Taking an Empathic Approach to Learning Through Community Based Fieldwork

By JOE BROOKS, Director, Community Works Institute (CWI)

We had a great conversation in Los Angeles recently, with veteran educators Felipe Sanchez and Alexandra Gonzales. (a video is included below) Alexandra is a science/STEM teacher from Long Beach, California who took part in CWI’s annual Summer WEST Institute on Place Based Service-Learning, in Los Angeles. Felipe Sanchez is a long time educator and partner-faculty member with CWI. Felipe is an astute observer of the cultural layers and shifts in Los Angeles. Just prior to this interview Alexandra, along with her thirty new CWI Institute colleagues, K-16 educators from across the U.S. and Mexico City, had just spent a day in LA’s old downtown business district, which is currently undergoing large scale redevelopment. This is the transcript of their conversation. A video of the interview is also embedded below.

Felipe: So, Alexandra, tell me about your experience with Community Works Institute.

Long established neighborhood dress shop now being forced to move, due to exorbitant rent increases by developer in downtown LA.

Alex: It was a great week and we learned a lot about addressing social justice issues as educators with service-learning and doing different things to make that happen and support that. So, one of the things, one of the activities that we did, was to learn about using collaborative ethnography and we actually went in to the old downtown area of Los Angeles to find out about downtown LA, and to use the process of ethnography to really hear the voices of the people that were in the community.

So, I thought that was very interesting because I think when you first do it, you’re a little bit afraid of how you’re going to do that, but I found there were like two levels of experience. Number one was me as the ethnographer. Coming in to find out a story, that it’s a skill in itself.

Felipe: So you identify as an ethnographer in the process?

Los Angeles has the largest homeless population in the U.S., just blocks away and overlapping the zone of redevelopment and the coming cafe culture.

Alex: Yes. And we could see that, as we started, it was a little bit unfamiliar. It was a little bit scary. You know, doing something different that you’ve never done before, but how do you get stories it’s by talking to people. It’s by dialogue. And so, you have to step out of the box and do that. And so that’s what we had to do. So, being comfortable with approaching people and seeing who was receptive to having that dialogue.

Felipe: Sure, in a very crowded urban environment with a team of, how many educators are there total? And how many were on each team?

Alex: There was a total of thirty educators (K-16 and community based). We broke up into teams of four to five, with our assignment. And so we decided how we were going to do that (assignment). So I think even as a small group, we had different approaches, but some people in the group were more comfortable to speak and some people were kind of a little bit more hesitant. But I think when you do it as a group, you feel more comfortable if someone is with you, you know.

Felipe: So, tell me a little bit about what you were asked to do, what was it that you would have to do?

Teri Lunt a professor at California State University, Stanislaus shares pieces of her day’s work doing street based ethnography in LA at CWI’s Summer WEST Institute.

Alex: The assignment was to find out about why people were in LA and how had Los Angeles changed, from their experience. So, we all started at the same place, but I think as our group had done it, it depended on who you ask. So, sometimes there are a lot of tourists. So, they had nothing to share, really. They were just day there for a day or two. So, you really weren’t getting very much. But then you started seeing people, whom you normally might kind of ignore and not talk to, or actually try to avoid.

Felipe: Sure.

Alex: Right.

Felipe: Right.

Alex: So the first person that we talked to was an elderly man. He was playing an accordion at the side. So, normally we just look, maybe we’ll drop a coin and then move on your way. But then we decided, well, I wanted to approach him because I have played an accordion . So, I think we find like a connecting thing…

Felipe: You found a sense of commonality about them.

Alex: … to approach that person. So, yeah, that’s how our conversation started. So we started asking him where he was from, etc., etc., etc., and we started to know a little bit about him. But in the end, you saw that this is a guy who obviously struggling to survive because he’s playing on the sidewalk for an elderly man at that age least to be trying to make money. He’d be there from 12 to 5pm every day, he said. So, I mean, may have said I’m struggling, but you obviously when you look at the whole big picture….

Felipe: Absolutely.

Alex with fellow group members on Broadway in downtown, Los Angeles. The photographer is CWI’s 4th grader student intern Carlos.

Alex: — And then you see yourself at that age, would you ever think that you were going to be like that? So I think that was very free telling. But we backed off a little bit because I think our questioning wasn’t that great and for me, we just felt like we were kind of being too intrusive with him.

Felipe: Sure because he wasn’t ready to share…

Alex: So we just moved on and said thank you, and then we went on our way.

Felipe: But this man had been a witness to life around him every day.

Alex: Yes.

Felipe: Every day watching the space change.

A portrait of Javier by CWI student intern Carlos.

Alex: For even, I mean, how he got there. Or, how long was he there? on what work he’s in. What was he doing there now, you know. He’d only come to LA for like 12 years, his family was here. But this is where obviously he seems like he’s going to stay until the end.

And then we were walking around and then the second person we saw was a woman who was lighting the cigarette of a guy who was walking past. She seemed very conversive. So, she looks like someone that might want to say something or share her story and not be too intimidated by us. So we just went out to her and started a conversation, and we found out more about her. She was born in Chicago. She lived in LA, but then her parents moved to San Jose and then she came back, and then I asked her, why did you come back to LA? And she said, “Well, listen, everyone knows LA is where you want to be bad.” And, “This is where it’s all happening.”

Felipe: Interesting.

A long time downtown LA apartment resident shares his thoughts on the rapid fire changes that are forcing many of his neighbors out of their long time community.

Alex: Yes. So, I was like, “Whoa.” She had a different perspective. Her perspective was “a lot more foreigners with communicable diseases.” So then you could see, a lot of her answers were from her experience of men. So when you start seeing maybe how she survived, what made her come to LA. She apparently grew up like the foster home system and her mother comes here with a record deal that she was hoping would happen but it never did. So you see some disappointments and a lot of, again, the struggle to survive. And we kind of construed that maybe she was working the streets.

Middle school Science teacher and CWI Summer Institute participant Landon Neustadt explores the old Broadway theater corridor, a mix of important older neighborhood businesses, vibrant low income Latino community, new trendy startups, and long ago boarded up buildings.

Felipe: So there, is one of the millions and millions of stories around here?

Alex: Yes.

Felipe: This one of the layers of the space, a perspective and you went on to discover more and more perspectives of the same place. And what was your ultimate discovery?

Alex: Well, I think it got better when we went to the third person who, her name was Rosea. She was actually owned one of the chili stands in the Grand Central Market. Her dad had owned that 30 years before. So it was one of the original stands, but then it’s like surrounded by all of these brand new….

Felipe: A sign of the times.

Alex: Yeah, so then we started by asking her, why are you still here? What do you think of this change? She said, “Oh, there’s lots of beer everywhere.” And there aren’t families coming anymore like they used to. And then I asked her, “Well, why are you still here then?” And then she said that all her neighbors were asked to either leave or they raise the rent so that they can’t afford it anymore. And then you ask her, “What about you? Did anyone ask (you to leave)?” She said “no, thank God, nobody came to me to ask me to leave.”

Felipe: Oh my God.

Following “white flight” and suburbanization in the 1960’s and 1970’s, downtown Los Angeles has been a vibrant but generally poor Latino neighborhood. A majority of the buildings were ill cared for by absentee slumlords and few from the much more affluent Westside went there prior to the recent rampant gentrification.

Alex: So you kind of wonder, was that intentional? So, for me, I think our group had kind of seen that here’s someone who’s hanging on to the past right, but will she be able to survive? And we asked her, “Do you think you’re going to be here forever? Like, how long you would stay here?” She was kind of… “We’re going to stay as long as we can. I can’t look to the future. I just take it day-by-day.” So for me, it’s the story of strength and then struggle, survival, but then it’s a kind of sad thing for me to see that you cannot look and hope for that future. Do you know what I mean? You’re just taking it day-by-day.

So I think that was very telling about how things were changing around them. And they have no power to really, I mean, stay in that. You just kind of…someone else’s controlling that and you just have to deal with it. So, those were some of the themes that we saw in our ethnography.

The juxtaposition of culture and economics now in downtown LA is quite extraordinary.

Sharing the Work Among Colleagues

When the other groups shared what they got from their ethnography work, they came up with different themes than us. So it was interesting that we were in the same block, same area, but they had or heard different stories and different themes. Maybe from not only how they question, but maybe even their own interpretation, I guess, of what they heard. But sometimes it seemed like some of us even have the same people that we interviewed. But I noticed that what they got out of that was a little bit different from what we got out of it. Do you know what I mean?

The juxtaposition of culture and economics now in downtown LA is quite extraordinary.

So I think even just the kind questioning, and the quality of the questioning really changed what they got in terms of what they received and what they learned. So, I think it’s important that a collaborative, how do we say it, a collaborative form happens because I think just you as the interviewer has a lot to do with what comes out of that and if you want to get a real perspective, then you’re going to have to get more view points than just your own. So that’s what I think basically that’s what we got out of it.

I’m a local person from Los Angeles, but many of our (Institute) classmates were people from out of town and this is the first time they came to Los Angeles. So what they knew of Los Angeles was what they saw from TV, Hollywood and the whole stereotype of LA. But to actually come down to the space, of actually talking to people, gave them a completely different perspective of what LA really was about.

Broadway as it is “now.”

Felipe: Yes. What were some of the things that you felt like one or two perspectives that you were surprised by, that you’re like, wow, you got that out of this? Being not from LA, were there any perspectives that you were surprised at?

Alex: Maybe they see all the glitz and glamour of LA, but to actually see that people are really struggling.

Felipe: Yes, exactly.

Alex: I don’t think they ever thought about that or even realized that. So there’s something completely different that when you’re here trying to reach out and talk to people. They’re going to get a whole completely different view and story of what’s going on. But yeah, there are a lot of bright lights and things that we see from Hollywood and what people see from around the world. But I think when they come here, they realized after the experience., especially doing the ethnography that there are real issues, real social justice issues that people on this town really are experiencing that need to be addressed.

Sharing their street work findings with fellow Institute participants, Justin McClelland a high school teacher from the Central Valley and Anna Ayeroff a graduate student at Otis College of Art and Design.

Felipe: Right, how do you feel that this work at the Institute is going to influence your work?

Alex: I think it’s the importance of dialogue and I think we’re learning about how to serve, but how to serve with reciprocity, hearing the student voice, with a community voice, not our voice, and what we want to see happen. So I think that really change things to say, “I need to be more of a listener and see what they need or what they’re saying.” And then incorporate that voice into the classroom. Do you know what I mean?

Felipe: Sure. Yes. And true community work is rooted in empathy, then how do you develop empathy but through that sort of dialogue of understanding the layers of the space and the diversity of perspective that exist just within this space and to discover that through dialogue, and be able to take that back is a real experience, physically, mentally, spiritually.

Alex: Yes, but I think even as teachers and educators who have always been the adults in the classroom who are controlling everything, structuring everything. This is what we’re going to do. This is what you’re going to do. I think it kind of really made us feel that sometimes we need to let go and that we need to kind of let things be more organic. Let the students kind of discover what is wrong and let them take the lead.

Felipe: And learn from each other?

Alex: Yes.

CWI Participants Ashley Webster and Landon Neustadt interviewing a downtown income tax and travel agency business owner on change. Ashley is Director of Service-Learning and Entrepeneurship at the Windward School, and Landon is a middle school Science Teacher at Laguna Blanca School.

Felipe: Because there’s a lot of learning that can happen amongst them not just between the teacher and the student.

Alex: Not so much. To be really truly student-centered, yes. And so I think I realized that with this ethnography work, there’s a lot of communication skills that could be taught through doing something like this. Like I think we shelter our kids too much in the classroom and we do roll plays and things that seems very…I mean, they’re good for practicing certain skills, but they’re not real. But I think when they start learning how to speak to other people because that’s what’s in the ethnography, you kind of start learning how to approach someone because you can’t do it the same way with each person that you talk to. I think you start learning these nuances. We call them “soft skills” now, but it’s really like those things you do by practice.

Felipe: I call them intuition like learning to trust our intuition and our ability to think beyond just irrational part that thinking with our heart. Using other parts of our body to feel and learn, and then understanding what that means when I feel that, “Oh, that’s okay.” But it’s not and then that can be infused into learn and discovery. That’s interesting. How do you feel as a science teacher that dialogue that you learned working in downtown with the ethnography and then sort of that idea of dialogue and taking that back to the classroom? How do you see yourself applying that in your specific work?

Alex: I think because if I take the approach of more project-based learning, more action oriented approach to learning, that if we want…we always want to say, we want our students to be 21st century thinkers and critical thinkers, problem solvers, how has that going to happen? It’s going to happen because they need to be observant. They need to be aware of what’s going on and it’s not because I’m telling them what is wrong. They need to see it. So I feel like if I take more of a projects-based approach to learning that there is a problem and you need to solve it. How are you going to solve that? Put in the solutions, but the problems need to be based on what is needed not what you think that needs to happen.

Kindergarten teacher Lilia Vargas from Mexico City interviews the longtime owner of a dress shop whose business is being forced to move by accelerating rent costs, and a reduced clientele who are likewise being forced out of the neighborhood.

So if it is something like even at our school site, what is the problem? Well they need to dialogue. Maybe ask fellow students or teachers, maybe on a certain issue. You know what I mean? Like once they start to ask those questions, they’re going to start seeing, this is kind of a need or a problem that we have at our school. Maybe this is something that we can approach through…I teach like STEM, for example. Through the engineering design process, we will identify the problem. We’ll research it. We’ll brainstorm ideas. We’ll test those, evaluate and we’ll keep doing that until we find our solution, and then we’ll share that what we learn through reflection. So, that’s how I see. It’s like using the ethnography to really understand what are the community needs, or the problems that we want to identify in that whole step.

Felipe: Exactly and that we can’t…we’re not going to solve the issues by using the same formula. So we have to be innovative, creative. We have to have great foresight and all of that can be practiced through creativity. The creation of project-based learning and through building confidence and using those muscles, but ultimately, the arts are rooted in practice in working towards innovation. That’s got to be a foundation for all of the studies. That’s fascinating. That’s great.

Alex: I kind of learned how, I think arts and science were very much kind of having the same end goal. Maybe you’re working through different mediums, but you have that same process when I heard about the work at SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center) and how they’re doing ethnography to see what the community needs are, and then they do this whole process to…you know what I mean? It reminded me of…that’s the collaborative approach that we try to do in science as well. So, if I could integrate arts with science, it’s the best.

Felipe: Yes, absolutely.

Alex: As a way of reflection and expressing what they learn that is what I think.

Felipe: And then just be able to apply it to the world.

Alex: Yeah.

Middle grades activity specialist Torrey Annas from the American School Foundation in Mexico City helped to bring her group’s learning alive for the large Institute group.

Felipe: But then what we talked a little earlier about science and empathy and it’s like, we’re building empathy and to create, or not create, but to nurtures empathic scientists who have great compassion not only for people, but for the environment. We need empathic science. We need more of an empathic approach to everything if we’re going to survive in our cities and in our world. So, that’s really great work that you can take what you learned and apply it to science.

Alex: I think as you said, maybe we shouldn’t be using the word arts or maybe we shouldn’t be using any subject because maybe that just narrows us at that point. A humanistic point of view as you said. There’s the word, human.

Felipe: The humanities.

Alex: Yes, the humanities because then it becomes more holistic I think.

Felipe: Because if you use the term art, many of the school administrators will just immediately think of crafts, drawing, and extracurricular, and a subject that exists separate from all the other ones. When in reality, it’s the foundation for everything. We need a creative mathematicians, scientists, social scientists, and even innovative arts. You know, all of that. That’s wonderful. And it was great learning about your work.

Alex: Thank you.

Felipe: Thanks for sharing.

Alex: Thank you.


Kindergarten teacher Lilia Vargas from Mexico City interviews the longtime owner of a dress shop whose business is being forced to move by accelerating rent costs, and a reduced clientele who are likewise being forced out of the neighborhood.

Using Collaborative Ethnography as a tool and strategy, Community Works Institute (CWI) is helping K-16 and community educators learn to design compelling curriculum experiences that are centered on the people, issues, and culture of their own local community.

Collaborative Ethnography provides an invaluable tool for teachers in working with their students to discover and share their local community’s past, explore its present, while becoming local advocates and visionaries for the future.

Collaborative Ethnography is about learning about, knowing, understanding, and connecting people in local communities — especially those who traditionally are “invisible” or marginalized. This approach also helps us to identify social justice issues from the vantage point of impacted community members themselves.

CWI’s annual Summer Institutes in Burlington, Vermont, and Los Angeles, have both included street based practicums in Collaborative Ethnography over the past several years. Our interest is in learning and practicing teaching strategies that get at the intersectionality of of community cultures, issues, and needs, as a precursor to considering place based service-learning projects.

Join Us in Burlington, Vermont or Los Angeles this year!


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