A ten-week partnership with Jovenes Inc. culminated in a capstone event that showcased the resulting collaborative work. To learn more about how this project highlights the intersection between ethnography and design, please read “Designing for Stories: Working with Homeless Youth in Boyle Heights,” published on Ethnography Matters and co-written by myself, An Xiao Mina, and Jeff K. Hall.
The final piece displayed major milestones from the stories of David G., David T., Anthony, and Reki, printed on transparency and sandwiched between custom acrylic sheets. The youth worked with event visitors to position their milestones on L-bracket-shelves amongst four wooden structures wrapped in large-format printed sections of their face. Looking at the four wooden structures from various angles reveals a united facial image of each youth. The wooden structures were also movable, allowing the youth to reposition the sections of their face, shift angles, and form new visual combinations.
Process story timeline work was also on display on the accompanying wall, along with images from the previous ten weeks of collaboration. ‘Share and Comment’ cards contained direct question prompts prepared by the youth, allowing event visitors to contribute aspects of their own story to the timelines and four main milestone structures.
The most fulfilling result of the collaboration was seeing the youth take ownership of the work, explaining the project to event visitors and displaying their story milestones with pride and excitement. One youth in particular even took his excitement to his Instagram and Facebook accounts.
“Success is not based on whether participants complete the steps faithfully, but whether they have a strong and authentic sense of development and evolution stemming from their participation in a PAR project.”
Alice McIntyre, Participatory Action Research
By this measure, our partnership with youth from Jovenes Inc. was definitely a success.
Brief: Through a ten-week collaboration with Jovenes Inc., a nonprofit that serves homeless youth in Boyle Heights, employ ethnographic and design research methods to facilitate formerly homeless youth developing and sharing their story.
Methods: The partnership began with a focus on building relationships with the youth, using “non-traditional strategies to tap into the youths’ experiences, thoughts, ideas, and emotions” (McIntyre 21). Initial activities included games with Post-It notes, collage-making, self-documentation with disposable cameras, painting to music, creating kinship maps, and writing self-created lyrics to instrumental versions of mainstream songs.
Setting up stations that explored photography, graphic design, smart phone apps, writing, poetry, sound, and video provided youth with the tools to envision how their story could be told through various types of media.
Approach: The youth were prioritized as the “key decision makers, the ones responsible for how, when, and why the project proceeded” (McIntyre 26). For the graduate students involved in the project, reinforcing the youth as the ‘real knowers’ of the project became both an affordance and a challenge of the collaboration.
Recording field notes and extensive visual documentation were crucial for reflection and planning next steps. A few self-critical questions included the following:
- How do we avoid making this project a ‘drive-by’ research project?
- After reflecting upon the personal histories of ourselves and the youth, how can we equalize the relationship and avoid imperialistic research dynamics?
- Who will the research benefit and how do we disseminate the research in a way that prioritizes the safety and privacy of the youth?
Participants: Our team consisted of three Media Design Practices graduate students from Art Center College of Design (Jeff K. Hall, An Xiao Mina, and myself) and four young men from Jovenes Inc. (David G., David T., Anthony, and Reki).
An, Jeff, and I worked one-on-one with David, David, Anthony, and Reki to fully write content and choose photographs for each of their four milestones. I then created the design for each youth’s story, working with the youth to choose fonts and edit imagery. Jeff gathered all construction materials and specs. An edited and printed the large-format face sections. Together as a team, we constructed the four wooden milestone structures and planned the choreography of the final display.