The Baltimore Design School sits nestled in the heart of Greenmount West, a neighborhood in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Down the street from the City Arts Building and across from Area 405, young people in the Baltimore Design School are surrounded by a growing cultural community of low, middle and high income families, artists, commuters and laborers.
A program that is helping to expand the cultural impact of youth in the neighborhood is the Youth Learning Lab of Education and Applied Design (Y-LLEAD) created by designer and activist, Melissa Moore. A member of the Artists Within coalition, Y-LLEAD is a youth led design program that uses architecture, product and graphic design as a tool for social justice and self-actualization.
On a winter visit to Y-LLEAD’s after school program in the Baltimore Neighborhood Design School, two youth participants, Kirsten German (19), and Monica Dickens (13), spoke of having an opportunity few youth in Baltimore are given – the chance to think outside of the box.
When my mother told me about the chance to become involved in graphic design and architecture, I thought, I’d never done it before but why not take a chance? It’s like a very versatile skill- designing. You can do anything. I haven’t had a lot of chances to just…do what I want.
Kirsten’s quiet statement was seconded by Monica, who spoke of Y-LLEAD as her chance to have her ideas taken seriously.
I became involved this summer because it was different. You get to say your ideas and then, try them out.
Y-LLEAD’s participants describe their experience as a chance to move away from after school programming which regularly involves top down instruction. Instead, hands on design opportunities are helping them grapple with big ideas and turn them into practical objects.
It’s a very enlightening experience. It takes you out of your comfort zone – you don’t have anybody dictating what is right or wrong. It’s like you are given a blank canvas you can mark on all you want. It’s something new to me, not having direction.
The blank canvas framework also allows them to think about obstacles as opportunities.
We get to share ideas. The objects we make don’t always end up being used for their original intent. We have to learn how to work with each other and be flexible. You can share your ideas openly. When we run into a problem, it’s like what you think- just try it out. It’s like the way the real world is- you don’t get directions, you just stumble through it.
Not only are Y-LLEAD participants learning how to turn challenges into opportunities, they are also learning how to be responsive to the community around them.
We work with the community to find out what they need and give them what they need. It’s not hard. It’s engaging and gives me something to do that I have not been able to do. It makes feel like I’m a part of a collective vision. It makes me feel useful. I don’t have many other chances in my life where I feel really useful.
In the end, Y-LLEAD is not only helping participants feel valuable and connected to one another, it is also helping them to appreciate their own minds.
As teens, we are always told what to do, but with Y-LLEAD, every day is a learning experience- I have learned to think for myself. Thinking for yourself is hard work but it’s worth it.