Data Storytelling

In the beginning of our Ethnography of Communication class, one of the students asked about the kinds of papers one writes about an ethnography. It seemed like a simple question at the time. In order to report on ethnographic data, the researcher chooses a theme and then pulls out the parts of their data that fit the theme. Now that I’m at the point in my ethnography where I’m choosing what to report, I can safely say that this question is not one with an easy answer.

At this point, I’ve gathered together a tremendous amount of data about DC taxi drivers. I’ve already given my final presentation for my class, and written most of my final paper. But the data gathering phase hasn’t ended yet. I have been wondering whether I have enough data gathered together to write a book, and I probably could write a book, but that still doesn’t make my project feel complete. I don’t feel like the window I’ve carved is large enough to do this topic any justice.

The story that I set out to tell about the drivers is one of their absence in the online public sphere. As the wife of a DC driver, I was sick and tired of seeing blog posts and newspaper articles with seemingly unending streams of offensive, ignorant, or simply one sided comments. This story turns out to be one with many layers, one that goes far beyond issues of internet access, delves deeply into matters of differential use of technology, and one that strikes fractures into the soil of the grand potential of participatory democracy. It is also a story grounded in countless daily interactions, involving a large number of participants and situations. The question is large, the data abundant, and the paths to the story many. Each more narrow path begs a depth that is hungry for more data and more analysis. Each answer is defined by more questions. More specifically, do I start with the rides? With a specific ride? With the drivers? With a specific driver? With a specific piece of legislation? With one online discussion or theme? How can I make sure that my analysis is grounded and objective? How far do I trace the story, and which parts of the story does it leave out? What happens with the rest of the story? What is my responsibility and to whom?

This paper will clearly not be the capstone to the ethnography, just one story told through the data I’ve gathered together in the past few months. More stories can be told, and will be told with the data. Specifically, I’m hoping to delve more deeply into the driver’s social networks, for their role in information exchange. And the fallout from stylistic differences in online discussions. And, more prescriptively, into ways that drivers voices can be better represented in the public sphere. And maybe more?

It feels strange to write a paper that isn’t descriptive of the data as a whole. Every other project that I’ve worked on has led to a single publication that summarized the whole set. It seems strange, coming from a quantitative perspective where the data strongly confines the limits of what can and cannot be said in the report and what is more or less important to include in the report, to have a choice of data, and, more importantly, a choice of story to tell. Instead of pages of numbers to look through, compare and describe, I’m entering the final week of this project with the same cloud of ambiguity that has lingered throughout. And I’m looking for ways that my data can determine what can and cannot be reported on and what stories should be told. Where, in this sea of data, is my life raft of objectivity? (Hear that note of drama? That comes from the lack of sleep and heightened anxiety that finals bring about- one part of formal education that I will not miss!!)

I have promised to share my paper here once it has been written. I might end up making some changes before sharing it, but I will definitely share it. My biggest hope is that it will inspire some fresh, better informed conversation on the taxi situation in DC and on what it means to be represented in a participatory democracy.

I conducted my first diversity training today…

One of the perks of my grad program is learning how to conduct diversity training.

Today I was able to put that skill to use for the first time. I conducted a workshop for a local parents group about Talking with your Kids about Race and Diversity. I co-facilitated it with Elvira Magomedova, a recent graduate from the MLC program who has more experience and more of a focus in this area. It was a really interesting and rewarding experience.

We did 4 activities:

1. We introduced ourselves by telling our immigration stories. I saw this last week at an open house at my daughter’s middle school, and it profoundly reminded me about the personal ways in which we all embody global history and the immigrant nature of the US. Between feuding clans in Ireland,  narrow escapes from the holocaust and traveling singers in Europe, this exercise is both powerful and fun. Characters and events really come alive, and everyone is left on a more equal footing.

2. For the 2nd activity, we explored the ways in which we identify ourselves. We each put a circle in the center of a sheet of paper, an then we added four bubble spokes with groups or cultures or ways in which we identify ourselves. The exercise came from Cultural Awareness Learning Module One. At the bottom of the page, we explored these relationships more deeply, e.g. “I’m a parent, but I’m not a stay at home parent” or “I’m Muslim, but I’m not practicing my religion.” We spoke in depth about our pages in pairs and then shared some with the group.

3. This is a fun activity for parents and kid alike. We split into two groups, culture A and culture B. Each culture has a list of practices, e.g. standing close or far, making eye contact or not, extensive vs minimal greetings or leavetaking, shaking or not shaking hands, … The groups learn, practice, and then mingle. This is a profoundly awkward activity!

After mingling, we get back into the group and discuss the experience. It soon becomes obvious that people take differences in “culture” personally. People complain that it seemed like their interlocuters were just trying to get away from them, or seemed overly interested in them, or…. They also complain about how hard it is to adjust your practices to act in the prescribed way.

This exercise is a good way for people to understand the ways in which conflicting cultural norms play out, and it helps parents to understand how to work out misunderstandings with their kids.

4. Finally, my daughter made a slide show of people from all over the world. The people varied in countless physical ways from each other, and we used them to stimulate conversation about physical differences. As adults, we tend to ascribe a bevvy of sociological baggage to these physical differences, but the reality is that, unless we’re Steven Colbert, there are striking physical differences between people. As parents, we are often taken aback when our kids speak openly about differences that we’ve grown accustomed to not talking about. It’s natural and normal to wonder how to handle these observations.

The upshot of this conversation is that describing anyone by a single physical category doesn’t really make sense. If you’re talking about a physical description of someone, you have a number of physical features to comment on. Whereas referring to anyone by a single physical feature could be offensive, a more detailed description is simply a more accurate physical description. We don’t have to use judgmental words, like “good hair,” but that shouldn’t stop us from talking about curly, straight, wavy, thick or thin. We can talk about people in terms of their height or body shape, face shape, hair texture, color or style, eye shape or color, mouth shape, ear size, nose style, skin tone, and so much more. Artificial racial or ethnic groupings don’t *really* describe what someone looks like, talks like, or has experienced.

More than this, once we have seen people in any kind of action, we have their actions and our relationship with them to use as resources. Given all of those resources, choosing race or ethnicity as a first descriptive level with our kids, or even using that descriptor and stopping, sends the message to the kids that that is the only feature that matters. It draws boundaries before it begins conversations. It passes “us and them” along.

Race and ethnicity are one way to describe a person, but they are far from the only way. And they, more than any other way, carry the most baggage. Does that mean they should be avoided or declared taboo?

This week in my Ethnography of Communication class, we each went to Gallaudet, the deaf university in DC, and observed. One of my classmates commented about her discomfort with her lack of fluency in ASL, or American Sign Language. Her comment reminded me of my kids and their cousins. My kids speak English, and only a little bit of Amharic and Tigrinya. Some of their cousins only spoke Tigrinya when they met. Some only spoke Swedish. Some spoke English with very different accents. But the language barriers never stopped them from playing with each other.

In fact, we talk about teaching our kids about diversity, but our kids should be the ones to teach us!

Here are the main lessons I’ve learned from my kids:

1. Don’t cut yourself off from people because you don’t share a common language. Communication actually runs much deeper than language. I think, for example, of one of my sisters inlaw. When we first met, we didn’t have a common language. But the more I was able to get to know her over time, the more we share. I really cherish my relationship with her, and I wouldn’t have it if I had let my language concerns get in the way of communicating with her.

2. People vary a lot, strikingly, in physical ways. These are worthy of comment, okay to notice, and important parts of what make people unique.

3. If you cut yourself off from discomfort or potential differences, you draw a line between you and many of the people around you.

4. It is okay to be wrong, or to still be learning. Learning is a lifelong process. Just because we’re adults doesn’t mean we have to have it all down pat. Don’t be afraid to fail, to mess up. Your fear will get you nowhere. How could you have learned anything if you were afraid of messing up?

In sum, this experience was a powerful one and an interesting one. I sincerely hope that the conversations we began will continue.

* Edited to Add:

Thandie Newton TED talk, Embracing Otherness

Chimamanda Adichie TED talk: The danger of a single story

GREAT letter with loads of resources: http://goodmenproject.com/ethics-values/why-i-dont-want-to-talk-about-race/

an interesting article that we read in class: why white parents don’t talk about race

another interesting article: Lippi Green 1997 Teaching Children How to Discriminate