Our project started off with returning to the empathize stage and asking people to describe an experience where they overcame a barrier to belonging. We asked this question because we wanted to learn what made people feel as though the belonged, and we thought this information could be useful for creating a meaningful project.
“Every single part of this campus screams “you don’t belong here” to a person of color. Waking up, being here and knowing that I am just as good in my brown body is an act of rebellion on its own.”
“I cut my hair and finally felt like I belonged in my own skin.”
Many of our responses had to do with self-acceptance of identities, and how these intersecting identities played into the concept of belonging. Starting our prototype off with an empathizing stage gave our group a chance to center ourselves and our project on user-feedback. Synthesizing these responses and looking at post-it’s from previous interviews, we were able to categorize notions of belonging into three categories: Things others do that make me feel like I belong, Things I do to make me feel like I belong, and Things we can do together to make us belong. By categorizing in this way we found that most people self-motivated themselves to create change and break barriers of belonging. We also learned that feeling comfortable in a space had a lot to do with identities, from Smith related housing identities to joining a religious community.
Our next step in the design process was to define a problem. Instead of defining a problem, we developed a set of criteria we wanted the prototype to follow. We knew that we wanted to learn from others about senses of belonging, but we thought it was a cop-out to only have us learn. Rather, we wanted our prototype to help others learn about belonging at Smith and how they might overcome these barriers. We wanted the prototype to be adaptable for someone who wanted to spend 30 seconds interacting with it and also for someone who wanted to spend 3 minutes interacting with it, acknowledging that students have different amounts of free time and wouldn’t want to put in a lot of effort into something confusing. Our final constraint was that we wanted the project to be open-ended because we thought that having an open-ended project would lead participants to draw their own conclusions and learn more from the project.
Through looking at our constraints and our interviews, we knew that we wanted our project to involve identity, and also that we wanted it to be located in the CC so that it could reach the largest amount of students in a centrally-located area. After brainstorming, we decided that we wanted to create a word web of identities: inviting students to look into the intersections of their identities by wrapping strings around identity labels to show what identities make them feel as though they belong. Students could write identities on blank labels, and use existing labels as ways to intertwine their salient identities and to present them to the larger Smith community. We thought that this prototype would show us what identities are most important in belonging, and would also help demonstrate the narrative of what it means to belong at Smith. However, when we brought this idea to Zaza, we received pushback because it was thought that by creating labels we were boxing people into aligning people with identities rather than encouraging exploration. We also heard criticism that our idea had strayed too far from barriers of belonging- in short, we needed to return to the drawing board.
We decided to move in a different direction and look at how people represent themselves by taking photos of people in a pose that they feel comfortable in. However, before we were able to create a prototype of this concept, the election results came in and affected the Smith community. The mood wasn’t right for this project, and so we looked into using photos as a way of representing unity, a common theme in the aftermath of the election. Our group created the concept of a photo quilt with students holding signs expressing their thoughts. One of our group members, Amanda, decided to move forward with this concept and prototyped it at Smith ReACT. You can find out more information about the prototype here.
While our prototype was merely a concept, this stage was important for us in terms of looking at how students could express themselves in the post-election world, and also in looking at how to use string as a way to show interconnectivity, a concept we had come up with in our larger group’s first prototype. We learned that we wanted our final project to be interactive, to be open-ended, to spark discussion and to give students a venue to share and hear feelings.