Tapping into the knowledge and perspectives of neighbors

As you may recall, as part of our project we asked students to create maps of their neighborhoods and to take a walk with the aim of looking at their surroundings with fresh eyes (see blog entries PHOTOGRAPHING NEIGHBORHOODS AS A CATALYST FOR LEARNING, SLOW LOOKING, and MAPPING NEIGHBORHOODS).  As a follow up activity, and to parallel what Paul is doing ‘out in the field’, we next asked students to interview someone from their neighborhood aged 50 years or over. Students were given broad instructions to find out how the person came to be living in their neighborhood, the person’s opinions about the neighborhood, how they had seen it change over the years, and how they thought it was similar or different to other neighborhoods they knew.

The idea of speaking to someone from a different generation was designed to help students think about the untapped knowledge or stories that might be lying within their own communities and to consider how accessing such knowledge or stories might alter their own perceptions of where they live. Before embarking on their conversations, students were asked to read examples of Paul observing and interacting with people he encounters as he walks—such as his pieces on Afar communication and his travel companions through Ethiopia.

It was fascinating to read about students’ interviewing experiences. The majority of students chose to talk to one or both of their parents, while others spoke to a grandparent or other relative. One boy spoke to his housemaster because he is a boarder at his school in Australia. 27 students spoke to a neighbor or a family friend. A few Indian students were adventurous and spoke to ‘strangers’: a taxi driver, the owner of a photography store, and a gardener in a nearby park.

Here I will focus on what students gleaned from hearing what an older adult had to say about their neighborhood: a later blog post will address what students learned from the life stories that people shared.

Many students heard that there had been changes to the ethnic make-up of the area, new and bigger building projects, and a decreased sense of community, particularly in the growing cities of Mumbai and Nairobi. In some cases, finding out about the history of their neighborhood from people who had actually experienced changes to it over time helped students to consider where they lived in a new light.

For example, Jean from Mumbai described her conversation with her elderly neighbor as follows:
When she moved here, my neighbourhood was filled with blossoming gulmohar trees of which only a handful remain. There were very few buildings on my street and the road was extremely narrow. Over the years she has seen the few buildings transform into skyscrapers. Many housing colonies have developed nearby along with shops and a few eateries. There was a forest behind our building that was soon replaced by a swimming pool.

Later on, Jean reflected that she had learned a great deal from this interaction:
Speaking to an elder and learning the history of your neighborhood was extremely insightful, something I never would have done without this project and it has shown me quite a bit about my area, one I believed I was all too familiar with.
Here Jean emphasizes the new knowledge she has gained about a place she thought she knew very well rather than, for example, her neighbor’s apparent nostalgia for the past and the “blossoming gulmohar trees”.

Antonio, also from Mumbai, talked to his neighbor, a piano teacher.
I learned a few things from what she told me; firstly, I got to know what my neighborhood was like before I was born. I’ve never thought about it much and have grown used to the way it currently is; if in my imagination I replace the new tall buildings with low-lying bungalows and open spaces, I can understand why Mrs. XXXX has become critical of the neighborhood. I realized how different people can view the same situation differently because of their different experiences – I feel that my neighborhood has a lot more merits than those that Mrs. XXXX mentioned, and that its strong points balance the negatives; but understandably, her disillusionment may make these less apparent to her than they are to me, because I haven’t seen the way my neighborhood has evolved in the 41 years in which she has lived in it …

In addition to describing what he learned about the history of his neighborhood, Antonio draws attention to what he learned about his neighbor’s perspective. Trying to step into this lady’s shoes, he considers what a less crowded version of his neighborhood would have looked like and how it might compare to today’s Mumbai. His conversation seems to have helped him gain new insight into why someone from her generation might have a more critical stance toward the city than members of his own generation. He does not change his own mind about his neighborhood; however, he seems to have developed a greater appreciation for the range of valid perspectives there can be about a single place and why those different perspectives might exist.

Ashley from Newton, Massachusetts was also struck by the fact that her neighborhood had changed in significant ways over the years. For her, a major insight was that “real people” had helped to make it the way it now is—that Newton is not “naturally” the way it is:
After Prompt 4, I was made significantly more aware of how real people have shaped my neighborhood and community in the past. My neighborhood hasn’t always been the same for some of the time; in fact, it used to be quite a bit smaller than it is now.

This comment echoes other statements that students have made in various contexts within our learning community: that people make a difference to the world and that what we do as individuals matters.

Students are not just learning ‘stuff’ about the world within our learning community. They are developing what we hope will be powerful insights into how they and other people view the world around them, as well as how their own lives fit into a broader geographic and historical context than they may have previously realized.

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