they were able to explore the city and encounter different forms of diversity, and the respect they were given as artists and as community leaders. Especially for the youth of color, the space to reflect and act upon issues of identity and belonging, race and racism, and neighborhood gentrification filled an important need.
At the same time, community-based art programs are not immune to dynamics of power and hierarchical relations in society at large. Their capacity to have transformational impact on individuals and communities depends on the extent to which they cultivate critical consciousness and struggle against the forces of adultism, racism, classism, sexism, and other oppressions shaping the processes and outcomes of their work. Through my partnership with Urbano, I learned that we must fuse our critical and creative powers in order to build the bridge between personal and social transformation. I believe this principle applies not only to how adults can support young people in community-based arts programs, but also to how educators can support learners in any setting.
What are your next steps? I’m heading back to my hometown of New York City. I can’t wait to bask in the company of my loved ones there, to be re-inspired by the energy and the people of the city, and to move toward a healthy work-life balance. In terms of my career, I plan to root myself in out-of-school-time settings where I can work from a grassroots level towards a more just world, with the wisdom and leadership of youth of color illuminating the way.