Sense Charter School is located in Fountain Square in Indianapolis, not far from the University of Indianapolis campus. The school is primarily funded by federal funds, and according to Kate Voss, community outreach coordinator for Sense Charter School, 93 percent of its student population lives below the poverty line. The university developed a partnership with Sense to connect UIndy students to volunteer opportunities and projects that better the community.
The most recent installment of this connection was created in partnership with the Department of Social Work and the Department of Art and Design at the UIndy. Voss said that the goal of the project was to find ways to interact with the community to understand social problems and community desires to create a dialogue between the school and families.
“I wanted to do a project that captured the views and opinions [of the community],” Voss said, “get an authentic conversation with the families I know anecdotally. But I wanted to have them tell me on paper.”
Recent changes in the Fountain Square neighborhood have meant that the school’s families have had to adjust to gentrification and increased police presence. Voss explained that these are subjects that families were hesitant to talk about until this project came about.
The students participating in this project were in the Applied Visual Communication Design class, taught by Assistant Professor of Visual Communication Design Rhonda Wolverton and Associate Professor of Art & Design Julia Taugner. They were assigned to Sense Charter School as their client for the semester.
According to Wolverton, the students met with Voss and designed the plan for how to best interact with the Sense community.
“We wanted to be able to build a relationship of trust with the community,” Wolverton said. “To be able to design in the community’s voice, we created a tool: the postcards.”
Voss initiated the conversation with the Visual Communication Design students by talking about some of the concerns she thought the community might need help with. The class then transformed those concerns into a series of questions that, when answered by the community, would create a narrative from which the school could learn. According to Wolverton, the project shaped into a human-centered design project, which developed into telling stories through postcards.
The questions were each presented on a postcard with a graphic on the front and the question in the back to engage students and parents.
The students enrolled in the course developed the questions in English and Spanish, and created illustrations that would prompt students and their families to engage with the school. The purpose of this was to communicate their wants and needs.
According to Wolverton, the postcards were created with the students, families and overall community in mind.
“They [the Sense students] were proud of it,” she said. “They were happy to be able to share their stories. They were happy that somebody was interested in their story, because when things are tough in their neighborhood, it’s good for the school to reach out and say, ‘we care about you and we want to know how to help you.’”
Starting with questions as simple as “describe your best friend,” the written answers or drawings were telling Voss and the rest of Sense Charter School what participants valued in the community. Voss said the response from the Sense community was overwhelming.
“The first time we introduced the cards was at our Winter Festival,” she said. “We had the cards on a table, and I could see that they were circling the table. And when I started encouraging them to come over and capture their stories, they started responding, and before I knew it, everybody was gathered around the table, and there was enthusiasm.”
By understanding what the children value in their peers and teachers, the staff at Sense learned how to approach the children more effectively. The questions were designed to answer some of the concerns Voss and the rest of the Sense faculty had, but needed to prove that the neighborhood had raised them too.
“There were really powerful observations that I would have underestimated,” Voss said. “We had a seminar with a police officer, and the cards about increased police presence in the neighborhood and what they thought on immigration. All of them [the answers] had long sentences and thoughts.”
Visual Communication Design students, learned how to engage with a community different from their everyday atmosphere at UIndy. Senior visual communication design major Alexandria Pesak said that she was impressed by how invested Sense Charter School was in understanding and improving the neighborhood.
“Working with such an involved school and staff helped open my eyes in realizing the problems within families that are happening just miles down the road from me,” Pesak said. “To have the ability, as a student and as a designer, to reach out to families and children to find what is missing in their community is truly life-changing. It is a blessing to be able to help out the community through my designs.”
The partnership between Sense and UIndy is an ongoing process. According to Wolverton, the current state of the project is the development of an “engagement wall” on the Sense campus. Students and the faculty members are starting research and brainstorming to develop the space.
The engagement wall will be used by Sense staff to continue the dialogue with the community. Visual communication design students from UIndy created a variety of interactive layouts for the Sense staff to use as a guide on the project.
Social work students from UIndy will also use the engagement wall to conduct interviews at the school, and at a school events, like the upcoming Day of the Dead celebration.
According to Voss, the Day of Dead event will bring together the different cultures present in the community for a traditional celebration.
“We work with our diversity.” she said “The Day of the Dead, traditionally a Latino celebration, brings together the Mexicans, Peruvians [and] Guatemalan people. And it’s also for our white families, and that’s important.”
According to Wolverton, the ultimate goal of the UIndy and Sense partnership is to push beyond the division of cultures and classes to improve the community.
“We’ve made sense of who we are,” Wolverton said. “Our next steps will bring the community and Sense closer together.”