The Hot Seat: Sam Holleran + Clara Amenyo


Welcome to the Hot Seat, where we interview folks involved in Brooklyn real estate, architecture, development and the like. Introducing Sam Holleran and Clara Amenyo, both involved with the Center for Urban Pedagogy, better known as CUP. Amenyo is a program manager; Holleran is communications coordinator. CUP is a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that uses design and art to improve civic engagement in New York. 
Brownstoner: What neighborhood do you live in, and how’d you end up there?
CUP: CUP lives in the Old American Can Factory right next to the Gowanus Canal — we were, very thankfully, spared any Sandy-related flooding. We were lucky to get a space here, among other individuals and organizations working in different areas of cultural production.

BS: Can you explain how CUP was founded and what its mission is now?
CUP: We’re a nonprofit organization that uses design and art to increase meaningful civic engagement, particularly for historically under-represented communities. CUP projects demystify the urban policy and planning issues that impact our communities, so that more individuals can better participate in shaping them. We believe that increasing understanding of how these systems work is the first step to better and more diverse community participation.

CUP projects are collaborations of art and design professionals, community-based advocates and policymakers, and our staff. Together we take on complex issues—from the juvenile justice system to zoning law to food access—and break them down into simple, accessible, visual explanations. The tools we create are used by organizers and educators all over New York City and beyond to help their constituents better advocate for their own community needs.

After the jump, how CUP picks its initiatives, its work with students, and what they’re doing in Brooklyn right now…
CUP was founded by group of people with a variety of backgrounds (art, architecture, history, public policy, graphic design) to collaborate on projects investigating how the city works. They made publications, videos, and exhibits on topics like urban renewal, housing subsidies, and the history of public housing. Over time, they brought more and more collaborators, from more varied backgrounds, into their projects, and eventually the methodologies we use today emerged. We still focus on demystifying how the city works, but now we do it with and for the communities that are directly impacted by the issues we address. We’ve found ways to take these methods and apply them so that they have real impacts in the world.

BS: Why is this idea of simplifying complex urban policy and planning issues an important task in a city like New York?
CUP: New York City is extraordinarily complex -— it takes a staggering amount of infrastructure, regulation and policy to make it all work. Much of this is shaped by good intentions: to create a safer city, to make services more accessible, to help people in need. However, the language of bureaucracy is full of jargon and within this system outside interests can overshadow the real needs of communities, policies can go un-enforced or enforced too harshly, or their implementation can be discriminatory.

CUP works towards increasing access to information about the systems that shape our day-to-day lives so that more people can better participate in democratic processes, leading to real social change. Our goal is for there to be more informed, more empowered, and more engaged communities. But we don’t apply this in an abstract way; we really focus our work on creating tools for groups who both want and need them and are facing particular issues in their communities.

BS: How does CUP choose a policy initiative to tackle? Are these issues you’ll notice within a specific demographic or neighborhood, or are these issues that you find affect New Yorkers as a whole?
CUP: We do this in a few different ways…
In our community education programs we have created different structures so that organizations with pressing social justice issues impacting their communities can apply to work with us. In many cases, we organize juries of prominent artists or designers and community organizers or advocates to help us select projects. This is a way of making sure our work is accountable to the audiences we seek to serve.
Sometimes projects are about issues that affect city residents as a whole, such as a recently completed Making Policy Public fold-out poster on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and the threat it poses to New York City’s drinking water; sometimes they’re designed with more specific groups in mind like public housing residents, domestic workers or street vendors.
In our youth education programs, we select projects in a more organic way, based on where the students live, the issues relevant to their school or neighborhood, what topics are in the news at the time of a project and so will be directly observable, or what topics our partner organizations are saying they need help with. Each project is guided by a question about how the city works, such as where does our water come from, or who decides where supermarkets go? We try to pick project topics that relate to the students’ lives, giving them the opportunity to investigate an aspect of their communities.

BS: So what kind of programs are offered in the youth education program? How are New York City kids getting involved and engaged with the city planning process?
CUP: We have two core youth education programs for students in New York City public high schools. Urban Investigations are semester-long or summer projects in which students explore fundamental questions about how the city works using collaborative research and design. They start with a fundamental question about how the city works. Some of these are planning related like “Who decides where new subway stops go?” but others investigate energy supply, bodegas and disaster preparedness. Students and teaching artists go out and interview stakeholders, conduct field research and, ultimately, create a final product that can find a real audience within communities. For a recent project called Old School New School we worked with a group of students who created an interactive website and series of shorts that help middle school students navigate the high school application process.
City Studies are our shorter programs, which can take place after school or in high school classrooms. These programs use design and art as tools to research the city and make connections between topics in the curriculum and the world outside the classroom. For a recent project, students in a 9th grade U.S. Government class hit the streets of Bushwick to experience what federalism looks like first-hand. They looked for evidence of city, state and federal government on signposts, storefronts and license plates and created a booklet called Field Guide to Federalism to share their finding with other students.

BS: Can you tell us what one specific project looks like and explain the reasoning behind the design, images and information used?
CUP: The most recent issue of our poster series Making Policy Public breaks down hydraulic fracturing and its impacts. Most people have heard this term but aren’t really familiar with the system itself: how it works, the scale of the gas extraction, and the danger it poses to water supplies. We worked with an advocacy group, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, and a design team, Papercut, to break down this system in graphic form. During the process there’s a great deal of exchange going on: Often the advocacy group hasn’t worked closely with a designer before and often the designers are more used to conventional commercial clients, where the content is handed to them. In this process, we’re all working together to understand and shape the content. Our staff manage this process and we spend a lot of time helping everyone speak the same language – the advocacy partner learns a lot of design words and concepts, and the designers learn a lot about the topic they are working on. We kind of speak both languages and we help everyone to be on the same page.

We want the poster to be an educational tool that people want to spend time with—not just read and discard. The posters go out to the advocates to distribute to their organizers on the ground and we also sell some of them on our website for folks who want to purchase them as design objects. We were very fortunate this year to get a grant from Sappi Ideas that Matter to install a version of this project as a poster in 200 subway platform locations across the city.

BS: What is CUP working on right now in Brooklyn?
CUP: We are really happy to be collaborating on many different projects right now across the city. We’re just starting an Urban Investigation with the Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick that asks “how much space do you need?” It looks at the mayor’s adAPT competition and, more broadly, the issue of apartment size, from multiple perspectives.
As part of our new Public Access Design (PAD) program, we’re working on a short video on the labor trafficking of Filipina domestic workers with a group called DAMAYAN Migrant Workers Association and PAD Fellow Raj Kottamasu.
We are also looking forward to the launch of a new edition in our Making Policy Public poster series. We’re working with the artist Damon Locks and with Domestic Workers United to visually explain the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — a New York State law that guarantees basic rights and protections to domestic workers. The law is the first of its kind in the nation yet there are lots of nannies, housekeepers and eldercare providers working in the city who don’t know about their new rights and therefore aren’t able to use them.

One last thing we’re really excited about is our new animation “H2 Oh No!” It looks at our city’s combined sewer system and the overflow that occurs after heavy rainfall (something that’s especially relevant in Gowanus).

BS: Finally, your favorites: favorite BK neighborhood, favorite BK building, favorite CUP initiative.
CUP: We work in so many neighborhoods in Brooklyn — it’d be tough to just choose one. Right now, our hearts go out to Red Hook and Coney Island, the Brooklyn neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm.
As for the building…we have a great view of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower from our office window. It has a lovely old school quality that makes you feel like it came out of a Superman comic.
You can’t ask us to pick our favorite project, but right now we’re getting ready to launch our new Zoning Toolkit, which helps communities learn about the city’s zoning laws and understand what proposed changes mean for them. Aside from how useful it is, the best part is that it’s basically a big yellow toolbox full of plastic building blocks.