The Voices Project started in 2009 with a focus on diverse groups crossing race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and health conditions.
The Voices Project began as a method for students to examine the question: what is it like to be "different"? 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 commissioned 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.
The following are excerpts from stories written by students as part of this project:
Man with AIDS
"If my softball friends said anything discriminating about AIDS, they did not say it to my face. Although they probably talked about my disease behind my back, I'm glad that they never said anything to me directly. I would not have wanted to know how they really felt. A year after I was diagnosed, I was hanging out with a friend of mine... We were listening to the radio, and a commercial for an AIDS walk came on. After the commercial, my friend's band member said, 'We should just take all the homosexuals and people with AIDS and put them on an island and just blow it up. That would solve this problem.' He had no idea that a man with AIDS was standing right next to him.”
Muslim College Student
"I also have a job just like any other college student; I work at a clothing store. This is where I experienced my first form of discrimination. One day while the store was very busy, I was helping a customer when I heard a man yell, 'Hey, why don't you take that tablecloth off your head so you can hear me!' I simply turned to the man and calmly responded, 'No thank you, I would rather keep it on.' After an older woman heard the man say this to me, she walked over, looked me in the face, and said, 'I think you look beautiful!' While the man was leaving the store, I saw a look of embarrassment come across his son's face. I didn't let it get to me because it doesn't matter to me what others think about my hijab or my religion; it is my decision, nobody else's.”
Nineteen readers--including students, faculty, deans, and community members--read the stories of the interviewees on November 5, 2009. Over 325 people attended this performance to hear the real life stories of people considered by society as “different” to learn about how their culture and experiences have affected their lives.