Sunday, April 29, 2012

Arts-Based Approaches: A “Snapshot” of our Work!

Prior to entering into Wichita State’s Community Psychology program, I, Kyrah, was heavily involved in grassroots-level work in my home community. I was involved with organizing a youth group as a means to promote positive youth development by ‘stirring up their gifts’. The youth in our community are at particular risk for gang involvement, teen pregnancy and overall idleness. So, this service-oriented, youth-led group provided a way for youth to develop their talents and to become active participants in community affairs. Many of our activities involved using the arts as a tool for individual and community level change. For example, we’ve been fighting for years with the city to have a community center built. We rallied at council meetings, and many youth expressed their concerns by reading poems (about their personal experiences and their community) to council members in an effort to convey how important this decision would be for them. In addition, while our community is affected by crime and blight, it was important for the youth to showcase themselves as community strengths. So, whenever we organized community rallies there was always an element in the program that involved youth showcasing their talents (e.g. singing, interpretive dance, poetry) with a particular message (e.g., neighbor relationships, anti-violence). In terms of practice, this work was focused on helping youth understand that they could use their talents/gifts in the arts to make changes in their community.

 Of course at this time I had no idea that this was called ‘community psychology’ or an arts-based approach. In college, I learned that the two could be merged and could be counted as research! Since then, I’ve tried to think about ways that arts-based approaches can be integrated into projects that I work on. For instance, our research team is a part of a university-community partnership which has implemented a project to support predominately African American middle school-aged children who are at risk for disproportionate health outcomes, contact with the juvenile justice system and academic failure. We hold a summer college enrichment camp to expose our youth to the six program areas and to build on their understanding of academic success and college. Last summer, I suggested that we include a poetry workshop into the program. So the team worked with the students to develop ‘I Am’ poems, which is a poem form used to describe one’s characteristics, beliefs, desires and ambitions. The youth then performed their poems for their senior citizens at a local senior center. We were able to use poetry as an educational tool to practice writing (e.g., nouns, verbs, imagery, etc.) as well as to promote self-reflection and creative thinking.  This is important because many of our students struggle in reading and writing. So if we can make it fun, we may be able to plant a seed for further academic development. We plan to do another poetry workshop this summer. This time I hope to be able to measure some of their attitudes about the experience to understand in what ways it helped them.

My experience with art-based approaches has been mostly in the form of community psychology practice. In the future, I hope to be able to incorporate these approaches into my own research. While I am very interested in how arts-based approaches can promote positive youth development, my primary research focus is women’s health- particularly maternal and child health (i.e., infant mortality). I would like to look into arts-based approaches that help understand the prenatal experiences of women of color. I would be very interested in hearing about any work that anyone is doing in this area. I am quite passionate about understanding the ‘stories’ of underrepresented populations in addition to highlighting the strengths that they possess through arts-based methods.

I, Katherine, have just begun my journey into arts-based methods. Currently, I am working on a Photovoice project with survivors of sexual violence within a college campus setting, and I have begun developing an international project with an organization that uses music and dance to educate and empower youth around issues of sexuality and sexual health. This second project will also extend beyond music and dance, and will incorporate video journaling, performance ethnography, and the Photovoice methodology (Wang & Burris, 1997).

For this posting I will primarily focus on the Photovoice project with survivors of sexual violence as the other project is still in the planning stages.

I have learned an incredible amount from the research participants in this project; far more than I ever expected to learn from a Master’s thesis in fact. For those of you who may not be familiar with Photovoice I will give a very brief overview of the process. The process begins as most all research projects do: with a theme and research questions. Framing questions are then developed from the research questions, and are stated as simple, brief questions similar to the research questions. For the current project two framing questions were originally developed: What is most helpful to someone after they have experienced assault? What should the campus community offer survivors like you? Participants responded to these questions by taking a photograph and writing a short narrative about each photo. The group held multiple meetings during which the photos and narratives were discussed more in-depth.

Currently the project is in the participatory data analysis stage, during which the participants decide what themes are most important across their photos and narratives. There have already been very rich recommendations made by the participants for how the campus community response may be improved to better reflect the diversity of survivors on campus. The next and final part of the project involves compiling the photos and narratives into a sustainable community outreach tool. For this project we are planning to explore the use of digital stories to use throughout the campus community to share what was learned and to make recommendations on how to better reach out to the diversity of survivors on campus.

Many ethical issues were explored throughout the development and beginning stages of the project. However, while there were many barriers to developing a Photovoice project with survivors of sexual violence, I am very happy to have barreled through them and pursued this opportunity. To begin, the process of confidentiality has been interesting. Participants have expressed pride in their voice and participation, and tentatively plan to attend the events at which the digital story is shown. Secondly, the framing questions were developed in order to try and prevent the participants from having to relive their violent experiences. However, participants have used the framing questions as an opportunity to re-evaluate their experiences to some extent. Additionally, a great deal of time was spent deciding whether or not the project should recruit male survivors. Some perspectives suggested this could be problematic considering how it may have influenced the project participants (who are all women); however, when I posed this question to the participants it seemed as though they would have enjoyed learning more about the male survivor perspective. This, of course, was said to be dependent on where the survivor was at in their own healing process.

As can be seen from the brief overview of our work, we have used different forms of arts-based methods, but believe in the unique influence these approaches have on the research process. That influence, is voice and story. These methods have created beautiful opportunities for participants to share their stories in a communicative way that may capture their voice better than an interview protocol or a focus group transcription. Furthermore, participants have an opportunity to use an active voice through poetry readings, taking pictures, and writing narratives. Such active opportunities are usually left out of traditional research dissemination processes.

**This post was written by Katherine Cloutier from Michigan State University, and Kyrah Brown from Wichita State University.


Wang, C., & Burris, M. A. (1997). Photovoice: Concept, methodology, and use for participatory needs assessment. Health Education & Behavior, 24(3), 369-387. doi: 10.1177/109019819702400309