Update on Project Activities
What We Observed and Learned
A minor challenge has involved adapting to AEMP’s organizational style. Since the organization is volunteer-based and horizontally run, there are some inefficiencies in how they organize files in Google drive. For example, the oral histories clips are located in multiple folders, named different titles for the same clip, and new folders are being made. So, it has been difficult to keep track of all the places that Sustainable Cities members are supposed to upload their edited clips and edit database spreadsheets. Brett addressed this issue and acknowledges that it can be confusing to locate all the relevant folders and clips. However, we also understand the inevitability of there being some disorganization among a team of multiple people who don’t have the time to agree on a clean, consolidated storage structure. With so many moving parts and projects that arise over time, it makes sense that there would be some digital clutter. We’ve also noticed some miscommunication about what strategy will be taken to organize files, since not everyone attends each meeting. For example, in one meeting we agreed to have a directory that provides links to all the deliverables, and in another meeting we agreed to create yet another new Google drive folder for all of Sustainable Cities’ contributions. As we enter the final week, it will be important for the team to communicate their plans so that we can all be on the same page about database organization.
Critical Analysis/Moving Forward
At the past two AEMP meetings, we have been listening to the edited 5-minute clips produced by us and other AEMP volunteers and providing feedback. Hearing various narratives of housing injustice and resistance has underscored the continued importance of this work as the pandemic progresses, and as the future of tenant protections in California and the US continues to be unclear. An important part of the map this AEMP team is working on is highlighting housing justice actions across the world by making it easy for interested parties to engage with the various actions people call for in interviews. Hopefully this function can serve an important role in sustaining and activating actions like rent strikes and anti-eviction campaigns.
The oral histories team discussed with our AEMP contact, Cindy Reyes, about the possibility of continuing our involvement with AEMP after the quarter ends. In particular, she noted that the Spanish language skills that our team currently possess could be of great support in the future. This discussion underscored the importance of continued partnership when dealing with issues of injustice, particularly during such difficult circumstances of the pandemic. Working with AEMP has exposed us to many ideas and methodologies around ethical, community-based work in a horizontal organizational structure, and we hope to bring those lessons to future, related work.
Update on Project Activities
Oral Histories Team
What We Observed and Learned
The oral histories team had its first week of transcribing and translating full interviews that were recorded prior to our start date with AEMP. This experience gave us insight into the importance of adaptation in the face of the unexpected. Since our interview outreach efforts have been generally unsuccessful, Cindy has provided us with alternative methods of contribution that still feel meaningful, even if they don’t exactly match the deliverables that we agreed upon at the beginning of the quarter. We recognize the importance of adaptation within an organization that relies on the responses of many potential interviewees who may be very busy or lose interest in being interviewed. Therefore, it has been an unexpected but valuable lesson to envision a plurality of ways to contribute to this organization. Having switched gears to focus our efforts on post-production, we have gained new insights this week. For example, Nate recognized the importance of translating English into Spanish in a way that would generally make jargon/terminology more accessible. Additionally, Nate and Shania worked on translating idioms and phrases that captured the full context of what the interviewers and interviewees were discussing. For Sarah, she observed the seemingly easy yet actually intense work of transitioning raw interview audio into a presentable format. The process requires so many steps--from audio editing, translating, transcribing, double-checking the AI transcription provided by Otter.AI, and shortening the interviews into digestible formats--it has become evident that there is so much work that goes into both pre-interview outreach and post-interview production.
From the sound visualizer team, we got the chance to hear some more about the work happening on AEMP’s side, particularly with refactoring the codebase into React. Although this project has been going on since March, it sounds like there hasn’t been much movement on the tech end of things. Especially since AEMP is a horizontal collective and entirely volunteer-run, Chris wondered how they remain accountable to the people being impacted, namely those being displaced. Since working on tech can be very removed from people’s lived realities and experiences of harm, even as those of us in tech benefit materially from our proximity to it, it seems like there is a need to be more direct mechanisms for those of us in tech to interrupt the violence we are complicit in perpetrating, and to repair harms. Chris will continue to think about ways to flatten hierarchy and what accountability to those marginalized truly looks like.
Critical Analysis/Moving Forward
Preston and Joyce’s presentation, as well as the material covered in Week 7 as a whole, felt very relevant to AEMP’s line of work. Since AEMP hears primarily from tenants, it was interesting to hear the perspective of stakeholders who build affordable housing. Something that our group noticed was the dissonance between the visions of AEMP interviewees and people involved in public-private partnerships for affordable housing. AEMP generally emphasizes the need to remove profit from housing in order to create a just system in which everyone has a roof over their shoulders. On the other hand, public-private partnerships have a much more moderate approach toward housing justice solutions. When Sarah posed the question of whether abolishing extractive housing systems would be possible and may even be better than public-private partnerships, Preston mentioned how large of an industry real estate is, and how difficult it would be to dismantle it. As we continue to study different schools of thought around housing justice, we grapple with the balance between being both radically imaginative and also tethered to the reality of deeply ingrained housing injustice practices. We also wonder how AEMP interviewees would respond to the public-private housing model. Certainly, it has benefitted many residents in ways that purely public housing often has failed to do. That being said, taking a small percentage of money from investors who still enjoy a disproportionate amount of wealth and privilege seems similar to the controversial practice of colleges receiving funding from investors of polluting, racist, and/or unethical corporations. Is it more effective to utilize these investments to push forward equitable agendas like sustaining housing security, or can we take more bold action by challenging the entire model of how housing is managed and distributed? The issue becomes even more complicated when taking into account that every city is very different, thus calling for locally-informed and locally-made responses to housing reform. Housing is a massive web of complex stakeholders and histories, and it can feel overwhelming to try to find solutions as students who have limited experience in housing practices. However, Week 7 certainly challenged us to think critically about newer solutions that have been implemented to address the housing crisis in the Bay Area.
Update on Project Activities
In addition to attending our weekly Tuesday general meetings and weekly Friday check-in meetings, the oral history team continues to reach out to people who expressed interest in being interviewed for the COVID-19 Housing Protection Legislation & Housing Justice Action Map project. For context, these are people who submitted their information and tenant conditions on a survey created by AEMP. Unfortunately, most of us have not received responses from anyone. In order to gain momentum with the interview collection process, AEMP members have encouraged us to reach out to personal acquaintances who may be experiencing housing struggles. We have also discussed implementing social media outreach in order to enlist more folks to interview.
In addition to interviews, we are also nearing the end of the papercut creation process. Having created and presented a rough draft of our papercut outline, we will now edit the actual audio files into a 5 minute audio clip using Audacity. AEMP members have hosted instructional meetings to explain how to use the Audacity software and securely export the information. We will present these clips in the 10/27 general meeting. To account for the lack of interview progress, we discussed adjusting the deliverables to include more transcription and translation work for interviews that have already been recorded by AEMP members.
The sound visualizer team has been working on finalizing the design of the visualizer and preparing for its implementation in the COVID map. In the last week, we cleaned up the design and tried to optimize it to best amplify the voices of the interviewees in the visualizer. We also continued work on the react framework and finished porting our existing code base into it so it can be implemented into the map. Aside from that, we have set up a spreadsheet in which people from the oral histories team can enter information about calls to action in their interview that can be displayed with links in the visualizer. We are now working on the code that will parse this spreadsheet so it can be displayed in the visualizer.
In the meeting this week, we worked with Brett and Ben, who we work with frequently, as well as Erin, one of the founders of AEMP, to plan how the visualizer will be implemented into the map. Brett made a great wireframe mockup for the design, and Erin gave input on the goal of this project that will help us as we go forward into the implementation phase of creating this sound visualizer. Going forward, we feel that the visualizer is in a good place aesthetically and now we are trying to finish the functionality of the calls to action and get it ready to be implemented into the map. We have to contend with the fact that other developers in AEMP are working on the map right now, so we need to make sure our visualizer is a finished product, in React, that they can easily implement into the map when they are ready whether that be during this quarter or not.
What We Observed and Learned
A recent observation we’ve made is that how we edit the interview audio clips is directly related to how we tell the story of the person being interviewed. Therefore, we still heavily influence which parts of the entire interview are made public in the 5-minute clip. With an interview in particular, some of us have brought up a concern in terms of how we go about editing this clip and telling this story because of our understanding of privilege and whose story gets told versus whose are most often overlooked. It’s difficult to explain here because the clip is not ready yet, however it is something we brought up in Tuesday’s general AEMP meeting. We discussed this internal conflict, and a lot of the members said they had also been thinking about this and how they go about being intentional and critical with the stories that are told, especially when collecting narratives of the displacement of folks who are privileged but who they themselves think that “stories about them aren’t centered enough.” However, AEMP team members made a point to say that including this narrative may still be valuable to listeners and that in the end, this is yet another story of displacement that touches on the distinct hardships COVID has caused, and not just to a particular group of people. We will continue to think critically about our positionality, our preconceived notions, and how to go about doing this work with intentionality.
Critical Analysis/Moving Forward
This week’s readings touched on the work being done by the Brightline Defense group and the Oakland Climate Action Coalition. Both of these groups are working on aspects of environmental justice and while our group may not be primarily focused on environmental changes, we can still see how both environmental groups have to consider some of the same things we grapple with. For example, we’re grappling with questions of how to frame narratives to uplift voices that are usually overlooked. The speakers from the Oakland Climate Action Coalition mentioned that their work needed to grapple these same questions because the work they’re doing is for equity, not equality. This means that they have to find ways to convey the message that disparate action is needed to uplift and assist residents so that this action makes up for the disparate impact certain groups like BIPoC, low-income communities have faced for decades. Our job is to be conscious of these different experiences and find ways that we can convey the differences while still bringing the narratives back to the same systemic roots of these experiences.
As a team we’ve made progress towards the goals we outlined in our project scope of work. The following is an update of our project activities thus far:
A few things we’ve learned since starting this project is to be very direct with our questions, and with our communication overall. At first, many of us were confused by some of the expectations and demands from our partners. This required us to be direct in asking questions to our AEMP contacts and with how we noted things in our notes. For example, we were a bit confused by the introduction of a new project (the project due on 11/1) and how it related to our overall deliverables. Once we discussed our concerns in our general group chat, it made it easier to know what needed to be asked so we were all on the same page. This has become a common theme for us as we will often ask each other things before asking the AEMP group, just in case we missed something that was already discussed. As for communication within the group, we have mostly relied on our group chat to keep up to date with things. We naturally try to update each other since some of us aren’t able to make every meeting, and then fill in missing gaps that are needed from person to person. This often requires us to know who has been able to attend certain meetings and who has taken somewhat of a lead on relaying information.
Another thing we’ve learned is how personal and deep these conversations can get. We listened to multiple interviews and while it may seem like class work, these are actual experiences and actual lives being described. It’s very emotional, but it also makes our work that much more important. I think we’re all interested to see how our individual interviews will go and I think we’re all prepared to support each other throughout the process.
The Plan Bay Area 2040 document highlighted the continued lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area, underscoring the importance of AEMP’s work against evictions and displacement. While AEMP’s current work has made clear that housing has been precarious for many folks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was alarming to see the lack of low and middle income housing being built, especially compared to higher-income, market-rate housing. The lack of repercussions that Bay Area cities face in not building sufficient housing contextualizes the continued importance of AEMP’s work in creating tools for impacted tenants to organize against eviction.
In addition to Plan Bay Area 2040, we observed many parallels between AEMP’s work and the interview experiences highlighted in “Urban Omnibus: Chinatown Shop Talk.” In both scenarios, we notice how gentrification takes hold in cultural hubs of major cities. In the case of Mei and Diane, their efforts combatted the gentrifying forces that took place within New York’s Chinatown. For an interview that Shania and Sarah edited, the interviewee spoke of his experiences in combating housing injustice in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. It is interesting to identify the coast-to-coast parallels of injustice in urban areas. Another connection that we observed was in the methods that both teams used to support those struggling with inequitable city development. Both Diane and AEMP utilize oral histories to understand individual stories of struggle. Their collection approaches both value the power of counternarratives. For example, Diane highlights a property owner (Mei), although the title property owner typically holds negative connotations, especially in the housing justice realm. AEMP has also made it very clear that they want to highlight the nuances of people’s struggles in order to challenge stereotypes that people have about those facing housing instability. Through the work of AEMP and Diane, we see how oral histories can challenge the notion that people struggling with gentrification have no power. By listening to AEMP’s interviews, we hear various stories of people organizing for housing justice through local organizations, similar to how Mei reclaimed agency over the shop by founding the W.O.W. Project. Through this case study, we were able to connect our project’s work with the course content.
The AEMP team has been effectively communicating with their community partners and setting recurring meetings to complete assigned deliverables in a timely manner. On Tuesdays at 5-6 PM PT, we attend the COVID-19 Interviews team meeting to stay updated on the status of the interviews, and to hear about related work from other AEMP volunteers. We have also established Fridays at 1-2 PM PT as focused meetings to discuss our progress on our assignments. The first 30 minutes are dedicated to sub-group meetings, during which the set of students conducting interviews will be meeting with Cindy to cover oral history responsibilities, and a group of others will be meeting with Brett to focus on sound visualization progress. We have also designated Sarah as the communicator between AEMP and our Sustainable Cities project team to streamline communication. We have also been given access to multiple documents that are used by AEMP. This includes their weekly meeting notes, their interview documents, and AEMP platform. As of this week, we will be assisting AEMP with a project they aim to complete by November 1. Working in pairs, we will be editing full-length interviews into short 5-minute clips that encompass major themes. To prepare, AEMP has recommended that we look through previous class projects and projects on their site to get an idea of what types of clips we’ll be making. We also scheduled a workshop with Cindy using one of the interviews to better understand what we’re looking for thematically. Lastly, in terms of our long term deliverables, some of us will be conducting interviews while others will be working on sound visualization projects. This is not necessarily a rigid division of teams, and may be subject to change depending on the availability of interviewees and the priorities for AEMP. We will get more information on these projects later in the quarter, but we have access to most of the material we need to start.
By joining the weekly meetings held by the COVID Interviews team, we’ve learned more about the values and practices they use in their work. AEMP strives to use more secure and less capitalistic (profit-driven) platforms for work and data storage. This is consistent with the organization’s aim for integrity and highlights the dedication to create free and accessible resources. For example, our meetings are run on Jitsi instead of Zoom and they are currently looking for a more secure and alternative version of Dropbox. As we work on this project, we will also be using these platforms to stay in line with AEMP’s values and to encourage movement away from large tech companies, which play significant roles in the displacement that AEMP mobilizes against. AEMP relies on team and partner collaboration that is largely non-hierarchical, or horizontal, to complete their projects. This is apparent in the way that they divide work among themselves (rotating facilitators and notetakers, splitting into committees, partner pairing, etc). Along with these collaborative process in AEMP, there is also a culture of open communication and understanding, which goes hand-in-hand with the success of their collaboration. Everyone is mindful and respectful of people’s well-being and workload. They frequently ask others about their capacity before assigning work and/or requesting help. This emphasizes the importance of understanding your team’s capacity to take on new responsibilities and work in order to achieve a group’s goals without burning oneself out. Moving forward, we hope to use these values we’ve seen in AEMP’s work and community to foster collaboration and communication within our own group.
The oral history lecture led by Cindy Reyes & Alicia Morales directly relates to the work AEMP is currently doing through collecting narratives of displacement and resistance in the context of COVID-19. Their work serves to emphasize the importance and urgency of topics we have learned about in class, such as the significance of oral histories, ethical interviewing, and addressing sustainability through the pillars of social equity and cultural continuity. Just as we were challenged to think critically about our positionality as college students in this course, the organization also thinks critically about its positionality in the broader societal fabric and is therefore intentional in the ways they proceed with community work. In both the Arnstein and Sandercock readings, they discuss how power dynamics may arise when working with community members and the hierarchies that exist in ways of knowing, which often overlook the community member as the expert. However, at the core of AEMP’s values is their commitment to establishing trust and partnership with their interviewees, or narrators (as per the Baylor reading), as well as honoring their humanity. They do this in their interview process, which is designed specifically for the narrator to talk about their hardships in addition to how they’ve remained resilient and how they’ve fought and/or encouraged others to fight for housing equity. AEMP makes space for the narrator to bring their whole selves, and asks for their double consent before and after an oral interview, thus allowing the narrator to contextualize and share their embodied knowledge in a holistic way that honors their agency. Furthermore, in their commitment to storytelling and using data for housing justice, AEMP reminds us that by repositioning power in the community and understanding these narratives, we strengthen one of the core concepts of sustainability we learned about in class--people and our connections to one another.