Carnegie Mellon University

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Latham Street Commons and the Night Owl Bakers Program

Updated September 2019

Latham Street Commons (LSC) was testing the impact of rain water collection and distributed energy generation systems on food production in an urban environment. LSC is a place where we test new ways of living as a community, and provide an innovative approach to workforce development and employment so that individuals can become self-sufficient. Producing food, and establishing access to it, has been integral to the project from the beginning. We believe that if we place food, one of our most precious resources, at the center of our work, we can have an impact on the knowledge, civic-mindedness and function of a community  health and well-being. LSCs physical location is a quarter acre site bounded by two rows of 100-year-old garages that lie one block off Penn Avenue, a busy urban street that is the demarcation for the Garfield and Friendship neighborhoods in the City of Pittsburgh.

Founded by two Carnegie Mellon professors, Kristin Hughes and Mary-Lou Arscott, Latham Street Commons has involved hundreds of community residents in the design and learning process. Over the past two years, we have invested time experimenting with potential ways of growing food. We received advice and guidance from Chatham University Falk School of Sustainability and Environment. Using very basic materials we grew an enormous amount of produce, which was shared with the community. We learned about the different conditions of exposure to sun, rain, and wind, depending on orientation. The site is, in fact, ideal for growing food in summer months, but expansion of the growing period is necessary if we want to have any significant impact on food insecurity and access.

Latham Streets Commons has evolved and developed The Night Owl Bakers Program. The Night Owl Bakers is an educational workforce development program that provides a holistic approach to self-identity and employment preparedness for young adults. The program innovatively combines 21st century skills through making and selling artisanal breads and baked goods. Our proposed project will provide evidence for the effectiveness of a holistic educational program for self-identity, mental health, and employment preparedness for young adults who are transitioning out of foster-care and those often left in the margins of new educational/workforce training opportunities.

Project Update:

The PIs and CO-PIs long-term vision is to create a model of operations which is educational, transformative and has the ability to be adopted in other communities, nationally and internationally. This past fall the Night Owl Bakers program was selected for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation E4A’s Technical Assistance Program. This unique program partnered our team with the Evaluation Institute for Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and Behavioral and Community Health Sciences. The goal of the matching program was to help support the design of a proven evaluation plan. Being a part of this collaboration has helped the team prioritize our goals, manage the scale and complexity of the project and establish clear, linear steps to measuring outcomes. 

To capitalize on the work from this fall, the team planned two pilot studies—one recently completed in May 2019 and the second set to start in September 2019. The team’s proposed pilot was designed to: 1) provide evidence for the effectiveness of a holistic educational program for self-identity, mental health, and employment preparedness for disadvantaged young adults who live in chronic poverty; and 2) show the potential impact of creating equal opportunities for participants to engage in and gain experience from different types of work activities that contribute to their personal and financial growth as well as their overall health.

For the first pilot, the Night Owls Baker program operated out of a local organization in Friendship, PA called Earthen Vessels and worked with select participant, ages 14 – 19, from Propel Andrew Street High School and the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation (BGC).

The participants met every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30-7:30 for eight weeks. Every Monday and Tuesday participants were divided into two groups, one group was assigned to the Kitchen Lab, the other the Social Lab, on Tuesday they switched Labs. Thursday was designed to blend the learning from both labs and served as an opportunity for all the students to work together.

In the Kitchen Lab, participants learned how to prepare food safely with lessons in kitchen cleaning, hand washing, personal hygiene, food-borne illnesses, and more. As the weeks progressed, they were introduced to the essentials of bread making and witnessing its transformation from seed to loaf, learning about its connection to life as an important symbol of sustenance.

The Social Lab helped participants think deeply about and express (visually, orally, written) the ingredients that make up who they are, encouraging alternative ways of dealing with stress by introducing practical approaches to self-care. A great deal of time was spent discussing our personal relationships with money, equipping participants with the tools of financial literacy, so they can begin to combat the biases built into larger economic systems.

Thursdays deviated from the normal Monday and Tuesday agenda to focus on larger complex systems, civic engagement and storytelling. Throughout the program, participants were challenged to integrate the personal and interpersonal skills learned into every session. Similarly, they were encouraged to take more self-actualizing risks in learning and in engaging their peers. In doing so, they grew beyond their familiar range of comfort to discover new horizons of competency and belonging.

Overall the team had many successes during the summer pilot program and uncovered that:

  • Many participants expressed an interest in internships, so the team now sees Night Owl Bakers as a catalyst to help participants find work
  • Getting to know and understand participants is a key factor towards the success of the program
  • Maintaining the attention of teenagers after school hours for three nights a week can be challenging, but the team observed that the participants attendance was consistent and that they produced highly creative work

The team believes that the pilot program provided the evidence needed to showcase the value of the model. The next steps include adjusting and improving delivery as well as expanding the scope of material covered for the upcoming September pilot.

With the support of Metro 21, The Fisher Fund, Pitcairn-Crabbe Foundation and STUDIO for Creative Inquiry, the team was able to test their assumptions, plan and run the first pilot program in March 2019. The team will use the remaining funding to run another pilot in Fall 2019.

Project Partners

Bloomfield Garfield Corporation

Action Housing

Peoples Gas 

Project Team

Kristin Hughes
Associate Professor, CMU School of Design

Mary-Lou Arscott
Studio Professor, CMU School of Design

Project Collaborator

Chatham University Falk School of Sustainability and Environment 

Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation 

MyPlace Youth 

Allegheny Health Department