Making our own tools

Students from Parsons and WHEELS talk about the calendar tool designed by Parsons students, and how this tool helped students engage as a team to figure out their own system, carry out their own ideas, and make something new through prototyping.

The introduction of event planning through a calendar activity and permanent component of the cafe allowed everyone to develop ownership and sense of community. Being able to think months ahead allowed students to be more strategic and mindful of other people’s tastes, preferences and time—this is how we got to know each other. It also surfaced real world problems, for example of prioritization and management. This is the power of service design.

Rolando Murillo, New School student

In selecting a well-known-to-us-at WHEELS artifact, like a calendar, Parsons students offered “tools*” that offered possibilities for thinking through implications of would-be-goings-on in day-to-day runnings of El Cafe as a pop up cafe at WHEELS.  The genius of suggesting the calendar as an artifact in that moment nudged us at WHEELS to think through would-be-uses of the space in ways that reminded us that El Cafe necessarily would exist within the confines of the physical space of room 420 at WHEELS, and as such we be bound by things like already-prioritized uses of the room (i.e. classes and teacher meetings).  

The shared use of the calendar, then, was incredibly successful in the moment, as a design exercise; it allowed us to mess about with notions who who would do what work, how we might schedule open/not hours, and how to best track requests for the space.  And yet, we rarely (if ever) used the calendar.  Instead, we framed scheduling (largely through face to face negotiations with the adults at WHEELS who teach in the room, which was more in keeping with long-established school culture) of the room after school as connected to El Cafe, even when coffee and food were not at the center of the happenings.  The Critical Theory and Social Justice Club claims it was born in that room, over lunches made possible (free of charge) by the availability of a fridge and a microwave, and supplemented by a pay-what-you-wish honor system (for coffee and snacks).  WHEELS graduating classes of 2016 and 2017 have planned and launched fundraisers in El Cafe. The class of 2018 is next in line.  Auditions for The Possibility Project are an annual event in El Cafe. Interviews for student docent gigs at The American Museum of Folk Art are in El Cafe. WHEELS College Access room staff hold overflow group sessions in El Cafe.  

* At WHEELS, we have sought and seek to problematize notions of “helping” in our work with external partners.  As folks in community together in a very public New York City school, we receive lots of offers for “help” from folks in corporate posts, governmental agencies, and universities.  This imagined notion of “help” often overlooks WHEELS folks’ senses of agency, WHEELS folks’ understanding of self-determination, and our WHEELS histories (collective and not).   

Kerry MacNeil, WHEELS teacher