Products of Design MFA student Zena Verda Pesta's thesis, entitled State of the Art Project, explores apprenticeship programs for teens partnering with local making- and process-based businesses, schools, and local practitioners of art and design.
Early on, Zena focused on the relationships between mentor and protégé, teacher and student. She set out to design for an audience of practitioners and kids, with a goal of providing intergenerational environments that could lead to job creation and community mentorship. Her work investigated the benefits of keeping making-based processes a part of our daily lives, and explored opportunities for individuals and communities to relate to an ever-changing climate of technology and the evolving relationship we have to our labor.
Zena’s thesis research exposed her to a multitude of topics, including: learning theories, educational reform, behavioral psychology, behavioral economics, attachment theory, theory of play and experiential learning, multi-strandedness, social allocation, mentorship, apprenticeship, art as a vehicle for learning, non-profit arts organization business models and their interior infrastructure, social practice, the Department of Education's existing programs for youth workers, barter systems, and funding models from private to public. Her goal in the research phase was to survey a large swath of information while uncovering a path without forcing connections.
Interviewees confirmed that in non-profit arts education, one is working from an asset-driven model—essentially, "working with what you have".
After speaking with alternative education leaders and experts such as Carolina Zamora, Education Coordinator for the Learning Through Art at the Guggenheim Museum, and Petrushka Bazin Larsen, Program Director of the Laundromat Project, it became clear to Zena that flexibility is key to the operations of learning. These women and other interviewees confirmed that in non-profit arts education, one is working from an asset-driven model—essentially, "working with what you have". Zena also gained inspiration and knowledge from a peripheral project, in partnership with Zago, which surveyed the ecosystem of the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers. This experience reinforced the notion that the systems in education and other social sectors are made of people, and that to help build robust communities, we can use design to craft relationships, paying close attention to interior infrastructure in order to support the workforce and understand its capacity.
Simultaneously, Zena was investigating interactions between adults and kids in the alternative learning landscape. Rapid prototyping utilized low-resolution, high-fidelity surveys, conversation cards, curriculum development, and workshops leveraging alternative teaching methods. Zena brought ideas to life at Beam Center, where she curated and developed workshops that focused on two-way learning between adults and kids.
She entertained conversations about business models and alternative value exchanges with practitioners participating in these workshops. Eventually, overlapping areas presented points of intervention—places that could be looked at more closely and further evaluated. Through these conversations, Zena met Andrew Field of Rockaway Taco. Andrew shared his community-building strategy of employing local teens in the Rockaways. Around the same time, John Thackara, author and design thinking, remarked that “the most memorable and celebrated thesis projects are nearly always in-depth explorations of a real-life example.” These encounters encouraged Zena to target a specific issue.
Finally, Zena addressed the issue of rising youth unemployment. She focused on how to strengthen the ecosystem between local businesses and schools. In March 2014, The New York Times ran an article by Steven Greenhouse that profiled the current minimum-wage worker, and Zena found it troubling that teenagers were no longer included in our labor force. The Center for Economic Policy Research pointed to the need to create more opportunities for kids to work in skilled jobs that are community oriented.
Zena realized that she could use her passion for creating hands-on experience for kids along with her knowledge of design to guide her in this pursuit. She surveyed existing models used by the Department of Education and interviewed its stakeholders, as well as attended meetings at the National Mentoring Partnership. Zena had enlightening and candid conversations with Tom Pendleton, Sr. Director of Learning to Work Initiatives at NYC Department of Education, along with Scott Jackson, a teacher at the Brooklyn International High School. In discussing prospective internship sites, both men made it clear that the infrastructure needed to be strong and that the workload needed to be distributed amongst people in order for these systems to produce virtuous cycles. They told Zena that more people were needed to be involved in creating and sustaining these programs.
State of the Art Project set it sights on building strategies which are sustainable and resilient. It aspires to help young people understand their own capacity and to reframe questions about their education.
The State of the Art Project consultancy was formed to work with local businesses and schools to create job apprenticeships. These businesses see the value in “on-the-job learning” and in preserving their methods; they also disperse the responsibility of learning into a larger community. State of the Art Project set it sights on building strategies which are sustainable and resilient. It aspires to help young people understand their own capacity and to reframe questions about their education.
To begin prototyping, Zena partnered with Zachary Golper, the owner and operator of the French artisanal bakery Bien Cuit in Brooklyn, NY. Zachary, who prides himself on using heirloom grains, is dedicated to learning-through-doing, and had previously tried to start an apprenticeship program without success. State of the Art Project’s role was to investigate the failed pilot, and use the thesis research, connections, and support to help build a sustainable model. A pilot was designed to test assumptions about a sustainable model in preparation for launch. It was a way to communicate the mission and vision to the stakeholders with accessible maps and infographics, build a peer support network, and gather pertinent information in digestible bits. Leveraging system thinking, the thesis examines The Department of Education’s internship programs in New York City, and how Bien Cuit could take advantage of these programs. Recommendation included strategies to intervene in the system, using the existing infrastructure, and then strengthening it with available resources.
For the future, Zena imagines an online platform populated by success stories, acting as a point of reference for assessment and celebration. She also hopes to create a model which could be self-sustaining through barter practices.The pilot with Bien Cuit was launched in the winter of 2014, and the work was mostly pro-bono—with the exception of value exchange of her services for their bread. Zena would love to be able to help other local businesses to connect with teens, and for the work to be compensated in non-monetary means.
During her first year in the program, Zena had an influential moment in August when she discovered George Murdock’s Universals of Culture. John Thackara writes in In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, “These universals of culture are a gigantic 'to do' list for service designers. Take one of these aspects of daily life, improve it, and figure out how to benefit from it in a non-monetary way.” Zena took on that challenge and is excited to keep pursuing work of this nature.
Read more about the project, including subject matter experts and research protocols in the PDF above. See more of Zena Verda Pesta's work at her website soulmagical.comand email her at zpesta[at]gmail[dot]com.