THE VOICES PROJECT: REAL STORIES, REAL PEOPLE, REAL LIVES
In Fall of 2009, Psychology instructor Dr. Alicia Nordstrom developed an experiential, service-learning diversity assignment for her Intro to Psychology course that was intended to enhance students' critical thinking and cultural competency, reduce stereotypes and prejudice towards victimized and misunderstood groups, and increase empathy and perspective taking. This assignment--called The Voices Project (TVP)--was designed with the understanding that students often have negative attitudes toward people from unfamiliar groups. In the absence of personal experience, people will form their opinions based upon society's stereotypes, media's portrayals of those groups, or things they hear from family or friends. The methodology of this project was based on the principle of "the power of one." That is, if students could form a positive relationship with one person from a group with whom they are unfamiliar or toward whom they have a pre-existing negative attitude, than the new information gained from that relationship can provide students with real information that can be used to examine and potentially revise their attitudes. To achieve this goal, students interviewed a person from a "group of difference" (as defined by a group considered by society to be outside the 'social norm') and gather information about their interviewee's life (e.g., what is it like to be them?).
Another component of the project was to help students develop empathy and expand their ability to understand perspectives outside of their own. Toward this end, students wrote a 5 page memoir for their interviewee's life from the first person perspective so that the student adopted the identity of their interviewee. Students reviewed the information that they collected during the interviews and identified 3-5 major themes that emerged in the person's story. Students wrote these memoirs using the word "I" to represent the perspectives of their interviewees.
Having a collection of life stories of people who are typically misunderstood, devalued, and/or ignored in society seemed like possessing a special gem that needs to be shared with others. Dr. Nordstrom commissed a writing team of faculty from other departments--including Dr. Allan Austin (History), Dr. Patrick Hamilton (English), and Dr. Rebecca Steinberger (English)--to excerpt and integrate the stories so that they formed a cohesive, monologue-style staged reading program. This program was presented at the end of each semester to a crowd of hundreds in Lemmond Auditorium from the campus and community.
For Dr. Nordstrom and most of her students, The Voices Project is a transformative learning experience. "If we have made just one person be more thoughtful, more willing to be accepting of someone they see as different than themselves, then our efforts have been successful," said Dr. Nordstrom. TVP was part of a larger pedagogical study created so that Dr. Nordstrom could examine whether the project succeeded in achieving its learning goals. Her data shows that students who completed TVP assignment had a reduction in negative attitudes toward the focus groups of the project, as well as an increase in critical thinking and cultural competency.
Due to the efficacy of the project, Dr. Nordstrom launched a second chapter focusing on the theme of "disability" in Spring, 2012. For more details and information on each chapter of TVP, click on the corresponding links on the left hand side of the page.
The Voices Project (TVP) has received several awards by teaching and social justice societies: