Thursday, July 29, 2010

What Does it Really Mean to Serve "Underserved" Audiences?

Let's say you work at an organization that mostly caters to a middle and upper-class, white audience. Let's say you have a sincere interest in reaching and working with more ethnically, racially, and economically diverse audiences. What does it take to make that happen?

Last week, I had the honor and pleasure of giving a talk at an institution I've long admired: the Taylor Community Science Resource Center at the St. Louis Science Center. Besides having the longest name on the planet, the Taylor Center is one of my greatest inspirations when it comes to an institution authentically and whole-heartedly making a difference in the lives of underserved community members.

The Taylor Center is run by Diane Miller, who launched its award-winning Youth Exploring Science program in 1997. Diane is both visionary and no-nonsense about deconstructing the barriers that many low-income and non-white teenagers and families face when entering a museum. Most large American museums are reflections of white culture. There are expectations around what people wear, what they can and can't do, and how they relate to each other that may be comfortable for whites while feeling alien for people who don't grow up in a white culture. I'm white, and several of the things Diane told me about are things I don't notice because I'm part of the majority culture. Guards staring at black teens and grumbling about their clothes. People who feel pressured to sit quietly through a film when they've grown up in theaters that encourage vocal participation with the show.

When Diane started running community partnerships at the Science Center in the 1990s, she decided not to start with programs to bring more black and economically-disadvantaged families to the museum as visitors. Instead, she went out into local neighborhoods with low-income families and lousy schools and asked parents how they felt about their kids' science education. The parents told her they felt okay about what their kids were learning but were concerned about their children's job prospects as adults. So Diane asked them, "What if I hire your kids and pay them to learn science, teach it to other people, and gain professional skills?"

This is the root of the Youth Exploring Science (YES) program. Most teenagers join the program at fourteen and stay through their high school years. During the school year, they spend one day per week at the Taylor Center working on science projects and leading science programs for young children, seniors, and other community groups. In the summer, they spend 8 weeks working full-time at the Taylor Center learning and facilitating public programs. What started with 15 students in 1997 has grown to support 200 students per year. The program is rigorous, engaging students in serious scientific projects as well as personal and professional development workshops.

YES students defy expectations. They graduate high school in record numbers and the majority go on to post-secondary education. Diane told me several stories about teens who came in thinking of themselves as dumb but changed their perspective as their confidence grew in two areas they associated with intelligence--knowing science and being able to teach. If you can teach science, how can you be stupid? Diane told me about one young man who raised his grade point average in a single school year from 1.0 to 3.0. She asked him, "How did you do this? I don't understand what happened." And he said, "It's easy. I was misdiagnosed." Many of these kids come in mis- or self-diagnosed as dumb or incapable. YES changes that.

YES is carefully designed to support opportunities for disadvantaged kids to get involved with science. These kids are different from the mostly middle or upper-class white kids who volunteer at many science centers. Many YES teens don't come in with confidence about their own abilities. Many of them don't have the clothes required to go to a job interview. Many of them continue to be looked at suspiciously on the bus or on the street, even when they are traveling to and from a job site where they do incredible work for their community. Many of them don't come in focused on a particular topic or even science in general. The YES program helps teens not only learn science but learn how to articulate their interests and pursue new passions.

All these disadvantages don't mean that these teenagers can't be competent workers, superlative contributors, and successful learners. It doesn't mean that these teenagers are any less valuable to the St. Louis Science Center or society as a whole than others. But it does mean that they need different scaffolds and support mechanisms to succeed.

Diane pointed out several design features of the Taylor Center that uniquely serve these teenagers. Most of the walls are clear, so the space feels open, welcoming, and safely overseen. YES student projects last for several years, and teens are given dedicated space for their projects. Their work stays up on the walls and they have ownership over their project space for the long term; no one is going to reset everything or give up on them in mid-stream. There is healthy food in the fridge, and this summer, the Taylor Center became part of the city subsidized lunch program, offering a daily meal to local kids who receive free lunch at school but don't have a comparable meal source in the summer.

The Taylor Center is also explicitly not inside the St. Louis Science Center (although there are plans eventually to move to the main campus). The YES teens do most of their work as science educators within the Taylor Center, a place that they know and feel is "their" space. Some YES teens do work in the Science Center itself as well as providing outreach programs to other community centers, but for the most part, the YES program benefits from the controlled, safe environment of the Taylor Center.

The YES program doesn't just benefit the teens who participate and the community groups they serve. The Taylor Center is a testbed for the St. Louis Science Center to think more concretely about how to build successful community partnerships and how to confront internalized biases or obstacles that prevent more diverse involvement. At one point in the discussion last week, someone from the audience asked a question about whether "nontraditional" audiences really need a different kind of mediation than other museum visitors. The questioner noted that visitors have been using museums for their own diverse purposes since the beginning of time. Why can't new visitors do the same?

Diane told an amazing story in response. At one point, some YES teens told her that they thought more people from their communities would enjoy the Science Center and the other museums in St. Louis' Forest Park, which happen to be free. As they put it, "if there's one thing poor families are looking for, it's free things to do on the weekends." So the teens worked with the YES staff to put together a grant proposal in which they would partner with families at St. Louis homeless shelters to introduce them to the local museums.

The proposal was funded, and YES teens partnered up with individual homeless families on monthly outings to museums in Forest Park. The teens had an innate understanding of how it feels to be a new museum visitor, and they crafted the program carefully based on their knowledge. The teens paired up one-on-one with families, so that they could blend in easily and look like individual families instead of like a conspicuous tour group. They helped the families understand what's in the museums, how to approach exhibits, how to figure out when you can use an interactive element--all the cultural secrets that are easy for frequent museum-goers to forget. The YES teens were able to make a connection and design a program in a way that was more culturally appropriate and likely to succeed than traditional museum staff members likely could.

This story illustrates what advocates like Elaine Heumann Gurian have been saying for years: museums need to go to unfamiliar lengths to truly welcome and serve new audiences. You have to be open to listening, open to change, open to confronting unspoken biases about the "right" way to experience or engage with your institution. And you have to find ways to promote diversity, not as a nice to have, but as a must have. In the case of the St. Louis Science Center, YES teens have unique backgrounds, knowledge, expectations, and needs that positively enhance the all staff members' ability to serve wider audiences. Humble thanks to Diane, YES staff, and the teens for generously reminding me how illuminating and necessary it can be to see the world through someone else's eyes.
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