What happens when several nonprofit agencies invite university partners and a regional museum to educate the local public about homelessness? How does this collaboration put a digital story collection to work?
In 2015, four nonprofit agencies that work to end homelessness in Porter County, Indiana, approached the Welcome Project at Valparaiso University—a regional, first-person, digital story collection—about collaborating on what became known as the Invisible Project. The purpose of this project was to raise awareness of homelessness in the county and break down stigmas that people experiencing homelessness face.
On any given day in Porter County (population approximately 170,000 with a median household income of $64K), 160 individuals are homeless. Many in the region don’t recognize their situation because these individuals, predominantly women and children, don’t conform to traditional stereotypes of homelessness.
The Invisible Project aimed to depict those who experience homelessness as neighbors, fellow residents deserving of recognition and respect. Staff members from the Porter County Museum, professional photographers, as well as students and faculty in graphic design, collaborated with the Welcome Project and the nonprofit agencies to create a mobile exhibit that makes visible the reality of homelessness in Porter County through first-person stories, art, and infographics. Simultaneously, the audio and video stories collected by the Welcome Project were published online.
By September 2017 the exhibit had visited eighteen sites and now resides permanently at one of the nonprofit agencies. The online stories have been viewed/listened to over 2,000 times, and several stories have aired on Lakeshore Public Radio, which broadcasts to the Chicagoland area and five counties in Northwest Indiana for a potential audience of more than two million listeners.
“Roof Over Your Head”
I got to experience homelessness, I got to experience living on others’—I got to experience all that, so it gave me more respect for people who are out there homeless, that they’re not in this alone.1 (See Appendix A for a full transcript.)
The way retired Housing Opportunities Chief Executive Officer Caroline Shook remembers it, Rachel Niemi, then executive director of Dayspring Women’s Center, came to her with an idea.2 Niemi, a licensed clinical psychologist, had been encouraging her clients to write down their stories, in part to help them process their experiences of homelessness, in part to encourage others who would come after them. What would happen if their stories were shared more widely? What if they were accompanied by portraits? Could some of the stigmas around homelessness, addiction, and mental illness be publicly challenged with these intimate glimpses into people’s lives?
Shook liked the idea but found herself skeptical; she had an MBA, not an MFA. Even after Elizabeth Allen, Project Coordinator for the Porter County Coalition for Affordable Housing, organized a meeting in 2015 with Liz Wuerffel and Allison Schuette, Valparaiso University professors and co-directors of the Welcome Project, Shook says she “didn’t get it.” Why would university faculty be interested? Where was this going to go?
What Shook didn’t know was that the Welcome Project had been developing a digital story collection practice poised to help these agencies realize their vision. For the previous five years, Wuerffel and Schuette had been working with students, faculty, and staff on campus, interviewing campus members about when they felt like they belonged and didn’t belong and editing these hour-long interviews into short audio and video stories for . During this time, they also partnered with their colleague Elizabeth Lynn, founder of the , to apply the Center’s facilitation practice to their stories (see Appendix B).3 In classrooms, meetings, workshops, and presentations, participants were led into a deeper understanding of a particular storyteller’s experience and further led to consider how we can live well together with and across our differences. The Welcome Project’s model could be adapted to help the nonprofit agencies meet their goals of raising awareness and breaking down stigmas by depicting those who experience homelessness as neighbors, fellow residents deserving of recognition and respect.
Two and a half months later, the planning team had grown. Wuerffel had brought in colleagues Yeohyun Ahn from the communication department, who would dedicate a graphic design class to creating a poster series for the project, and Aimee Tomasek from the art department, who volunteered to photograph clients. Mignon Kennedy, director of Gabriel’s Horn Homeless Shelter, had begun helping Niemi identify clients willing to share their stories. Megan Telligman, then coordinator of the Porter County Museum, had started working closely with Wuerffel and museum staff member Jacob Just to design and later build a mobile exhibit to house the stories, portraits, posters, and infographics.
That’s when Shook said, “I got it.”4
“one kind of intervention is the intervention of listening.”
—Anna Deavere Smith5
Typically, we frame our work on the Welcome Project as a practice in community engagement, but a research methodology that takes listening as its primary tool has evolved out of our work and undergirds it. This highly qualitative method involves three practices—interviewing, editing and facilitating—each of which employ different kinds of listening, each of which were valuable for the Invisible Project. (For a fuller discussion of our methodology, see Appendix C.)
Interviewing, with its focus on asking people what they’ve experienced and what they think about those experiences, listens to learn and to establish trust. Sometimes this requires breaking down the one-sided quality of the interview situation. Schuette, for example, often shared moments from her own life with the clients of the nonprofits to help them understand the source of her interest and to encourage them to see how they had the authority of their own experiences. This often generated confidence in the interviewees, who sometimes wondered what they had to share or what was of value in what they shared.
Editing, with its focus on revisiting the interview to sound out those stories that are important to the interviewee and to the mission, listens to identify and interpret. Because a single ninety-minute interview will produce several three-to five-minute stories, an editor’s first job is to listen again. The ethics here are paramount. As we transcribed the interviews of those who had experienced homelessness, we sought to identify areas of concern for the interviewees. Obviously, this practice still requires interpretation, but listening for repetition and recurrence, or for the cadence by which a client demonstrated emotional investment, meant the editors could get closer to representing what the interviewees wanted others to know.
Facilitating, with its focus on bringing participants into a story for whose telling they were not originally present, listens to prepare and to guide. Facilitators, in preparing to lead a discussion, listen to and review an edited story. They attend to those parts of the story that resonate and provoke, and at the same time prepare questions that will help participants interpret the story (see Appendix B). This initial preparation lays the groundwork for facilitators as they shift, during the actual conversation, into listening to guide, an act that ultimately aims to both connect and challenge participants. Facilitators want to create meaningful engagement for participants with the storyteller and with each other, to help participants recognize the ways in which they interpret, and to help participants apply the insights gleaned to their own lives and communities. This practice was particularly important for the Invisible Project, whose main objective was to have residents in Porter County better understand what homelessness looks like in their community.
“Seeking Some Level of Normalcy”
It’s about, I think, a lot about pride. Nobody wants to be seen as someone who can’t make it on their own. We’re all human beings, and we all have the same strengths and weaknesses within ourselves, so you just have to be willing to look at yourself and acknowledge that, and say, “I can’t do this alone.”6 (See Appendix D for a full transcript.)
The Invisible Project was highly collaborative from the beginning, but any project of this nature needs some management, a role that Welcome Project co-director Liz Wuerffel played. She oversaw the various stages of the project and kept communication open among the various partners. She also oversaw the budget, which was raised in several ways. Wuerffel applied for internal funding through the Cultural Arts Committee and received $1,500. The Porter County Community Foundation provided a $1,000 grant, and Shook found a donor through Housing Opportunities who provided an additional $2,000. Given the willingness of partners—including the exhibition team from the Porter County Museum—to give their time in kind, we were able to keep the overall budget to $4,500.
We began our work in the summer of 2015. The nonprofit agencies lined up ten clients willing to be interviewed and coordinated rides for them. (All but one interview took place on Valparaiso University’s campus. One took place at the client’s apartment.) Interviewees decided beforehand whether to contribute their stories through video or audio, and everyone signed a release form providing their consent and acknowledging they knew how their stories would be shared.7
Like most Welcome Project interviews, these lasted about 90 minutes, and began with what we consider “low risk” questions, those that people feel confident they can immediately answer. (Their answers also typically provide background and context that allow the interviewer to get to know the interviewee.) In other words, we seek first to lay a foundation of trust. Interestingly, one of the Invisible Project’s first lessons occurred when Schuette discovered that for one client our initial questions were anything but easy or low risk, as her experience of home from day one had been fraught. As the client forged ahead, Schuette quickly realized that for some people the experience of homelessness begins long before the physical structure is ever lost.
By the end of the summer, each interview had been edited into several short stories, many of which could stand alone, but several of which worked better in conjunction with each other as chapters in a playlist. All of the stories were immediately made available on the Welcome Project’s , and some stories later became a part of the mobile exhibit. Stories have additionally been used in facilitated conversations, sometimes in conjunction with the exhibition, as when Valparaiso students (trained in the Center for Civic Reflection’s facilitation practice) led a conversation at the Porter County Museum, and sometimes by community members, who discover the stories on our website, as when a Director of Student Ministries at a local church emailed to let us know she was sharing a story with her high-school students.
In the fall, Yeohyun Ahn used the topic of homelessness as the theme for her graphic design course, inviting agency partners to provide her class with regional and local context. Throughout the semester, Tomasek and Wuerffel photographed clients or former clients, some of whom were in shelters and some of whom now had stable housing. The graphic design students were then able to use these photographs, the transcripts from the edited audio and video stories, as well as their own creative content to develop their designs.
At this point, the Porter County Museum stepped in to design and build the mobile exhibit. The Porter County Museum’s mission is to connect the rich past to the evolving present to educate, enrich, and inspire Porter County communities. Understood as a small but vibrant local history museum, in recent years the museum had begun including more cultural offerings, inviting local artists into their exhibition spaces and encouraging use of the museum building as a site for community meetings and conversations. While the museum may have dealt mostly in history, its staff had experience in distilling and translating information (past and present) for Porter County audiences.
Porter County is generally an affluent community, with a mix of rural farming communities and small suburban towns located on the shore of Lake Michigan. As of July 2018, Porter County had a population of over 168,000.8 Approximately 30,000 live in the county seat, Valparaiso, a college town containing Valparaiso University, a small historically Lutheran liberal arts college. The 2016 median property value is $168,300 in Porter County, compared to Indiana’s median property value of $134,800. Porter County’s median income sits at $64,874, compared to the statewide median income of $52,314.9 This relative affluence presents problems for low-income individuals and families, who struggle to find affordable housing within the county. At the time of the project, 160 individuals were estimated homeless in Porter County on any given day: one in three were children; 72 percent of homeless adults were women.10
According to our community partner Mignon Kennedy, these statistics don’t mirror national statistics, in which “men have higher rates of homelessness than women.” Kennedy suspects Porter County might document higher rates for women because “on average the U.S. homeless population is 40 percent African American,” a population underrepresented in Porter County, and because homeless men receive fewer services in Porter County and may not be as easily factored into . Kennedy adds that women experiencing homelessness “are more vulnerable and typically suffer more abuse than homeless men. Women are likely to become homeless due to domestic violence or eviction. The fastest growing homeless sub-population is families headed by a single female.”11
In some cases, women experiencing homelessness are less likely to be part of the unsheltered homeless population seen in larger cities. Anecdotally speaking, due to childcare responsibilities and fear of physical and sexual violence, women are more likely to find accommodations—couch-surfing with friends and family, living out of hotels and cars, etc. This is certainly true of women experiencing homelessness in Porter County, who articulated a feeling of invisibility during the interviews conducted.
Using this knowledge, the exhibition team needed to find a way to combine photos, stories, facts, and designed assets into a physically mobile exhibit intended to reach a varied audience. It was an ambitious undertaking for a small museum; the staff had never designed an exhibition that needed to be compact, flexible, and resilient in order to fit the many display spaces it would inhabit, and to withstand many moves in the coming year. The design that emerged was a durable marriage of form and content.
The exhibition itself was made up of nine lightweight, wood-framed structures reminiscent of houses. The structures were stackable—fitting into themselves for easy transport. The text panels were removable but made of a heavy-duty plastic to survive the many installations and de-installations. This compact and adaptable structure featured a clean design with easily readable and varied types of information.
The overall design of the exhibition was inspired by student Rob Lee’s cyanotypes (see Figure 7.1). The color and texture of cyanotype provided a cohesive look to the exhibit and also spoke to its themes: cyanotype prints remain invisible until they undergo a final rinse in water; we hoped our exhibit would similarly reveal the realities of homelessness through the lived experience of our storytellers.
Additionally, because the exhibition staff knew that the exhibit would encounter audiences more diverse than those that typically visited the museum, varied media were employed. As counterpoints to the statistics, photos were incorporated into the exhibit to provide a humanizing face to the numbers. Infographics were developed to provide at-a-glance facts for individuals who might only be passing by. The design also helped viewers visualize available resources for homeless individuals alongside what was still needed in Porter County. Pull quotes from the longer interviews foregrounded the voices of those who had experienced homelessness, while longer paragraph text provided interpretation of history, context, causes, and proposed solutions. Finally, and most important, an audio/visual station provided viewers with the chance to engage with the oral histories themselves. Opportunities for joint listening encouraged conversation about the story heard.
Ultimately, the Invisible Project mobile exhibit made use of regional history, statistics, and resources; audio and video stories; select student designs; and photographic portraits in order to convey the project’s message to a public audience. This physical structure served as a vehicle to take oral histories out of institutional or academic walls to meet people in their day-to-day lives, educating viewers about the realities of homelessness through the words of those who have lived through that experience.
As a hybrid project, with both physical and digital elements, the Invisible Project brought the Welcome Project “offline” in a way that helped collaborators better realize the objectives of the initiative. Digital stories excel at placing the warmth of the human face and voice front and center, no matter the location of the listener. Through tone and expression, storytellers become tangible and concrete in ways that a transcript or written text can’t convey.
At the same time, digital stories in an online space require devices with internet access, and targeting stories to a regional population can be challenging. The physical exhibit in this case provided direct access to those stories in a very specific way by engaging local audiences in the daily spaces they move through.
The physical exhibit additionally contextualized the individual, personal stories in a way that allowed us to draw the public’s attention to larger concerns our community needs to address with each other in real time, such as lack of affordable housing. Encountering stories online is more likely to be a solitary experience.
Nevertheless, the digital continued to play a role before, during, and after the exhibit. We actively used and continue to use social media as a way to draw the attention of the public to the Invisible Project. Not everyone can get to the physical exhibit, especially other communities or nonprofits outside the region who might also benefit from the stories of Porter County residents. By keeping an online, digital presence, we are able to extend the audience for the Invisible Project and allow it to have a life far beyond our needs.
I think people need to step outside of the box and look around for a minute, and see that there are people out there that are really struggling, and that are not taking adantage of the system, and that really, really do need help.12 (See Appendix E for a full transcript.)
Between March 2016 and August 2017, the Invisible Project exhibit toured eighteen sites—local museums, churches, libraries, the YMCA, a health clinic, a community foundation, and a wealth management company—some of which paired the exhibit with a fundraising project or recruitment for volunteers. It finally came to rest at Housing Opportunities (HO), where it continues to inform and educate. HO still receives requests to have the exhibit brought to the lobbies of churches and libraries, and HO staff regularly use pieces of the exhibit to educate at public-facing events such as the Valparaiso Farmer’s Market.
Clients have spoken of both the difficulty and ultimate value of participating:
Gina, who was photographed for the project with her mother, said, “It’s important to share your story, even if you’re embarrassed about being homeless. It was pride-shattering, not going to lie. I didn’t feel human. This sheds light on that it could be anyone—it could be you, it could be your neighbor. Bringing light to that and knowing it is regular people, it could help give a sense of community and relieve those stressors.”13
Mitch, who was interviewed along with his wife, found value in the process for himself: “I’ve never sat and talked like that before. It put things in perspective, giving yourself a view of your own life, where you came from and where you’re going. The conversation put a lot of things together.” But when he reflected on the public aspect of the project, he felt more ambivalent. Having his story heard by so many people made him feel “a bit conflicted because I’m so private, but some people need to hear about homelessness because it is a problem. Folks don’t know how people get into that situation. If someone now better understands, then sharing my story was time well spent.”14
Feedback from community partners indicate that clients like Gina and Mitch can have confidence in their participation.
Mignon Kennedy said, “I believe the most important success was the message the exhibit conveyed: that homelessness exists in our community and that often times people had little or no control over the events that led to their homeless situation. The stories helped the audience to understand the pain, frustration, and feelings of hopelessness experienced.”15
Caroline Shook agreed that the Invisible Project put a real face on homelessness in Porter County. When a new Housing Opportunities board member experienced the exhibit at its opening, she says that he committed himself to HO in a way “no one ever has” because he saw and deeply understood that these folks “are our neighbors, they’re in the grocery line with us, they go to school with our kids.”16
Not all members of the community were able to hear this message. In October 2016, Valparaiso’s City Council turned down a rezoning request that would have allowed Housing Opportunities and Porter-Starke Services to create Aurora View, an ambitious affordable housing complex that would have provided professionally managed, supportive services to its residents. Neighbors in the area, however, resisted, citing safety concerns and declining property values.17 Shook said a local foundation with investments in the area let city council members know that, if the rezoning request went through, donations the city relied upon would “dry up.”18
Even so, Shook noted that the Invisible Project did influence the mayor of Valparaiso. He had supported Aurora View and was disappointed by the council’s decision. Later, he helped ensure that another affordable housing project, first known as Park Place and later renamed Caroline’s Place in honor of Shook’s efforts, went through quite easily. Housing Opportunities also used the Invisible Project to educate neighboring LaPorte County commissioners about the ways in which they could partner with HO to provide affordable housing in their county. The partnership allowed HO both to help current renters buy the homes they rented and to sell vacant houses in need of upkeep to those who had the skills to remodel a home but who didn’t have the money or credit to buy a house otherwise. In both cases, HO helped residents create more stability in neighborhoods that many would label “bad.”19
For the Porter County Museum, the Invisible Project was a meaningful success. Not only did it challenge the museum in terms of design, it pushed the museum beyond its four walls. This is, of course, great for museum visibility, but it’s more significant than this. The museum staff had been looking for new and innovative ways—from historic photo calls, to oral history interviews, to community conversations—to invite audiences to contribute to the recorded history of their community.
The Invisible Project provided them with a way to respond to Nina Simon’s call in The Art of Relevance: “But what about projects in which the audience co-creates the content? What about projects created in partnership with communities of interest, rooted explicitly in their voices, stories, and experiences?”20 Instead of an institutional model, in which the museum decided what stories were worth sharing and in what ways, partnership with community groups allowed new voices to emerge within the museum space and to speak to a relevant, living issue within the community. “Relevance,” Simon writes, “is an exercise in empathy—in understanding what matters to your intended audience, not what matters to you.”21 By listening, being responsive, and saying “yes,” the museum was able to reach new audiences, tell new stories, and respond to a need within the community as never before.
The impact on the Welcome Project was also notable. In addition to the ways in which we were individually transformed by the stories we heard and edited, we grew our capacity as a project. Previously, collaborations had not required an extended commitment between partners. The Invisible Project taught us how to forge relationships between individuals, agencies, and organizations—inside and outside our own institution—and gave us a deadline in which to create a “finished” product. We discovered that working with artists and students on that public product introduced the need to negotiate standards for content and quality and raised the question of creative control and ownership, frank conversations that should have happened on the front end.
Welcome Project participants also found ourselves needing to produce new kinds of stories. Oftentimes, understanding a person’s experience of homelessness requires the context of a lifetime. Our standard practice of highlighting a three-to five-minute experience from an hour-long interview works best with discrete moments. Telling the story of homelessness often demanded new approaches (multipart stories, more than one storyteller). Additionally, there were facts and statistics that visitors to the exhibit needed to better grasp the social and political dimensions of homelessness. The Invisible Project is not a dramatization of individual choices; it is a story of how individual circumstances within a larger context of regional and national policies and practices leads to outcomes with immense consequences for individuals and communities.
All of these lessons have continued to inform and shape our practice. They have, in fact, prepared us for an even more ambitious initiative, Flight Paths, that will document the changing racial and economic demographics of Gary and Northwest Indiana, beginning with the rise of Black political power and opportunity in the 1960s, the “flight” of white residents and businesses to the suburbs, and the automation of the steel mills and consequent underemployment of mill workers. Flight Paths team members span disciplinary fields, institutions, community partners, and funders. As a seven-year initiative, it will draw upon everything we’ve learned from the Invisible Project.
The Invisible Project provides an example of how digital community engagement can succeed. We benefited from eager collaborators at the university and in our community partners. Most challenges arose in the normal course of organizing a project of this size; they were logistical questions that could be addressed given the willingness of everyone to play their part. We recognize that conditions might not always be so conducive: grants might not be given, agencies might not have strong leadership, circumstances might make it impossible for a collaborator to fulfill their role, personalities might clash. But as Elizabeth Allen wrote in response to our request for her assessment: “The talent and expertise of the Welcome Project, Valparaiso University graphic art students and Porter County Museum all wrapped around the clients’ stories to create a beautiful, clear message to our community: We’re here, we exist, even in pretty Porter County. We’re not that different from you, just one or two different turns in the road. With your help and support we can get back on our feet.”22 We remain immensely grateful for the clients and collaborators who made this initiative possible.
1. “Roof Over My Head,” Welcome Project. July 30, 2015, video, 5:55, .
2. Caroline Shook interview by Allison Schuette, telephone interview, March 16, 2018.
3. The Center for Civic Reflection was founded by Elizabeth Lynn, Ph.D. at Valparaiso University in 1998 with support from Lilly Endowment Inc.
4. Shook, interview.
5. Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities (Anchor, 1993), xxxix.
6. “Seeking Some Level of Normalcy,” Welcome Project. September 4, 2015, audio, 2:50, .
7. The Welcome Project has received university IRB approval and we renew that approval annually. Team members complete the NIH Protecting Human Research Participants training, and interviewers learn how to review the Welcome Project’s release form with interviewees before they sign it. We acknowledge the vulnerability of those we interview and value their right to provide informed consent. Additionally, interviewees may choose to review and approve edited stories before the stories are made public.
8. “Porter County, Indiana,” American Fact Finder, U.S. Census Bureau, last modified July 1, 2017. .
9. “Porter County, Indiana,” data.census.gov, U.S. Census Bureau, last modified 2018. .
10. “Point in Time Count,” Porter County Coalition for Affordable Housing, September 2015.
11. Mignon Kennedy, email to Megan Telligman, October 9, 2018.
12. “Stepping Stones,” Welcome Project. September 30, 2015, video, 3:38. .
13. Gina, interview by Liz Wuerffel, telephone interview, September 29, 2017.
14. Mitch, interview by Allison Schuette, telephone interview, October 2, 2017.
15. Mignon Kennedy, email to Liz Wuerffel, September 26, 2017.
16. Shook, interview.
17. John Scheibel, “Update: Valparaiso City Council Rejects Rezoning, Donation of Land for Housing Project,” Northwest Indiana Times, October 25, 2016, accessed October 30, 2018. .
18. Shook, interview.
20. Nina Simon, The Art of Relevance (Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2016), chap. “Co-creating relevance,” .
21. Nina Simon, The Art of Relevance (Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0, 2016), chap. “People Who Don’t Normally Show Up,” .
22. Elizabeth Allen, email to Liz Wuerffel, September 17, 2017.
Gina. Interview by Liz Wuerffel. Telephone interview. September 29, 2017.
Mitch. Interview by Allison Schuette. Telephone interview. October 2, 2017.
Porter County Coalition for Affordable Housing. “Point in Time Count.” September 2015.
Shook, Caroline. Interview by Allison Schuette. Telephone interview. March 16, 2018.
Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Museum 2.0, 2016.
Smith, Anna Deavere. Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities. Anchor, 1993.
I got to experience homelessness, I got to experience living on others’—I got to experience all that, so it gave me more respect for people who are out there homeless, that they’re not in this alone. But I used to be that kind of person—I would judge people because I thought, you know, I wasn’t letting things stop me, and I was doing it. What’s wrong with them? And then I became that person, and it wasn’t until then I understood not to do that—not to judge, not to assume they don’t want anything out of life.
My parents are, you know, late eighties/early nineties, and they still live in Gary, in the house that I grew up in, and if you asked me years, and years, and years ago, I’d go, “Well, it’s the greatest place, you know, the west side of Gary and—very residential. It’s big yards, and kids can play.”
My husband was nineteen, and I was sixteen, and so we went to his sister’s, and that’s where we lived until I had our child, and then, once I had the baby, we had our own apartment. I decided to move from Indiana, and to try to better myself so I could be better for my kids.
I went to school at Ivy Tech, and that’s in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I went for a medical assistant, and I did graduate, and began work, and that was the beginning of, you know, me paying my own way. It felt so good, you know? It was so nice to see your name on a paycheck, you know? And know that you created this, and that you can choose how to spend it, you know? In the process of that, I did remarry, you know, to a great guy. He had some of the same goals that I did, and family, being family-oriented. And he helped raise my kids, you know? Gosh, he was just so great, you know, but he passed away. Two years after his death, which was in 2007, I became disabled. My diagnosis was post-traumatic stress disorder—yeah—and depression. And those were very dark times for me. I didn’t feel I deserved to be happy because he wasn’t there with me to share the happiness that we shared together. And so, everything we worked for, I gave all away. I find myself in a circle—it’s like a fish bowl. I want to venture out, because that’s the drive I have inside, but that person, I’m like, “Where are you? Push through!” A lot of people don’t come back, and I was one of them, that I just didn’t have my drive anymore.
Within the last couple of months, my family called and talked about Mom and Dad, how they’re declining. That’s what brought me back here to Indiana. I may not be able to have gainful employment, but all my skills that I have learned in the medical field, and just everything that I’ve picked up, I feel so good that I can say I’m using them to help my parents, you know?
Being a couch-surfer may not be bad for a lot of people, but I’ve always had the drive to not depend on others, so for me to couch-surf back and forth—it was still, like, a disappointment to myself, you know? Because every parent always wants to keep a roof over their head where their child can come, you know? You may not be able to put the spread out like you used to, but you just want to know you always got a place where your kids can come and have coffee with you, and talk about what’s going on in their life.
But I was fortunate to find a program—Neighboring Place. It’s a great program for women. They provide quite a bit besides shelter, you know, and I’m just real fortunate to be there. You know, being the bag lady, I finally got a place to put my bags down, and then lay down in my own bed.
Excerpted from Civic Reflection Discussions: A Handbook for Facilitators
by Dr. Elizabeth Lynn
In coming up with a list of questions, it might be useful to consider three kinds of questions:
1. Questions of clarification—What does it say? What is going on here?
2. Questions of interpretation—What does it mean? What do you think of what is going on here?
3. Questions of implication—So what? How does what you think of what is going on here impact your work?
You may want to start with questions of clarification: What does it say? In the case of a story, it might help to find a point in the plot that seems to have a deeper meaning or makes a significant impact on one of the characters. For a poem, it might be a specific image or metaphor that jumps out at you. For an essay, it might be some statement that genuinely catches or puzzles you. In each case, you can ask, what is going on here? Can one literally make sense of what is being said or done here?
Good questions of clarification are open to an answer from anyone who pays attention to the reading. In other words, they do not require any special expertise or experience in order to be answered.
Just as there are good questions, there are also opening questions that are best avoided.
- Invite opinion without interpretation of the text (Do you like this story?)
- Assert debatable propositions (Why is the concept of social capital so useful?)
- Put people on the defensive (What percentage of your income do you give to charity?).
After you have helped participants clarify what the text says, you will soon be ready to move on to a question of interpretation: What does it mean?
For instance, in Bertolt Brecht’s poem “A Bed for the Night,” several participants in the room seem to think that the man on the corner is asking passersby to take homeless folks into their houses for the night. Now the question is, what do you make of the cornerman’s request? And why does the poem move from a description of this man’s action to the announcement that “it will not change the world”?
These questions of interpretation encourage participants to evaluate the reading, to praise or blame characters, and to talk about values—but to do so using the shared terms provided by the reading everyone has in front of them. At this point, the discussion consists in an exchange of personal opinions, but these opinions are filtered through the shared object of the text, which keeps the discussion from turning personal in a way that might shut some participants out.
As participants get more involved in answering questions of interpretation, there will most likely be a natural push from the reading to the activity they share. That is, participants will move from talking about Brooks’ Ladies Betterment League to their service experience in City Year, or from Bambara’s Miss Moore to their own kind of teaching, or from Neruda’s lamb to the gift they try to pass on.
This motion—from the reading back to civic life—characterizes the best civic reflection discussions, especially when participants have come to see their work anew by looking carefully at the reading before them and thinking patiently about their opinions and beliefs.
In closing, then, you will almost certainly want to move toward questions of implication: So what?
What do we take away from this reading or discussion as we leave, what do we think about our own activity, our own work, in light of what we have heard or said? These questions simply try to help connect the reading to the experiences of people in the group. Often participants make these connections themselves, but you should still have these kinds of questions ready.
- Is Tocqueville describing the kinds of associations in which you participate?
- Do you recognize these characters/dilemmas? Have you experienced them in your own life?
- Is this the kind of leadership your organization has been called upon to provide?
- Are these the kinds of choices we are confronted with in our community?
- Why do these ideas matter? What are some implications of what we have said today for your work, organization, community?
Typically, we frame our work on the Welcome Project as a practice in community engagement, but a research methodology that takes listening as its primary tool has evolved out of our work and undergirds it. This highly qualitative method involves three practices—interviewing, editing, and facilitating—each of which employ different kinds of listening.
Interviewing, with its focus on asking people what they’ve experienced and what they think about those experiences, listens to learn and to establish trust. Though some may think of interviews as one-sided, where the interviewer merely prompts the responses of the interviewee and attempts to remain otherwise absent, in the Welcome Project practice, we attempt to disrupt this power relationship through foregrounding of curiosity. Curiosity, of course, cannot completely divest the interview of power relations, but it can bring the interviewer more fully into the experience as a subject. The interviewer may still refrain from contributing too much to the interview, but they understand that curiosity implies not knowing and requires them to expose their ignorance in a respectful way that demonstrates their own vulnerability. In posing questions, in sharing brief anecdotes, the interviewer makes clear to the interviewee how they are genuinely interested in the interviewee’s experiences and how the interviewee is an authority in those experiences. This can generate confidence in the interviewees, who sometimes wonder what they have to share or what is of value in what they share. Curiosity, then, is the ground for establishing trust and the means by which the interviewer learns more deeply about the human experience, whether that experience is familiar or foreign.
Editing, with its focus on revisiting the interview to sound out those stories that are important to the interviewee and to the mission of the Welcome Project, listens to identify and interpret. Each of our methodological practices entails ethical decision-making, perhaps none quite as palpably as editing. A single ninety-minute interview will produce several three-to five-minute stories. That process leaves a lot of material behind. How does an editor remain true to the intention of the interviewee while crafting stories whose insights will invite, inspire, and/or challenge future listeners to think deeply about living well with and across our differences? Striking that balance is daunting. An editor’s first job, therefore, is to listen again. As the interview replays and is transcribed, the editor begins to identify areas of concern for the interviewee. These areas can be signaled by repetition and recurrence as an interviewee seeks the best way to articulate their experience or insight, or they can be signaled by tone, as an interviewee’s cadence demonstrates emotional investment. Editors cannot escape some level of interpretation in this process. Interviewers might have run out of time to probe all areas of conversation deeply; interviewees might have struggled to fully explain their experience. The trust established during the interview has to be borne out in the work of the editor selecting which parts of the interview to bring together into a single story.
Facilitating, with its focus on bringing participants into a story for whose telling they were not originally present, listens to prepare and to guide. Facilitators, in preparing to lead a discussion, must take on the role they will later ask of participants. As they listen to and review an edited story, they attend to those parts of the story that resonate and provoke. They ask themselves why they’ve reacted in these ways and work backwards to distinguish their reaction from the storyteller’s description. This gap between reaction and description is the entry point into seeking clarification. From here, the facilitator can create questions that will invite participants to more closely understand what the storyteller means. At the same time, the facilitator listens to prepare questions that will also help participants interpret the meanings of a story and identify the implications both the story and conversation have for their lives going forward. This initial preparation lays the groundwork for facilitators as they shift, during the actual conversation, into listening to guide, an act that ultimately aims to both connect and challenge participants. As participants first clarify and then interpret a story, facilitators listen to how participants react and respond. They try to draw out the fullest range of responses and encourage participants to acknowledge points of view different from their own. As the conversation builds and evolves, the facilitator listens to discern how to further connect participants to the storyteller and each other and/or how to allow the storyteller to further challenge them. The ultimate aim of listening to guide is to create meaningful engagement for participants with the storyteller and with each other, and to help participants apply the insights gleaned to their own lives and communities. It might appear that the facilitator stands apart from this conversation—and in certain respects, like the interviewer, they do refrain from contributing their perspective. Even so, in essence facilitators and participants co-create a kind of listening that extends the trust first established between interviewer and interviewee as they allow difference to stand, hopefully leaving with more clarity about their own perspective.
Part One: “Seeking Some Level of Normalcy”
Speaker 1: It’s about, I think, a lot about pride. Nobody wants to be seen as someone who can’t make it on their own. We’re all human beings, and we all have the same strengths and weaknesses within ourselves, so you just have to be willing to look at yourself and acknowledge that, and say, “I can’t do this alone.”
Speaker 2: We would sometimes sit in a parking lot in our vehicle at night and just talk all night long like, you know, “Where are we going to go? What are we going to do?” And it’s like, well, we didn’t know that there was anybody out there that was willing to help us.
S1: I think we were always seeking some, some level of normalcy, you know? Finding opportunities to be—to look like everybody else, you know? You don’t want people to see what’s going on.
S2: During the day, we would spend a lot of time at the parks here in Valparaiso and Lake Station—they have a nice Riverview Park—but most of the parks at ten p.m. close up. Yeah, you’re constantly moving from place to place. Lot of times on hot days, we would spend our days at the library—
S1: Air conditioning.
S2: —you know, where they had air conditioning and a bathroom facility there.
S1: And we both loved to read.
S2: Yeah, we both loved to read. Yeah, nighttime was the worst. And, of course, you know, you don’t really have that many belongings, but, you know, what you do have, I mean, you know, you’ve got everything crammed in your vehicle, and, you know, even sleeping a lot of times—we would park out away from kind of the store, because, you know, we didn’t want to, you know, interfere—
S1: Be in the way.
S2:—we didn’t want to be in the way. You know, and then sometimes it’s hard to sleep because you know, you’re just not sure of your surroundings, and you don’t really feel that safe. And during that time, I think that’s most of our resources were making sure, you know, we have gas in the vehicle so we can move if we have to, we have food to eat, which was difficult with no cooking facilities. Everything had to be pre-prepared, and, of course, you know, that’s more costly, too. Hygiene. For me, that was the worst part. Restroom facilities, and hygiene. Of course, it was summertime when we were homeless, which, I think, we were fortunate because we could go up to the park, and we could go swimming, and we kept lots of empty gallon jugs—
S1: We would help each other.
S2: —and we would fill them, fill them with water. And like I said, it was summertime, so it wasn’t so bad, you know, having to wash your hair with cold water, but—
S1: I’d get to dump a bucket of water over her head.
S2: Right, you know? And, yeah, we would kind of go to the park in a secluded area, and we would, you know, like bathe each other, and watch and make sure nobody was coming, you know, so we could, you know, help each other do that. And, uh…
S1: Just because you’re homeless doesn’t mean you have to surrender humanity.
Part Two: “Tailspin”
Speaker 1: When we first came back to Indiana, we went to his sister’s, and she let us stay with her for a little while.
Speaker 2: And we got a place.
S1: And we both got a job, and from there, everything seemed like it was going pretty good. And we had been here four years when his sister passed away. And so…
S2: And that was, like, the final straw for me. I was broke.
S1: I was working. My hours got cut. Mitch had developed a lot of physical limitations, and his depression was, like I said, still there—underlying, but started coming out a little bit more when he wasn’t able to work, and that kind of threw us in the position where we became homeless.
S2: Bit of a tailspin. It was just, in a very short time, we went from like, being level, and then her income changed just the slightest bit, and that—that was it. It just kicked the underpinnings right out from under us.
S1: Right. When you’re living, like I said, paycheck to paycheck, you know, by the time it would get two or three days before payday, and, you know, I wouldn’t have a penny in my pocket. And when, you know, my hours started getting cut due to the economy—you know, business wasn’t as good—I was working at a restaurant, you know. It’s like, I’m driving eighteen miles one way to get to work, and eighteen miles back. Well, that’s, you know, taking a lot of gas—I need something closer to home. Due to my age, people kind of were more looking at me not as an asset, but as a risk. “Wow,” you know, “She’s not gonna be somebody long term. She may develop health issues. She may call off work. We don’t know what’s gonna go on.” And I think that was where I started having difficulties finding employment. So, when we couldn’t pay our lot rent, they, you know, basically—you have fifteen days to either pay or evacuate. And not having any immediate family or anybody that could help us, or provide a place for us to stay—you know, our children were in Wisconsin, and neither one of them was really in a position to do anything for us. It was kind of a snowball effect. We did live in our vehicle for approximately four months before one of my coworkers had told me about Housing Opportunities. We checked into that, and took us about another month, and they accepted us into their program, and provided us with a place to stay.
Part Three: “We Were Them”
Speaker 1: What we’re doing here is very outside our comfort zone.
Speaker 2: Yes.
S1: And that’s one of the things we are trying to do different. Because people need to learn these things. It’s not easy for people to open up about this sort of thing. Trust—it doesn’t come easy to me.
S2: It is, it’s very hard to know who you can talk to, and who you can be honest with, because a lot of people in my past—my experiences were, that the more people know about you, the more judgmental they become. Asking for help wasn’t something that I ever really did. That, for both of us, was a big step—having to ask for help.
S1: When we were living out of our vehicle, necessity drove us to have to go here and go there, because, you know, you don’t have resources, you know. We would park in the Walmart parking lot through the night for sleeping, because we knew they had restroom facilities we could use. And when you live like that, you start meeting other people in a similar circumstance. And I was astounded at the number of people with vehicles and such, so I mean, typically if you saw them, you wouldn’t even know that they’re suffering in this way. And they’re all around us. We were them, you know, and I never understood any of this. But I got a pretty good grasp of it now.
S2: I don’t think I ever even really considered people being homeless. It wasn’t anything that I ever thought about, you know. I wasn’t a person who was going to be like, “Oh, there’s homeless people out there. I should do something to try to help them,” because the thought never even crossed my mind. And then, when it happens to someone like us, where then I have to take a step back and say, “Wow, it happened to me. It can happen to anybody.” Because I would’ve never in a million years dreamed that I would end up homeless.
S1: What I’ve learned is that life is not a straight line. There’s curves, turns, and you even go back upon yourself many times. And it’s easy to get lost, you know, to take one misstep, to take one wrong turn: left, when you should’ve went right. And, so, to stereotype all these people, and say they’re this, this, or this—I can’t tell you how wrong that is. Bad things happen to good people, and it ain’t through no fault of their own. It’s life. And I’ll never hesitate to help somebody up after this.
There’s some people out there—they don’t want the help. They just, they don’t want it. And I’ve seen people who don’t take the help, and then they end up in the same predicament that they were in. They don’t have the same opportunities because they didn’t take the opportunities that were given to them. But there are people out there that really need help, and there are people out there that don’t want to be on the system forever, that don’t want welfare, that don’t take advantage of it. They’re just trying—they’re taking stepping stones to get where they need to get, and for that period of time, they have to let their pride go, and get the help that they need.
Housing Opportunities helps me by providing a roof. We go over goals. They help you find steps to finding a job. They give you resources to help you go to school. They introduce you to other nonprofit organizations that help you with other things. Like, they help my son with his speech therapy. They referred me to somebody. They referred me to First Steps. They referred me to Early Head Start—Head Start. The Family Youth Services Bureau—they paid for my car insurance for the first six months when I first got my car. I graduated from them, I guess you can say now, but they were truly amazing. Every single one of them that I had were amazing. Geminus Head Start—the nonprofit organization—my son went there for two years, and I loved the teachers that he had. They were amazing. One time, I didn’t have enough money to pay for my son’s pictures, and they—the teachers—put in the money to buy his pictures. I mean, then you have food stamps and welfare, that helps provide food, medical coverage, and that helps a lot, too.
My case manager, Cindy, is an incredible role model. She comes out to the apartment, she talks to us, she goes over the goals. She’s taught me how to be a mom. She’s amazing. She is more than just a case manager to me.
Right now, things are pretty good. I do watch children out of my house. Yes, it’s not a lot of money, but I’m able to pay my bills. I’m able to buy my son what he needs, I’m able to keep a roof over our head right now. I was looking for another job, and I’m going to start looking for another job again as soon as I have a reliable car. It’s still hard—you still struggle, especially when your car is constantly breaking down. You don’t have enough money to pay for everything and fix your car, so the bills have to come first, and then the car, but I’m managing. We eat. We have a roof. He has clothes.
I think people need to step outside of the box and look around for a minute, and see that there are people out there that are really struggling, and that are not taking advantage of the system, and that really, really, do need help. Not everybody is the same. I think that it’s just the way you look at it. And if you’ve ever been in that situation. If you’ve never been in that situation, then it’s hard for people to understand what it’s like. I think, sometimes you have to step back and take yourself out of your situation, and put yourself in somebody else’s shoes.