Common Ground

A park project in Tacoma empowered underserved kids and gave them a safe place to play. When one of those kids turned up at Puget Sound a decade later, he showed that human connection is stronger than the lines that divide us.

It was Mushawn’s idea to build the garden. He was proud of that. His fifth-grade class had been invited to help design the empty park next to their school, and while the other kids were dreaming up slides and swing sets, spray grounds to run through on hot summer days, monkey bars and mosaic tiles, Mushawn Knowles ’20 told the landscape architecture students who were creating the park model that he wanted to feed the homeless and hungry. 

This was not an abstraction for a kid growing up in the Hilltop, Tacoma’s most underserved neighborhood—Mushawn had neighbors and friends in mind. So when he saw the garden sketched into the design plans for McCarver Park, it was a turning point for him. “I saw that I had a purpose, something that was bigger than me,” he says now, nine years later. “When I saw my idea manifest—that was empowering.”

That’s because the Zina Linnik Project, a initiative to revitalize two city parks that flank the Hilltop, was not an ordinary urban development project. It began as a memorial to Zina Linnik, a 12-year-old from the neighborhood who was kidnapped and murdered in 2007, and expanded into a larger campaign run by Greater Metro Parks Foundation to create safe spaces for children to play.

The innovative factor was that fifth-graders at McCarver Elementary took the lead in design, fundraising, and advocacy. They were assisted by community members, including students and faculty at the University of Puget Sound. In the process, the kids discovered that their voices held power, and they were able to imagine futures for themselves beyond their current context.

That’s what happened for Mushawn. He became a focused student and a leader in his class. He wrote speeches and delivered them in front of the city council and legislators at the state capitol. And as he found mentors in the college students and their teachers who came to help, Mushawn started thinking about college for the first time. The path that he ultimately created for himself led to the University of Puget Sound, where he is now a sophomore.

I saw that I had purpose, something that was bigger than me. When I saw my idea manifest—that was empowering."

– Mushawn Knowles ’20

When Mushawn enrolled last year, nearly a decade after the park project began, he was cheered on by the collaborators who knew him back then—Maggie Tweedy ’10, most of all. She had spent her senior year interviewing the McCarver kids to document the impact of the park project for her thesis, and she and Mushawn had gotten to know each other well. Mushawn still considers her a role model: “Maggie’s energy leaves an imprint wherever she goes,” he says. “She’s unapologetically her, and that’s what I aim to be.”

The friendship forged between a kid from the Hilltop and a college student from Montana is the epitome of the park project’s impact: Building the parks was important, but the relationships formed in the process changed real lives. Those connections became the basis for an ongoing partnership between McCarver and Puget Sound that is still thriving today.

Meeting kids where they’re at

Maggie Tweedy ’10

When Maggie set out to help her anthropology professor, Monica DeHart, document the impact of the park project in 2009, she was already immersed in the world that the McCarver kids navigated daily. She worked at the Boys & Girls Club in Tacoma and had spent years dealing with things like gang initiation, foster care, and hunger that  affected the middle and high school kids she knew. She once had a kid show up at the club who had been stabbed on his way there.

“Things were always happening, and it kind of felt like you were putting out fires constantly,” Maggie recalls. “It was a stressful environment, but that was their environment.”

For the McCarver kids, even the park project was stressful. The kids knew what had happened to Zina, and they knew it could happen to them. McCarver Park was then a derelict place with a couple of busted swings where  dealers hung out, and there really wasn’t anywhere safe to play.

So when landscape architecture students from the University of Washington came to design McCarver Park—also called Zina’s Playground—and asked the fifth-graders to help, the McCarver kids seized their moment. When they asked for a swing set, they were appealing for justice. When they asked for a slide, they were asserting their right to be children.

The whole community heard these kids loud and clear. Sheila Haase, the lead fifth-grade teacher at McCarver and one of the primary drivers of the park project, opened her classroom doors to those who wanted  to help. Metro Parks staff members came to teach fundraising and speechwriting. The Environmental Protection Agency brought in soil samples to show the kids how they tested for toxins. Students and faculty from the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington, Tacoma, came to work with the kids on skills like persuasive writing, speaking, and community organizing.

Maggie’s research question focused on how having members of the community come into the classroom and use a real-world project to teach life skills could change individual aspirations and develop a sense of personal agency—within a year. She set out to interview the first cohort of McCarver fifth-graders—Mushawn and his classmates—who by then were sixth-graders at Jason Lee Middle School. (The park project continued for two more years.)

As Maggie gathered nine or 10 kids and began to attempt gaining their trust, she found that everything she’d learned about qualitative research methods in comparative sociology was applicable. “The more you can be a participant-observer, and have a vested interest in the well-being of the subjects you’re researching, the more honest and true the story you’re going to get,” she says. “I think that’s the best modality for approaching a group of people that you really don’t belong to, and to make it known that you want this to be a mutually beneficial exchange.”

What these kids did was really incredible, because they were able to change the norms and codes about who was excluded from or included in public spaces."

– Maggie Tweedy ’10

Looking back, now as an anthropology and sociology major himself, Mushawn agrees that this methodology worked well. “As a kid, if you could relate to me and meet me on common ground, I could rock with you,” he says. “Maggie met me where I was at.”

Maggie waded in slowly, and the project became more conversation than interview. She would ask some questions, and then the kids would ask some questions of her. They were curious about what it was like to be a college student—many had just had their first encounters with college students during the park project—and they wanted to know things, such as how many classes she was taking and how hard they were, and what dorm rooms looked like.

Maggie understood that she was a “gatekeeper,” a sociology term meaning that she could facilitate access to a world the kids weren’t likely to explore on their own. So she started taking her subjects on campus tours. When they looked at the manicured lawns and ivy spilling down brick facades, and said, “We’re allowed to be here?” Maggie made sure they took their time exploring every square inch. Yes, she told them. This is part of your community. You belong here as much as anyone does.

These field trips gave Maggie more time to get to know the kids on a personal level. She told them that she was from Montana and that she often found herself lost in this urban environment. They wanted to know how she perceived Tacoma and how her experience was the same as theirs or different, down to which taco trucks she’d visited. “That made all of my tapes ridiculously long,” Maggie says. “But it was the foundation for the connection I had with the kids.”

Reframing public spaces

Maggie and Mushawn became especially connected. As they shared pieces of their stories, they realized that they had similar experiences related to poverty, violence, and absent fathers. “Mushawn knew what I was talking about, and I knew what he was talking about,” Maggie says. “I think that’s why he felt this really strong trust.”

In Montana, Maggie’s mom worked as a timber framer. When Maggie was 6, the same year her parents divorced, her mom had an accident on the job site where a large timber crushed her leg. “So not only was she a single mom, she was also in a wheelchair, with a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old,” Maggie says. She and her little sister learned to carry in the groceries, bring the laundry upstairs, and shovel the sidewalk. “I used to measure my helpfulness as a daughter by the number of steps I saved my mom from taking.”

By the time Maggie met Mushawn, her mother had recovered, she had a wonderful stepdad, and she’d found her power through education, but she was still struggling financially. She’d opted out of a campus meal plan to save money for rent, and relied on an EBT card for groceries. “What Mushawn and I have in common is a well-developed, personal understanding of scarcity,” Maggie says.

But it wasn’t just their shared experiences that connected them. “I’ve thought a lot about how people from such seemingly opposite communities can experience empathy toward one another,” Maggie says. “We all know what it’s like to feel enraged, abandoned, isolated, misunderstood, and powerless to change the circumstances that seem to trap us. The strong connection between Mushawn and me came from a sense of understanding and empathy rooted in shared experience and shared emotion. But the shared-emotion part, the ability to empathize, is the most significant, because it’s very different to experience scarcity as a white person in Montana than it is in the Hilltop neighborhood as a person of color.”

One of the ways that Mushawn responded to scarcity was by looking out for his community. Maggie remembers that when he told her about his role in building the garden, she asked him, “There are a lot of community gardens in Tacoma—why was it important to have one at this park?” He replied that there wasn’t a garden in his neighborhood, but there were a lot of people without food, so his garden had a purpose.

“I noticed his particular focus on the greater good of his neighborhood,” Maggie says. “That’s something I still see in everything he talks about. There’s a reason people are interested in what he has to say. I think he has a sureness in himself that people notice.”

A few times, Maggie walked Mushawn home, and he took the opportunity to educate her on how to traverse his neighborhood safely. He warned her that most houses have security dogs, so if she needed to talk to a parent, she shouldn’t just walk through the gate. He told her about the colors associated with different gangs, so she would avoid wearing them, and also how she shouldn’t smile and say hi to just anyone.

Maggie appreciated that Mushawn, at 11, was trying to keep her safe. But as she ruminated on those exchanges, she started to see things from a social scientist’s perspective. “My understanding was that this was a coded environment that he had navigated his entire life,” she says. “That was useful information for me. It told me that what these kids did was really incredible, because they were able to change the norms and the codes about who was excluded from or included in public spaces. They were able to reframe it.”

When Maggie went to interview Sheila Haase, the fifth-grade teacher, she saw that there were bullet holes in the classroom windows. “People in the park had been shooting at the school,” Maggie says. “The holes had been taped over, but [Sheila] said she didn’t replace the panes because people would just keep shooting holes in them.”

It was easy for Maggie to see why the park project transformed the community of Hilltop, as well as the individuals it touched. “I think the students felt this really profound sense of power,” she says. “It was really significant because the park had been so unsafe for them. To be able to change something that you used to be fearful of, to be able to put that down and just be a kid, is a really profound feeling, I can imagine. That’s how I connected all these little stories they would tell me.”

By the end of her senior year, Maggie had completed her thesis. The kids told her that the park project showed them that they could make a difference. One noted: “When you’re a kid, you don’t think you can do anything in life. You don’t have the same voice as adults. But we saw that we could!” Another said: “I know how to speak up, and I believe in myself.”

Two years later, on May 20, 2011, Mushawn was invited back to McCarver Park to cut the ribbon and give a speech. The Washington State Legislature proclaimed the third Friday in May to be Play in Peace Day in honor of Zina Linnik, and thousands of people followed the McCarver kids on a peace march through the Hilltop from Wright Park to McCarver Park along MLK Jr. Way. The News Tribune quoted a student named Mack Jones as saying that in the future, “We will be able to go back and say, ‘We built this. This is history. Nobody can tear it down.’”

Bridging the divide

Maggie is now an assistant teacher at the Evergreen School in Shoreline, Wash. Her experiences at the Boys & Girls Club and with Mushawn and his classmates gave her life new focus. She’s currently applying to graduate schools to study education.

Maggie and Mushawn have kept in touch, mostly through sporadic emails and Facebook messages. This year, they met in person for the first time in eight years, at Mushawn’s favorite vegan restaurant in the North End. Afterward, they went to the homecoming game at Lincoln High School, where Mushawn had been the captain of his football team.

“I haven’t been to a high school football game since 2005, when I was in high school,” Maggie says. “It was really funny. All of his friends were like, ‘Who is this lady?’” After the game, she gave him a ride home, and got back to Seattle late. “We’re both talkers, so I think we need to set time limits on how long we want to catch up,” she jokes. 

One thing Mushawn asked Maggie that stayed with her was how she teaches social justice to affluent kids. “That’s the biggest challenge that I feel like I’m facing,” she says. “I think the first thing for the kids at the school where I work now is just to have more contact with people who aren’t like them, you know? Just having the experience that Mushawn and I have had, looking at commonalities instead of assuming, ‘Your life must be so different, because this is what I see.’”

Mushawn is now a gatekeeper, too. Whenever he goes home to visit his mother, two brothers, or friends, he crosses the physical boundary between the North End and the Hilltop that is aptly named Division Avenue. Standing at that threshold, it’s possible to see two different realities right next to each other. On the north side, huge Victorian and Craftsman houses and tree-lined streets. On the south, a handful of ministries and homeless shelters and fast-food drive-throughs.

Historically, the city’s division is the result of 1930s discriminatory mortgage lending practices that boxed in the Hilltop by preventing many people of color from buying or building a home elsewhere. If you compare the Tacoma redlining map of 1937 with a current census map, the red zones still correspond closely to the districts with the highest poverty rates. According to the city’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, “Tacoma’s communities of color live strikingly different lives than their white neighbors and have far different outcomes.”

Mushawn is wide awake to this reality. “I could’ve easily been knocked out of the air,” he says. “I could’ve easily been a gang member. I could’ve easily been shot. I’m saying at the rate that it happens in my community, it could’ve happened really easily.”

The park project—the work he did and the people he met—helped to keep him grounded. “It changed my perspective of how I’m going to operate in this life,” he says. “It helped me understand that my voice actually does matter.”

Making new connections

When Maggie told 11-year-old Mushawn that he belonged on the Puget Sound campus, he believed her, and he worked hard to get there. But she wasn’t his only Puget Sound connection. Two professors, Monica DeHart, anthropology, and Amy Ryken, education, have been among Mushawn’s mentors from the early days of the park project. They began taking their students to McCarver in 2009 to work with the fifth-graders on persuasive writing and speaking skills. In return, the kids taught the college students about community development in the real world. 

“My students all say they want to change the world, but it’s so daunting,” Monica says. “It was amazing to see the McCarver kids rise to the challenge of being spokespeople for change in their communities. I remember my students being really struck by listening to these little kids tell them how easy and important organizing was.” 

As veteran educators, Monica and Amy saw the value in those exchanges—both big students and little students had so much to learn from each other. After the parks were completed, they wanted to keep that going, so they worked with the McCarver teachers to continue the partnership with a more academic emphasis. Every year, students from the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington, Tacoma, visit McCarver fifth-grade classrooms for special projects, and the fifth-graders visit both campuses. Monica and Amy have been leading that effort on campus for eight years.

The college students use short-term projects to teach life skills to the kids, such as team challenges that involve working together to solve a problem. The kids give the college students an opportunity to test theory in real-world scenarios. “The exchanges are helping our students come from a place of mutual investment in human connection,” Amy says, “not that they’re there to help and save the kids.”

The ongoing exchange between these two groups is less dramatic than the park project, but it makes a real impact. Monica says that she wants her students to “confront, explore, and learn to be aware of ” different voices and experiences, without making assumptions. “How do you collaborate with people from really disparate circumstances in a way that lets you learn what you have to offer, what the limits of those offers are, and where you can continue to grow yourself?” she asks.

As for the McCarver kids, Monica hopes that by getting to know college students as mentors, they will “be able to imagine college spaces as communities that they could be a part of, and to imagine themselves in different kinds of disciplines or careers.” 

The exchanges are helping our students come from a place of mutual investment in human connection, not that they're there to help and save the kids."

– Prof. Amy Ryken

Today, inhabiting that space at Puget Sound is more possible than ever. The Tacoma Public Schools Commitment was established in 2014 with the goal of making the university more accessible to Tacoma public school graduates by covering their full need, meaning the gap between the FAFSA-determined EFC (Expected Family Contribution) and the cost of attendance. Through this program, Puget Sound has more than quadrupled its enrollment of Tacoma  Public Schools graduates in the past four years—Mushawn among them.

But as more students from underrepresented backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives are enrolled at Puget Sound, the college faces another challenge: to make campus more welcoming to them. Mushawn knows firsthand how essential that is, which is why he started a new club, Real Expression Art Lounge. Mushawn uses spoken word, hip-hop, videography, and photography to express himself creatively, and he wanted others to have the space to do that, too. In particular, he wanted students of color to be able to express themselves without being hemmed in by the dominant culture on campus, but the club is welcoming to all, and Mushawn hopes that it will spark dialogue and connection.

Meanwhile, he has a strong support system in Maggie, Monica, and Amy. “The change and continuity of these relationships is so powerful,” he says. “To walk into Monica’s classroom and see the same smiling face I remember from fifth grade gives me strength to endure adversity. They all help me remember how far I’ve come, and believe that I have so much more within me.” 

For another reminder, all he has to do is drop by McCarver Park. On a cold, sunny afternoon, kids are playing basketball and swinging from the monkey bars while adults sit chatting on the benches. Nearby, lettuces, squashes, and tomatoes are growing in the ground in the McCarver Park Community Garden. The fifth-grade teachers still teach a lesson called “Park,” so their students understand the legacy of empowerment that Mushawn and his classmates passed on to them. But the kids of the Hilltop aren’t campaigning for safe spaces anymore. They’re free to just be children, playing.


By Stacey Cook
Published Feb. 1, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen