Connecting with Communities: LGBTQ Students

This post (written by our Co-Investigator and Research Assistant, Stefani Vargas) is the first in a series titled "Connecting with Communities" where we discuss the various constituent groups we are engaging with our research.

Overall, higher education serves as a positive space for student identity development, aiding the student in both person and social growth along with academic learning. The same can be said for LGBTQ student identity development; however, little work exists to address how students create identity, achieve cultural literacy, and build community in rural environments. As a team of researchers working in rural, and often remote, environments we understand that LGBTQ students attending these institutions may not have the same needs as students attending urban universities. In order to address this gap in data, as part of this project we will be traveling to three public universities and three community colleges located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin in order to engage students in participatory design workshops and interviews. 

To better understand how LGBTQ students experience support, we must understand how these students feel connected to their institutions and what supportive resources look like. We know that LGBTQ students attending rural campuses often face a lack of support and more unaccepting environments than their suburban and urban counterparts and that these students require tailored resources, which may look different than lose found in more urban environments. Our work allows students to participate in designing the resources, technology, and campus environments that would best serve their needs. Students, of course, will have broad ideas of what constitutes as support and what resources they require, but our aim is to find common threads, which can serve as a guide for administrators in resource creation, renovation, and maintenance.

In our work, we encourage students to reflect on the past, voice critiques of the present and propose future solutions. One of the many goals of our work is to help students become more comfortable with this type of problem solving and self-advocacy. Allowing students the space to become comfortable in the process of critiquing their institution, establishing concrete changes they would make, and appropriate justifications for said critique gives participants the tools to advocate for real change on their campus long before we begin to publish our findings and recommendations. 

Institutions of higher education are often slow to change and one of the most powerful tools is the student's voice. Our hope is that students walk away with a deeper personal understanding of their social and personal identity and the ways in which technology affects these identities, but also with a more thorough understanding of ways in which one can critique institutions to which one belongs and design the future that best suits student needs. In doing this work we hope to help fill the gaps in data on LGBTQ students by providing a platform for the voices of rural student populations in remote locations and allow higher education professionals insight into the types of technology, support, and resources these students require now, and in the future.

So, what is a participatory design workshop?

The LGBTQ Futures Project uses a research method that is called participatory design. In our case, the words "participatory" and "design" have multiple meanings. In this blog post, we will walk you through a little bit of the history of participatory design and then outline what these words mean to us. If you are looking for a more thorough treatment of participatory design, see Michael Muller's book chapter on the topic, "Participatory Design: The Third Space in HCI."

Participatory design is a research movement that got it's start in the 1970s in Scandinavia. It started out as part of a labor rights movement that sought to further democratize the workplace by involving workers in designing future work processes. It has since grown into a method that is deployed in a variety of settings in and out of the workplace, with many different populations. We especially appreciate Lucy Suchman's words, which we first read in Muller's chapter:

"The agenda in the case of [participatory] design becomes working for the presence of multiple voices not only in knowledge production, but in the production of technologies as knowledges objectified in a particular way."

We take this quote to mean that participatory design is a way for researchers (and designers) to intentionally take into account varied perspectives, and to question and change the way that knowledge produced from design research is created. In building on this history and respecting the work that went into making this research method what it is, our project looks at both "participatory" and "design" in a few different ways.

First, participatory for us comes through both in the ways that the workshops operate and how our research team and project is constructed. Our workshops are structured in a way so that all participants have opportunities to share, in a safe environment, their experiences and thoughts about the future of technology for LGBTQ people. Participatory for us also comes through in our desire to shine a light on perspectives of people that are rarely, if ever, intentionally heard in the process of creating new and adapting current social technology. Our research team is participatory in that we are made up of people with a variety of backgrounds and experiences in LGBTQ community. We also intentionally are made up of people who either have lived or currently live in the region in which we perform our research.

Second, when most people think of design they think of a designer sitting at a desk in front of a computer working on some advanced software or with a drawing utensil in hand. What we mean when we talk about the word design, is that we are interested in what the future of technology does. Another way to think about this is through "design as inquiry." Design as inquiry is a way that we as researchers can leverage design to leverage other people's perspectives (i.e. participatory) and create new knowledge about future perceptions of technology. In other words, we use design as a process through which we ask our workshop participants questions and get them to create mock-ups of future technology that is designed explicitly for their identities. 

Participatory design workshops, for us, are the process of intentionally creating space to elicit our participants' own knowledge of their experiences in order to collectively think about what the future of technology looks like and does for rural LGBTQ people.