Juxtaposition Arts’ Youth-Driven Environmental Design
By: Genevieve Poist
**Disclaimer: Juxtaposition Arts is featured on the Twin Cities Wheel in our Products & Services category; however, the organization’s work and classification as a design firm that trains and employs youth to enact environmental design projects in their communities in an effort to create social impact in the built environment prompted us to profile JXTA in this week’s environmental design feature.
In Minneapolis, a city well known for its environmentally conscious and naturalist ethos, environmental design for social impact likely brings to mind efforts to engage the city’s natural resources amidst the design of the built environment. For Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), an art and design education social-enterprise that connects talented youth in North Minneapolis to opportunities in the art and design fields, however, environmental design is facilitated through a different resource.
For JXTA, and specifically the JXTA Environmental Design Lab, the practice of environmental design is channeled through North Minneapolis’ biggest asset: its young people. JXTA invests in the youth of its neighborhood in the pursuit of community-driven environmental design projects with the knowledge that such an investment provides long-term, environmental impact in North Minneapolis by not only addressing pressing physical design problems in the area with a localized understanding and observational lens, but also by equipping new generations of residents with the skills and experience needed to design the future of the neighborhood. In the words of Davu Seru, former JXTA student and acting Communications Manager for the organization, “Youth culture is one of America’s greatest exports. We see the youth of North Minneapolis as our greatest community asset.”
JXTA began and continues with a youth empowerment and educational mission, enabling the youth of North Minneapolis to enter the creative workforce with tangible skills and experiences while contributing to the revitalization of their communities through community-driven design projects. The process of designing via the city’s young people creates social impact not only through the actual environmental design projects that students carry out, but also via the economic and creative transformation of an entire generation of community members who can continue to influence environmental design efforts in their neighborhood for years to come.
Utilizing Local Assets for Community-Specific Environmental Design
In 1995, DeAnna Cummings, Roger Cummings, and Peyton Russell began operating what they called the Juxtaposition Studio Arts Program out of Russell’s personal art studio in North Minneapolis. The program began as a youth arts education initiative, birthed from a shared belief that by engaging and employing young urban artists in hands-on projects, JXTA could help create pathways to self-sufficiency for young people otherwise excluded from both creative and economic opportunity in their under-invested North Minneapolis neighborhood.
In 2001, JXTA purchased three buildings in North Minneapolis and expanded its focus to engage youth-driven environmental design efforts in the community. At this time, JXTA initiated the Remix/Streetlife collaboration with the University of Minnesota College of Design and Department of Landscape, expanding JXTA’s youth arts programs to include fields of creative placemaking and work in the built and natural environment. These efforts produced the 2007 2nd Avenue North Sculpture Park, done in collaboration with 4RM+ULA and Mercury Mosaics, and the 2009 St. Satoko Pocket Park, completed under the mentorship of Satoko Muratake. These initial environmental design efforts became the impetus for the 2010 introduction of JXTALabs, a social enterprise effort to equip youth with art and design training and employ them to do client-based projects in the North Minneapolis neighborhood across several creative fields, including environmental design.
JXTA’s specific approach to environmental design in North Minneapolis—namely, the practice of employing youth to carry out environmental design projects—is the result of two conscious decisions made to maximize social impact in JXTA’s environmental design efforts. First, in an effort to create social impact from within the neighborhood and build a sustainable, inclusive engine of growth for Minneapolis creative industries, JXTA’s environmental design approach is driven by North Minneapolis’ abundant population of youth—specifically youth of color—and a system that educates and empowers them beyond JXTA’s individual design projects. Since nearly one-third of North Minneapolis is under the age of 18, and the community contains the city’s largest concentration of youth , directing JXTA’s environmental design energy to enabling these young locals to act as designers provides a means of sustainable environmental design that invests in and equips the neighborhood’s future generations for design practice and social impact concern, all the while falling in line with JXTA’s educational roots.
Secondly, JXTA’s approach to environmental design responds to a belief that promoting creativity and design in a neighborhood in hopes of increasing urban vitality (in the way of Richard Florida’s notorious “Creative Class”) is all too likely to displace residents or fail to engage a community’s real needs unless it is based within a neighborhood’s existing social networks and “fosters [the] collective capacity [of an area], especially in low-wealth communities.”  Employing local youth to address environmental design issues in North Minneapolis does just this, engaging community needs via the neighborhood’s existing residents instead of enlisting an external firm or designer.
A youth-produced zine composing the findings of Tactical Urbanism design students who apprenticed with social engagement work along West Broadway.
By employing youth to drive environmental design practice, JXTA ensures a business model that both utilizes the naturally occurring resources of the community and makes use of the existing residents and social dynamics of the neighborhood in the creative process. Further, like a typical design firm, JXTA takes on client work and employs the trained youth as its designers’ apprentices. JXTA’s young employees receive free training and then work alongside professional artists and designers to produce tangible deliverables for clients. Students are paid for their work, creating the added social impacts of applicable training and experience that students can apply elsewhere in the future, as well as paid employment that nurtures the community’s workforce and provides job opportunity where there is often none. 
With this model, the concentrated aims of JXTA’s environmental design projects—and the locally-driven design process behind its solutions— contribute to significant social impact in the neighborhood that addresses its existing issues of missing economic opportunity and community disinvestment. JXTA’s youth-driven environmental design practice is able to positively impact the community, be it through creating generational change and developing future community leaders, acting as a connector between community members and government officials, or securing investment for locals while encountering the realities of gentrification.
The Design Possibilities of Empowering Local Youth
By engaging the community’s young people to drive its design work, JXTA is able to adequately respond to pressing design challenges and needs in the community that may otherwise be ignored by city powers or external design forces.
For instance, the West Broadway Transit Study began when JXTA students and designers noticed there were no benches at Minneapolis’ most-trafficked bus stop, coincidentally situated across the street from JXTA headquarters. As a sort-of guerilla environmental design response, JXTA created a rogue architectural intervention by designing, building, and inserting benches into the area despite not first securing a permit. This unapproved design effort started a conversation with official decision-makers, prompting the city to hire JXTA to do the necessary community engagement work to appropriately address and design for bus stop needs in North Minneapolis. Because local youth drive its design work, JXTA was able to notice and address a community need—many JXTA students use the bus stop due to its proximity to JXTALabs—that would have likely remained unknown to city officials and external design forces with the power to make official environmental design interventions.
Environmental Design apprentices approaching the Upper Harbor Terminal site by kayak.
Responding less to an observed need and more to an opportunity to engage the redevelopment of their community and position themselves to benefit from the associated investment of potential gentrification, JXTA youth are currently engaged in efforts to re-imagine the waterfront in their North Minneapolis neighborhood. Although access to this natural amenity has historically been denied to North Minneapolis residents because of the positioning of now-defunct industrial sites, JXTA’s Environmental Design Lab, along with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, and City of Minneapolis, are in the process of reimagining what can be done in the area as part of the design of the Great Northern Green Way Trail Link.
Last summer, JXTA youth began the design process by going on a bike and kayak trip to experience the river and its approach to the neighborhood. After the immersive site visit, students presented designs and studies of their ideas to environmental design professors and students at the University of Minnesota, as well as Planning Director for the City of Detroit, Maurice Cox, who specializes in the democratic design and citizen planning JXTA’s environmental design efforts seek to practice. Although the project is ongoing, it illustrates JXTA’s dedication to taking responsibility for the neighborhood in which it is situated while equipping and empowering local youth to demand that potential investment in the community be secured for existing residents (rather than procuring investment that only leads to displacement).
According to JXTA Communications Manager Davu Seru, “If organizations are going to come in and invest in the community, we insist that it be through a negotiation with the community itself rather than selling land off to the highest bidder.” Ensuring this investment is again accomplished by empowering, equipping, and utilizing the community’s resource of youth. “Our focus is more internal: we invest in our properties and community and that builds the kind of capital that people need to determine the future of their communities.”
Challenges and the Importance of Natural Assets
Despite these productive results, JXTA’s system of youth-driven design hasn’t been without challenge. In previous years, the program, while successful at employing the neighborhood’s youth in its own capacity, has struggled to connect its students to creative careers in the workforce outside of JXTA’s micro-enterprises. To solve this problem, and again, to continue the organization’s core mission of investing in the sustainable development of young people, JXTA launched the Pathways to College and Careers (PaCC) program. The three-year-old initiative provides JXTA youth with workshops in college essay writing, resume creation, financial management for artists and creatives, and portfolio development, and has linked up with external organizations to provide more opportunities for internships in different arts and design fields that will help vault JXTA youth into paid work that utilizes their specialized training and practical design experience beyond the organization’s existing apprenticeship model.
By recognizing its community’s biggest assets and building a system of environmental design driven by those resources, JXTA continues to drive sustainable environmental design efforts in North Minneapolis that address the racial and economic disparities of the area from multiple angles. The lesson, then, for other environmental designers, is two-fold. Creating a system of design around youth education and empowerment creates social impact beyond any firm or organization’s individual projects—however impactful they may be—as it begets an entire system that positively influences the future economic vitality of a neighborhood without displacing—and instead enabling—its residents.
Secondly, although not every city, neighborhood, or environmental design firm may have access to a large population of young people, recognizing a community’s naturally occurring assets and building a system of environmental design practice that functions by engaging and activating those site-specific resources—be they individuals, natural resources, or industries and economies—creates a sustainable form of social impact environmental design deeply rooted in and of service to the neighborhood itself.
Genevieve Poist is a writer, artist, and researcher whose work has been featured in places like the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City. Genevieve is interested in the social constructions of our spatial and cultural identities, from urban cores to rural americana, and the hidden narratives emerging amidst these shifting landscapes. Genevieve holds a Masters in City and Regional Planning from the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a BS in Architecture and BA in Philosophy from the University of Maryland. She is currently based out of Austin, Texas, but can often be found ruminating and creating in other parts of the country. You can learn more at www.genevievepoist.com.
All photos courtesy of Juxtaposition Arts
1. Kris Nelson and DeAnna Cummings, “Putting Creativity to Work,” Cura Reporter (Summer 2011), 19-25 pp.
2. M.J. Stern and S.C. Seifert, “From Creative Economy to Creative Society,” Creativity and Change (January 2008), 16 pp.
3. Kris Nelson and DeAnna Cummings, “Putting Creativity to Work,” Cura Reporter (Summer 2011), 19-25 pp.