'One Small Project' yields big rewards for Ball State students

Topics: Immersive Learning, College of Architecture and Planning

April 20, 2007

One Small Project
Ball State students participating in "One Small Project" help prepare meals at Second Helpings, an Indianapolis organization that converts rescued food into 50,000 meals every month.
A group of Ball State students had but one this semester. They were credited with a full load of classes, however, and will tell you it was the busiest, most provocative semester they've had thus far.

Thirteen students spent the semester immersed in "One Small Project," a seminar at the university's Virginia Ball Center for Creative Inquiry that focused on "leftover" people, materials and spaces that exist in every city, as well as the potential of those resources for constructing new homes.

An estimated 1 billion leftover people - typically called squatters, self-builders, informal settlers, displaced persons or even slum dwellers - claim forgotten spaces in cities and live in unauthorized dwellings often made of scavenged, discarded materials, says Wes Janz, architecture professor and seminar adviser.

"Certainly you've been touched by one, even if reluctantly," he said, describing such encounters in imagined yet informed detail. "A begging mother in Mumbai laying her sleeping baby's head in your lap as you idle in an open three-wheeler, and you wave her off. An old woman standing curbside in St. Petersburg tries to sell you a handful of peas, and you walk on. A child recycler in Buenos Aires claws through your garbage as you watch from a window."

Why attempt to seek relevance in the lives of leftover people?

Leftover people are the largest builders of housing in the world, busily creating the cities of the future, Janz claims. These people, who build continuously and constantly imagine improvements and additions, have a passion that should inspire architects, he added.

"The goal of the students is not to change the world, however, but to change themselves and some of the people they come into contact with as a result of the project," Janz said. "To them, this small difference is big enough."

To accomplish their objective, the students explored the borderland between California and Mexico for close-up views of people living on skid row. They worked with a group that was administering a needle exchange program. During the West Coast trek, they also explored the architecture that permeated the landscape.

From their observations, they learned to be quite conscious about being observed, said participant Katie Townsend.

"When we were walking through Los Angeles' skid row, we were concerned about what facial expressions we should be making and how we should look," she recalled. "When people were joking with us, we didn't know what our reactions should be."

On another trip closer to home, the group visited Flint, Mich. Because of a shrinking population, the city is demolishing block after block of abandoned homes. While there, the students created a time-lapse short film documenting one home being reduced to rubble.

In Indianapolis, the students also helped prepare meals at Second Helpings, which converts more than 100,000 pounds of rescued food into 50,000 meals every month. They participated, too, in a quilting group and helped redesign a community room at the Colonial Park supportive rental housing community site created and managed by Partners in Housing, which works to create homes for people with special needs.

Bringing together all that they've learned for the last phase of their project, they finally cataloged and organized their semester's worth of work - the end result being the creation of an exhibit at the Dean Johnson Gallery in Indianapolis, which will be on display until April 26.

Related events include:

  • "Home and Homelessness" - 6:30 to 8:30  p.m., April 18, the Blue Triangle Residence Hall (a Partners in Housing community site in downtown Indianapolis)
  • "Volunteerism and the Role of Government" - Noon to 2 p.m., April 25, College of Architecture and Planning, South Courtyard
  • "Immigration in Indianapolis"- 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,  April 27, University Park (downtown Indianapolis)

"The students really did an outstanding job on what they found powerful or poignant during the semester - the things that punched them in the gut," Janz said. "They really turned the lens back on themselves and worked to determine who they want to be."

Additional information on the project can be found at www.bsu.edu/onesmallproject.

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