Roman R. Williams

Originally published on January 22, 2015 in Studying Congregations.

Just as the fall semester was coming to an end, I received an email from Program Officer (and friend) Khary Bridgewater that was simultaneously exciting and daunting:

KB:   I am at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) and we can host the photos in an exhibit in February in the Garden Room. Can you let me know how the project went and if you will be able to help the GRAM set up a display?

RW:  Yes [gulp] I would be delighted to work with the GRAM on a display. 7 families participated, which generated 190 photos. Let me know how to proceed.

I vaguely remember Khary hinting at the possibility of selecting photos that were part of a program evaluation project for an exhibit, but I never knew if it would actually materialize. Likewise, I had never thought of the evaluation research I was doing as art.

A big gap in educational outcomes separates children of color from white kids, low-income students from wealthy ones in the United States. The Douglas and Maria DeVos Foundation attempts to close the achievement gap in Grand Rapids through its Family Leadership Initiative (FLI). Each week families gather at churches for a meal. After dinner leaders mentor adults in parenting and volunteers tutor children using the Khan Academy curriculum on iPads. The goal of the program is that the lessons learned at FLI would be put into practice in everyday life, strengthen families, and improve outcomes.

Figuring out whether or not a program like this one works poses an interesting challenge. It would be impractical to follow people around as they go about their day, watching for the effects of the curriculum in everyday life. As part of our program evaluation strategy, we gave 7 families digital cameras and asked them to photograph examples of how the program shows up in their daily lives. These photographs were used as prompts in interviews in which family members discussed the story behind their pictures, a technique known as photo elicitation. By asking participants to take and talk about photos, they became partners in the process of evaluation: they showed us what was working, they disclosed the shortcomings of the program, and they envisioned new possibilities. As I sat shoulder-to-shoulder listening to participants, the photos became answers to questions I may never have known to ask. I have used photo elicitation (PE) on numerous occasions, but I never imagined the images participants produce as being part of an art gallery exhibit. You see, the main goal of PE is to generate new knowledge and while some photos from a project may be included in a report, article, or book, those images are not typically part of a public display. I’m glad that Khary helped me to see the potential of these photographs to show others what is happening through the Family Leadership Initiative. His vision extended the insights of seven families to over 900 program participants who visitor to the Grand Rapids Art Museum exhibit over the course of the weekend it was on display (Photos 1–5). The collection of images has taken on a life of its own: for example, a local church displayed 20 photographs (Photo 6) in their art gallery and a similar number of photos lined the walls of FLI’s annual celebration (Photo 7).

I am grateful for the partnership that I have with Khary Bridgewater and the FLI program. It continues to nudge my work and thinking in new directions. Participant-produced photographs are an effective way to collect data about congregations and communities. In analyzing this information, one looks for patterns and themes around which to organize the story being told. Typically, these images are used to tell participants’ stories in reports to congregations and academic writing. Unfortunately, these practices can create information gaps: congregational leaders and academics may benefit from research findings, but the rest of the congregation may never personally interact with these insights and ideas. By presenting photos and captions in a congregational venue (e.g., fellowship hall, lobby, narthex) for all to see, a broader audience is invited into the conversation.

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