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Public Works: Empowering Girls to Build Strong Communities

The Femme 2 STEM program teaches teenage girls to design and create public space.

Image courtesy of D2F.

Image courtesy of D2F.

Roseland, a community on Chicago’s Far South Side, has become well known for two reasons: it was the birthplace of Barack Obama’s career as an activist, and it is a violent, troubled stretch of one of the most violent, troubled cities in America. There are around 44,000 people living in Roseland. Since the start of 2007, there have been 137 homicides. Fifteen thousand residents have been declared “food insecure.”

But in spite, or very probably because, of this desperate situation, community participation in Roseland is disproportionately high. One of the groups striving to make Roseland a better place to live is Demoiselle 2 Femme (D2F), a nonprofit organization that offers community programs to adolescent girls on the Far South Side. D2F has been around since 1994, but has been winning some of its greatest praise for a relatively new program, Femme 2 STEM, which empowers girls aged 14 to 18 to improve their neighbourhoods through science, technology, engineering, and math (S.T.E.M., get it?). By taking part in Femme 2 STEM, girls gain the skills and knowledge to become “social environmentalists,” addressing and raising awareness of community needs and public health risks.

Participants meet for six hours—two Saturdays per month during the school year. Learning activities include field trips, college tours, and visits from guest speakers. In the autumn, sessions focus on architectural design, engineering, and technology, while winter and spring are reserved for medical and health science. In the summer, to cap off their participation in the program, the girls take part in a three-week STEM design-and-build “bootcamp,” during which they apply what they’ve learned during the year to the creation of a community space. Aided by partners including Northwestern University, Chicago’s public school district, the Chicago Architecture Foundation, and local architecture firm Latent Design, D2F can offer girls a first-class, hands-on learning experience.

In 2012, Femme 2 STEM kicked off with a two-week bootcamp pilot project that saw the girls design and build a playscape in a derelict Roseland lot. The project was a hit, winning the Chicago region Metropolitan Planning Council’s “Space In Between” Placemaking Contest. In 2012-2013, the program was expanded to last throughout the school year. The 2013 bootcamp building project resulted in an underused classroom at a Roseland high school being transformed into a designated “safe zone” where students could meet and work on healthy community initiatives like school spirit–building and anti-violence campaigns. This summer, participants will travel to Philadelphia for a two-day design-build project.

Here in Toronto, efforts have for some time been made to draw more girls into the still-overwhelmingly-male world of STEM education and careers. But it’s the hands-on approach and real-world applications of Femme 2 STEM that make that program so unique and so admirable. The young people taking part walk away knowing they’ve had a hand in bettering their own community. They can be confident in the knowledge that they have applied their learning in a real, and extremely challenging, urban setting. As Latent Design explains, the design-and-build bootcamp “grow[s] from the firm beliefs that young adults are both some of our most important agents of change in their communities and that creating opportunities for them to directly change or impact the world around them is critical for helping them grow into powerful leaders.”

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