Niberca (Gigi) Polo “In my work in academia, our meetings with Hive networks has helped me expand my research on e-learning, emerging virtual spaces, and digital equity and inclusive practices.”

Gigi Polo is a Dominican designer, filmmaker, and researcher; she is the Principal of Myellow Boots Studio, and part-time Associate Teaching Professor at Parsons, the New School for Design, for both onsite and online classes. Her passion for teaching lies at the intersection of student-centered teaching and brain-based learning. She is invested in developing new teaching approaches and curricula that foster digital literacy and equity, using as premise her research on e-learning practices and interactions in virtual spaces.

Gigi is the producer/editor of a documentary about bipolar disorder and the artistic temperament, called Madly Gifted, and an active advocate of mental health issues; by exploring humanness and mental health, Gigi fuses art and science to translating scientific findings into visual messages of human experience. Passionate about social justice activism, Gigi is currently working on a series of graphic images that contest social prejudice and stereotypes of race, ethnicity, and otherness.


Gigi’s Story

Can we start with you telling me a bit about your work?

I was trained as a Graphic Designer and Filmmaker. I produced a documentary, like five years ago, and then I did a master in Design Studies. When in this master, I started working with design research and education, looking at educational models and how I could rethink other ways of teaching, different methodologies, specifically looking at design and education.

Right now I work as a teacher and a design consultant. I’ve been teaching at Parsons for 11 years and at the College of Staten Island for five years.

In 2014, I started working for the Learning Portfolio project at Parsons, Pre-College Academy. We developed a hybrid course for high school underserved students to help them develop learning portfolios so they could prepare digital portfolios to apply for art school.

There is no divider between my work and my free time; in my leisure time I design, I paint, and I take photos. Because I teach a lot of different things, I’m very much involved in the arts and my professional practice because I think that these my students learning experience. I teach introduction to design, digital design for high school students, typography, editorial design, design history, branding, and infographics. I need to be current in my own practice so it informs my teaching and personal works.

Can you tell me about a time where you felt a strong sense of success?

In 2009, I had a nervous breakdown and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. For the next three years, I struggled with medications and gained 100 pounds. This is when I decided to commit myself to teaching. Overcoming that period of my life — through my art and my practice — is, for me, a successful moment, both in my personal and professional life.

In the midst of it all, I decided to enroll in the master’s in Media Studies, because I wanted to produce a documentary that would address the relationship between bipolar disorder and the artistic temperament, the stigma and misconceptions around it. That documentary, called Madly Gifted, helped me reframe my perception of my environment and the disorder; to talk to my family, to honestly and openly talk about that moment in my life and what I was going through, and to heal.

I produced this 40-minutes documentary, and I started presenting it at the different venues, including the American Psychiatric Association general meetings. I started talking to people — having conversations with many groups of patients and health professionals. I spent three years in production and two years in post-production, so that an intense and healing experience. That’s one of my success stories.

It seems like it’s healing, but also at the same time really helping others.

Part of the healing is in being able to keep the disorder at bay while sharing my experience and help others in saying, “There are ways that you can do it. It’s not only through meds or following doctor’s orders. It’s a combination of many things — of a change in one’s lifestyle and, most importantly, it is accepting that your health is your own responsibility.”

I can talk from my personal experiences. I’m not just reading books or seeing this disorder through other people’s experiences. I have experienced it. I experience it every day.

How about an example of a challenge?

I’d say every day there’s a certain challenge. It depends on how much of a challenge it is. Overall, I have many interests and it’s challenging to decide which way to go. I have five projects going on simultaneously, and they are all different. I have a passion for research, film, art, science, and education, so I am always tapping into different fields.

There’s always this perception that, because you’re in so many fields and wearing so many hats, you’re not an expert. I tend to deal with comments like “Oh, you’re not going to be able to publish,” or “You’re not going to be able to do anything with that piece.” “It’s not going to be relevant.” The constant questioning of my capacities and the validation you need from your field — that’s usually what pushes me forward in my personal and professional work.

I always have to navigate my own fears and, on certain occasions, prove myself. I don’t like it, but I always try to do things that somehow make me feel a little uncomfortable and, more often than not, I can prove that I can do it, and enjoy feeling accomplished. I push myself a lot. I have two master’s degrees, and I am about to complete a third master’s. Every time I start a project it’s really big, really massive, and everybody is like, “You can’t do it. That is too much”

For me, the challenge is when I finish a piece of work. So now what? What’s the next step? I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve found ways of validating myself and setting very clear goals of what I want my productions to do, for what purposes, and for whom. Once I do that, overcoming the challenges that come my way is easier.

How have you approached addressing this? You’ve started to dig into this, but maybe you could tell me a bit more about the ways you self-validate or prioritize.

I’ve decided that education is my passion. That was one of the things that kept me afloat when I was in my lowest. I really love being in the classroom, giving a little bit of what I know, and learning from my students. As of now, that, and being a mom, are my priorities. Everything else that I do revolves around it. In terms of my research, I started my research on education and neuroscience a while ago; it’s an ongoing project, still in the conceptual stage.

The other thing that I’m doing is the MA TESOL [Master of Arts in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages]. In my classroom, I have a lot of international students, a lot of non-native speakers and — being a non-native speaker myself — I can relate with their language and cultural barriers.

It’s important for me, as a way to better my classes and my teaching style, to help students improve their language skills, and mine as well. I came to the United States as an international student and my first language is Spanish. I recently finished writing a task-based reference book for studio teachers interested in supporting their students in enhancing their language skills — it is called Second Language through Design[ing].

As for learning portfolios, I presented a pilot test at MozFest 2016, and worked as a Learning Portfolio Specialist for Carnegie Hall. As time has passed, my research is now more focused on e-learning, digital literacy, and equity.

That makes a lot of sense. I’m wondering, just to make sure I understand, when you say “learning portfolios” is that a portfolio of work or curricula?

A learning portfolio is a combination of a journal and an archive held in a digital platform. It’s like, if you think of a blog — like Blogger or Tumblr — you can use any platform that will hold constant online. But the framework of learning portfolios fosters a self-reflective practice through documenting works as a way to keep track of creative and personal growth, and skills learned through the years.

Parsons had a three-year grant to develop this project, and we devised a framework with specific goals and outcomes, as well as a pilot course that ran twice in the 2014–2015 academic year with 22 students from the different boroughs in New York City. We gave them the tools to produce personal learning portfolios.

The ultimate goal is to shift the mindsets of universities so they can accept learning portfolios as valid evidence of students’ talents and growth. A lot of students don’t have money to invest in high-quality prints or a fancy portfolio, but if they post and curate their work online along with the process documentation that they’ve done for two or four years through high school, that should be accepted as valid evidence of their talents and their abilities.

In a learning portfolio, students share self-reflections, the way they solve problems, how they clean their work, how they got that “aha” moment. They share fragments of their creative minds and showcase final products as well. So it’s not only about the final pieces. It’s also the creative process behind it all. In our pilot test, which was setup as a hybrid course on Tumblr, we provided students with tutorials on how to document process, how to photograph their work professionally, and also introduced them to design theory. We gave them assignments. In parallel, we also taught them how to set up a Tumblr account to use as their platform. The platform is a shell to archive content, so it could be Tumblr, or WordPress, or Pathbrite — it doesn’t really matter. The core of learning portfolios is the framework — it’s the self-reflection and the documentation of the work that makes it valuable moving forward.

As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking a lot about web literacy and working open skills, which are helpful in terms of building connections and collaborations with others. It seems to me like while you’re doing that to improve access to higher education opportunities, you’re also teaching really important real-world skills.

Yes. Part of teaching digital literacy is to teach hard skills — like Adobe Suite and other tools. It’s also about teaching soft skills — how you post something online that has an honest yet professional tone. Something that is well written, with clarity. Part of it is bringing in digital literacy because that’s the world they live in. When they get an internship, if they don’t know how to navigate the web, how to work with digital tools, or at least feel comfortable enough so they can learn new tools on their own, then they’re at a disadvantage.

There are a lot of things that we also teach them throughout the process, in terms of being responsible for their digital presence and acting with respect — because our conversations are on the open web. We highlight were they should pay more attention or be more cautious of the things they say and how they say them. At the same time, they feel more empowered because the audience that listens to them goes beyond their inner circle. It is a great practice that helps them become more resilient and more open to other’s opinions.

Shifting now to more Mozilla-centric topics. How in your own words would you describe the open internet?

The open Internet? That’s a hard question. It’s a complex system of messages and information, and an opportunity to strive for digital equality and inclusion.

Can you can you tell me about a time when that complex system has been important to you or has helped you?

When I started doing my research on design education and neuroscience, during my master’s in Design Studies, it was really helpful in fostering collaborations with people that I didn’t know or had never met before — people I was hesitant to approach. I’m not a scientist, but I was delving into that new field of neuroscience. I didn’t know anyone in the field. I had two thesis advisors and one of them, a neuroscientist and great guy, would bring up the names of key people in the field whenever we discussed my research. He was like, “This person is key, this person is key, this person is key — just do research on these people and try to connect with them.”

I started surfing the internet and found information about them, their body of work and, in some cases, their contact information. Some were in Washington, some were teaching at Columbia, and one of them has a research lab at The New School. I found their emails and I started reaching out to them. That is the power that the web has, and the open possibilities that come from it.

In the process, I learned about Popplet, an open source platform for collaborative concept mapping, and I started mapping out my research, sharing with others, and asking them to add any ideas, or notes, or references that could help me expand my research. It worked out really well. I spent a year and a half sharing my drafts with experts who gave me feedback.

One of the most gratifying experiences was to meet someone that I admire very much. She has produced work on evolutionary psychiatry and one of her book on creativity and the brain was one of my main sources. I found her email, and sent her a message with my first draft. After reading it, she invited me to meet her at the APA (American Psychological Association) Annual meeting in Washington in 2013. It was amazing. We had long conversations about science, design, and education — and we became good friends. It’s been a great journey, and it all happened because of the open web.

Another instance, is my collaboration with the Nemetics Institute of Arts and Science, Kolkata (NIASK), where I do research on complex adaptive systems, and design pieces to share the Institute’s research. It is a network of many great minds, who are scattered around the world. I’ve been working with them for a while now, and, even though I feel that I know them, I have only met two of them in person. We work online, and we use Twitter, Popplet, Gtools, and any other new open source tech we can find. It’s because of this ability to connect and collaborate online that we are able to work together, even from far away. The open web and open source technologies provide opportunities to collaborate with people we’ve never met, across the globe.

That is two great examples, thank you. Turning to Mozilla more specifically, how did you get involved with Mozilla and what’s that been like for you?

I first attended a State-of-the-Hive meetup as a Parsons representative in 2014. It was a brainstorming exercise to map out city-wide resources and create a working group to write a grant for the Pinkerton Foundation. From this meeting, a digital learning working group was formed.

Mozilla provides great value to our youth development work, paving pathways for students to thrive and, beyond that, thinking about strategies to provoke systemic change. They ask questions like, “How can a top down structure be decentralized and become a more organic system?” “How can we, as part of Mozilla/Hive networks, reframe conversations, the way we look at students’ needs, tailored pathways, and ultimate goals?” I am always excited to participate in these conversations because they help us shift the current discourse about digital literacy and equality, and become advocates for our students and their families. There are also so many resources in the city, and abroad, that people don’t know about and aren’t taking advantage of. Being in a room with so many different people, with so much expertise, has been amazing.

Since that first meeting, I’ve been involved in Hive advocacy, and I love every minute of it.

Can you tell me about a time where Mozilla has impacted your life, or your work, or an organization you work with?

A lot of the conversations we have in those meetings — in terms of digital literacy, the open web and how to incorporate the motto of Mozilla, and of sharing resources, working openly, and collaborating — has really shaped the work I have been doing at Parsons for the past 11 years.

When we started working with the Parsons SPACE Learning Portfolio project, part of our concerns were, “Are we going to make this class private? What are the layers of privacy and public that we need to think about? What are the concerns and dangers?” At the same time, we had issue with the the materials that we were producing for students. With all of the legwork — recordings, tutorials, handouts, examples of artists’ work — and sharing openly, we had concerns about copyrights. Is it ours? Is it everybody’s? Should it be open? We had many conversations about private/public content, especially in terms of our students’ work and reflections. Finally, we decided that everything should be open because that’s the best way to learn from one another, that’s the way our students would get feedback beyond our classroom space — that’s the way we’re going to grow together and be able to refine our pilot and make a real impact.

Part of this shift was influenced by our conversations with Mozilla. We reframed our approach and made everything open in Tumblr. We had many conversations with our students about privacy and public sharing, so they could see the importance of sharing their stories and personal voice openly, and the responsibilities that come with this practice — with what they are posting and how they are posting it, both in terms of visuals and language.

Our students have been prepared to consume media for too long. The real transformation happens when they are able to experience a growing network, to follow people they look up to and admire, people whose artwork inspires them. Some of those people also looked at the students’ work, followed them, and encouraged them to continue producing work. In the long run, making this virtual space open motivated them intrinsically. It was a very rewarding experience for the students as well. This open project is one of the major takeaways from one of my interactions with Mozilla.

Also, in my work in academia, our meetings with Hive networks has helped me expand my research on e-learning, emerging virtual spaces, and digital equity and inclusive practices.

Can you tell me about a time when Mozilla didn’t meet your expectations? Or, generally, what feedback do you have?

I felt a little discouraged when, after several meetings, we were unable to finalize the Pinkerton grant proposal. It wasn’t because of a lack of great ideas, substantial content, or not having a curated proposal. It was more a matter of not making up our minds, of wanting to do too much, and of having different interpretations of technical terms, like digital literacy competencies, pathways, and connected learning — we were speaking different languages.

That’s one of the most challenging aspects of the network — we have so many people with so much knowledge in one room that it is really difficult to negotiate what needs to be done, how it needs to be done, and coming up with actionable strategies. You want to be democratic all the time, but that’s kind of impossible. Compromising and negotiating are the two things that we, as a group, are going to need to work on moving forward.

I can see that being a challenge, wanting to be inclusive but having to at some point choose.

Yeah. Exactly.

One of my final questions is, how might the stories that StoryEngine is collecting be useful to you, if at all?

When I read about StoryEngine, the project talked about leadership and social change. It grabbed my attention because it means that there is an action that derives from the stories. Understanding the process, what the project entails, and the purpose of it, was really interesting.

“Stories as data” is such an interesting concept, and a great way to collect rich, first-hand data that can provide insights on how to better provoke social change, and expand the impact of a project. The stories could serve as a model for other people to either replicate or adapt to their own work in serving communities, developing outreach programs, and introducing digital literacy.

The way I think about these stories, if you’re sharing them openly, is that it’s a toolkit. If you think of a toolkit, StoryEngine has the stories, the steps of what you did in analyzing them, and how you did it. The framework is there — what tools you used, the call to action, and the purpose and ultimate goals. I also appreciate how you use it to develop actionable strategies. This way, the impact of the project in a community can be better quantified.

Beyond that, stories are empowering. They empower both those who share a piece of their history and those who see them — sharing experiences with others, opening up regarding challenges. It’s important that’s highlighted, because it’s a call to action.

That’s actually super helpful. Thank you. Is there anything more you want to tell me or ask before we wrap up?

What you’re doing is great. I’m just eager to see what you put in there on the site and share those stories. If you need anything in terms of collaboration or putting anything together, just send me an email or call me and I’m on board.

Thank you.