Ambassador Spotlight — Mary Miltimore, AICP

The Activity

I worked with two of my colleagues at Fitzgerald & Halliday, Inc., Melissa Pineda and Zainab Kazmi, to lead a session at the Covenant House New York, a shelter for homeless or underserved youth in New York City and across the country. We held this session during the Covenant House's "Life Skills Program," which the Covenant House hosts on a regular basis. The kids are invited (but not required) to learn about a variety of topics.

Approximately 25 kids participated, ranging in age from 16 to 21 years old. The group was fairly evenly split between females and males and the majority of the kids were African American or Hispanic.

Goals

What was the goal of your activity? What did you want participants to come away with?

Our goal was to help raise the kids' awareness about what urban planning is and the impact it has on their daily lives. Most importantly, we wanted the participants to come away with the understanding that as members of the community, this is a profession and practice that is for them. This is even more true considering that they will feel the great impacts from planning decisions that are being made today in the years to come. We wanted the kids to feel encouraged to get involved in the planning decisions being made on their behalf and to understand that people want to hear what they think.

Structure and Flow

How did you design your activity? What was the framework through which you reached your participants? What was the flow of the activity like? How did your participants interact with the project and what were the results?

We encouraged friendly discussion as the kids got settled in order to set an informal tone. We then kicked things off by showing APA's short video: The Future Belongs to Those Who Prepare for It. This helped to engage the kids from the start, as they showed lots of curiosity and excitement to learn more about the different concepts and ideas shown in the video.

We then led a discussion with the aid of a PowerPoint and provided an overview of what urban planning is, the many interconnected elements it involves, and the impact planning has on communities' quality of life. We emphasized the ways in which the planning process has evolved from one that involved only a few people with similar backgrounds to one that prioritizes community engagement and a diversity of perspectives. We prepared prompt questions to ask at various points to ensure that it felt more like a discussion as opposed to a presentation. Once the kids understood that they could ask questions and engage throughout, we had no problem getting them to participate.

We used the events and aftermath of Hurricane Sandy to explain the concept of resiliency as well as how the planning process is being used to create a more resilient New York City. We explained that this is just one example of how to implement the planning process and that it can be applied to a variety of other issues.

Then we told them it was their turn to be planners during an interactive activity. We provided markers, stickers, magazines, and other material as well as worksheets that provided spaces for each step in the planning process. We asked them to pick something about NYC that they thought needed to be improved and that was personally important to them. Some kids chose the congested subway system while others noted a vacant lot they walked by every day that they felt was wasted space. Using the materials we provided, we asked them to create a collage, drawing, or whatever they preferred to explain how they would approach this issue as a planner. We walked around the space to answer questions and offer ideas during this portion of the session. Many of the kids were bursting with different ideas and excitement.

Lastly, we brought the kids back together and invited them to share what they had come up with. We ended by providing materials to the kids about how they could learn more and get involved, such as a list of planning blogs they could subscribe to, APA's page of resources, and the website for their area's community board.

Challenges

What challenges did you face during your activity? What were your learning moments?

Challenge #1: We wanted to be sure that we addressed any topics that were especially sensitive for this particular group, such as housing, instability, and gentrification, with the utmost care.

Initially, we thought the best thing to do would be to avoid directly bringing these issues up and we planned our content accordingly. However, we quickly realized that these were some of the subjects the kids were most eager to talk about because they were the ones that had personally impacted their lives. We adjusted accordingly and made time for discussion of these topics. We worked hard to answer their questions with both honesty and positivity, all the while emphasizing how they could get more involved in such issues.

Challenge #2: The group included kids that had varying levels of education and we wanted to be sure the content was accessible for all.

We have consistently found that a successful way to address this issue is to make sure that all presentation materials are highly visual since this is a medium that most people are able to understand. We also made sure to walk through our presentation material with someone outside the industry in advance of our session to ensure we weren't unintentionally relying on planning jargon or other planning-related imagery that were familiar to us but not easily understandable to others. There was no need to "dumb down" any information and we have found that kids of all ages and education levels can quickly grasp what we would consider to be complicated topics.

Challenge #3: We wanted to make sure that we kept students attentive throughout the activity in the hopes that we could avoid any behavioral disruptions.

While the kids did occasionally get distracted, we found that the best solution was to not push them, adapt accordingly, and transition our discussion to one in which they could be more engaged. It also helped to ask employees of Covenant House for tips, pointers, and heads-up in regard to potential roadblocks.

Tips for Other Ambassadors

What advice do you have for the Ambassadors?

  • Interaction is key! Get the kids involved in an activity or take them on a walking tour so they can see a project site in person instead of just in a PowerPoint.
  • While we did use a PowerPoint, I'd highly recommend using it as an aid to showcase visuals and guide a discussion. Young people are usually in situations where they are being presented to, talked to, etc. These sessions seem to be the most successful when the kids are encouraged to speak up throughout their entirety.
  • Make the content personal and relevant to your audience — there is no better way for the kids to gain an understanding.
  • Utilize your resources and go over your session with whomever you are coordinating with — they will be able to tell you what may not work and what will.
  • Bring food if you are facilitating a session outside of the classroom that is not mandatory for people to attend. We brought pizza and it definitely helped us draw a crowd.
  • Be ready to adapt! No matter how much you prepare beforehand, things won't go as planned at some point during your session. So be prepared to adapt things along the way, whether it be the format, content, or something else.