Promoting Social Justice One Poster at a Time

The Center For Urban Pedagogy teaches those in need how they can bend the city’s bureaucracy.

Promoting Social Justice One Poster at a Time

To understand what the Center for Urban Pedagogy, or CUP, does, executive director Christine Gaspar takes you to the bathroom to ponder the porcelain.


“It’s like when you flush a toilet, ” Gaspar explains. “When you think of how it works, you could probably answer the water goes through a series of pipes, that there’s some infrastructure involved. But do you really know where that water goes?”

Her point: even something as mundane and at-first logical as household plumbing may actually be confusing when considered as part of a larger system. The more we think about something the less understandable it may become. And that’s what CUP aims to do: To help everyone from street vendors to immigrant kids running afoul of the law, by making posters that make the city bureaucracy easy to understand.

CUP began informally in 1997, when founder Damon Rich and a few collaborators, fresh from college, began exploring how the city works. They came up with a zine and started to recruit support from artists and community groups. But rather than consigning their work to a forgotten gallery exhibition, the group wanted to reach a broader audience. Posters and pamphlets became an ideal outlet.

Over time, CUP has stayed focused. And it has seen its budget increase 30-fold. One of its programs, “Making Policy Public,” is helping educate arrested young people to street vendors to longshoreman on their rights and opportunities by clever graphic art fold-out posters. One effort is even included in the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s triennial: A poster that teachers street vendors their rights, so they can avoid fines and earn an honest living.

Each year, CUP puts out four posters to address four specific educational needs by community groups. It puts a call out for requests to community organizers, non-profits, or any other group looking to publicize a message; those proposals are vetted by a jury of community members and graphic artists, including as Charles Blow, a visual op-ed contributor to The New York Times, and Sheila Levrant de Bretteville, who directs Yale’s storied graduate program in graphic design. To win help from CUP, an organization has to have a clear sense of what their audience and mission; a plan for distributing the posters; and the topic has to be readily translatable into graphics.

The projects, once commissioned, are often a rare opportunity for community groups to work closely with a graphic designer. “They don’t often see how well it can help them communicate social justice issues,” she explains. The designers, meanwhile, get a chance to break out of the cloistered design world. Money isn’t a motivator; each community group and artist receives a $1000 honorarium that hardly covers the actual cost and time for any given project.


For the designers, the brief is fairly simple: “You want to look at it and know right away who and what it’s about,” says de Bretteville. For example, designer Candy Chang who worked on ‘Vendor Power’ for the Street Vendor Project, uses cartoon-like images in several languages to show vendors in various scenes to better explain their rights. The colorful poster keeps text at a minimum ? a necessity to reach the broad spectrum of vendors, many of them immigrants with limited knowledge of English. Throughout the process, the community group is collaborating with the designer. Moreover, when the posters finally hit the street, they’re meant to be passed from person-to-person; that way, the audience will be more receptive to the information.

That method seemed to work with “The Cargo Chain,” an early poster done for the Longshore Workers Coalition by cartographer Bill Rankin and graphic design office Thumb, which helped to teach union members about labor negotiations. ‘They weren’t always bargaining effectively,’ says Gaspar. “They didn’t always understand where they stood in the system.” While it’s hard to measure the success of such a project, 10,000 copies were distributed–one indicator, she says, of a poster’s appeal and use.

There have also been posters explaining the mechanics of Social Security; ways that communities can combat predatory lending; and the laws protecting ex-convicts who are re-entering the workforce discrimination. The latest poster, “I Got Arrested! Now What?,” came out last month and seeks to break down the juvenile justice system via graphic novel. It follows a character named Chris from his arrest, and on through the court system. Graphic novelist Danica Novgorodoff worked with young people at the Youth Justice Board, a subgroup of the Center for Court Innovation, to get continuous feedback on her drawings.

“We’ve really gotten a positive response,” Colin Lentz, a program associate with the center, says. “The materials that arrested youth do get isn’t engaging and doesn’t give them a comprehensive account of what the system’s like.” A comic book is something kids can easily digest and it provides needed information like what to expect and alternatives to incarceration.

But CUP’s greatest impact might lie beyond it’s own efforts: Connecting art makers to social-good projects seems to be the activity du jour, in some circles. It wasn’t always like that: Rosten Woo, the former director of CUP, says those efforts used to be looked down upon by studio artists. But, points out Woo, “The model is not ‘designer-as-heroic-figure to save the disenfranchised community,'” Woo says. “It’s a partnership.”

About the author

Kaomi Goetz is a writer for Co Design. She also uses audio to tell stories about technology and social and economic trends for National Public Radio and others.