Features and Occasionals

Seeing the World Whole

By Katherine Pioli

An all-Muslim Girl Scout troop examines the urban ecological framework of our city following the model of the renowned observer (and Girl Scout) Jane Jacobs.

Scrolling through the photos on a black smartphone handed to me by a smiling middle schooler who’s obviously excited to witness my reaction, I glance at images of pristine green hillsides next to other images of crumbling cement sidewalks bordering rows of white, blocky one-story structures. The pictures come from Hibba’s summer vacation visiting family in Pakistan.

“It’s not a bad place,” she says. “I really wanted to show that.” These images are a window onto Kashmir’s beauty and Islamabad’s dirty streets through the eyes of an American Muslim teenager.

But Pakistan is not all that Hibba is looking at and contemplating. Along with her all-Muslim Girl Scout Troop number 496 (for this story, for matters of privacy, only the first names of the students are used), Hibba is becoming an expert observer.

Turning camera phones and eyes on the streets and neighborhoods around their homes in the Salt Lake Valley, these young scouts, including Hibba, Fatima, Lhyba and Leena who met with me for this story, are looking to start a community discussion about what Chelsea Gauthier, associate director of the Center for the Living City, describes as the “urban ecological framework of our cities.”

The idea for the Jane Jacobs Observe Patch, as this urban girl scout project is now called, first came about when Naba Faizi, a student in the University of Utah’s department of City & Metropolitan Planning, began interning for Center for the Living City — a Salt Lake organization that seeks to “enhance the understanding of the complexity of contemporary urban life and increase civic engagement.” Faizi was herself once a Troop 496 Girl Scout. Now, she leads the troop alongside her mother who founded the group in 2006.

“My mother wanted an outlet where young Muslim girls could gain confidence, connect with other girls their age and learn about the importance of women in leadership roles,” says Faizi.

Community service and leadership programs are a big part of the Girl Scout experience. It’s not just about selling cookies. (The sweet treats that we look forward to every spring help Girl Scouts practice the five essential skills the organization tries to teach: goal setting, people skills, money management, business ethics and decision making. And half the money from each $4 box of cookies goes to funding troop activities and projects.) Faizi’s troop has worked with refugees, raised donation items during Ramadan and designed a “Fashion Bash” that showcased the cultures and fashions (including the hijab or headscarf) of the Muslim world to other local troops.

In the spring of 2016, Faizi realized while interning at Center for the Living City that the life and work of the woman who had inspired the Center, Jane Jacobs, could also inspire these young girls to develop another important Girl Scout trait: being leaders in their community. “I saw how Jane Jacobs could show these girls that they don’t have to wait to grow up in order to make change,” says Faizi.

After all, when it came to creating positive changes for her community, Jane Jacobs, who wasn’t an expert in urban planning or even a college graduate (she was, however, a Girl Scout), was able to not only save her neighborhood of Greenwich Village from being torn apart by a developer’s ill-conceived highway project, she also created a new movement of community-based urban design that went to heads with the leading development concept of the time, urban renewal.

In the 1950s, urban renewal was a force remaking America’s cities. Bankers, developers, architects, politicians and city planners reached for the heart of urban centers where low-income housing proliferated and, with bulldozers and construction projects and money at the ready, tore into these neighborhoods to make space for new, cleaner, trendier, wealthier developments. Or, in the case of Greenwich Village, a highway.

But Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), a self-taught journalist living in the bohemian community on the lower west side of Manhattan, changed that. By creating a space for the voices of her community to be heard, the experiences, desires and needs of locals were able to gain the attention of city officials and ultimately guide development in their neighborhood.

On the national scale, Jacobs became a vocal proponent for urban parks, mixed-use building, local economies and dense housing. Across the country, she inspired people to look at and take stock of their communities. Are they walkable? Are the livable? Are they people-friendly? Are they beautiful? If not, what changes do you see being beneficial?

“It is vital,” says Stephen Goldsmith, director for Center of the Living City, “that we create initiatives that invite girls and young women to be active participants in their communities by providing tools to amplify their voices and to take action in the places they care about. Having initiatives for place-based engagement will drive the future of our cities to become more socially just, sustainable and successful.”

After being introduced to the work of Jane Jacobs, the next step for the girls of Troop 496 was turning their powers of observation on their own streets (and in the case of Hibba, comparing her home with what she found far away in Pakistan).

“Our observations varied depending on our creative direction,” explains Hibba. “For example, some of us specifically went out looking for problems in the area. Others of us looked for beautification and things that benefited the environment in which we were walking. One thing that I want to change in Sugar House Park is to make a wider running area on the side of the road so that runners can exercise with more ease.”

The girls are now in the final steps of earning their Jane Jacobs Observe patch. This step in the process is the most crucial and, hopefully, the most lasting. Gauthier and Faizi hope to help these young women organizing what they’ve learned about their community — their concerns and their praise addressing housing, beautification, sanitation — and advance their work into real action. Learning how to contact local governing bodies and be a force in urban intervention will not only teach them more about the potential power of their own voices as women in our society but also leave a lasting legacy for their neighbors and other young women to come.

The project may reach much further that just Salt Lake City. These young women are excited to use social media to connect with girls around the world to teach them about Jane Jacobs and her methods of observation and social action. They also hope to formally turn the Jane Jacobs Observe patch into a nationwide Girl Scout project with a badge that Girl Scouts across the country, and around the world, can earn for their belts.

“There are 10 million Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 146 countries around the world,” says Chelsea Gauthier. “Just imagine the impact of a global movement of young women taking steps to voice their observations and take action in their communities.”

Katherine Pioli is the associate editor of CATALYST


This article was originally published on January 31, 2017.