Ph.D. Student Combines Street Smarts with Academic Success

clovisfeatureAs Clovis Bergere explains, there is an underlying tension in the city. It is one that exists between the spontaneous and creative ways that young people utilize public spaces, and local governments’ attempts to regulate these informal actions.

“It is important to understand how to regulate planning and implement programs for young people without clashing with what they’re doing, in order to retain some of their excitement and creativity,” says Clovis, a graduate student in Rutgers–Camden’s Ph.D. in childhood studies program. “Often the protection and control of children have gone hand-in-hand.”

This complex relationship between youth and their urban environments – and the array of social issues that arise – is at the crux of Bergere’s research focus. While he hasn’t chosen a dissertation topic yet, he draws on a lifetime of personal experiences that make him uniquely qualified to examine both sides of this dynamic. For, as he readily shares, his professional and academic pursuits have often run parallel with the education that he has gotten on the streets.

Bureaux - LabeAt 20 years old, the Paris native decided to take a year off from earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology at London Guildhall University. He took a post with a non-government organization, working as an English and computer teacher at a vocational school in Guinea, West Africa. Shortly after arriving, Bergere began to visit “The Office.” That was the informal name given to the street corner where he and his friends – and a wide network of associates, ranging from preteens to adults – shared the latest news and information.

“This is where I spent most of my afternoons when I wasn’t working,” recalls Bergere, a resident of Collingswood. “It was just like going to the office; you had to go because it was so important in terms of socialization and connection. We would talk about anything going on in the city, such as making money, politics, going out, sports, or girls.”

After his 10-month contract expired, Bergere returned to London and completed his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1999. But he wasn’t quite ready to test the job market. Over the next five years, he and his friends scraped together a living by squatting, primarily in the London borough of Hackney. The group took advantage of a well-known loop hole in local housing laws: Anyone who could prove that they were living in a location for several days couldn’t be evicted without the owners – either the local council or a private landlord – taking them to court.

During that time, Bergere earned a few bucks riding a billboard bicycle around London. While he was making enough to get by, he began to consider his long-term, career prospects. He then enrolled at nearby King’s College London to pursue a master’s degree in environment and development. Through the course of his studies, he returned to Guinea to conduct master’s research with young people with mobility impairments.

Upon earning his master’s degree in 2005, Bergere worked for Plan International, a United Kingdom-based non-governmental organization, helping to introduce new computer networks and connect students in Africa and the United Kingdom, enabling them to collaborate on curriculum-based programs. He then landed a job working in children’s and cultural services with the town council in the London borough of Redbridge.

Among his responsibilities, Bergere set up forums for children, seeking their feedback on a range of issues, such as local schools and foster care. After two years at Redbridge, Clovis moved to the London Borough of Lambeth where he also oversaw a project building 29 playgrounds throughout the poorest areas of the borough. He routinely found that many existing playgrounds had either fallen into disrepair or were used for illicit activities. As he recalls, it was not uncommon to see stolen motorcycle parts strewn about, or chew marks etched into the equipment, where pit bulls were trained to latch onto their prey. Unfortunately, he adds, he also learned what equipment burns the easiest. One playground was burned down less than six months after it was constructed.

bergereIn another neighborhood, he recalls, there wasn’t enough room to build equipment where the children would gather to play. So instead, he and his colleagues installed “play elements,” such as mounds and steps, throughout the space. He soon discovered, however, that these methods of integrating play elements into urban spaces are routinely rejected by local planning boards. “They want designated spaces that they can identify on a map,” says Bergere, who earned a post-graduate diploma in local government management. “Planning has traditionally functioned by separating these spaces.”

Furthermore, Bergere began to consider how informal social spaces are not taken into account when planning playgrounds or community centers. He likewise noted that many youth centers fail to incorporate the ways in which local children utilize their play spaces. In his experience, he found the greatest disconnect between the initiatives that were conceived in the West and implemented in foreign regions, such as Africa.

Bergere maintains that architects and planners should make greater efforts to include children in the playground-planning process. However, he contends, eliciting their input means more than just asking what equipment they wish to use. “Children just give you the answer they think that you want,” explains Bergere. “If you allow them to experience the space, and see how they use it, then you are asking them in an indirect way. You start to realize the possibilities of the space.”

As he now pursues his Ph.D. in childhood studies, Bergere is committed more than ever to learning how young people and local governments in urban settings can benefit from new models of mutual understanding. As he explains, it’s easy to be critical of one group or the other without knowing the issues and realities that they both face. “I’ve seen these issues from both sides now,” says Bergere. “There still needs to be much more research done focusing on youth in the city, as well as examining these issues on a global scale.”

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