This post was written by recent graduate, Carolyn Lee-Jones.
I always find the hardest part of any task is the beginning. Taking that awkward first step or action needed to propel me forward always brings with it a terrifying sense of anxiety. Today, I am here to talk about presenting my DST 99 project, Walking with Strangers: Mapping experiences of madness and space, to diverse audiences. But at the moment all I see is a sea of unfamiliar faces, strangers really. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and start walking…
Walking with Strangers emerged to make sense of a troubling situation involving someone I had been in a care relationship with experienced escalating mental health crises. The degree of stigma, lack of accommodations and responses to her distress was appalling. Witnessing these events led me to reflect on my own experiences of distress and struggles with a Mad identity. Guided by a Mad Studies framework, Walking with Stranger is an ethnographic study exploring how Mad People experience and negotiate social and geographical spaces in everyday life. Or more simply, discovering how Mad People are living in space. My research involved working with four Mad identified participants. Each produced 24-hour narrative diaries focussing on ‘thick description’ and participated in semi formal interviews. Most importantly to my research, I also went on go ‘go alongs’ where I actually walked with participants as they went about their regular routines and locales to get a sense of how they interact with their environments.
When I initially developed Walking with Strangers I didn’t give much thought about how I might have to alter my project to reach audiences from different backgrounds. Most recently I was challenged with taking the presentation I prepared for the Canadian Disability Studies Association (CDSA 2016) conference and turning it into something I could co-present with Dr. Kathryn Church to a Media Production class at Ryerson. Being immersed in Disability Studies, I had forgotten how foreign the concepts had been when I was first introduced to them. Presenting to the Media Production students, mental health as illness and the more common medical, recovery based models- these were familiar to the students. Mad as an identity and pride, never mind an entire field of study was far more difficult to grasp. Nevertheless, I did my best to present the bare bones of my project and its relationship to Mad Studies. By focusing on how I enacted ethnography in my project and what ethnographic research looked like on the ground level, I wanted to emphasise how ethnography is about living engagement. It’s awkwardness as well as connection and everything else in between still counts as data.
Based on the Q & A session which followed my presentation, the response to my project seemed mostly positive. The students had interesting questions about Disability and Mad Studies, finding participants and challenges working with mad participants. Some of the students shared discomfort with this kind of research which seemed only natural. I had similar reservations at first but I found that doing ethnography included my learning to face my discomfort and accept that ethnography is not necessarily a linear approach to research. Through ethnographic research I found that having to adjust, adjust, adjust was just all part of the process. In doing so, ethnography showed me alternative way of knowing and seeing the world by immersing myself in my participant’s experiences of their everyday spatiality’s. By presenting to the students I could show them that mad people can be researchers as well as participants. Maybe, even changing some of the student’s previous notions about madness. As a Mad researcher, I feel I was in a unique position both personally and academically to work from the inside out to explore complicated questions about everyday spatiality’s, madness and geography. My work was about people living in space and presenting to the Media Production students gave me another opportunity to show the other, every day side of madness. Reflecting, learning to present across diverse groups, I better understand the importance of being able to make my work accessible and share it with wider audiences to change how people think about mad people and experiences. Thanks for walking with me!