Final Residency Reflection: Carolyn Gearig

I applied to the design lab last September with a vague idea for a project and zero expectations. Since the residency began in October, my five fellow residents and the three program staff members have become friends, our project proposals have changed and solidified, and new projects and collaborations have sprung up. It's been fun to watch us - a team of nine - pull together an exhibit, create individual projects and learn from each other over the course of the year.

My project began with an uncertain idea of exploring the gap between people and journalism. At first I planned to focus on how members of the University of Michigan community  get the information they find the most valuable, and what this information is. I believe that there is a large gap between information production and who controls the mainstream news media, and the people it serves. I wanted to explore this on a local level.

But the 2016 election made me pause. It was clear that many journalists were out of touch with perspectives of normal people who don't live in Los Angeles or San Francisco or New York. We live in an age where there are more journalists than ever in New York and Washington, D.C. but small town news struggles. Places like the Upper Peninsula or Flint are reduced to the occasional story in The New York Times but seldom are the subject of prolonged, in-depth reporting. Rather than doing a survey analysis or interviews with people on campus, I realized that in order to truly explore how the news affects people's lives, I needed to talk to people outside of this elite bubble. So I embarked on a interview tour of Michigan and this spring I talked to people from all walks of life across the state about journalism and the role it plays in their lives.

My interviews surprised me and challenged my vision for this project and my mindset on journalism and who it really serves. A University of Michigan freshman who is confined to a wheelchair, Celeste Adams, talked of never seeing herself -- or pressing stories of the disabled community -- represented in the major news outlets. A University of Michigan Dearborn sophomore, Muhammad Ali M, described vibrant community newspapers in Dearborn that serve the Arab community alongside typical outlets like Channel 7 news and the Detroit Free Press. Regis Ferland, a Native American who lives in Mount Pleasant, told me that based on mainstream news, Indigenous people might as well not exist at all in the United States. These people showed me perspectives that range far beyond simply geographic and challenged my original project ideas. My interview subjects changed and new ideas emerged because of the people I had the privilege to interview.

Though I'm moving to New York come June, I hope to continue with some variation of this project. The role journalism plays in the lives of individuals and how these individuals see them selves represented in the media is not just a journalistic issue. It is an issue of social justice and an issue of who's stories are and aren't worth telling. It is an issue of who is and is not included in the first draft of history. As I continue with my project I hope to reach people from more areas of the state and more identity groups. My biggest challenge was attempting to represent as many people as I could while knowing that I could not handle more than 20 for my initial launch.   

Our projects in the lab are rooted in academia but transcend typical academic work in creation, scope and presentation. The exhibit of our projects we curated together challenges typical standards for academia, where work is done in the classroom but is rarely shared or made accessible to the public. They ways that we were challenged to present our work to a public audience remind me of my original goals of bridging the gap between people and journalism. What is the point of education and information if it does not reach those outside of its producers? I am lucky I got to explore a variation of this question throughout the year in a space created around this kind of work. I hope to take many of the lessons I learned in the lab with me throughout my future.