Street Smarts

Elvira Leite, Photograph of Pena Ventosa, Porto, 1976-77, giclee print. Photograph by Adam Zucker

‘Street smarts’ is a term most often used to signify knowledge that is gained outside of traditional classroom and school settings. To be ‘street smart’ means to have “the experience and knowledge necessary to deal with the potential difficulties or dangers of life in an urban environment.” This post explores the work of two contemporary artists (several generations apart), working both locally and globally, whose street-centered work prompts the creation of knowledge and profound experiences within diverse communities.

Elvira Leite is an artist from Porto, Portugal, whose influence is invaluable within her community and the fields of socially engaged art and education. Leite is academically educated in visual art, having graduated from Escola Superior de Belas Artes do Porto (ESBAP) in 1964. During the 1960s, she enjoyed success showing her work, however, despite her blossoming studio art career, Leite chose to earn an additional degree in education and embarked on a career teaching high school.

In 1977, she collaborated on public artworks with children from Porto’s Pena Ventosa community. The 1970s were a pivotal era for Portuguese culture, and artists like Leite were among the many seminal activists to advocate and participate in socially engaged initiatives such as public education, affordable housing and placemaking. Leite’s work in artistic pedagogy and social practice came right after the Carnation Revolution (1974) and the SAAL Bouça social housing project (1973-77). Both of these endeavors manifested through liberal ideologies, discourse and civic engagement. SAAL Bouça, albeit short lived – it was actually abandoned for 30 years, but finally completed in 2007– inspired the citizens of Porto to come together collectively in hopes for a universal and democratic system of housing that prioritized communal values and cooperation.

After SAAL Bouça ended, the streets of Porto became the setting for activist endeavors. There were protests, rallies and public discussions around making the community a more equitable place to live. The streets within the urban community also became a safe-space for the youth to playfully engage in profound forms of social, emotional and cognitive expression. The children of Pena Ventosa engaged in role-playing games and performances, painting sessions, sidewalk chalk drawings, puppetry and more. Overall, Leite’s work with the children of the community was a response to the progressive and social-democratic zeitgeist that was emerging across the country. She fostered a child-centered environment, where children had the same agency as the adults to communicate and actively define their place in society.

Leite’s pedagogical methodology supports a constructivist theory of education where emphasis is placed on the development of knowledge through collaboration within a social, cultural and emotional framework. The children of the community were keen observers of what their parents and the other adults in the community had concerns about. As a result of the children’s astute observation and awareness, issues of unity, equality, equity and social justice, were some of the themes they conveyed in their artwork.

Photographic documentation of Leite’s art and art educational collaborations with youth from Porto c.1977. Photograph by Adam Zucker

Photographic and archival documentation of Leite’s art-centered collaborations with Porto’s youth is exemplified in the exhibition Pedagogy of the Streets: Porto 1977, currently on view (through May 9, 2019) at Baruch College’s Mishkin Gallery.

Like Leite, the artist Caledonia Curry a.k.a Swoon, utilizes the streets for socially engaged placemaking and interpersonal communication. Swoon currently lives and works in Brooklyn, New York and is renowned internationally for her public artwork and installations.

Swoon became famous for wheat-pasting fanciful portraits of local people on walls and structures within cities across the world. Her portraits celebrate multicultural identity and make unifying statements about culture at large. Through her participation on the streets, Swoon began to collaborate with local communities on placemaking and other socially engaged initiatives. In response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she embarked on the Konbit Shelter project. Through constructive discourse and collaboration, Swoon and her team built homes and other facilities alongside Haitian citizens, to address their need for housing and community spaces.

In 2015, Swoon launched the Heliotrope Foundation in order for local communities to design equitable and desirable shared spaces. The foundation provides classes and opportunities for hands-on learning in the community, aimed at inspiring creative re-use and re-imagining of neglected urban spaces and resources. After the projects are complete, the spaces become sanctuary sites for people to meet, organize and celebrate their strength and diversity.

The work of Leite and Swoon demonstrates art’s significant impact on lifelong learning. Each artist’s work represents a track record of fostering artful opportunities and scenarios for individuals of all ages to learn new skills and develop expressive communal responses to cultural and environmental events.

In 21st century pedagogy, there is a popular theory that ‘teaching to the whole child’ is a good way to prepare students for the complexities of contemporary life. This theory is not new, as Noddings (2005) notes, however, in recent years, many schools have shifted focus away from moral and social aspects in order to focus on ensuring academic proficiency. Educating the whole child means that educational settings should promote moral and social practices in addition to academic subjects. Implementing these practices within the educational curriculum benefits students’ development and wellbeing.

Teaching the whole child can be exemplified through eight objectives, which the National Education Association listed in its 1918 report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: health; command of the fundamental processes; worthy home membership; vocation; citizenship; worthy use of leisure; and ethical character (Kliebard, 1995). To this aforementioned list of aims, Noddings (2003) adds the principle of happiness, which is a fundamental necessity for making learning enjoyable, relevant and meaningful (socially and emotionally speaking).

Socially engaged collaboration through art making can be beneficial to developing a healthy lifestyle and fulfilling a lifelong commitment to facilitating social awareness. The process of artistic engagement develops and nourishes our social, emotional and cognitive intelligence and provides an accessible outlet that inspires interconnectivity and empathy for one another. When art is employed within the public sphere, it serves as a very visible and interactive means for communities to think and act critically, while working towards achieving a balanced, enlightened and liberated way of life. Combined with pedagogical principles and methodologies, art employs us with outside the box knowledge of how to respond to a myriad of critical issues and situations. It strengthens our observational skills and acute awareness of our surroundings and place within our local and global communities. In short, art makes us smart, engaged and compassionate people.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Block, India.New photos explore Álvaro Siza’s 1970s social-housing project SAAL Bouça. Dezeen. 29 Mar. 2018.

Kliebard, Herbert. 1995. The struggle for the American curriculum. New York: Routledge.

Noddings, Nel. 2003. Happiness and education. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Noddings, Nel. “What Does It Mean to Educate the Whole Child?” Educational Leadership 63.1 (2005). pps 8-13.

Scherer, Melissa. “The Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education”



  1. Teaching the whole child often gets lost in the academic rigor and race to meet standards and get passing test scores. I love this article. As parents, we strive to teach our children “street smarts”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Teaching the whole child is so beneficial. A whole-body approach is the best way of learning. Art sadly sometimes gets pushed aside. Children can be free to express themselves through art in maybe a way that they can’t express otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s