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Getting Acquainted with Jonathan Chan, SCI-Arc's New Community Engagement Coordinator

Jonathan Chan, SCI-Arc's recently onboarded Community Engagement Coordinator, has been involved with the creative arts scene in the greater Los Angeles area as a writer and dancer since he was a teenager.

Valuing both self-expression and education, Jonathan utilized his background for arts access programs for youth as an undergraduate student at University of California, Riverside. It was this opportunity that led Jonathan to a pathway into higher education, believing it is the collaboration between institutions and the local areas they serve that deepen the learning and empathy needed to prepare the world's future minds. Since graduating from the California State University, Fullerton's MS in Higher Education program, Jonathan has held positions in several different cultural and community engagement offices and is excited to connect with his new campus community of SCI-Arc.

We spoke to Jonathan to learn more about his background and interests, as well as intentions and goals for his new role within the SCI-Arc community.

Hi Jonathan! Thank you very much for speaking with us. To start, how you got into the work of community engagement, and can you please share a little bit about your background?

As a teenager, I’d always been super involved in community—more along the lines of the creative arts—because they’re something that always spoke to me as a passion; able to speak to the experiences that I've had. The creative arts, dance specifically, and then later writing in relation to dance, gave me a voice for the change that I wanted to see in the world. I think about how creative arts help to transform other people's lives, how it helps to give them a voice—it's been that way since I started break dancing, or breaking, in high school. I've been in love with it ever since.

And beyond my master's program, undergrad, all that stuff, I've always made time for organizing events, like free workshops with dance, connecting to local community groups that want to teach young folks how to move. I used to teach kids from the local areas around Pomona, Diamond Bar, Rowland Heights, and West Covina, out of my garage for free just because that's what I love to do. These experiences led me to write for local and national hip hop blog sites and organizations involved with breaking and creative arts which allowed me to merge those interests with my thoughts on systemic oppression, racial injustice, etc.—a lot of what we're discussing today. I had that introduction early on because of the kind of self-education I had through hip-hop, which taught me a lot. This eventually led me to pursue my master's degree, because education plays such an important role in not only understanding what we'll do for a career, but what speaks to us as people.

What brought you to SCI-Arc? What do you see as being of the benefit of community engagement work within an architecture institution?

I love the fact that architects think about space in a very specific way. As an artist myself, I also think about space in a very specific way: how to conduct myself in spaces that I've entered as a dancer, entered as an educator, with the idea that places and people that occupy space have history. Spaces have meaning, they have trauma and triumph, they have all these different kinds of components that make up a place. What a beautiful way to work with an institution that considers those things in architecture and in the built environment.

You're supposed to consider who you're building things for, what their needs are, as well as principles of universal design, different learning capabilities, or different learning styles. Just who people are, and where they're at socially and culturally. When it comes to community engagement, it isn't always considered by other engineering-related fields to merge thought processes around art and science.

Through my own work with STEM at Pitzer, I was able to provide my own perspectives as well as my own expertise on frameworks that have to do with participatory research, popular education, asset versus deficit ways of thinking, and how to build sustainable means of partnership rather than one-off charity kinds of approaches to connecting with community. That’s something that I want to be able to do with the SCI-Arc community and surrounding partners, so that I can learn as much from them as they can learn from me, while still having this creative nuance to what we do and how we occupy and literally build space.

What about the built environment do you think connects to an emergent cultural practice that we're more increasingly trying to cultivate at the school?

I think it's cool that we are in this national discourse of speaking bluntly and honestly about historically and systemically oppressed people's identities, whether it's based on gender, race, sexual orientation, or anything else. This is all really important because as we're thinking about how to build safe spaces and brave spaces to talk about these things, how can that literally happen as folks that are building spaces to live and to thrive and to be who they need to be, and who they want to be.

What would you say are your goals for community engagement in SCI-Arc?

When I first accepted this job, I think what spoke to me most is the pure potential that exists here. There are so many ways to think about how architecture can affect healthy green spaces for urban populations, sustainability, affordable housing, homelessness. There's just such a range for which architecture can help support like different kinds of projects that our own students are interested in, and that's really awesome to be able to think about.

One goal that everybody's been presenting to me is the question of how to bring all those things together to have more continuity between the different pillars of engagement that consist of things like College Access Pipeline, curricular engagement, research, public programs. How do we make sure that we're all talking to one another? What's been most intriguing about this process is figuring out how to think about building sustainable means of communication in relationships to different organizations that can be fully integrated rather than one-offs. Or how we can have sustained communication with folks that comprise LA's population to give us insight and knowledge as to who the built environment is being built for.

Something really challenging and yet cool about my role will be the ability to build the structures that are needed so that folks are talking to one another, communicating both across a campus and local community setting; to have a relationship with the city in more ways than one.

What are you most excited to explore or experience in this new role, at this institution, or in this city?

SCI-Arc for all the challenges that it's meeting, as an entity that occupies the space of the Arts District, where there's gentrification, homelessness, all those issues, I think that it also sits in a space in which it can listen and is adjacent to a lot of communities that are doing really important and really awesome work in this city. I'm just grateful to be able to have that proximity to all of it. It's really a cultural hub that we're sitting at that's connected to so many movements that are so integral, not only to LA but also to the way that the world is viewing issues of sustainability, affordable housing, and displacement as a crisis to be addressed. SCI-Arc can do a lot to advance national discourse on a lot of these social issues.

I'm excited to imagine and work together and be creative about what we can do to not only think about these things as problems, but imagine the future possibilities. The way that SCI-Arc represents values about not only architecture, but seeing the world, really speaks to me. As we build out these initiatives to connect to one another and to local community, the process will inform our own experiences and our own ways of learning from one another. Because in so many ways, SCI-Arc is an institution of higher education, but it also situates itself as a gallery—a meeting place—to talk about architecture, art, and design in a very nuanced, very eccentric and eclectic way. And so, what better potential for talking about space than in a place that re-envisions and has so many meanings for space.

Beautifully said. Finally, what is it that you most want to impart the SCI-Arc community as you enter it, and maybe particularly SCI-Arc students, about your presence here and your role here?

SCI-Arc community: let's work together. Let's think about things with longevity in mind. Let's think about things with consideration of who people are, where they're at, because we need to be able to meet them there. It's important for us as a community, as a campus community, to not just move with speed and with creativity, but to move with willingness and openness and intentionality; a consideration for humanity. Community engagement work is messy stuff, in that if you're not careful, if you're not considerate, you could do more harm than be of help. Because in this work, you have to be flexible. We don't live with one set of solutions that works forever, which is both the challenge and the exciting part of community engagement.

I hope that I have the space to encourage folks to talk to me, because we can work through ideas together as a community. Because at the end of the day, what’s important is getting to the point at which we're meeting people with a willingness to be adaptable, flexible and, ultimately, loving, in a way.

Absolutely. Thank you so much Jonathan, we really appreciate you speaking with us.