Greeting, MAPA-blog readers! Welcome to my last post for the month and the conclusion of this series focusing on being (better) science communicators.
Last week I discussed the impact of language when engaging in the process of communicating science and offered a few suggestions to help researchers communicate more effectively (Here’s the link, since I know you want to read it: http://mapabing.org/2016/04/21/communicating-science-did-i-say-that/). This week I would like to explore a heritage project that not only engages the public with anthropology via collaborative communication, but also maintains a (really great) long-term relationship with the informant communities.
Previous guest editor Katie Seeber briefly described the Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project, as well as her experience working on the project in her post on public engagement in archaeology (See her original post here: http://mapabing.org/2016/02/21/pub-engagement/). The Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project (https://www.sustainableneighborhood.org) gathers place-based stories in order to address problems related to sustainability research. This type of project requires not only a strong- but a sustained– relationship with the informant community, as well as a reciprocal communication and information-sharing process. This is not a project that researchers can complete on their own; the engagement of the community is a requisite for success. This week I’d like to take a closer look at the project, specifically how the project leaders engaged the community, how they maintain the collaborative relationship, and how cross-disciplinary approaches can strengthen anthropological/archaeological research.
Joining us this week is one of the co-principal investigators of the Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project, Binghamton University (BU) Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Dr. Siobhan Hart. Dr. Hart is an anthropological archaeologist whose research is concerned with what we know about the past, how we know it, and why it matters to people today. Her research focuses on using archaeology, material culture, and community collaboration to address questions about inequality. These goals are realized by engaging with contemporary communities about their past experiences and using these stories (and the process of communication!) to find courses of action that increase sociopolitical power and aid in the destruction of structural inequalities. Dr. Hart has graciously agreed to answer a few questions regarding her heritage project, community relationships, and cross-disciplinary perspectives.
It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
MAPA Blog (Ashley B.)/MB(AB): Can you tell us a little about the project (Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project) and how it works? What are your project goals? Why is this project important?
Dr. Siobhan Hart/SH: There are two major goals of the Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project. One is research-oriented and aims to understand neighborhood change and how a sustainability framework operates at the neighborhood level. The other goal is community capacity building, aimed at drawing from and building on the knowledge and skills of residents so that project outcomes (e.g., programs, story maps) have long-term viability and are not dependent on expert interventions.
We are currently working on a comparative case study of two Binghamton neighborhoods. These neighborhoods share similar histories and have experienced similar economic divestment, but differ today in terms of population stability, long-term residency, economic activity, social cohesion, and green spaces- all of which have implications for community cohesion and sustainability. We have been collecting data from both neighborhoods (e.g., survey, archival, interviews) and will be conducting a planning and program-focused intervention in one neighborhood, followed by an impact assessment. Heritage and place-based stories have anchored the data collection because in diverse neighborhoods, one thing shared by all, but experienced differently, is neighborhood space. So we have used heritage-focused interviews as a way of getting at shared and divergent values, memories, and experience of place.
MB(AB): Obviously, public engagement and maintaining a collaborative relationship with the informant community is vital to this project. How did you begin to build this relationship?
SH: The relationship with our primary community partner, Safe Streets, began when George (Public Administration, Binghamton University) on Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project] and I were invited to take an urban hike in the neighborhood led by the Safe Streets co-chair, Mary Webster (this was in Fall 2014). As new (-ish) faculty, both George and I were interested in establishing local research projects and Pam Mischen, chair of the Sustainable Communities TAE (Transdisciplinary Areas of Excellence) at BU, saw a possible opportunity with Safe Streets, so she got us together with them. On the walk, George and I listened as Mary talked about both the neighborhood’s challenges, but also all the things she loves about it that have made her stay for over 20 years. After this initial meeting, George and I began attending the bimonthly Safe Streets meeting and got to know the small group of dedicated residents, landlords, business owners, and others who also shared a goal for improving their neighborhood. We talked with them about how we might mesh our research and teaching interests with their mission and short and long-term objectives.
MB(AB): What kinds of efforts are being used to maintain the relationship with the community?
SH: We’ve engaged in four main strategies to maintain our on-going relationship with our community partners. One is regular participation in Safe Streets meetings- this is important for information sharing and reciprocity (in all directions- we learn a lot from them and try to contribute where appropriate), as well as for staying up-to-date on issues facing neighborhood residents and generally being “present” and not silo-ed off on campus. In addition, we have hosted and co-organized several events in the neighborhood, and have more planned for the summer and fall. The Fall Festival in the neighborhood park was a huge success (thanks in large part to amazing work done by Binghamton University Anthropology graduate students!). These are opportunities to reach beyond the core Safe Streets group to other residents with goal of engaging more participants and perspectives. We are hopeful that a series of resident-led neighborhood planning events in the works for summer and fall will have a good turnout. A third strategy is delivering on what we commit to (and making sure that expectations are reasonable so that we can deliver). The story map and project website have been key to that because it is something concrete that residents can use and show to others (plus, we can keep adding to it, so it is a living document, other than a static report). Finally, we are working with other community partners, particularly the United Way, to establish a physical presence in the neighborhood so that we are more accessible and familiar to the residents who haven’t participated in any of our programming yet.
MB(AB): Can you tell us a little more about the Fall Festival and why it was important to the project and your students’ experience?
SH: We co-organized the Fall Festival in Walnut Street Park for several reasons. One driver was simply to bring together neighborhood residents in their park for food, fun, and music, because this is part of what community is about. The other was [being able] to connect with residents directly, particularly those who were not involved in Safe Streets, and for them to get to know us and our project. Data collection was secondary to this, though we were able to do a few mini-interviews with people who we would likely not have connected with otherwise. A third driver was to get our students connected directly with the community.
MB(AB): You work with additional faculty members on this project that are not in the anthropology department. How do cross subfield perspectives and cross-disciplinary collaboration make your project better? Why do you feel such an approach to anthropology is important/beneficial?
SH: Working across subfields and disciplines is critical to a project like this that takes on a complex problem like understanding community change and sustainability. We have an interdisciplinary team and community partners to leverage a variety of ways of knowing and doing. Our research team meshes strengths and experience in working with non-profits and Binghamton residents on quality of life issues (e.g., community partners Safe Streets and the United Way), planning, policy analysis, and survey and statistical data (my co-PI George C. Homsy, Public Administration); and heritage and multi-stakeholder engagement (me). Each research team member takes a leadership role for an aspect of the research according to experience and training. These roles serve more to ensure accountability and process and are not a definitive division of labor. It allows us to share expertise process and develop new competencies, but also makes for a richer research process as we are forced to let go of jargon and unpack the “taken-for-grantees” of our fields.
Don’t Stop Believing (You Can Be An Effective Science Communicator)
Many, many thanks to Dr. Hart for joining us this week and sharing how her projects achieves success through engagement, collaboration, and communication with the public. If you would like more information about the Neighborhood Heritage and Sustainability Project, or would like to take a look at their digital story map (using the GIS Story Map Application), you can check out their website at https://sustainableneighborhood.org.
Thanks for joining me in discussing the importance of being an effective science communicator. Stay tuned-in to the MAPA blog for the next guest editor!