Prof. Susan Falls Interview
Feb. 21, 2013, SCAD, Arnold Hall
Background: Prof. Susan Falls is a professor in the Liberal Arts department at SCAD (http://www.scad.edu/general-education/faculty.cfm). She is an anthropologist and has done extensive research on the hand-painted signs in Savannah. She has taught some classes in the past that worked with the Waters community. Because I am interested in researching community self-perceptions, I thought it would be helpful to get a broader perspective on perceptions, culture and community dynamics.
Marina: I am a second year MFA graphic design student and I am about to start working on my thesis. I’ve been involved with the Waters community since last winter, I took a class with Prof. Boylston, I participated in Design Ethos, and I’ve been working with Jerome Meadows. I am really interested in working with the community for my thesis. I would like to do something with the means of graphic design that will hopefully create a positive change. I know it sounds ambitious. I did some research and found about Albert Bandura who is talking about how self-efficacy is affected by self-perceptions. People who have high self-perceptions and high self-efficacy are more willing to initiate or maintain change. So I am thinking if it would be possible to create something for the community that will help them either create a vision for themselves that they can work with or they can start seeing things that they normally ignore that can help them have better perceptions of themselves – either talk about their assets as a community, as an environment, as people or change their negative perceptions if that is possible. I wanted to talk to you in order to get your perspective on that and get some ideas on additional research or who else I can talk to.
Prof. Falls: I don’t know what I can offer you really… Is there any reason why you think the community does not have a positive self-image?
Marina: It is my perception. People are talking about the community being poor, economically challenged, drug infested, but again these are perceptions of people who are outsiders. I think I am mixing what people think of Waters and what the community thinks of themselves. To your question – I am not sure. I have not done any research. That might be a starting point.
Susan Falls: Right… Because they might not really think that there is anything wrong … They might think that… I don’t know what they might think… They might think that they are poor, but that does not necessarily translate into not having a good self-image. Sometimes it is the opposite, there are people who are poor, but they are good people and they work harder, have a great community or have a great charge or have good relationships with their neighbors. I don’t know… I think the starting point should be … I think this idea of self-esteem can generate a different orientation to change or an inspiration, that might very well be true, but I think until you establish that… if that’s the sort of relationship you are looking at, I don’t know that you can necessarily talk about this community without being able to demonstrate that they indeed do not have a good self-image. Actually, I think and my experience there is very limited, very limited, but my impression with the members of the community that I interacted with is that they have a pretty good self-image, they are pretty proactive in terms of establishing explicit desires “I am gonna do this, I am gonna do that”… I think they are pretty savvy people amidst neighborhoods where you have a high degree of working class people… they interact with the state in various ways, are much more savvy about the way that …? Works than your average middle class person. They are usually pretty savvy about these things because they know, they have experience in this and they understand their needs and how it works. It think it is great to try to develop something that will have a positive effect on the community, but without knowing what they need or what they see as their problems, it is hard to do that I mean to provide a good quality argument. They might very well think that things are pretty… They might not… I don’t know what they think. My only experience there is with the W.W. Law Center and a little bit with some other a little more visible institutions like the Asbury Memorial Church, but actually I don’t really know that much about the community.
Marina: Maybe because I’ve been involved in these projects trying to do something for the community which puts them in a position of a community that needs help. Maybe that’s why I came up with the idea that they really need help. Again, it is an assumption that they have low self-esteem or are unable to provide the necessary changes.
Prof. Falls: Well, I think everybody needs help, I would love to have some help, because I am not straight, I have problems, but it is not because I have a low self-esteem that I am not solving my problems … that’s not the reason. It is not an esteem problem. So, I am sure that what my next door neighbor sees as a problem might be different from what I see as a problem. She hates the snack truck, I love the snack truck … (cannot hear) drives me crazy, she does not really care about that. So, I think without doing some kind of …? Research to find out what actually is perceptions, I think it is quite difficult to determine a) what their problems are and b) why they are problems…. If you look at just demographic research which does not necessarily translate into anything as effective, maybe it does, maybe it does not. And if there is a place with a high percentage of … income, how does that translate into something attractive? I don’t know.
Marina: Is it at all possible to judge about the community’s perceptions by the way the community looks, by something that is visual?
Prof. Falls: I think whereas somebody else might say yes, I personally I don’t think that… I think that’s very risky. They way that we might, the way that somebody who is not part of the community, the way that I might read the landscape might be quite different from the way somebody who lives there reads it. I do not know. But I have to maintain that possibility for that reason to think that just reading the landscape is pretty risky.
Marina: You studied the hand-painted signs in Savannah. Did you find any relationship or were these signs able to tell anything about the communities or people?
Susan Falls: Well, I think Savannah is a very small town. Painted signs, do you… at the level of connotations say something quite different from the slick corporate symbol. That kind of percolates a different person. But I don’t know if it says anything very, very specific. There has been changes to the signage so it applies a lot to the last hand-painted signs.
I think it might be also worthwhile to think about who you are talking about because… what are the boundaries of the community?
Marina: Between Victory and Wheaton and then 2-3 blocks on each side of Waters.
Prof. Falls: I think that’s a lot of people.
Marina: That does not mean that I have to work with the entire community.
Prof. Falls: No, no, no. But how did you come up with those boundaries?
Marina: This is what they had for Design Ethos and the city is having this Revitalization project trying to help the community and revitalize that area. And I think it is their definition of what Waters community comprises of.
Prof. Falls: Right, I think there is the way that the city is defining it and there is the way that people that live there define it. And they might not be the same at all.
Marina: There are four neighborhood associations in that area.
Prof. Falls: You can ask people what are the boundaries of your neighborhood, people say all kinds of things. So, it becomes kind of difficult to talk about the community as defined by who? As defined by the City, as defined by the residents, as defined by the Asbury Church there, as defined by the real estate. Who are the members of the community? How are they connected to each other? I think the project to have a positive effect on the community, that’s the project, right? You have to really take apart that. Ok. Who is the community, as defined by who, impact, right, let’s talk about it a little bit. What’s positive? Well, that might be subject to unveiling. Some people might say what we need is … , or a McDomands, I don’t know what people might say. What I might think is positive to a community, to somebody else migh be horrible. So people might think it is great to have McDonalds on Broughton, I think it is horrible. You have to really define the terms of the project, so that you narrow the scope of what you are doing.
Marina: I think you are asking really good questions. I do not have the answers yet.
Prof. Falls: But, you can get them, you can get the answers.
Marina: Are there any readings that you can recommend, or case studies you might know of.
Prof. Falls: Not a lot straight, but you can read about community ethnography or community involvement. There is one famous called “Norman Street” by Ida Susser. It is really good. It is kind of grassroots community kind of stuff.
Marina: Or any behavioral change, so social change theories?
Prof. Falls: You can read the book “Black Corona”. I think this kind of project is inherently tricky because we don’t want to risk imposing our own ideologies on the community, without finding out from them what is going on, it is very difficult to generate a meaningful solution if we don’t hera from them what their problems are. You might not necessarily mean you have to agree with them. They might say they need a McDonalds, and you might say forget about McDonalds, what you need is a school. That’s one, but people do not always know what’s good for them, that’s true. You can’t really know what they need until you start looking.
Marina: I have to come up with a more focused idea and then do some research.
Prof. Falls: I think privately, for the purposes of this project. I don’t know how much time you have, you might think about narrowing the scope of you project considerably. You might narrow it down to who it is that you are dealing with. So that you do not spend a year researching people, which is fine, but your project is a design project. You need to put together your data and spend much of your time right on design, or energy. I would cut the barriers of what you consider to be the community in a very considerable way and I would do it fast, based on something like access . Like who do you have access to. For example, you are not going to have access to a bunch of 18-year old guys. You can probably work with them, but it will take you a long time to find them and get them to talk to you for various reasons like who they are, where they live, a bunch of stuff. So, forget about them. Not forget about them, but figure out who you are working with, who you might already have access to or who your contacts are. I would maybe start with that because … Because your project is a design project. It is not an ethnographic project. You are not getting a degree in ethnography. So, I would considerably narrow the scope of the community and get that data collection out of the way, so that you can then begin working on these other questions, like for example the relationship of design to social change, questions that are pertinent to what you are doing.
I just think that working with a smaller group of people will considerably make the kinds of questions that you want to ask much, much easier to deal with. Later if you want to deal with the larger community and have more resources and people would like to share manpower to collect information to those kinds of questions, fine. It’s a question of scale.
Marina: I need to start talking to people and find something worth researching about that is a good direction.
Prof. Falls: Right, because until you do that you are just guessing.