It started with a map. Then came the sticky notes, and a web of ideas spun across the wall; a design charette was underway. A familiar process, but in a new context—on Manitoulin Island, with Indigenous youth as the participants instead of architects or urban planners. It was early August in the Unceded Territory of the Wiikwemikoong First Nation, and a group of high school students was envisioning a more sustainable and socially harmonious future for their school. As their multi-coloured stickies spread across the wall, an image of the existing school gradually came to be usurped by notions of what could be.
Sculptures. Murals. Outdoor Seating Area. Totem Poles. Lodges for Cultural Practices. Water Fill Station. Outdoor Volleyball Court. Study Room. Lots of Swings. Rock Climbing. A Place to Cry.
The charrette was part of a week-long digital design camp organized by Toronto-based educational charity No.9 in partnership with non-profit Focus Forward for Indigenous Youth. Over the course of five days, students were guided from design conceptualization through to SketchUp models, culminating in presentations to the wider Wiikwemikoong community.
Led by executive director Andrew Davies, No.9 takes a holistic approach to design, highlighting the intersections of art and architecture with placemaking and ecology. “People aren’t used to thinking of art and the built environment as politically vital,” Davies tells me. It’s a shame, he says, considering the strong activist tradition in public art, and the serious effects of architecture on social relations. The organization’s youth camps aim to teach kids basic design skills—but also help them to see the political and cultural implications of design.
No.9’s camps provide technical and procedural guidance, but are conceived with plenty of room for students’ own priorities to shape their creations. In Indigenous communities, the openness of this approach is crucial. Davies and the other facilitators don’t intimately understand the cultural complexities of Wiikwemikoong First Nation—and they don’t pretend to. In both Indigenous and settler communities, says Davies, “youth recognize ecological and social problems, but they need to be given the agency to provide solutions.”
Beyond their summer programs, the organization is starting to make real-world impact. This fall, they are opening a rural education hub called No.9 Gardens near Kingston, developed in collaboration with Toronto-based Office OU. And in Hamilton, Ontario, they partnered with Bennetto Elementary School to create a suite of new outdoor public spaces, including a soccer field, celebration tree, outdoor classroom and custom-designed bench. Naturally, the students participated in the design. “In Hamilton, what we achieved wouldn’t be what it is without the students,” says Davies.
For the designers leading the programs, the lessons they learn may be just as vital as the ones imparted. While students come to grasp the social importance of design, the facilitators learn the art of listening, which, if nothing else, ought to be the first step in the art of design.