Urban Learning through Granola Bars, Library Books, and a Fruit Stand

Once a week from January through mid-May, Penn rising juniors Jodi Marcus, Adam Ginsberg, and Leopold Spohngellert made granola bars with a team of middle and high school students at the Dorrance H. Hamilton Center for Culinary Enterprises at 46th and Market streets.

The group baked the product, worked to secure funding, sold and marketed the bars—everything required of a real business. Because despite the group’s student makeup and classroom origins, it is a real business, called Rebel Ventures, with an aim to provide nutritious light snacks where such choices aren’t readily accessible.

“A lot of [Philadelphia] students don’t have healthy snack options. There are a lot of chips, colored water, pretzels,” says Janeé Franklin, coordinator of Academically Based Community Service (ABCS) at the Barbara and Edward Netter Center for Community Partnerships. “Rebel Ventures was an opportunity for students to not only learn business skills, but to actually try to supply a healthy alternative [snack option] in their neighborhoods.”

It was also a way for Penn undergraduates like the trio above to immerse themselves in one corner of West Philadelphia, to build relationships with the younger students, and gain an understanding of a single but important aspect of their lives.

The opportunity came through the “Urban Ethnography” ABCS course taught by Jessa Lingel, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication who just completed her first year. Through Rebel Ventures and four other social justice projects—including tutoring high schoolers in math and science, working at a fruit stand, and participating in a program called Books through Bars that distributes free books to prisoners—Lingel’s students studied their surroundings using a method called ethnography. They interviewed and observed the people they worked with and created a documentary about the project.

“What I didn’t want was for them to just tell the story of the nonprofit, about an after-school tutoring group or a granola bar company. I wanted them to use this as an entry point into a larger question,” Lingel says. “I hope that they learn about ethnography and what that means, about urban studies, about social justice issues relevant to urban cities. I hope they learn how to draw a larger narrative out of field work.”

Though this is Lingel’s first time leading “Urban Ethnography,” the course itself isn’t new, taught previously by John Jackson, Jr., now dean of Penn’s School of Social Policy and Practice. Given the topic matter, it’s always been a strong fit for an ABCS course. There are about 60 such service-learning opportunities at Penn, supported by the Netter Center and aimed at connecting Penn students to the larger city in which their school is situated.

“We really hope that students, number one, get to see a world very different from where a lot of them come from,” Franklin says. “We also want them to be more responsible citizens in general, really participating in our country to make things better, to fight for equality and equity.”

Part of that means looking inward, confronting hard—and at times, awkward—issues. For example, why do cities form the way they do and can they change? How can Penn undergraduates understand the realities of life in West Philadelphia for those not affiliated with the University? How can they learn the stories of those who share their community? The students haven’t shied away from these matters, Lingel says: “I’ve been really blown away watching them grapple with really hard questions.”

For their part, the undergraduates say the combination of ethnography’s immersion methodology and their documentary final projects made them “think about issues like race and class and privilege in a different way,” Ginsberg says. “It’s eye-opening for a lot of people.”

They’ve also learned to view their phones as a different kind of communication tool. According to Lingel, few of the students had filmmaking experience before class began, but that didn’t matter; she asked them to shoot all video using their smartphones.

“Everyone knows how to take a selfie and take a cat video, but how do you do that in the field? And how do you do all that with your smartphone?” Lingel says. “Any piece of technology is also a piece of ideology is also a piece of political-social meaning. It’s really cool to see them treat their phones differently.” It also aligns with Annenberg’s mission of molding socially responsible individuals who can go out into the world and produce content.

“I’ve never really learned about film before as a means of communicating ideas, particularly as a way of communicating social justice,” Marcus says. “This is a really cool lens to take a creative approach to creating a social message.”

Lingel is offering COMM 243 again next spring semester, giving a new group of undergraduates the chance to make granola bars, package books—and immerse themselves in the community just outside their doors.

Urban Learning through Granola Bars, Library Books, and a Fruit Stand