The Halifax-based project team consists of Alexandra Dobrowolsky (Saint Mary’s University), Tammy Findlay (Mount St. Vincent University), and April Mandrona (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University). Alana Cattapan, a founding member of the team, is now participating in the Engendering Public Engagement project from her new position at the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
The pilot exercise, “Changing Public Engagement from the Ground Up” explores several innovative, ‘non-traditional’ methods of public engagement. These include a range of arts-based, on-line, and creative events/exercises, with the goal of engaging marginalized communities. The Halifax team is evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of these public engagement approaches and their potential for wider application (or ‘scaling up’).
The aim is to hear from women whose voices are often under- or mis-represented. The following groups are key priorities: Indigenous women; young women and girls; immigrant women; rural women; and African Nova Scotian Women.
Working through a network developed through Changing Public Services (an earlier project), the research team members are organizing “events” in consultation with community partners. The events will take different forms depending on the input of community partners. In some cases, depending on the type of exercise, participants might choose to share personal information about their lives. In some cases, again, depending on the method of engagement, photographs may be taken.
Participants will attend a public event/exercise, lasting from 1-2 hours involving 10-15 people. This is considered the ideal size to allow for interaction among participants and opportunities to contribute. This group size is also conducive to the researchers’ plan to observe and take note of the participants’ forms of involvement, interactions and interventions.
It is not the actual event that is the focus of the research. Rather, the focus is the participants’ feedback and the project team’s observations about the effectiveness of a particular method of public engagements. Researchers will use a Participant Observation Template developed to make notes during the exercises.
At the end of each event, participants are asked to fill out an evaluation form about their experience at the engagement exercise.
The Halifax team has engaged in two events, with plans for two to three more over the course of the fall 2017.
Event 1: “The Sharing Circle” with Indigenous women
The first pilot engagement exercise was conducted with Indigenous women in the format of a Sharing Circle and was organized as a response to, the Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) opening and presentation of the “Walking With Our Sisters” memorial. The memorial was an art installation that included 1808 pairs of women’s moccasin vamps (i.e., the beaded top portion of moccasins) and 118 pairs of children’s vamps. These vamps were beaded to showcase an astounding (and breathtaking) variety of subject matter and served to commemorate the vast numbers of murdered and missing Indigenous women and children in Canada. There were seven Indigenous participants in our Sharing Circle, who were of various ages, came from different First Nations, and had an array of professional, academic and activist experiences. These participants not only had taken part in the memorial, but served different roles in its organization (Halifax was the sole Atlantic Canadian stop for Walking With Our Sisters). They were asked five questions which gave them the opportunity to reflect on and engage with their experiences before, during, and after the memorial, as well as to consider their views on public policy.
The five questions were:
- What was your expectation before you went into the memorial?
- Do you remember your reaction when you went through the memorial for the first time?
- You’ve had some time since visiting the memorial. Do you feel any differently now?
- Has the memorial had an impact on your thinking about public policy?
- What change would you like to see come out of the memorial?
The Sharing Circle started with a smudging ceremony and including a “drumming in” and song performed by the facilitator, Cathy Martin, the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at MSVU. Cathy asked each person to introduce themselves and then described the process for the sharing circle which included the use of a talking stick to guide the conversation. Participants were seated around a table, and the talking stick was passed to each participant, in turn, moving in a clockwise direction. Participants could only speak when they held the talking stick and thus there were no interruptions or questions. Participants could speak as much or as little as they wished. As a result, once a participant had the talking stick they were encouraged to speak from the heart without concern of being interrupted. The other participants were encouraged to listen without reacting or thinking about what they were going to say. The circle gave each participant the opportunity to share personal stories and feelings about their experiences with the memorial and on this method of public engagement.
Concurrently, participants were provided with colour markers and paper and were able to respond to what was being said through artwork. One participant made use of a flip chart to take note of various thoughts, reflections, and associations being made.
The participants disclosed that they believed that the sharing circle was a useful method of engagement. It provided space to de-brief and to collectively reflect on their experiences with the memorial and its relationship to broader social change. The conversation emphasized the importance of respect of Indigenous culture and their lack of trust in the political system. For example, participants spoke of the harms to their communities caused by public policy. The participants want to have Indigenous representation in the media and for public education about, and accountability for, human rights violations. While the memorial and the subject matter could have spurred significant negative, even traumatic, emotions, overall, the Sharing Circle was surprisingly positive and inspiring. There were a few tears shed (some by of participants but more so by the observers!), and the general sentiment was upbeat. The only other key emotion expressed was anger and this was evident in response to the public policy question. All participants shared this anger and frustration and clearly held little hope for conventional public policy change.
Event 2: “Stepping Stones to Social Justice” with young women
The second pilot engagement exercise focused on girls and young women. It took the form of a workshop that was held in partnership with Mount Saint Vincent University’s and the Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender, and Social Justice’s (AMI) annual Girls Conference. The Girls Conference brought together girls and young women from junior and senior high schools province-wide, as well as delegates from local colleges, universities, and community organizations. At this conference, 31 girls and young women participated in our “Stepping Stones” workshop: an interactive exercise meant to underscore systemic barriers in society that cause persistent inequality, particularly among social classes. The participants were not told what the exercise represented until after it was completed. The participants were asked to line up shoulder-to-shoulder in a line from one end of the room to the other end. Once they were in line, they were each handed a coloured card such as blue, yellow, and red. The cards represented three social classes: upper, middle, and lower class. Every second card had a ‘X’ marked it. Each card with an ‘X’ indicated that the card holder was female, cards without an ‘X’ indicated that the card holder was male. The participants were instructed to listen closely to the facilitator for instructions. The facilitator instructed the participants holding specific colour cards to either step forward, stay in the same place, or step backwards, depending on scenarios that typically lead to prosperity or disparity, depending on the card’s group category. For example, participants holding a blue card were instructed to step forward as they grew up speaking English as a first language, while others remained in the same spot, and so on.
At the end of the exercise, the young women were asked to share their views, and opinions through a series of questions regarding the exercise. The participants generally believed that the method of engagement gave them an opportunity to talk and to express their views about these social issues and public policy. For example, one participant did not realize that transportation would have an impact on someone’s social mobility. Another spoke about how it would be “hard to catch up” as they moved further back in comparison to their peers. Alternatively, one participant believed that things were not as bad as the exercise portrayed and that all individuals had the opportunity to accomplish whatever they want. Many of the young women stated that they had never thought about the issues discussed before and that this engagement had started a conversation for them to take back to their schools, homes and communities on how they can make a difference.
More to come . . .