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Shifting Perspectives – A reflection on the use of video in the field

DavidMcEwen23 August 2016

The lens is an eye. Video and photography offer a unique opportunity to represent or share a situation, an event, a person, a moment in time. Within the context of academia and research, where it can be far too easy to dilute a point through a mass of text or statistics (or big words), these mediums serve as infinitely powerful and diverse tools to reflect on a particular subject (or no subject at all).

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Through my experience on the field, I have viewed the capacities of video in a few different, interrelated ways: as a documentary, evidence gathering tool; as a democratising force, a platform with which to share hidden or silent perspectives; as a tool for advocacy, support and ‘legitimisation’. As three broad categories, these ultimately refer to the opportunity to craft a certain narrative to, one that engages with the senses on a scale that other mediums cannot. You see the sights of the cameraman, you hear what and who they hear, you feel what they feel.

Working with local communities on our field-trip to Cambodia (as part of the BUDD masters), we used video to document the results of participatory design workshops we ran alongside community members. This proved valuable as a resource to draw from during presentations in front of key local and national government officials, demonstrating the success of our participatory planning pilot and suggesting a potential future for participation within the planning system. Similarly, while on the field in Uganda, I worked alongside local NGO ACTogether to document community planning meetings in which participatory exercises were conducted to attempt to address the issue of flooding. The video and media content produced as part of these meetings is invaluable in not only sharing the general aims and methodology of the NGO, but in legitimising its efforts, providing firsthand evidence of its work, efficacy and influence.

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The value of crafting a narrative is particularly felt when viewing video as a democratising tool, as an amplifier for those voices unheard. Within the context of London, I have used documentary films as a platform with which to express and elucidate the concerns of various community groups fighting juggernaut developers and regeneration proposals. The typical structure for participation within the planning system does not offer many opportunities to voice objections and concerns, and where present, they remain particularly formal and confined. Creating films and sharing them online, we were able to share and voice our views to a much wider audience than would otherwise be available and generate greater opportunities for discussion than standard methods for participation would allow. This felt particularly empowering as we were able to craft a message within boundaries set by ourselves, rather than an outside agent.

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The freedom offered by the last case is something that deserves greater reflection as it is not something that will necessarily be available in situations where video and media is tasked with representing the views of others in research and academic work. There is an inherent bias and degree of manipulation involved in the creation of video/film/photography; this is its greatest asset and weakness. In an academic or research context (perhaps in every context), it is important to meditate on the role of the photographer/videographer, how they may be shaping or influencing their surroundings and the material they record, and consequently the role of the editor or curator, tasked with weaving a particular narrative or message. Questions of fidelity and authenticity are necessary at each of these stages to avoid the potential of misrepresenting or distorting a subject. I am afraid I have no concrete answers though; the ultimate beauty of the medium lies in its ability to be interpreted in many different ways: to portray the right and the wrong, the easy and the hard, the simple and the contradictory, all at the same time.

 

My final advice:

 

Think, record, then think again.


David McEwen is a filmmaker and architect, a recent graduate of the BUDD masters programme, with an interest in design and democratic spatial practices. His work has included the production of documentaries on development processes in Cambodia and Uganda and more recently the representation and advocacy of minority ethnic interests in urban design and planning practices in London.

Brexit and Its Malcontents

LizaGriffin12 July 2016

The hateful Brexit campaign has a lot to answer for. The few at its helm have emboldened racists and racist acts and have caused many to be fearful and many more to feel unwelcome or reviled. This is a tragedy that can’t be wished away.

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But I fear that the outcry after the result is patronising to the very many who voted to come out of Europe for a multitude of reasons or whom  felt excluded from the EU as a set of institutions. While the issues may have been poorly drawn by mainstream media and presented ineffectually by campaigners; I’ve no doubt that millions voted as a result of a careful evaluation of the issues as they saw them.

In my view, there needs to be a legitimate space for airing and discussing those feelings as well as, and in relation to, the fears and attitudes concerning racism and xenophobia.

It is both depressing and concerning that these views have been pitted against one another. It is also alarming that those choosing to leave the EU have been tarred with the same brush as the Brexit campaign itself. The campaign revealed itself to be mendacious and its central strategy was to stir up animosity.

However, choosing to leave the EU was not an automatic vote of support for this invidious campaign. Voters were asked about membership of an institution with contradictory policy objectives and a multifaceted identity. It was a straightforward question – in or out –  but the choice itself was not straightforward.

The EU is undeniably multiple: it is at once a commitment to peace between historically volatile nations; an expression of open borders and a series of safeguards against social and environmental harm. Other imaginaries perceive  it rather differently; as is an elitist entity, an instrument of neoliberalism, an interfering authority or a self-serving confederation facilitating the plunder of sovereign states’ wealth and consuming resources at a time when public spending is being squeezed. For many others, myself included, the Union has symbolised several of these conflicting perspectives.

Whichever imaginaries voters were drawn to, there is little doubt that many were ignorant of the history and finer workings of the EU and its political economy – but this goes for both the brexit and remain supporters. For these reasons, the complexity of the issues at stake and the multiple imaginaries at play inevitably belie any simplistic analysis of the referendum result.

In trying to make sense of the result for myself, I particularly enjoyed Emejulu’s piece on the whiteness of brexit. http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2733-on-the-hideous-whiteness-of-brexit-let-us-be-honest-about-our-past-and-our-present-if-we-truly-seek-to-dismantle-white-supremacy

She argues that issues of race are inherent to EU politics and have infused this referendum but I don’t take from her piece that all ‘no votes’ are simply racist votes. The article doesn’t set up a crude division between broadmindedness and prejudice, a division which has been all too prevalent in the last few days of Brexit reportage.

Attention to whiteness by contrast opens up a space for a conversation not simply about where people situate themselves in arguments on immigration and multiculturalism. Attention to whiteness is one powerful way to destabilise some of the unhelpful and inevitably marginalising rhetoric we’ve been subject to. She asks instead ‘What does it mean that those who now are expressing ‘concern’ about a surge in xenophobia have previously had little to say about everyday and institutionalised racism and violence that people of colour experience?.’

I believe that, like race, class is imbricated in the referendum fall out. The EU is above all a set of institutions which regulate the nature, rhythms and movements of workers’ bodies –  black and white bodies.

And yet different people’s experiences of this regulation will inevitably be diverse and divisive. Another reason why the analysis has to be nuanced; to allow those experiences and grievances – which are not the same for us all – to be validated. Those disenfranchised on low wages and, or those marginalised by the not so subtle codings of racism must be heard and understood with respect to complex social relations, not pitted against one another in a story of heroes and villains.

What initially concerned me about the early referendum reportage is the way it has played out like a game of top trumps: who is the biggest felon or the most put upon victim group – and who has the most legitimate grievance? Are the (mostly white) residents of Seaburn in Sunderland working class heroes who have simply had enough of austerity or are they hatemongering proto-nationalists? And too much coverage talks in terms of ‘they’ when, as I see it, the publics are not clearly interpellated by the poorly orchestrated debate.

Of course I am not so naïve as to think that at least some of the public discussion wont cause conflict or be hateful or racist. And I am one of the last to romanticise the ‘working classes’.  Surely there is a class and race geography to the voting, but it is far from clear-cut.

I also know that there wont be one truth to explain what has happened or a single social movement to coalesce around going forward, but trying to make sense of this confusing and divided time seems important.

Another so-called split I haven’t yet started to get to grips with to is the apparent division between the ‘younger’ and the ‘older’ voters – with disproportionate older voters seeking  Brexit and many younger ones favouring the current arrangements. In a climate of pension crises, youth unemployment, onsies and adult colouring books what does this mean I wonder?

But I guess what I am left really pondering is whether there is a way to acknowledge the fear and bad feeling caused by the apparent shock result while also thinking about what an alternative kinder and more open politics could look like? One that acknowledges how unhappy some folk are about the status quo , but that doesn’t white wash a history of colonialism and marginalisation ? I do hope so. And I hope too that any emerging solidarity first gives room for the expression of manifold, conflicting and complex feelings of those celebrating the result or grieving this separation.


 

Liza Griffin is a lecturer in political ecology and director of studies at DPU

Action-learning in Euston: inputs for HS2 Citizens’ Charter

Maria PSagredo Aylwin21 May 2015

co-written with Ashley Hernandez
HS2 makes me feel

Since 2013 students from the MSc Social Development Practice have been working with Citizens UK on researching the aspirations of Euston residents in London affected by the HS2 plans. This project involves the development of a high-speed rail that will connect London to Birmingham.

The students addressed various topics, among them housing, jobs and training, community relations and the accountability of the HS2 project, through participatory research methods. The research included transect walks, interviews and mapping of the area. The main findings were presented at a community meeting, where residents could express their ideas and engage with the findings. The result of this research contributed to the development of a charter elaborated by the Camden branch of Citizens UK.

The following video summarizes the process of research and its main findings. The video was presented at the pre-launch of the charter that was organised by Citizens UK in April 2015. The event was attended by residents of the area, Camden Council and students from other contributing universities.


María Paz Sagredo and Ashley Hernández are students of the MSc Social Development Practice at the DPU. This research formed part of their London-based Social Development in Practice module, which aims to actively engage local communities in policy and planning processes to ensure more equitable and transformative development outcomes. 

Engaging youth in representations of place: more than just an open day

LizaGriffin5 February 2015

This post and the project exploring place in Kilburn has been undertaken in collaboration with Kamna Patel.

Students introduce their representations of their neighbourhood

Students introduce their representations of their neighbourhood

In the old days school level students saw universities as the most mysterious of places – where and what were they, what do they teach and how? They were rarely told anything much in answer – except that it was a very good idea to try and get in. But how did people know where to apply, and what subjects to choose? Little guidance was available.

Today, much has changed. It’s common for prospective university undergraduates, to attend ‘open days’ available throughout the year from all and sundry higher education establishments. At them, potential applicants can hear from academic staff what to expect if they go university, and learn briefly what different subjects have to offer.

All very useful, but now, academics from Development Planing Unit in University College London are going one step further. We are offering some school students the chance to become undergrads for a time and join us in a research project exploring urban citizenship and place-making.

This is what students at St Augustine’s School in Kilburn have recently done. We have collaborated with Helen Allsopp, their teacher, to run a series of workshops on a favourite theme amongst geographers and planners; a ‘sense of place’

First, the workshops explored the students’ own perception of Kilburn, where they live – what is it like for them, and how much have they noticed recent changes in the area. And they explored how the changes going on reflect the broader processes of globalisation that we are constantly hearing about (e.g. big new developments funded by foreign capital, soaring house prices fuelled by demand from people wanting to work in London, changing ethnic mixes, and so forth).

Explanations of the different methodologies used were displayed around the exhibition

Explanations of the different methodologies used were displayed around the exhibition

Then the students used techniques from the social sciences to analyse different portrayals, or ‘representations’ of Kilburn, coming from diverse sources such as websites, films, written texts in books, magazines, music, social media and so on.

Besides these workshops, the students conducted fieldwork in the area. There, intriguingly, they made maps of how people, including themselves, feel about different parts of Kilburn – identifying, for example, ‘spaces of fear’ where it might be dangerous to go at particular times of day or places where they feel more at home. In such exercises they applied different research methods (such as transects walks through their neighbourhood) as used by social scientists and Town Planners amongst others.

In all this, the students were getting much more than just an ‘open day’ afternoon. Theirs was an in-depth experience, sustained over time, of the kinds of things they might expect to be doing at university, including an up to date view of the sorts of research methods and analysis that planners and geographers might apply in their work. And here, the St Augustine’s students were actually sharing in such work.

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The workshops and fieldwork ran over several months, culminating in the students producing their own representations of Kilburn shown at a roving expedition running throughout 2015 – at UCL, at St Augustine’s and at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn. The exhibition’s centrepiece is a series of 3D maps of Kilburn produced by the students themselves. These are not a ‘conventional’, accurate-to-scale representations. Instead they incorporate their different perceptions of, and concerns and aspirations for this busy, dynamic and multi-faceted place.

The exhibition opened in January 2015, and at that opening visitors were guided through by some of the students themselves, explaining the maps and models, and recounting how they were produced. They also had to explain to the audience the practical usefulness of such cultural geography work, in developing peoples’ sensitivity to place and encouraging them to think about how they can help to shape places for themselves and help to give them meaning.

The latter was one of our main aims of the project. In our on going action research on this project we plan to reflect upon the extent to which the participating students, through their involvement, were provided with a sense of how they themselves might be able to shape their own urban environment and ask whether this contributed to a nascent sense of citizenship.

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The project is impressive – partly because of the impression which the students make on the visitors as they are guided round. Here is a group of enthusiastic, smart and articulate young people, with a dynamism that will undoubtedly make them an asset to whatever university they eventually choose if they seek to continue their studies. And hopefully they will have a flying start through their experience of doing some university level work with the academics who will teach them.

 

Liza Griffin is a Lecturer and Co-Director of the MSc Environment and Sustainable Development at the DPU. Kamna Patel is a Lecturer and Co-Director of the MSc Development Administration and Planning. Both have lived in the Kilburn area.

The wheels on the bus do not go round and round

Laura JHirst16 April 2012

Transport and social exclusion project in Newham Borough

Linking theory with practice is something that the DPU prides itself in – recently the students of the MSc Social Development Practice had an exciting opportunity to work in conjunction with the Overview and Scrutiny Committee of the London Borough of Newham to explore the constraints faced by high school students when using the local bus network.

Although Newham now enjoys excellent transport links which bring people both in and out of the Borough, bus travel for local residents within Newham remains difficult.  To date, mobility studies tended to focus on quantitative operational data and important issues related to the social aspects of mobility by bus, especially those related to social identity and which can lead to social exclusion, are often ignored.  The brief specifically required the investigation of barriers in relation to bus travel in Plaistow to get to and from school and access educational opportunities within Newham.

A number of interviews and focus groups were conducted with a diverse range of students aged between 13 to 18, using participatory methodologies where possible. These included 24 hour mapping and drawing activities and visioning exercises.  Other important stakeholders were consulted, a focus group with Newham Young People’s Board was held, as well as interviews with bus drivers and dedicated school Youth Safety Workers.

The research highligted that safety is a huge issue for young people travelling by bus. Young men feel vulnerable to muggings and bullying on buses and the presence of postcode gangs is believed to exacerbate this problem. For young women, travelling in the dark in the winter months is a particular safety concern. At one school, several students with disabilities face major difficulties in getting to school due to limited spaces on a council-provided bus service. Uneasy relationships between young people, bus drivers and other bus users were also cited as an issue, giving rise to feelings of insecurity on all sides.  Young people feel they are subject to negative stereotyping and discrimination on the grounds of age, gender and ethnicity whilst bus drivers experience a general lack of respect from young bus users.

Findings and recommendations based on the evidence collected were presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Team and other invited stakeholders. Recommendations were grouped under the general theme of a stakeholder engagement campaign, seeking to address the tensions which were identified between real and perceived safety concerns.  Such a campaign could go some way to dispelling stereotypes and facilitating broader community dialogue and participation on student safety issues related to bus travel within both Plaistow and the Borough more generally.  More specific recommendations were:

  1. Increased contact between bus drivers and students through the incorporation of school visits into bus driver training;
  2. A school and youth based education campaign to make students aware of their rights and responsibilities related to bus travel;
  3. A community travel forum bringing together local residents, the council, Transport for London, and young people to address security concerns

Not only did the research provide invaluable first hand experience of ‘practice’ for the UCL students,  but the results of the work have since been taken up by Newham Borough Council and are reflected in the recently published  ‘Report of the Regeneration and Employment Scrutiny Commission’s Review into Regeneration and Transport in Newham’.  In addition, student mentoring opportunities have been created, and there are plans for a potential student-led public engagement campaign, hopefully building ongoing connections between UCL and the community.

Laura Hirst is a student of the MSc Social Development Practice (SDP) at the DPU. She has sent this post on behalf of the SDP group. Photos in this post by the SDP student Ignacia Ossul.
 

Latest Update 6th Sep.2012

As follow-up to the presentation of findings and recommendations to Newham Council, SDP students shared these results with Newham Young People’s Board (NYPB), one of the project’s stakeholders. The feedback session reminded students of the importance of the ongoing process of evaluation and reflection of the practitioner’s role in representing voice(s), particularly those of young people in social development research.
Time and practical constraints meant it had not been possible to fully involve young people in the research process and gain feedback from them prior to reporting back to the council. The NYPB were not satisfied with how their input had been represented in the final document produced by Newham Council; they felt that language used should be more youth-friendly and that their recommendations needed to be more accurately reflected. Recognising these concerns, a group of SDP students applied for and were successful in receiving funding from the UCL Public Engagement Unit’s Train and Engage programme to work with the NYPB to facilitate one of their recommendations; a community forum on the issues raised in the research. The SDP students will work collaboratively with the NYPB to facilitate a series of community forums on youth and transport issues, involving a range of local stakeholders (e.g. bus users, young people, Newham Council, local service providers), to improve the relationships between them. The forums will culminate in a final meeting where agreed ‘asks’ will be publicly presented to service providers and local institutions.Heidi Chan, Laura Hirst, Emma Shilston