Class: IS 227 Communities and Information
The core of the Communities and Information course is a quarter long assignment conducted with a partner that sends students to work directly with a community to develop a project related to information access; students are also trained in basic ethnography techniques during class time. The goal of the assignment is to teach students how to develop information tools that emerge directly out of collaboration with a community, rather than those that are imposed from outside. My partner and I reached out to the Patient Education Resource Center (PERC) at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs (VA) facility. The staff at PERC provides veterans with guidance on medical related matters and navigating the VA bureaucracy, teaches health management and nutrition courses and leads ongoing weekly support groups.
Through bi-weekly visits to PERC, participating in support meetings and by speaking with staff and veterans, my partner and I developed a sense of who was a part of the community, how these individuals defined this community and how information moved through it. We also learned how difficult it is to work with a community when you are an outsider and that often the best strategy is simply listen to what people are telling you and ask questions, rather than immediately jumping in with a solution to a perceived problem. These interactions and lessons led us to the observation that many veterans were unfamiliar with PERC and were not getting the information they wanted/needed or were unable to access information tools created for them by the VA. For example, a weight management program that we observed had a completion rate of less than 1%. My partner and I proposed a solution that expanded the reach of PERC by creating a mobile version that could visit multiple areas of the West Los Angeles VA and beyond. We also suggested designs for handouts and flyers that more closely aligned with what veterans told us would be most helpful to them. For example, literacy is an issue for some veterans, so those that depict information visually, rather than with text, were emphasized.
While this assignment had little to do directly with moving image archiving, it has had a profound impact on my subsequent coursework and the way in which I view the moving image archiving profession. Most importantly, it was my first foray into closely collaborating with a community to create tools that reflect the expressed desires of community members. I learned to question the assumptions made by experts, as well as my own, about what a community might want or need and to let the community decide this for themselves. These lessons and accompanying skills, such as active listening, are imperative for any moving image archivist interested in social justice and community-based work. Without them an archivist will likely fail to understand a community and may also perpetuate a negative relationship between an archive and the community it is intended to serve. Visiting a community archive and immediately pointing out every single problem with moving image management and preservation would not only be unhelpful, but may also be perceived as insulting to the people showing you around.
Photo Caption: The front entrance to the VA’s West Los Angeles hospital.