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Students work on seed germination station for Old West Church.

Building strong partnerships with the local community is an important foundation of Northeastern’s College of Arts, Media and Design (CAMD) – and the class offerings in the Department of Art and Design are one example of the meaningful relationships and work that comes from them. Over the course of the Spring semester, in partnership with Service-Learning, the Department recently collaborated with two local organizations: Old West Church and the Chester Square Area Neighborhood Association. The class, 5D Fundamentals, which is taught by Kara Braciale, explores the language of interactive experience as a compelling medium to communicate meaning. Projects helped support and promote environmental action and the core values of social justice and inclusiveness within each local partner.

“The great thing about this course was the creativity the students were allowed in their projects,” explained Asta MacKie, who is a Northeastern student and served as the Teaching Assistant for the class working with the Old West Church, which recently culminated into an end-of-semester event co-produced by Our Climate. “Through Service-Learning, students are able to see a real-world application of their work, and are pushed to create proposals for projects that will fulfill the goals and values of their community partner, just as they would with a client.”

Broadly, 5D Fundamentals examines how variables within the environment can change how humans inhabit an experience physically, conceptually, and emotionally. Students have the opportunity to incorporate art and drawing as a means to understand the present, while also projecting potential future experiences. The work the students ultimately created was interactive, interdisciplinary, and collaborative.

Old West Church was a natural community partner because of its social justice orientation, diverse membership, and commitment to building an inclusive community. The church is non-traditional in many ways, and is a very intriguing physical space. Without pews, the first floor boasts an open concept, to represent its values and encourage a more collaborative group dynamic.

To meet the needs and values of the client, at the Old West Church site, student projects included outdoor chalkboards at street level with prompts for passers-by to respond to (helping to facilitate communication between communities inside and outside of the church), a participatory window installation, and a seed germination station to help launch the Church’s Food Forest.

Outdoor chalkboards for passers-by to engage with.

Windows of Old West, participatory art installation.

Seed Germination Station, for the Old West Church’s Food Forest.

“One of the goals of this course is to look at a space and think about how we can activate it in unique and different ways, and highlight its creative potential,” said Braciale, the class’s instructor. “We aim to bring together local organizations and their communities through activism and art.”

The class is also a great and unique opportunity to gain hands-on experience for students, who get to work directly with a client. Throughout the semester, the students travelled regularly to the sites, and built strong relationships with the organizations’ key contacts.

“In addition to the opportunities students receive through their work, community partners are introduced to a partnership with students of a very specific set of skills, which allows them more depth in the projects a volunteer can produce than is often seen with traditional volunteer work,” Asta continued. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved!”

The Chester Square Area Neighborhood Association, as well as the Claremont Neighborhood Association, are both also committed to bringing the community together, promoting neighborly interaction, information sharing, and the discussion of common problems that residents of the South End face. They are adjacent neighborhoods located along Massachusetts Avenue, south of Huntington Avenue, right next to Northeastern University’s main campus. This area of Massachusetts Avenue has a unique history, and is also referred to as “Recovery Road” due to its number of treatment facilities and Boston Medical Center’s campus, which bring in non-resident populations seeking care. With this, there are a number of concerns for residents of the area, including traffic, parking, pedestrian and bike safety, green space and public art, and of course, the aforementioned influx of non-residents.

As part of the 5D Fundamentals course, students did interviews with residents and business owners alike, as well as “person-on-the street” style interviews, to gauge these concerns and to guide proposals to address them.

“Our class worked with the Chester Square Neighborhood Association on creating multiple ideas for ways to enhance the experience on Massachusetts Avenue, and after many weeks of collecting data, and researching the needs and wants of the residents, three main themes seemed to emerge: safety, identity, and community,” explained student Olivia Martinez, studying Business Administration and Interactive Media. “My group and I created a proposal of having a monthly/bi-weekly farmers and arts markets held in the underutilized areas of alleyways. Our thought process revolved around bringing a more positive connotation to dirty, unsafe alleyways, as well as bringing the community together by incorporating local farms, artists, and even surrounding community gardens.”

Students were challenged to think in new and creative ways, and expressed how rewarding working with real-world clients was, especially in communities that are so near to Northeastern’s campus.

“In my opinion, every class should incorporate a service-learning aspect, since having a ‘client’ to work for on a project creates a different level of expectation. It brings in a real-world component, and provides the student with an understanding of what it could be like to work on a similar project in the workforce. Additionally, it provides practice in communication skills to be able to explain to your ideas to people who don’t typically know the process,” Olivia concluded. “Taking this course with Kara, I’ve found myself being much more aware of the spaces and environments around me. Everything from my own apartment, to the street I walk down every day for class. Through many projects and discussions my perception of spaces continued to expand past the obvious and more towards details I never noticed before.”

Kara Braciale herself is very engaged and connected with the community. She is the co-founder and co-Director of Proof Gallery, a 501(c)3 exhibition space located in South Boston. Since 2007, Proof Gallery has been a venue for emerging and established artists to propose and mount group exhibitions and solo shows with an emphasis on Boston area artists. She brings her experience working directly in the non-profit art space to her teachings, and finds many ways to connect the two and enrich her students’ understandings of how their own work weaves into the community. We are proud of the great work her students did this past semester, and look forward to continuing to see many new partnerships strengthened and projects created!