The word "activism" brings a very specific set of actions to mind; personally, I used to think the only significant way to be involved with activist work was by participating in protests and marches. But while they’re a wonderful method to show mass opposition to something, protests and marches are only accessible to a select few. Transportation access, physical ability, job security, community support—all of these factors and more determine how accessible a march or protest may be. It’s important we recognize people have different abilities and skill sets, and all can be utilized to create effective social and political change. There are other ways to be part of the narrative. The only requirement is to influence change.
A recent collaborative course at The New School, with Planned Parenthood of New York City, aimed to answer that question and taught students how to enact change through design. Along with about a dozen other student artists, I used visual art to make sex education more accessible and raise awareness for the many invaluable services PPNYC has to offer. Parsons faculty Liz Slagus and Norene Leddy taught the course, following the mission of their organization: “SexEd aims to raise sex education from the trenches, into the streets and eventually the schools—through artist and community collaborations, workshops, exhibitions, and publications of curriculum the U.S. has never dared to try.”
Slagus emailed me about SexEd’s history and what drew her to partner up with Parsons. She wrote:
SexEd was born out of a series of conversations between myself and Norene Leddy in 2008. We were baffled by the inadequate and utter lack of sexual health education we were unearthing via the work we were doing with young people at the time. Equally devastating were the larger, systemic, and cultural issues this void or shroud of misinformation around our sexual health was causing: Young people unaware of their reproductive choices, unable to articulate or express their genders, unarmed in the face of STIs, and unaware of the role of consent in all healthy relationships—not just sexual ones. We started opening up this conversation to spark a dialogue, and to see how Norene, as an artist-curator, and I, as a curator-artist, could explore our belief that inclusive, comprehensive, honest, medically accurate sex education was a civil right of all.
Slagus expanded on the significance of art in education: “SexEd became our platform for working with different communities and groups to collaboratively redefine sex ed via art projects, exhibitions, screenings, events, and curriculum that model the sex ed we wish for all. The SexEd collab at Parsons has been our way to invite young artists and designers at the university level to become our collaborators for a semester, and, when lucky, for a lot longer.”
This summer, I was offered to continue this activist design work on a professional level, resulting in a game we would end up naming Circle Up.
Our team consisted of two design fellows—Alexandra Morton and myself—and our fellowship director, Slagus. Guest artists, New School staff, and PPNYC staff all served as our resources for the duration of the project, attending critiques and offering guidance.
Morton only had good things to say about working with PPNYC: “It was a pleasure engaging with Planned Parenthood and the community they serve. As a collaborative and interactive resource, Circle Up demonstrates the benefits of design-based, systematic problem-solving. Once implemented, the game will foster empathy, function optimistically, and democratize access to quality education that will improve the well-being of others. It doesn’t get much better than that!”
We began our fellowship with an intensive four-day work period, June 12 through 15th. After reviewing the engagements from the fall semester, we ultimately decided to start anew, using these past works solely as references. Whatever we would create had to meet three parameters for PPNYC: appropriate for ages 11 to 24, easily transportable for walking and subway rides, and spark conversation about PPNYC’s services. Beyond that, we had the freedom to choose what and how we wanted to design. Using one specific language would create a barrier, whereas visuals can be interpreted in any culture and language, we decided. We came up with a game based on icons to represent the diverse services PPNYC has to offer. Nameless at the time, we knew our game would be made of vinyl mats, large-scale yet lightweight. We developed multiple modes of play, to be determined by the roll of dice.
To tackle portability, we designed our game to fit in a yoga bag. Each four-foot diameter vinyl could be wiped clean, folded in half, and rolled up for transportation. After brainstorming 55-plus possibilities to illustrate, we met at PPNYC’s office to formally propose our idea. One of our largest creative challenges was addressing the broad age range. This affected what icons we could use, and even what we’d call our game. What’s appealing to an 11-year-old likely isn’t appealing to a 24-year-old, not to mention that they’re likely at very different stages of sexual education. Limited by the end of the fiscal year, we had a hard deadline of June 30 to complete our designs. We collectively decided on 11 icons, each relating to multiple aspects of the organization’s services.
Pizza, for example, represented New York City by means of the famous dollar slice, but also consent because previous desire for pizza doesn’t indicate current or future pizza consumption, preferences because I like mushrooms on my pizza whereas you like pepperoni, and more. A wallet with ID could prompt a discussion on what’s needed to access care at Planned Parenthood, as well as on economic class, cultural identity, and gender identity. The remaining nine icons were lipstick, mustache, pad with tampon, computer with cell phone, IUD, banana with condom, gender symbol, welcome mat, and a fist. After selecting our icons, we finally decided on a name: Circle Up.
The end of the four days came quickly. On June 15, our team got together with PPNYC staff, New School staff, and PPNYC’s Youth Health Promoters to present rough versions of all icons, scaled to the appropriate size. We played Circle Up following each mode of play: Association, Narrative, Competitive, Match-Up, and Endless. We finalized the brand identity, choosing a typeface and logo.
From there, our team worked independently to illustrate the remaining icons and determine logistics of printing and assembly. As a fun takeaway, we scaled the icons and logo to fit buttons and stickers. By June 30, all materials were off to their respective makers. Circle Up is now ready to play! PPNYC sex educators and Youth Health Promoters will use the game on their community outreach engagements, making education and activism a little more aesthetically interesting and accessible than ever before.
To find out more about what Planned Parenthood is doing, visit its site, here.