New Youth-Led Exhibit Tells the Stories of Black Homeownership in NYC

POSTED ON: February 3, 2023

What Makes a House a Home

Installation image

What Makes a House a Home

Installation image

“What Makes A House A Home,” a new public exhibition at The Cooper Union, runs in the colonnade and first floor of Cooper’s historic Foundation Building from February 3 through February 11, 2023. The exhibition is presented by The Cooper Union STEM Outreach, a program that helps introduce K-12 students to design and engineering, in partnership with the Black Housing Project (BHP), a consortium between DIVAS for Social Justice (DIVAS), and The Center for NYC Neighborhoods (the Center). BHP, led by DIVAS and the Center, educates students on homeownership in an age-appropriate way, empowering them to envision their future as homeowners to begin to close the racial wealth gap.

The exhibition, designed by Wallace dos Santos, a 2022 Cooper Union School of Art graduate, was inspired by the words and homes of 9- to 14-year-old students from four schools in Laurelton, Queens and East New York, Brooklyn who are participating in the Black Housing project. The content of the multimedia exhibit, created by students as part of the DIVAS after school program, both highlights the history of Black homeownership in NYC and memorializes more than 50 student stories via audio recordings and photographs. The recording of each youth voice is mounted in a “story house” engineered by high school and college students who attended and taught this past summer at The Cooper Union Summer STEM program. 

“One of many keys to promoting and supporting Black homeownership is empowering communities to believe that owning their own home is possible, even in a city as expensive as New York,” says Christie Peale, CEO and Executive Director of the Center for NYC Neighborhoods. “The Black Homeownership Project aims to do just that. I hope that seeing their work displayed at Cooper Union will underline for our students the importance of their stories and their family’s stories—and remind everyone who passes through that homeownership in New York should be and is a complex tapestry, not solely for the wealthy.”

The Black Housing Project is a direct result of a study that the Center for NYC Neighborhood’s Black Homeownership Project released last March. In it, the Center found that the number of Black homeowner households in NYC declined by 13 percent over the past 20 years due to unsustainable and predatory mortgage practices and skyrocketing prices. “In a time when so many New Yorkers are struggling to achieve homeownership, we are investing in an essential program that will put our youth on a path to achieving generational wealth that will endure for decades to come,” Peale explains. 

“When we were approached for this collaboration, I knew immediately that this was an opportunity for the high school and undergraduate students in the STEM program to engage in authentic human-centered design,” says Elizabeth Waters, director of STEM Outreach at Cooper. “At a glance, the story houses look simple, but they represent the deep learning that occurred as our students applied the engineering design process to create a product that was the best fit for DIVAS’s needs.”

The work was funded by The ABNY Foundation. Melva M. Miller, chief executive officer of ABNY, added, "We are thrilled that this work will now be on display for a broader audience to learn from the lessons of the past and help inform a better future for all New Yorkers.”

Students who helped create the installation—from PS 156, P.S. 132, Linden SDA School, and the Trey Whitfield School in Laurelton and East New York—will visit the exhibit on February 9 to see their work displayed for the first time.

“Our conversation about Black home ownership is based on assets and not on deficits, and empowering these students to envision a joyful future as homeowners,” notes Clarisa James, executive director of DIVAS for Social Justice. “I love that this exhibition, which is an intersection of childrens’ voices and representations of NYC, is so colorful as we celebrate Laurelton and East New York homeowners and their families.”

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

  • “My feelings, my desires, my hopes, embrace humanity throughout the world,” Peter Cooper proclaimed in a speech in 1853. He looked forward to a time when, “knowledge shall cover the earth as waters cover the great deep.”

  • From its beginnings, Cooper Union was a unique institution, dedicated to founder Peter Cooper's proposition that education is the key not only to personal prosperity but to civic virtue and harmony.

  • Peter Cooper wanted his graduates to acquire the technical mastery and entrepreneurial skills, enrich their intellects and spark their creativity, and develop a sense of social justice that would translate into action.