A Lot to Learn

I keep eyes open for places where I can use what I know to help youth build a sense of agency in changing systems around them. And I mainly know places. I know how designers want places to work, how economics motor places, and how places affect people who use them. As AllBeforeUs evolves, I want to spread this literacy about place- which means a challenge. 

Teaching young people to read places may well entail teaching them the psychology and coding that make each place act as it does. This broaches marketing, design thinking, engineering, sociology, labor market theory, ecology, and plain old math. It's all teachable, especially through experience and journal-keeping. But it's also all chock-full of terms of art, references and specialized skills. The danger of leaving ideas packed in sentences humbles me. 

So the way educators use my structure of place, systems and role-play will vary with group and age. Younger students need more scaffolding and unpacking- this is a law, this is a negotiation, this is a frame- and accordingly more hands-on work to act as splash when their eyes might glue shut. Older students can delve into theories of psychology, as they relate to climate and justice and the whole messy enterprise of sharing limited space. 

I'm eager to learn how educators tailor the ideas here -- and how young people alter them. As "turkey day" approaches, then, I'm grateful for the chance to share the premise that kids can learn to make their public lives less oppressive- and eager to let many lessons fly. 

Mapping Compassion

From Missouri to my alma mater in New Haven, young people feel constant waves of inadmission. Whatever you think of the facts in campus cases recently, you must take seriously the idea that an urban form designed for debate has consistently yielded fear and disbelief. 

I'm not going to engage with questions of free speech or university culture here- others have taken up that debate well. (Read my friend  and sometime editor Mark Oppenheimer here.)  I do want to call attention to the fact that campus designs historically sing out about free debate and public equality and all that dizzying stuff that reads like BS to too many people. Quads and halls and statues, in theory, encourage the kind of introspection that youth have engaged in here. So tions of being mocked or edged out, campuses are in some way failing. 

It might have to do with the kind of stress that students perceive today- that of a world where the job market, the national mission, and the climate give the lie to the claims of order and knowability that the campus form celebrates. We might be seeing racism of a hatefully off-the-cuff sort take root because in times of uncertainty,  the idea that people in authority are insisting that all is in order becomes mockable. And when disorder seems to be holding sway, it's too easy to slip into hateful and incorrect ideas about how to sort the world around you. 

Much ought to change at Missouri, Yale and anywhere else that judging people by race goes on without strong rebuttal. And it may be that one change should come in the form of the campus itself. A campus with more group-designed public spaces and more places where different groups have to mix without planning to (say, a communal umbrella stand in New Haven) might expose the poison of racism more quickly and more broadly than the lawns and arches designed to let Reason drown that poison in good time. 

Early notes toward a lesson plan for systems reform

When I ride over cratered streets south along Manhattan's edge, I must see 20 people each day with visible health problems. I don't know how they feel overall, or what they do when they get where they're going, but they seem like they could use some help. I don't mean pity, I mean coaching to get access to the services and habits that would boost their health.

I need coaching too, on different points of self-care.  So, I expect, do you.

Rolling through the city on a bike, perhaps, leads to a sense of everything being more surreal than it seems in the pod-theater of a subway car. But there, too, we see lots of evidence of people not feeling in control of their lives. And we probably detect this in ourselves. 

Who have I pledged to write for in that context? What is my duty of elucidation, or investigation, or relief?

Public health is the problem, and public health ties to public education, and public education ties to public funding, and all this ties to public debate...which suffers under poor public health and public education, and around we go.

You can find a place along the broken wheel to stop, catch someone. help someone walk, change someone’s mind.

And maybe you can define this place's coordinates more fully if you work them out in a group. 


Conflicting Claims and Limiting Terms

Here in New York, the trope of endless upward wealth plays heavily in the news. Our mayor and other officials have announced plans for more affordable housing and green defenses against floods, and our civic leaders have said (how sincerely only they know) that these enhancements look like asps because they would make for more displacement of low-income folks. 

Nobody is forcing a narrative of rising tides lifting all boats in an era when rising tides seem likely to drown weakly designed coastal homes. But nobody has to lock in on a story about widening gaps either. Public services can serve the public...

...provided their design and funding go before intense public scrutiny. 

The AllBeforeUs framework lets kids assume roles that in real life often slip and slide: developer, public official, underserved senior, new parent, and such. It's stylized because kids can all see and can't easily duck each other. But the critical thinking kids do normally produces consensus on something- litter-reduction campaigns, say, or classes on biodiversity - that seems to shake off the specter of displacement. 

I think what we're seeing in warnings of gentrification is evidence that low-income communities feel cut off from major decisions about where people work, study, and age. And in a time when available real estate is all clustering on the high ground, the feeling of being cut off can debilitate people as well as discourse. 

Public agencies are providing more open data on housing and infrastructure plans than they used to. If civic groups want to look at plans and hammer out specific aspects to change or redesign, they can steer the design of housing and flood barriers in directions that the city wouldn't have derived on its own...

...and that can look like levelers, not separators. Let's see - and let's keep talking. . 


Pervasive and Persistent

Teachers who've let me test my method with their kids have consistently noticed a birightening effect when climate-change content becomes a project. Kids square their shoulders, lift their chins, criticize me and each other, and negotiate.  This steels me for future storms and upheavals, because living with climate uncertainty is a project. It's not a condemnation or a specter. 

The first couple times I applied cognitive psychology to climate frameworks, I lectured a lot and sailed away from what kids were learning. Then I figured out something: if you ask young people to design the neighborhood they want, they will show you an imagined place full of respect. They first target litter, noise and blight. Then when we talk about carbon impacts, they see bold signs inviting them to waste less. Less junk on the street, less idling in cars, and so forth makes for less carbon.  More immediately, it makes for more civil habits and healthier lives. 

The urban-design role play tests whether kids become more analytical, more resolute about prosocial principle and more adaptable when they think about ecology in terms of place rather than planet. So far they do. 

When we experiment with larger groups and longer role-plays, we can learn whether this approach significantly increases teens' likelihood to undertake campaigns for real change. My hypothesis is that civic fluency leads to civic engagement, which leads to both lower carbon output and more expressive involvement when disaster strikes. 

Helping Teens Resolve Three Systems to Live Healthily with Climate Change

IT can be paralyzing to hear that adults have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere for more than a century, leaving today’s young people to deal with the consequences of a massive uncontrolled chemistry experiment. If you ask a teenager:

“So all the adults in power decided to roll the dice on the ecosystem, and so, um, what should we do to stop the consequences?”

then you are supporting her worst fears about adult fecklessness. Or sociopathy.

The accurate message is this:

“People have always tended to confirm what they already believe and resist confusing data, yet people can overcome these limits with enough proper cues in their day-to-day lives. And with enough leadership.”

So I start by laying out the limits in human psychology- we tend to confirm what we already think, we fear losing what we already have, we obey authority, and we tend to bounce back more readily than we might expect. Once teens hear this depiction, it becomes familiar. Once they hear that adults just didn’t know to query what industrialism would cause, they feel a little bolder about what to do next.

Then we discuss climate science. We establish that climate change departs from other ecological problems in its scale and feedback loops. We cannot stop it and we cannot know unless we keep and keep gaining data how it will grow. This is liberating.

It’s liberating because it establishes climate change as a constraint. It will affect you whether or not you care about ecological issues, it will change the physical world you know, but it will not cancel the other forces that drive society. We can’t stop climate change; climate change is extremely unlikely to stop humanity more or less as we know it, but it will make social stability more challenging.

And so you will still be here. You have the chance to know more about how your life and public places will change. But you, with your cognitive limits, have to figure out how to get along with everyone else and their cognitive limits. Now here’s the good news. People can behave more sociably, charitably and patiently with certain cues from leaders…and from the physical space around us. 

Now students assume roles, which I articulate on index cards, in a real or hypothetical urban problem at a specific place. They have to figure out how to improve flood-readiness and withstand heat waves amid competing claims for affordable housing, manageable taxes, free markets, transportation, and the whole urban mess. They write each other memos (which I edit to help them build writing skill) and make a presentation to an expert jury.

Of the dozens of students I’ve taught in this module, all began with the idea that climate change amounted to a curse beyond their control and that the only way to make life better as it descended was to rely on outside deliverance. (“Call Obama!” was the shorthand in one Queens high school.) And all ended with collaborative plans for doable changes to real places, such as a campaign to compost cafeteria waste and grow food on a school roof. All these plans foster green space, local food production and social connection – just what we know will enhance resilience, adaptation and general public health in any climate.