Engaging teenagers in the art of design

At the Pennovation Center in July, a group of two dozen teenagers sit at four tables absorbed in clay and fabric, paint and other design materials. Several students make T-shirts, draw or print their own designs. Across the room, a duo is painting. Within the excited chatter come snippets of art and design talk.

The students are there as part of an initiative called Design to Thrive, a program aimed at exposing high school students to the many facets of careers in design. It began as a two-year pilot project between PennPraxis—the center for applied research, outreach and practice at Penn’s Stuart Weitzman School of Design—and the Fresh Air Fund, a New York-based nonprofit. As of spring 2020, the program has expanded to include workshops at West Philadelphia High and the Pennovation Center last summer in addition to the New York youth program.

During the first days of the pandemic, the initiative took shape. “There has been a growing concern that today’s youth are missing out on vital educational and growing experiences,” said Lori Canter Tricht, a member of the Weitzman School’s Board of Advisors, who facilitated the initial partnership with William Lauder, chairman of the board of the Fresh Air Fund and a trustee of University of Pennsylvania. “Bringing together talented Weitzman students and Fresh Air Fund youth was an obvious decision in my opinion.”

Students and parents were ecstatic after the first summer of virtual design training, and the program became an instant hit. The following summer, Design to Thrive hosted in-person activities on Governor’s Island in New York, where participants contributed to every aspect of the design process—from planning to painting, woodworking, and welding—under the guidance of Weitzman School students.

“Some of these young people have never touched a power tool,” says Ellen Neisse, executive director of PennPraxis’ Lori Kanter Tritsch. “The ability to build something meaningful was exciting for them.”

(From top left, clockwise) At the Pennovation Center, students participate in community-engaged park design in collaboration with Philly Thrive and individual projects such as printmaking. In New York, high school students learn skills like welding and work together to build a bench designed by a Penn architecture student.

The success of the pilot inspired Kanter Trich and Lauder to commit $7.5 million to the Design to Thrive program and the executive director position at PennPraxis. As the nonprofit practical arm of the Weitzman School, PennPraxis works in solidarity with students and faculty who engage communities in design and revitalization projects. “We already have the core capacity to think beyond building projects,” Neisses says, “and do even more work to support young people who want to pursue careers in design or craft.”

Expanding community collaboration

Other local PennPraxis activities include working with leaders of the Ramapough Lenape Turtle Clan to protect sacred stonescapes and historic trails; collaboration with the Square Roots Collective to expand Kennett Square’s community of leaders and decision-makers to create an overall more inclusive social infrastructure; and conducting a national study in support of a plan for housing assistance and rent relief in six U.S. cities—Philadelphia, Cleveland, Oakland, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Atlanta—in response to economic pressures caused by the pandemic.

Many of the individual projects, which can be anything the students choose, offer poignant messages, such as the t-shirt here or the post-apocalyptic zoo and engraved thermostat by two other students offering a statement about climate change.

In the summer of 2022, PennPraxis brought classes in architecture, career development and technical education to a West Philadelphia high school in collaboration with the Netter Center for Community Partnerships. Part of the summer session included the implementation of the first phase of an outdoor gathering space and community garden designed to become a public resource.

Neises is encouraged by the positive response from young people participating in PennPraxis initiatives. “In many public schools, it is difficult for teachers to give students individual attention and support their creative ideas,” she says. “After learning from our design collaborators, working with tools and making their own creative decisions, the pride in what they accomplished was so strong.”

The Praxis program at West Philadelphia High grew out of its long-standing relationship with the Netter Center and its comprehensive, year-round, university-supported community school program, funded by donations to the Netter Center, as well as grants from the Philadelphia Office of Children and Families and the Youth Network of Philadelphia. In addition to the youth program at Pennovation, Design Fellows worked with residents of Philly Thrive and Grays Ferry to design renovations to their community park.

“I’m excited that Design to Thrive will have a significant learning impact on the young people who participate, as well as the Weitzman students who design and teach the programs,” says Kanter Trich, adding that the initiative helps PennPraxis fulfill its mission as a supportive partner for community members of all ages.

For her part, Neises says she’s excited to help young people take an active role in shaping their own environment and possibly discover new career opportunities. “Young people often fail to make their mark on the spaces where they live and play,” Neisses says. “When they have the opportunity, it’s an exciting experience.”

This is evident in the classroom at Pennovation on that late July day. High school and Penn University students work together to create something from nothing, turning raw materials into works of art, learning from each other as they go.

high school student working at a design table

Portions of the text originally appeared in the story “In their hands” posted on the Inspiring Impact website on September 23, 2022.

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