The 'Talking Things' toolkit was the culmination of 21 months of research that I undertook between September 2011 & May 2013, as part of the Masters of Applied Arts in Design program at Emily Carr University of Art & Design.
The this line of inquiry was a personal project as much as it was an academic endeavour. As a newcomer to Canada I often felt the acute lack of a sense of community in Vancouver's neighbourhoods, exacerbated by differences in language and culture. In order to address this problem, I turned to a mode of connection and engagement that has always come naturally to me: Storytelling.
Scroll down to read the abstract and view the images and data from this project.
The importance of building social capital, particularly in urban neighbourhoods has been a topic of discussion for sociologists, political scientists and psychologists for some time now. This thesis addresses the issue through the lens of an emergent branch of design known as Transformation Design, which focuses on collaborative and multidisciplinary ways of creating a change in behaviour through design.
Employing participatory methods and borrowing from theories of narrative empathy and Thing theory, this thesis describes a praxis centred around the design of an experience where the exchange of narratives around everyday objects of personal significance creates a dialogic learning experience that builds social capital.
The resulting project, Talking Things, is a toolkit that is intended to encourage dialogues amongst members at community centres and neighbourhood houses, but can be adapted and employed in other circumstances where the goal is to build a sense of belonging and community. The toolkit describes a workshop with step-by-step instructions to prompt and facilitate the exchange of narratives.
Though the primary objective is to engage people in an informal, collaborative learning experience, the stories can be recorded and have an online presence that sustains the conversations.
This thesis contributes to the growing discourse of the designer’s role within a community, which stretches beyond the designing of places and things; and into an agent of change.
Testing the Toolkit in the Field
Given the broad range of circumstances in which the Talking Things toolkit may be applied, choosing a test site was not as easy as I had imagined. I decided to narrow down my search to community centres and neighbourhood houses within Vancouver. In order to have a cross-cultural experience, the other criterion was to have a diverse population. While researching the community centres and neighbourhood houses, I came across the South Hill Community website which featured a local storytelling project called Inside Stories. Apart from being well-designed, Inside Stories was an interactive, online repository for short personal narratives of people from the South Vancouver neighbourhood. The project was a collaborative venture between a creative team, the South Vancouver Neighbourhood House (SVNH) and the residents of the community. With a project so closely aligned to my own, I approached the SVNH with the idea of running a Talking Things workshop on their premises. The only stipulation that I had was that I required a facilitator from the SVNH to conduct the workshop.
The toolkit was tested on the Women’s Multicultural Support Group at the SVNH. This was a group of women who meet once a week to share life experiences and build a support network within their neighbourhood. The ages of the women ranged from those in their early twenties, to those over 60 years of age. The women came from diverse backgrounds and each of them had spent different amounts of time in Vancouver and in the community; some had lived in the same neighbourhood for over 20 years and some had arrived in Vancouver as little as 6 months ago. Since anyone was welcome to drop-in and join the group, the workshop was planned to accommodate up to 18 participants, some of whom were familiar with each other and some who had met for the first time. Prior to the workshop, the facilitator from the SVNH had requested the regular attendees to bring an object of personal significance that reminded them of home.
Given the different variables at play, such as the setting, the participants and even the time allocated to the workshop, the results yielded are always slightly different each time that a toolkit is deployed. Despite having gone through several iterations and a pilot test, the field test for Talking Things at the SVNH was a combination of expected outcomes as well as new experiences.
The workshop was set up in a large room with several tables joined together in the middle to create a large enough work space. Coloured pens and pencils were set out on the table along with 15 pairs of scissors and 8 glue sticks. On one wall there was a white board where the facilitator had written out the agenda for the day, including my name and a short line saying that this was an activity being conducted by a student from the Emily Carr University. Next to the white board was a hand-made poster with a list of ‘group agreements’: active participation, respect, confidentiality and a noncritical attitude were in this ‘agreement’. An easel with the world-map was set up at the side so that it could be used when necessary. In a corner of the room a small table with coffee and snacks was set up: given the different dietary needs that are inevitable in a group, care was taken to have a selection of different snacks including fresh fruit and vegetables.
Due to time constraints, the workshop was to be conducted for two hours. When the workshop started there were 12 participants, the facilitator from the SVNH, myself and a former graduate from the Emily Carr University, Nayeli Jimenez, who was assisting me with note-taking. Although the facilitator was given a guide to the Talking Things workshop a week before the workshop, she chose to extemporize the workshop. The workshop began with a ‘check-in’ where the facilitator asked each person to announce their name and to tell the group how they were feeling that day. The mood was predominantly light-hearted and energetic. Several women pointed to the gorgeous, sunny weather as a reason for their positivity. As the women in the group introduced themselves, one wished the group ‘Happy International Women’s day’ which the group agreed was a great coincidence. Nayeli and I joined the group to introduce ourselves and I went on to introduce the project, request the participation of the group and assist them in filling out the required consent forms before beginning. During this time several more women had joined the group and there was a new total of 19 participants. Initially the consent forms were approached apprehensively and the language barriers were evident, but eventually the participants were made to feel comfortable with the process. Some of the women who had been there for the introduction helped the new-comers with the consent form and gave them the gist of the project. Of the 19 participants only 2 requested to remain anonymous.
The facilitator introduced the first activity and handed out the object-cards to the group, asking the participants to pick a card that resonated with them. Since there were fewer cards than people, the participants were asked to share the cards so that more than one person could discuss a single object-card if they wanted to. One of the participants could not find an object that she wanted to speak about and had a hard time settling on an object-card. She was more detached than the rest during this activity and did not have much to say during her turn.
The participants took turns rolling the dice and answering the questions about the object-cards, which were read out by the facilitator. There was an element of play as they each rolled the dice and anticipated the question that the facilitator would call out. The answers revealed a range of emotions; from deeply personal wishes—the lady who picked the teddy bear object-card spoke about how she loved her 3 sons, but wished she had a daughter as well so she could play with cuddly stuffed-toys—to insights about themselves or their loved ones—a lady spoke about how her fiancé was always on his lap-top and so her object-card reminded her of him, another spoke of her first pet, a rabbit that her mother had bought for her as a child. There were light-hearted moments too; one of the participants admitted that she was chronically late and so had picked the watch object-card in the hopes that she would start being on time, another woman spoke of how her employer always insisted that she wear closed shoes for safety and so that was the card that resonated with her the most. Despite the disparity in age of the participants and the fact that they were from very different parts of the world including China, Hong Kong, Ireland, Mexico, Colombia, India, Philippines, Korea, Sweden, UK, Macau and Canada; the participants smiles and nods throughout were an indication that they related to each other’s stories, especially since the themes that ran through them were so universal.
The three activities that are described in Talking Things evoke stories of different depths amongst the participants. During this field test the group shared deeper stories than expected during the first activity; despite language barriers and evident shyness. Perhaps the reason for this openness was because the participants were somewhat familiar with each other, or perhaps because of the nature of the group, in which a lot of the participants were used to sharing their stories with each other, nevertheless, it set a good tone for the rest of the activities.
After the first activity, the participants were asked to take out their own objects and place them on the table. The facilitator asked those who did not bring an object to improvise and use something that they might have on them instead.It took a few minutes for those participants to decide on their objects, but in the meanwhile those who already had their objects were invited to draw the journey of their object on the map.
The facilitator did not explain that the second activity was intended to give the object’s story a context and a setting, so I drew the journey of my object first, explaining that it had been bought in Thailand and went with me to Pakistan and finally to Canada. I then invited the rest to draw their object’s journeys on the map.
After the first participant approached the map and drew the path of her object, others got up to take a closer look. What resulted was a collaborative spirit where people were helping each other find locations on the map. One lady could not find Macau—her country of origin—on the map, several others gathered around her to see if they could find it. Eventually it was decided that they would approximate the location and add the label to the map themselves. There was a palpable sense of fun in the room as people laughed about their geography skills and interacted with each other’s journeys. The lines drawn on the map displayed signs of creativity too, for example, two people drew their lines the opposite way; so instead of drawing the line across the map from Asia to Vancouver, they drew a line to the east-side border of the map and then drew another line coming from the west-side of the map into Vancouver.
While some of the participants were gathered around the map, others helped themselves to snacks. A few of the younger women from the group gathered together and talked amongst themselves about the activity and the weather. A few people approached me to ask what was next and why there were art supplies on the table. After about 20 minutes, when all the participants had a chance to draw on the map, the facilitator introduced the 3rd activity.
Although the facilitator privately voiced her concern that the women may not engage with the activity and suggested that the time spent on this component be reduced, after a few minutes the participants seemed to be immersed in their collage-making. Four participants requested further clarification for this part of the project and it was increasingly clear that the explanation linking the mapping activity to the collage activity needed to be more explicit.
Despite the fact that this was an individual activity, the women helped each other, in translating certain words and in clarifying what the instructions meant. It was evident that there was a lot of thought put into the collages. Some drew landscapes, others created mind-maps. As expected, the triggers prompted a range of creative responses. Some gravitated towards creating their own images from abstract shapes while others responded better to the figurative images. The resulting collages represented a range of thought processes and techniques. The 25 minutes set aside for the collage seemed to fly by and more than half the people were still working on the activity when the facilitator requested them to move on to the story-sharing phase.
For this part of the activity the facilitator invited each participant to bring their object and collage to the front of the room and share their story. This helped accommodate the large number of participants, but did impede the dialogic aspect of the story-sharing. This component started off with a light-hearted narrative where a participant lamented how fast time flies, she spoke of how she had arrived in Vancouver as a young woman 20 years ago, but now every where she goes she is referred to as a ‘senior citizen’. There was a good natured giggle from the room that assured the participant that despite struggling with a language barrier, she had conveyed her message with the aid of her collage. Following her lead several others brought their objects and collages to the front of the room and shared their stories. Many spoke of objects that held spiritual and cultural significance and in one case, even of a family heirloom that had been passed down over a 100 years to a lady, when it was traditional to pass down such tokens to the males in the family. The travel stories contained a mix of optimism and hope as well as wistfulness and nostalgia. In one case a lady spoke of how she was given her object by her then 4 year old granddaughter, she still cherishes that object 15 years later and carries it everywhere. As she recalled this memory and told us that she wasn’t sure when she would be able to meet her granddaughter again, her voice broke and there were visible tears in her eyes. The lady nearest to her immediately comforted her by patting her arm. The rest of the room nodded silently indicating that they could relate to her story.
By openly sharing her emotions, she inadvertently set a precedent for the stories to come, where the group dynamic became more open, trusting and intimate. There were several recurrent themes in the narratives such as loneliness, loss and childhood memories. There was also a great focus on spiritualism and traditions from different cultures yet most of the participants seemed to acknowledge the similarities that existed within this diverse mix of cultures. In a few notable cases there were insights into family and relationships. One lady even excitedly announced that she was going to get her marriage license the next day at which the whole group began to clap and cheer (fig 4.12, right). As the activity drew to a close, participants were more visibly relaxed and were actively participating in the stories that were being shared. Even the participant who was originally sceptical was far more at ease and willingly shared her story with the group.
After the group had shared their stories, I thanked the participants and shared my object and its story with the group as a gesture of reciprocity. Given the short amount of time and large number of participants, it wasn’t possible to take individual portraits, or to record their stories on an audio recorder. With the few minutes that were remaining, the participants were requested to fill out evaluation forms and then most of them continued conversations that were started during the story-sharing sessions. One participant wanted to know more about the Masters program at Emily Carr University and how I was able to combine design with storytelling and community engagement. Some of the participants approached me and gave me positive feedback on the activity and asked whether I would be conducting it again at the SVNH. Two of the younger participants offered suggestions for where I could hold the next Talking Things workshop and even discussed other activities that the group could work on collectively in the weeks to come which included ideas based on crafts and creativity. It is this level of engagement that I was hoping for from Talking Things; in which the participants were fully engaged with the activity and with each other, in which they shared deep personal stories and concerns while recognising that most themes to do with home tend to be universal, and above all, to spark ideas of further community engagement projects that will continue the dialogues started by Talking Things even after the workshop was over. For people working within the community engagement and development sphere there were important insights into the lives of these women, one of the most important being that many of them feel lonely while their husbands are at work and welcome the opportunity to create ties within the community.
At the end of the workshop, Nayeli Jimenez who had assisted me with the note-taking said “Personally, I felt a part of the group even though I didn’t participate in the activities. I got to meet some of the participants in the end who have similar cultural backgrounds as me. I even got invited to a ceremony for a woman who will be receiving her Canadian citizenship in two weeks!” The workshop only lasted for 2 hours on a Friday afternoon, but it seems as if the experience will last much longer in the participant’s memories.
You can skim through all 12,000 words of my thesis here.