Worn Words, an academic description

My current research is a knowledge mobilisation project “Digital Storytelling as a Method for Critical Dialogue on Refugees in Canada,” a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

Despite the recent swell of concern for Syrian refugees, public opinion about Canada’s responsibility to refugees continues to be haunted by misinformation and polarity. In community education contexts, I have found that workshop participants have only a vague understanding of the legal and cultural concepts that undergird their deeply held opinions about refugees. We all have an opinion on ‘refugees’ at the ‘border’ seeking ‘asylum’ and in need of ‘welcome,’ but our definitions are not clear.

Beyond misinformation, discourse itself can be a barrier to healthy dialogue across the political spectrum. The traditional foundation for defending refugee welcome is the international right to asylum, which was established in mid-twentieth century Europe. However, contemporary refugee discourse has become thoroughly “intertwined with issues of race relations, foreign policy, and terrorism” (Finney 7-8), and a rights-based discourse has neither the flexibility to respond to modern global complexities nor the social purchase necessary to convince skeptics. As the “rational” language of rights fails to generate political will, refugee advocates respond to public misinformation with the “emotional” language of activism that too often distances its detractors by morally shaming those who disagree. Within this ecosystem of competing refugee discourses, largely played out online, dialogue becomes further polarized and less nuanced and advocacy becomes less effective. Knowledge mobilisation as a research method should not be concerned only for what knowledge needs to be mobilised (what needs to be said) but also for what media forms can make such knowledge desirable (what will engage listening). Within this context, among others, Worn Words experiments with a new method of digital storytelling that can support informed and transformative refugee dialogue and contribute to a culture of listening and care.

As part of this project, I am creating an online collection of multimedia educational materials to re-narrate key tropes from debates about refugee policy such as ‘welcome’ and ‘border.’ Worn Words, a listening project on ordinary terms and stories about forced migration, uses digital storytelling to mobilise critical refugee knowledge for diverse educational contexts. As I engage in interviews, video editing, relationship-building, and qualitative analysis of data, the process of media production and design as a research method is as important as the final output. In the production of these stories, I am attending to the power dynamics usually at play in storytelling ventures involving refugee claimants. The videos are made up of interviews with scholars, artists, humanitarians, and activists, who I approach because of their work in refugee studies, resettlement, or advocacy and who are prioritised because they hold expertise that is experiential as well. The interviews are asking questions about their expertise on terminology but the discussion necessarily becomes entangled with personal and systemic experiences. I listen with my questions; I listen in the interview; I listen in transcription; I listen in editing and in email exchanges; I listen to larger contexts for how this knowledge can contribute; and I listen to my own discomforts and mistakes in order to adjust to a better practice.

This research is done out of the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. I do this work in consultation with refugee claimant support and advocacy organizations in Vancouver. Funding comes from the national research funding council (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) and from a donor-directed fund at Vancouver Foundation. Kirsten McAllister is the faculty sponsor, Flick Harrison is the videographer, Patti Fraser is the creative advisor, and numerous others have given design feedback or been interviewed. In the process of this research, I have consulted with employees of the Canadian Council for Refugees, MOSAIC, Settlement and Orientation Services, and Kinbrace Community Society.

For more information or if you would like to participate in the project, please contact egoheeng@sfu.ca

 

Worn Words, a community description

My journey in community education and research can be traced back to my doctoral studies.

At that time, I was involved in refugee support work in a local community. I was also taking courses on displacement and human movement around the world (diaspora). I noticed a gap between these two conversations and wanted to see the critical reflections of the university and the hopeful practice of refugee support workers come together. They had the potential to deepen one another’s understanding and practices. So I ran focus groups to see what could usefully be shared between scholars and humanitarian workers. Gathering feedback from people who had experienced the refugee claim process was crucial to that project. Some of the results of this research have been published in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture (2018).

Since then, I have run community workshops with hundreds of people (mostly non-refugees, but a mix!) across Canada, the United States, and Australia to prompt conversations about the way that people are being represented in media stories about refugees. One of the things I noticed in those workshops is that two different people can use the same term (let’s say, ‘welcome’) to talk about refugee issues, but they mean very different things. During workshops, I sometimes think we are all on the same page but later realise we weren’t actually. And sometimes everyone is together, but on the wrong page, misunderstanding the meaning of a word. The language we use to speak about refugee cultures is sometimes a block to understanding. And just a few words are over functioning in order to describe complex experiences; their overuse diminishes their ability to communicate.

So I am interviewing people with expertise in refugee research, in refugee support, in refugee advocacy, and in refugee narration (authors or artists), and I am asking them questions about the English words we use in Canada to talk about refugee policy. Most of the interviewees have also experienced displacement of some kind or another. Out of the interview footage I am producing online videos that anyone with internet access can watch and workshops that any group can download and run. The name Worn Words, a listening project on ordinary terms and stories about forced migration, acknowledges both that we overuse a few words to describe very complex experiences and also that the words are worn differently by different people with different experiences and from different places. My hopes are 1. that these videos can prompt deeper, more informed community conversations, 2. that the definitions of words, which some of us take for granted, will gain new meaning and make us curious again, 3. that the corner of the world I live in will care to listen for how we can care for one another better.

My current research is out of the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. I do this work in consultation with refugee claimant support and advocacy organizations in Vancouver. Funding comes from the national research funding council (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) and from a donor-directed fund at Vancouver Foundation. Kirsten McAllister is the faculty sponsor, Flick Harrison is the videographer, Andrea Armstrong is the animator, and numerous others have given design feedback or been interviewed. The official title of the project is “Digital Storytelling as a Method for Critical Dialogue on Refugees in Canada.”

If you would like to participate in the project or are interested in hosting a workshop, please contact egoheeng@sfu.ca.