(Photo by Zach Crizer)
Over the summer, a group of Bedford-Stuyvesant grade-schoolers began learning about the concept of gentrification, a seemingly grown-up topic that they quickly recognized just outside their doors.
With the concept locked squarely under their collective microscopes, the team of kids — known as the DIVAS for Social Justice — interviewed politicians, housing officials and residents, and sought out technology-aided ways of explaining gentrification to their peers and neighbors.
“It’s still happening,” said Xaavi Vericain, the lone boy on the team of youth, ages 8 to 13. “So we chose it and started to create things that would help kids, parents, anyone.”
By Sunday, when the DIVAS for Social Justice (DIVAS is an acronym for Digital, Interactive, Visual Art Sciences, not necessarily a nod to the team’s mostly female membership) took their project to the annual FIRST LEGO League’s Brooklyn qualifier, they had delved into 3D printing, photography and video production in addition to the LEGO robotics project that was in competition at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering.
More than 400 elementary and middle school students participated in the Brooklyn qualifier, with 42 teams vying for about 20 spots in the citywide FLL finals to be held in March. Each team completed a research project and built robots that attempted a series of challenges, such as pushing a lever to “open a door to learning,” in keeping with the event’s theme. They were scored on, and could receive awards in, a variety of categories, from their research to their robots.
It is one of several educational programs offered by FIRST, a nonprofit that encourages youth involvement in STEM fields. It is the 15th year of the group’s partnership with NYU Poly.
As usual, Brooklyn had the most participants of any borough. But for FIRST Executive Director Pat Daly, it’s the steady advancement of the kids, who often compete for several years, that is most gratifying.
“What fascinates me is each year they get a little bit better,” she said, pointing out the new technology and capabilities that popped up, like the DIVAS’ use of 3D printing.
The DIVAS had one of the most striking research presentations: about a block’s worth of model homes complete with 3D-printed versions of the brownstones common in their neighborhood.
In some cases, the models were inspired by actual buildings familiar to the young researchers, like a bright pink brownstone that stands down the street from the home of Bahiyah Leito.
The students paired them with photos they took themselves, portraying memorable sights around the neighborhood they walk every day, where they have seen the forces of gentrification overtake buildings and families. They also created a TV program that featured “changing channels for changing neighborhoods,” and compared a protected historic district with areas that didn’t carry that distinction.
Clarisa James, the executive director of DIVAS for Social Justice, said the students, who come from throughout the neighborhood, did the work themselves after receiving instruction on the various technologies. And most were suddenly spotting effects of gentrification in daily life.
Nearly every team member had a vivid memory of a change on their street. One saw three families sent to a homeless shelter buy rising rents; another recalled a family fighting a landlord over fire damage, only to give up and see their home sold for more than $1 million.
“They were able to relate to it through those everyday things in their lives,” she said. “So it was relevant.”
The concern for the team was not the individual cases, but the underlying issue, which they found was not widely recognized.
“The amount of people who actually knew about it was really low,” Leito, the girl who lives near the pink brownstone, said. “They just didn’t stop to think about it.”