Diversifying the Profession Through K-12 Outreach

by Allison Ong, Student ASLA

Chinook Middle School students used models to communicate their ideas for a new open space on their campus. / image: Allison Ong

In the first year of my MLA, I was assigned a review of Gina Ford, FASLA’s talk, “Into an Era of Landscape Humanism.” Her opening words have stayed with me ever since: “Fifty years ago,” she begins, “the voice of our profession was eerily prescient, undeniably smart, and powerfully inspired. It was also, let’s admit it, almost entirely white and male.” I am often reminded of Ford’s statement, as I continue to observe the lack of diversity she speaks of in firms, classes, conferences, and other spaces. Throughout graduate school, I’ve kept a constant eye open for opportunities to diversify our field. The traditional avenues for engagement presented to me, namely departmental diversity committees, didn’t satisfy my desire to act. I wanted to do something. I just didn’t know what that something was.

About a year ago an opportunity finally presented itself. The Student Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects at the University of Washington (UWASLA)’s mentorship program assigned me Laura Enman, Associate ASLA, of Swift Company, as a mentor. Meeting for the first time at a coffee shop, we bonded over our shared interest in improving diversity in landscape architecture. In that moment, a light bulb went off for both of us. We imagined an outreach program to empower students from diverse K-12 schools through landscape architecture. Laura was already connected to a non-profit after-school program, Techbridge Girls, whose goal is to “excite, educate, and equip girls from low-income communities by delivering high-quality STEM programming to empower them to achieve economic mobility and better life chances.” Within weeks, through Techbridge Girls and support from WASLA and UWASLA, we scheduled our first outreach opportunity.

Tyee High School students were completely immersed while drawing their ideas in plan. The Youth Outreach WASLA student volunteer blends right in... / image: Allison Ong
Tyee High School students were completely immersed while drawing their ideas in plan. The Youth Outreach WASLA student volunteer blends right in… / image: Allison Ong

At my first school visit, I paired up with local professional, Gina Kim of HBB Landscape Architecture. We made our way to a small classroom in a South Seattle high school where we faced our audience, all of whom were young women of color. Gina and I presented a short slideshow entitled, “What is Landscape Architecture?” We finished with an aerial photo of an empty lot adjacent to their school. “Do you know what this is?” we asked. Though the students had walked by the lot before, none of them remembered anything about it. We then asked them to think like landscape architects and imagine what that space could be. After a quick drawing demonstration and group brainstorm, they got to work designing.

Students at Tyee High School were asked to choose two adjectives for the concept for their design. These students chose ‘relaxing’ and ‘inspiring.’ / image: Allison Ong

We were amazed at how quickly the students turned into designers. Using site photos, trace, and markers, they developed design concepts, discussed accessibility and planting, and explored the experience for human and non-human visitors. Twenty minutes later, the students presented their designs to the class. There were sculpture gardens, rabbit farms, sports fields, and public parks. Before leaving, Gina and I asked some follow-up questions. “What do you think of landscape architecture?” earned variations of “It’s pretty cool!” (which can mean a lot coming from teenagers!). “Could you see yourself being a landscape architect?” garnered enthusiastic nods. Before we left we asked, “What did you learn today?” One last hand was raised and a girl answered, “I will never look at an empty lot the same way again.”

These students designed a sculpture garden bounded by rows of evergreens as a buffer from the adjacent street. / image: Allison Ong

That first visit was in the spring of 2017. Since then, Laura and I have continued to develop the outreach program, which we eventually named YOWASLA (Youth Outreach WASLA). We’ve focused on building relationships with teachers and after-school programs in South Seattle, raising awareness within student and professional communities, and cultivating additional opportunities to visit schools.

The school visits remain most exciting for me. During our pilot year, we were able to send four pairs of volunteers, comprised of one college student and one professional, to four K-12 classrooms in South Seattle. For every visit, students benefit from the mentorship of the volunteers, the college student benefits from the mentorship of the professional, and everyone is inspired by landscape architecture.

In a plan reminiscent of Roberto Burle Marx, two students focused on pedestrian circulation and added a water body. / image: Allison Ong

UW student volunteers described the outreach events as experiences in which they felt they made a difference. Tori Shao (BLA ‘17), said it was empowering “to help younger students realize they have the ability to change their environment.” Adeline Swires (MLA ‘20) shared, “As a student, there aren’t many ways we can make that type of tangible, visible difference yet. This program is one of the rare chances we have to do so and I really cherished the experience.” Adeline visited a middle school classroom with her mentor, Rhys Van Bemmel, Associate ASLA, of Swift Company, who added, “It’s so great to get the opportunity to help introduce [students] to the wider world of landscape architecture and ecology. This was also a wonderful opportunity to connect more with my mentee.”

A group of students present their design in plan and section. / image: Allison Ong

The mentor/mentee relationship is a critical part of YOWASLA. Last winter, I volunteered a second time with a new mentor, Ann Dinthongsai of West Studio. It was Ann’s first time working with children and, though she was nervous, the experience was affirming. “I believe working with children will allow us to address some of the hard challenges we face in our profession. Our youth is a huge untapped resource filled with potential.” That day, the children learned a new career path from us, and Ann and I learned from each other. I was happy to give Ann tips on working with children, while Ann graciously gave me advice for getting my first job.

This student made sure to include parking, noting that not everyone can walk or bike. / image: Allison Ong

As I approach my graduation and leaving YOWASLA in the hands of new student leaders, several goals remain in process. Laura and I hope to organize a firm-funded scholarship to sponsor a high school student to attend UW’s summer program in landscape architecture. We envision more involvement from professionals, students, and faculty. Through stronger relationships with programs like Techbridge Girls, we want to continue the school visits.

With so many things left to do, I have to constantly remind myself that it’s only been one year. Increasing diversity in the profession is a project that may endure for the rest of my career. In the short-term, visiting K-12 classrooms in South Seattle has been a tangible and immediate way to take action. I’m genuinely proud of what we’ve accomplished in this year alone, and I sincerely hope that the UW students, faculty, and the members of our professional community continue what we’ve started. Though I will no longer be involved with YOWASLA as a student, I know I can continue my advocacy for diversity in our field as a professional, and I hope I am not alone.

Allison Ong, Student ASLA, is a recent graduate from the University of Washington. She is the 2017 recipient of the Landscape Architecture Foundation Steven G. King Play Environments Scholarship, and wrote her thesis on how landscape architecture can learn from video game environments.

For more resources to share through K-12 outreach, see the recently released ASLA Discover Landscape Architecture Activity Books.

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