By Mariana Rivera-Torres
When I first learned about the Star Barrio Verde Initiative from Prof. Andrea Gerlak and Prof. Adriana Zúñiga, I knew I wanted to get involved. I was inspired by their motivation and by the work they had being doing. Working with green infrastructure in a local High School in Tucson to promote equity and build resilience to climate extremes seemed aligned with my own interests and a natural transition from my work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. I had previously worked with public school teachers in a very different context, but how different could it be?
Although I was happy to be assigned to lead the Art and Education team; in reality, I was clueless. I had only been in Tucson for a couple of months, did not know the city very well, had never been involved in a public art project before, and my knowledge of green infrastructure was minimal. However, I was not alone. Three talented and driven graduate and undergraduate students—Grace Stoner, Abby Collier, and Anita Huang—joined my team. Our goal was to bring art into the project, involve students from Star Academic High School, work together to beautify the school campus, and create awareness of the importance of green infrastructure. Week after week, our team met to make a plan, discuss our options, and try to bring our ideas into reality. Considering I had never done something similar before, I decided to build on some of the skills I learned as a Peace Corps Volunteer and seek the local experts for guidance. Fortunately, my team had a broader artistic knowledge, experience, and understanding of both landscape architecture and public art.
Our first step was to visit the school and meet with Ms. Lyn Racz, the Star Art Teacher, and her students to gage their interest and share with them a little bit about the benefits of green infrastructure. We showed them some maps illustrating the unequal distribution of green spaces and heat in the city of Tucson, shared the original project design, and had a conversation about what role they wanted to have in the process. Although some students expressed interest, many of them doubted we were actually going to take the project into fruition. We noticed students were skeptical but curious, and that Ms. Racz, the art teacher, was genuinely interested in supporting us through the process. With that in mind, we defined our team goals. Firstly, we wanted to find an affordable way to build benches in the school landscape, so that the students could have a place to sit and wait for the bus or alternative transportation when the school is done. Secondly, we wanted to engage Star students as much as possible, particularly in the mosaic design, with the assumption that they would cherish more something they had worked hard to create. Lastly, we wanted to create a few bi-lingual signs, so visitors, family members, and future students would know what the project was about.
Together, the Art and Education Team reached out to an array of local artists, tile shops, like-minded non-profit organizations, and friends of friends that had been involved in similar projects. Despite the fact that we had little to offer in exchange, we were fortunate to connect with three key collaborators in this process: Niki Glen, Joe Silins, and Carlos Valenzuela.
We first met with Niki Glen founder of Glen Studios, who is a kind and talented local artist with vast experience working with schools and communities on public art projects. She mentored us through the initial steps, shared with us her process of working with students, connected us to a network of public artists, inspired us with some of her previous work, and donated enough tile to make four benches possible. Then, we contacted Joe Silins, owner of Tierra Buena Home and Garden, LLC. and an expert in natural building practices. With his help and guidance, we were able to build benches out of concrete blocks, straw bales and plaster, strong enough to endure the Tucson weather. Finally, Carlos Valenzuela, a talented and patient public artist, donated copious amounts of his time to lead and inspire students with his experience and example. Beyond teaching them practical skills, Carlos shared his life story, describing the artistic process as one of healing and self-expression. Carlos and Ms. Racz directed the students in the process to create unique designs for the benches, transform them into mosaics, create and glaze hand-made tiles, and set their final mosaic designs on the benches. In addition, throughout the process, our team worked with three Star students to design and print three educational signs focused on the benefits of rainwater harvesting and pollinator gardens. In the end, we managed to fulfill our goals and gain a broader understanding of project design and management in practice.
Working with Star Barrio Verde Initiative has been, for me, a testimony of the importance and impact of collaboration. Faculty and students from the University of Arizona, working together with local non-governmental organizations, alongside Star students, teachers and staff to make this project possible. Personally, I have learned specific natural building, rainwater harvesting, and mosaic design skills, accompanied by a sense of gratification that comes when the product is done and ideas manifest into reality. But most of all, I learned a lot about Tucson and the realities local teenagers at Star face. I learned that some areas of the city lack access to public green spaces, shade and flood protection, and have limited higher education and employment opportunities. I learned about the students’ dreams and aspirations, and witnessed how art can be a means to bring people together. I also gained a profound respect for High School teachers and local artists, for their hard work and commitment. Finally, I learned the importance of patience, flexibility, and perseverance, no matter the type, location, or scale of a project. I feel grateful to have been and continue to be part of this process.