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Urban Endeavors: Activating Aspirational Action

By Weston Brinkley, Faculty, Urban Ecology, MAEd in Urban Environmental Education program

Protest against Seattle homeless sweeps (street art at Pioneer Square)
Protest against Seattle homeless sweeps (street art at Pioneer Square)

The Master’s of Arts in Education with Urban Environmental Education (UEE) at Antioch University Seattle is committed to advancing race, culture, equity, and inclusion in environmental leadership. Weston Brinkley, blog writer, and faculty, leads an innovative Urban Ecology series within the UEE program.  Complex Urban Systems is one of three courses within that series.

Each week in Complex Urban Systems class every student presents and dissects a new urban endeavor. These accounts of activities, experiences, and aspirations in the urban environment are a cornerstone in inundating each student with dozens and dozens of stories from urban space. Through this approach and others each participant works through many of the events and experiences that make up urban life.

This most recent quarter has seen exploration of over one hundred topics. Examples include a local youth climate strike, a city council initiative for equitably distributing trees across communities, a range of new homelessness policies and programs, state implemented sliding scale grants matching for parks projects, and redlining in property deeds. The breadth of material helps build student’s confidence and acumen in any type of urban issue they may encounter.

For each endeavor students discuss how they know – the method they used to learn about this happening. This is an exercise in reading the urban landscape. The students will become practiced in collecting anecdotes and data from all around them: news reports, encounters on the street, and experiences in their professions. Utilizing a wide range of source materials to collect their urban endeavors helps students understand multiple perspectives on common narratives and help them build alternative narratives that may better reflect their realities.

Two key considerations are analyzed with each urban endeavor explored: power and stakeholders. Emma MacDonald, a current UEE graduate student shared, “At first I attributed this to my fear of other people. Upon reflection, however, I realized that my discomfort was actually due to the lack of other people.”  Through an exploration of power each topic can be considered for its ability to change and who is likely to benefit. Through considering all stakeholders, impacts and outcomes are given a fuller range of analysis, and actors beyond the most immediate are given their space in consideration of consequences. Both of these lines of thinking allow for learning from true issues based in vision or crisis, and from inconveniences and curiosities.

A powerful contribution from this most recent quarter was a student’s presentation of efforts for community refrigeration. The program offered consists of placing refrigerators around the community in strategic accessible locations such as community centers and churches. The fridges can then be used as depositors for excess restaurant and grocery food that today goes to waste. Many different stakeholders and outcomes were identified. The class discussed the effective elegance of such a program. Conversations ranged from other ways this can support community efforts, such as providing food for people experiencing homelessness or people who are struggling with food insecurity or lack of electricity. Also considered was the range of structural elements necessary to implement such a program. Students discussed the nonprofit or local government roles in such a program and considered legal ramifications such as needed protections liability associated with food-borne illness.

Beyond identifying solutions to environmental issues that face urban communities today, these urban endeavors focus students towards goal-oriented thinking. Aspirational action has proven to be more effective and engaging than problem-solving. This work lets students dream big and learn concrete ways that others with similar dreams are achieving them.

This goal-oriented work will continue in spring quarter’s Urban Planning and Participatory Action class with the student’s exploration of innovative features. For these projects, the students will peruse a deep dive into an aspirational undertaking that seeks to improve our cities. Projects have ranged from a diversity, equity and inclusion analysis of solar panels to citizen-led participatory budgeting.

Learn more about the MAEd UEE program.