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Townview, Texas: A High School Adoption Program

January 19, 2002 by Administrator in Winter 2002

By M. Teresa Vázquez-Castillo

(This is a story about a group of planning students whose semester-long project became a powerful tool for change when they organized a dynamic one-day program involving young people in a gentrifying neighborhood in Texas.)

When Debra Washington, Executive Director of the Tenth Street Housing and Community Developers in Dallas, Texas approached the School of Urban and Public Affairs (SUPA) at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), her main concern was to stop the process of “yuppification” that was threatening the area. The Tenth Street Neighborhood in Dallas is an historic district currently undergoing a severe process of gentrification and displacement of mostly elderly and low-income African Americans.

In response to the request for technical and architectural design assistance, a Project Planning class during the summer of 1999 at UTA prepared a Redevelopment and Renovation Plan that focused on the physical and economic development aspects of planning. However, physical planning was not enough as the capacity to realize those plans was lacking. Awareness, community development and leadership needed to be fostered in the Tenth Street community. In subsequent meetings, neighborhood representatives emphasized the need for self-sustaining programs designed by and with the community, “not from the office.” They also spoke of the need for an intergenerational program that should include young people and the elderly of the Tenth Street neighborhood.

Tenth Street is located south of downtown Dallas on I-35E in the Oak Cliff area and it used to be one of the Freedman’s Towns in Texas. Freedman’s Towns were the lands where freed slaves settled at a time when African Americans were prohibited by Texas law from owning real property. A landmark of this neighborhood was the Golden Gate Missionary Baptist Church, which had organized lot assignments to families in need of housing. Because of its historical and architectural value, Tenth Street had been designated an historic district in 1991, but gentrification and lack of resources were taking their toll on the neighborhood.

Including Youth

Out of this request, the Fall 1999 Project Planning class at UTA designed a project to include youth in developing historical awareness and planning for the Tenth Street neighborhood. I worked on this project with three graduate students – Ursula Anderson, Edwin Bateman and Sonnie Ebikwo. Through it, youth would learn to appreciate their neighborhood and they would be provided with basic planning tools and urban and policy information that could foster leadership.

Since other universities had held similar programs, the participants in the class reviewed those programs to explore the possibilities of replicating them. One of them was the Cesar Chávez Public Charter High School for Public Policy Summer Learning Program organized by the Department of City and Regional Planning of Cornell University (see http://www.crp.cornell.edu/pub/chavez/default/htm#photos). Youth participating in this program had visited Cornell University and interacted with faculty and graduate students who had organized a four-day program to learn about planning.

Based on the information from the Cornell program, Anderson, Bateman, Ebikwo and Vázquez designed the High School Adoption program for Tenth Street. The main objective of the project was to identify youth as assets in their community. Youth could promote awareness in their families and schoolmates about the importance of preserving their neighborhood. This awareness could eventually develop leadership in the community. A second objective was to create collaborative relationships between the university, neighborhood and school system. Finally, the project had the purpose of prompting an interest in planning among the youth, in a metropolitan area that lacks a diverse body of planners.

Organization of the One-day Program

After brainstorming about the sessions that would meet these and Tenth Street’s objectives, and the human, facility, and economic resources available, the plan for the project was developed. The University would provide the facilities and some financial support. Faculty and graduate students would be asked to volunteer for a one-day program. Since this project was organized during a regular semester, university housing was not available to house the youth as the Cornell program had done. In addition, we had limited financial and human resources — the Project Planning class had three graduate students — that limited the program to a one-day intense session.

The program saw the direct and active collaboration of community groups in the area. The Tenth Street Housing and Community Developers in Dallas represented the affected neighborhood. Vecinos Unidos and Casa Dallas, Latino organizations, supported and co-sponsored the project. Due to the conflicting racial relations in the area, the cooperation between an African American organization and two Latino organizations was notable. This co-sponsorship emerged when the Project Planning team was working on the neighborhood plan for one of the two Latino organizations. Although the three organizations had been familiar with each other, they became interested in each other’s work during a couple of meetings with the Project Planning group at the university.

Tenth Street, along with Anderson, Bateman, Ebikwo and I, identified the high school in the neighborhood that would participate in the program. Townview Center was chosen because: a) it is close to the Tenth Street District, b) it is a magnet high school; and c) the student population of the school was representative of the program’s intended target population. It was not easy to establish a relation with Townview. Its principal was inaccessible by phone, e-mail and fax, until a personal visit to the school expedited the agreement. Townview teachers would select a diverse group of high school students to participate in the one-day program at UTA. In this program “kids” would interact with community leaders, faculty, graduate students and volunteers.

On Saturday, November 20, 1999, fifteen Townview students with their professor boarded a DART bus on their way to UTA where they were welcomed by the executive directors of Vecinos Unidos, Casa Dallas, and Tenth Street, and by a group of UTA graduate students and faculty. In the various sessions, high school students learned the basics of planning, urban affairs and historic preservation. The sessions were: “What is planning and why we need it for our neighborhoods;” “How Cities Function;” “Computer Applications in Planning/Geographic Information Systems;” and “A Hands-on Session of Planning.” Due to time constraints, a campus tour had not been planned, but Townview students and SUPA graduate student volunteers insisted on having one. The students toured the university and learned about careers related to urban affairs and planning.

Participation by Community Groups Key to Program’s Success

A key element of the program was the direct involvement of the community group that requested assistance from the university. The executive director of the Tenth Street Housing and Community Developers, Debra Washington, was the keynote speaker. She talked about the history and issues of the Tenth Street area and the role of youth participation in preserving the neighborhood. Washington’s speech had a deep impact on the youth and the graduate students and faculty in the room. Since the program attracted other community groups that supported the Tenth Street efforts, this opened new channels of communication among the community organizations. It is interesting to note that most of the leaders are “minority” women.

Throughout this project, community leaders, students and faculty shared their experience, knowledge, and planning skills. At the end of the “Hands-On-Session of Planning,” a graduate student volunteer, impressed by the presentations that Townview “kids” had given of their planning alternatives and designs, told them: “You have done in a day what we did in a semester.” He had participated in a previous course that had prepared the plans for the Tenth Street neighborhood.

Evaluations of the program revealed the excitement of the Townview youth who participated. The graduate students shared this enthusiasm. Some of them asked in their evaluations to be included in future High School Adoptions and one of them told me she had realized the need to include youth in the planning process. In the same vein, Townview expressed its interest in continuing participation in this collaborative project. Anderson, Bateman and Ebikwo proposed that Project Planning classes have continuity, instead of “dropping” the community (“client”) once the class was over. They also proposed to make the High School Adoption a regular exercise with access to more resources, more volunteers and housing facilities to bring young people for a two-day session.

In summary, the project was a successful collaboration with a community group that brought together neighborhood youth, a local high school, other supportive community organizations and the university. The program also raised awareness among young people about the importance of their neighborhood, an initial step towards fostering leadership in the community. The challenge now is how to continue this collaborative project. The planning student organization or the alumni association could organize the next high school adoption.

Hopefully, sharing the story of this program will bring further awareness of the importance of collaboration, community development, diversity and youth involvement in an area of Texas in which planning mainly means development and displacement. Hopefully sharing the story of this project and other youth initiatives in this issue [of Planners Network] will dispel the notion that planning with youth is “just teaching planning to kids.” Hopefully there will be many more successful high school adoptions.

M. Teresa Vázquez-Castillo is a research associate at the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. The full version of the high school adoption program can be read online at: http://omega.uta.edu/~tvazquez

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Planners Network is an association of professionals, activists, academics, and students involved in physical, social, economic, and environmental planning in urban and rural areas, who promote fundamental change in our political and economic systems.