Workshop seeks new perspectives

The six-foot model of Medford with moveable wood blocks depicting buildings might evoke memories of kindergarten. But Gerardo Sandoval and James Rojas use the model as a tool for conducting public outreach because it allows residents to interact with their city in a personal way, which helps planners gain insight to changes people want in their neighborhoods.

While community members rearranged building blocks, they opened up about their concerns and desires for spaces around and in their neighborhoods. Participants wanted to see the city provide for better accessibility to biking infrastructure in town, further address discrimination issues, and increase active public spaces and parks. 

Gerardo Sandoval and James Rojas at the Greater Medford Cultural Fair
Above: Assistant Professor Gerardo Sandoval (right) and urban planner James Rojas at the Greater Medford Cultural Fair. Photograph courtesy Gerardo Sandoval.

The model was used at the annual Greater Medford Cultural Fair recently to initiate a public engagement project where Sandoval, an assistant professor in the UO Department of Planning, Public Policy and Management, and James Rojas, a Los Angeles-based urban planner, interacted with more than a hundred people to understand their perspective of the city.

Sandoval’s class “Public Participation in Diverse Communities” is building upon outreach at the multicultural fair by conducting additional participatory workshops in in Medford. The class began to understand the context in Medford by organizing two panels of local Latino leaders who provide services to the Latino community. These panels consisted of business entrepreneurs, the police department’s multicultural liaison, community college instructors, social service personnel, members of the media, and library staff members. 

Sandoval’s class is part of the Sustainable Cities Year Program (SCYP), a partnership between the University of Oregon and the City of Medford. The program gives students the opportunity to solve real world problems in their academic area while the city benefits from the students’ ideas on how to complete projects that benefit residents and their town.

In May, the class will initiate more workshops in Medford with the help of Rojas. Rojas will teach his method to Sandoval’s students, who will then jointly conduct workshops in Medford at Latino-owned small businesses, enabling students to take their outreach methods to the communities instead of having community members come to them.

“What is good about bringing attention to equity issues through [the Sustainable Cities Initiative] is that when cities usually think about sustainability, they talk only about the environment as if issues of inclusion, discrimination, and income inequality were not a part of the environmental discourse,” says Sandoval. “Just think about environmental justice issues—is that not part of sustainability? Equity is definitely a part of the environmental discourse. If you have a group that is excluded from participating, for whatever reason that is, then it just breeds inequality and marginalization.”

Greater Medford Cultural Fair
Above: Residents of Medford were excited to explore options for future development through using movable building models and other objects representing changes they’d like to see in their neighborhoods. Photograph courtesy Gerardo Sandoval.

Students participating in the class say they look forward to more experience using outreach methods.

“I’m really excited about the workshops,” says Liz Rickles, a student in Sandoval’s class. “I’m excited to learn this specific method that James Rojas is going to teach us. It’s great to be able to learn from a professional who does this for a living, then to actually go out and do the method with him.”

Often, minority populations don’t have a voice in local government, says Sandoval, who also serves as associate director for the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies at UO. Despite comprising 12 percent of the Medford population, according to the 2010 census data, Latinos lack representation on the city council and in other public matters.

“If cities want to do public outreach to low-income Latino communities, you can’t expect people to come to public hearings and to do the usual thing,” says Sandoval. “You have to go to the people. You have to go to where they work, where they play, where they worship, and where they shop, and be willing to think outside the box.  That is what I’m trying to teach my students with the help of James Rojas.”

Which explains the moveable building models and interaction with community members. Sandoval’s class will set up workshops at two different Latino small businesses that will run all day May 24-25. Students will take turns interacting with community members to see if connecting with different people in a new environment will yield the same key concerns in the community that were uncovered at the multicultural fair in September. 

“Latino small businesses are related to public outreach because my research is showing that they’re more than just businesses,” Sandoval says. “They’re also a type of community resource for the low-income Latino community, as they provide important resources for information on jobs and community events, and this helps for creating a sense of belonging and a welcoming environment. They’re also a way to connect back to their homeland because of the products they’re selling and because of the remittances they are sending back to their communities in Latin America.”

The students in Sandoval’s class are already seeing the results of their work with Latino community members. “A distrust of government is the biggest factor,” Rickles says of those in the community. “The typical way that governments communicate is still public meetings, and that is something that doesn’t really work. Saying something like ‘All of you come to my meeting at this time at this place’ isn’t really working for people anymore. “

The class hopes to gain insights into how the Latino community envisions Medford in the future, what they want to change, and what current issues they identify. They then hope to use the information to initiate change.

Nicole Ginley-Hidinger is a senior in journalism and advertising.

May 8, 2014