Can we use contemporary digital communication pathways to spark conversation about important knowledge, even when no immediate news event conjurs it up? Who We Am, a video-based blog and also a column in the online culture magazine What Weekly, re-examined issues such as education and innovation in light of social science and humanities research that suggests culture is a big factor in the choices people make. The project further explores the arts as the language of culture. It features films, illustrations, and text that explore the potential of animated abstract “paintings” to support non-fictional narratives.
The Who We Am blog was active between 2010 and 2013 as a way to maintain a transdisciplinary discussion among researchers looking at influential factors in human behavior with a focus on the importance of culture, defined as the shared stories, artifacts, and behaviors that define a people and shape their ways of life. The project takes part in a wider trend of increasing interest in culture and its impact on health, education, poverty, politics, and conflict.
A big part of the work is filming interviews with individual citizens from every walk of life to learn what kind of beliefs guided their life choices and where those beliefs came from. The interviews function as both research data (science) and films (art). In 2012, we interviewed seven adults and eleven teenagers, who all live in or around Baltimore city, but come from widely divergent walks of life. The interview questions were developed by IRC Associate Director Lee Boot, Betsy Fetchko, a doctoral student in the Language, Literacy, and Culture Ph.D. program at UMBC, and Rebecca Yenawine, a social entrepreneur who works with older teens in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore.
The interviews were analyzed for emergent themes and will be posted on the WWA site for feedback from other researchers and interested parties. One finding of the research was that young people who grow up in ideologically cohesive and culturally consistent environments seem to have an easier time developing workable identities and world views as foundations for subsequent life decisions.
This work has led to an idea for a new online series, tentatively entitled Turnaround Artists. This series is intended to implicate our core individual and collective beliefs - our core stories - as the source of both our challenges and our potential, and to suggest that the arts are the long-forgotten key to accessing those stories for positive change.
Rebecca Yenawine, producer, New Lens, and Betsy Fetchko, Department of Language, Literacy, and Culture, UMBC