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June 27, 2014

Getting in the Field

by allisonmwong

Allison Wong

Since my work this summer is focused on taking a designer’s approach to understanding local legal needs, I’ve been eager to get out and start doing things in the field.  While the past 3 weeks have mostly consisted of reading, listening, and planning – I want to report on a few activities that have given me a taste of the work to come:

1) Can I take 30 seconds of your time?

The weekend before I started my fellowship, I did what makes the most sense for a slightly awkward, bad-at-smalltalk girl to do: I went canvassing.  (Seriously, if you want to get better at chatting with random strangers, go knock on their doors.)  The context: With two weeks left in the RI state legislative session, it was looking like the Just Cause bill might get shelved.  The bill would protect good, paying tenants from getting evicted by banks from foreclosed properties – people couldn’t be evicted without just cause.  Though similar legislation has existed in Massachusetts for 4 years, this was the 6th year Just Cause was up at the State House.  DARE (Direct Action for Rights & Equality, an organizing group in Providence) had planned this last-ditch effort to canvass Cranston neighborhoods in Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattielo’s district.  The goal: make as many phone calls as possible to the speaker’s office in support of the legislation.  After a short training, my canvassing buddy Lilia departed to our turf, clipboard in hand.


Hello? We’re not asking for any money or trying to convert you, I promise!

The expected: many people didn’t answer their doors.  We met some angry people.  The unexpected: We actually got a lot of calls made – 7 in about an hour and a half, though we had projected a rate of 1 in 10 houses.  There were lots of encounters with small dogs.  Some people were really nice.  Someone offered me a soda.

I canvassed again with DARE the following weekend, as the bill hadn’t moved.  Since the last week of the session was approaching, a direct action was planned for mid-week.  As Wednesday came, amazingly something shifted – and Just Cause passed both the House and the Senate.  Pending the governor’s signature, it will be finally official.

Canvassing reminded me that the local political process is really important.  As a designer, I think that technology has the incredible potential to support civic engagement – and there are so many examples of where technology has allowed new forms of participation and communication to occur.  Yet, it can also supplant and dissolve the power of people coming together – showing up and communicating in the flesh – with undesirable consequences.  How can arts, design, and advocacy work best together?  So, next time a stranger knocks on your door, please hear them out, if only for 30 seconds.

2) Introduction of the Community Safety Act

Last week, we went to a city council meeting to support the introduction of a new bill: the Community Safety Act.  Some of the pieces of the act include requiring police officers to document information each time they stop someone, including race and ethnicity, age, and reason; protecting the right of women and transgender people during searches; and guaranteeing the right of civilians to record police activity.  In a press conference prior to the council meeting, several individuals spoke on their experiences being victim to racial profiling.  The meeting itself was pretty straightforward, and though this was the introduction, it will take time and much work for a bill like this to pass.

erin and allison

Erin Kelley (who is interning at the Center for Justice with a Liman Fellowship) and I in the City Council Chambers at City Hall

3) Going to District Court

Yesterday, I got to experience my first dive into ethnographic observation since beginning my internship.  Needing to spend a day out of the office, I went over to Downtown Providence to the 6th District Court!  I want to write more about the experience later – after I have some time to process what I observed, and after going back again – but here are a few immediate thoughts:

Court is a confusing place if you don’t know what’s going on – which I assume is most people if they haven’t been to court before, and especially if you have to represent yourself.  I was definitely confused.  The building itself is designed to appear very institutional and imposing.  Inside the courthouse, I observed many different kinds of transactions taking place.  Physical forms, directions, documents facilitated flows of people, who need to have particular things and show up where they need to be at the right time.  Private conversational transactions between (who I assumed to be) attorneys and clients happened out in the open in the bustling hallways – possible to be overheard by anyone.  People literally come to the courthouse to pay for things.  There were many children being wrangled into order – or not.  Some transactions were very clearly disrupted by language barriers – and I observed various routes around that.  Authority is very clearly worn in the court.


The Garrahy Judicial Complex, home to Family, District, and Workers’ Compensation Courts. Built in 1981.

I didn’t even make it into any actual courtrooms (though I hope to do that later), but it was fascinating to see what kinds of things I could observe happening.  I also realized very clearly while I was jotting down notes that my interpretation of what was going on could be, in fact, really far off from what was actually happening.  It’s easy to observe – a tall white guy wearing a suit and holding a briefcase while chatting to other guys (and some women) in suits – and think attorney.  Or to see several people clustered together and talking, all wearing street clothes, and think family.  Yet, maybe they are just friends.  Maybe the guy in the suit is a social worker – or someone representing themselves.

I hope this gives a better idea of what I have been doing, and what I will be doing through the summer.  Onwards!

court website

Trying to find information on the RI courts website prior to visiting…also kind of confusing!


WARNING: the following is a long, pretty self-conscious, and potentially self-indulgent footnote to this posting reflecting many things I think about, which you can decide to skip should you be satisfied with looking at my cool pics above.  (Blocky courthouse architecture from the 80’s is so fun, amiright!?)  But, should you somehow be interested in a foray into Allison’s introspective meanderings, forge ahead.  I guess it’s kind of a blog post within a blog post, if you’re into that.  Only now we’re in italics, which means I don’t have to be as coherent.  Do people actually read these things? 

Note: Though I am very excited by the things I have been doing and plan to do this summer, I do not mean to represent myself as having any true authority on the issues I’m writing about here or will be writing about.  I am very aware that while I have been a resident of Providence for four years, and involved in this particular pursuit for a mere 3 weeks, many people work in the trenches every day.  And have done so for years, and years.  So, while I hope I conveyed my excitement about the activities above, I can in no way say that I am deeply engaged in any of this yet.  A common theme of my education has been investigating the tensions between theory and practice, university and community.  And I’ve realized that even those things are not distinctly defined – or in direct opposition.  Even the concept of engaging in communities can be problematic (what do we even mean by that?).  In the some of the more applied work I have gotten to participate in while in school – with Design for America, Brown Arts Mentoring, A Better World by Design’s challenges, the TRI-Lab at Brown – I’ve seen many different models for engagement and have wrestled with many questions: what makes for a successful partnership between students, universities, and communities?  How can the needs of different parties be aligned – if that’s possible it all?  What is the role of design within all of this?  How do we talk about social design without making gross assumptions about people?  (In a panel I went to at the Ashoka U Conference on design thinking and social innovation, one of the speakers made this statement: “There’s hubris in social design – people’s lives are not problems to be solved.”  To me, that was spot on and totally resonated with my ambivalence about some of the projects I was working on.  And since then, I have been thinking a lot about language and approach in regards to my work.)    

Students live on an artificially short time scale defined by semesters.  With students, there is a definite danger of getting into things on a surface level and then failing to follow through with promises when you get busy.  I have certainly been guilty of that in the past.  People are rightfully skeptical of students’ intentions and abilities.  The institutions I belong to have bad historical precedents of disrupting communities and using them as subjects – as many universities do.  Yet, as students to totally remove ourselves and never interact with people in a real way would be a mistake.  While I have sometimes been uncomfortable with the positioning of projects I have worked on, I continue to work on them in the hope of learning as much as I can in order to correct the course and incrementally make things better.  Going into my work this summer, I am definitely aware of the position I am coming from.  And I’m hoping that my work can benefit the Center for Justice and that the knowledge and connections will continue to grow within the organization – that it’s not solely for my educational benefit.  That said, I’m trying to set my expectations low for how much work I will actually be able to achieve this summer.  Something I’ve learned about students (often myself included) is that we expect change to happen *really fast.*  Reality check: change is really hard and slow.  Aligning expectations and mission at the start of a project I think is a critical piece that’s not given enough attention at the beginning of building a relationship – and I’ve seen that cause student-run projects and university-community engaged work to run astray.  And that is a difficult process to do right (-which is why it’s been three weeks and I’m just working through my research plan!)   

Since you made it down here – or maybe you just skipped down here – bonus pictures!:  

natural history1

I went to the the Harvard Natural History Museum this past weekend as part of a Harvard Metalab workshop about museums, and I think this little guy’s expression shows pretty well how I feel when faced with a situation like canvassing.

natural history2

Also, I relate very much to this guy. C’mon, look at those little teeny legs on that round body, that tiny tooth sticking out, and those what-am-I-doing-here eyes! Nature is funny. (Or maybe just taxidermy is funny).


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