Women’s contributions to community life are often overlooked. This study aims to document the stories of women’s participation and contribution to community life in the Kamloops area, from 1920 to present. Women who played a prominent role were invited to share their stories of helping to create and sustain women-centered organizations, many of which continue to exist today.
Although sporadic attempts have been made over the years to collect the stories of the women involved in community, no systematic effort has been made to document their stories. Too often we fail to honour women because they are not in traditional leadership roles – they are not elected representatives or the head of their chosen profession. Today many of the women who were deeply involved in the creation of many women-centered organizations are aging, moving away, and dying. Because many of these women are in their eighties and nineties, the time to hear them tell their stories is now.
This community-based research project led by the Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society (KWRGS) provides a unique opportunity for women volunteers (65 years and older) to identify, invite, interview and document women’s stories of community. The goal of this project is to honour women ages 65 years and older and all backgrounds in virtually every area of human endeavour: sports, agriculture, technological innovation, scholarship and academia, politics and government, the arts and business, to name just a few. By drawing attention to the many extraordinary achievements, past and present, of ordinary women in Kamloops, the project aims to not only raise awareness among Canadians but to inspire future generations to make history. The results of this study will provide insight into the capacity of so many women who, across such a diverse society, are able to make positive changes and leave legacies of community service that continue to impact us today.
Definitions of community are many, varied and contested (Dominelli, 2006). Women were neglected in community work discourses until Marjorie Mayo (1977) highlighted the relevance of gender. Women have always participated in community activities, but their significance has been relegated in favour of men’s actions. In community work, leadership roles are assumed by men while women adopt the supporting ones (Dominelli, 1990). The unpaid contributions of women to community care and place in the community have been assumed for several decades (Dominelli, 2006). Women have remained undaunted by the obstacles they face in reaching equality and providing their families with a better quality of life, and continue to work to create a better world (Dominelli, 2006). Among these are women whose strengths inspire us through their dreams of change.
The project activities include volunteers in a number of areas. Volunteering is defined as “an activity intended to help others, it is not done primarily for monetary compensation or material gain, and it is not based on obligation” (Denton et al., 1999). Volunteers were involved in the creation of a community advisory; consultation with community groups; development of an interview team comprised of women to document women’s stories; conducting interview meetings; transcribing stories; writing up stories; information, education and sharing women’s stories within the Society and the general public; and involvement of all participants in reporting and dissemination of the stories. Women volunteers state that:
“… you volunteer just because, you volunteer from parental role models, you volunteer for others, you enjoy what you do, it’s fun, busy, keeps you going …”
This project makes an importance difference by encouraging women to remain involved in our community. The importance of telling our stories and documenting women’s lives and work provides value for individuals by validating, sharing, and promoting their contributions, by creating educational opportunities, by documenting examples and models for evaluation and celebrating successes, and by providing visual, audio, and printed testimonies to inform future policy-making. The project enhances lifelong learning and participation in community through the use of the Society’s networking meetings.
The stories are shared in written media releases, reproducible images (digital, photo and video) and visual stories. The compiling and disseminating of the stories and the impacts will be shared with community partners, including the Kamloops Museum and other appropriate parties. The Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society will archive and publish the stories. The results will contribute to creating stronger networks and associations between community members, community organizations, and governments, and improve our community’s ability to understand our present by sharing stories of our past.
The Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society invited the community to submit nominations of women over 65 years of age who were central figures in helping to create and sustain community organizations. A Steering Committee led by women (over 50 years of age) selected from all the nominations the 12 women to be interviewed. Nominees not chosen have been archived for possible future projects. The project and the process honour and appreciate senior women, their skills, experiences and wisdom.
The project coordinator organized training workshops for volunteers (over 50 years of age) on interviewing skills, transcription, and videotaping skills. Volunteers working in small groups documented the stories of the 12 women participants. The work involved conducting in-depth interviews using various tools such as video cameras, digital photographs, visual art images, and tape recorders. Volunteer transcribed the videotaped interviews. Writers reviewed videotaped interviews, transcripts and compiled letters, photographs, and newspaper clippings. All documentation and material was collected in both print and video to share with the public.
Data Collection and Research Partnerships
Feminist researchers have long been attracted by the ideals and methodologies developed in the “participatory research” and “participatory action research” (commonly known as PAR) traditions. Broadly speaking, these traditions, based in the liberation politics of the 1960s, are committed to the emancipation of marginalized and oppressed groups. Consequently, in their research they honour the principles of respecting, valuing and bringing into the foreground the lived experience and indigenous knowledge of those being researched. They also try to develop methods and models of research practice that minimize hierarchical relationships between researchers and researched, and that involve a genuinely collaborative approach throughout all stages of the research process (Reason 1994).
Participatory action research carries with it the additional requirement of actually working with the participants to help them effect change. While embracing these principles, feminist researchers have shown that PAR traditionally lacked an awareness of how masculine conceptions of knowledge and gender dynamics within the research process itself impeded the “foregrounding” (meaning bringing to the forefront) of women’s experience and the full participation of research subjects. Feminists have also emphasized that participatory research must be an empowering process for the researched, who are said to become “co-subjects”. This means that as well as co-directing the research process, the participants jointly “own” the products of the research. Such democratization of the research endeavour is supposed to foster or reinforce a belief among the research subjects that they can be agents of social change.
The project developed qualitative interview guides that could be adapted en route; this flexibility offers scope for making one’s organizing frameworks sensitive to the meanings and issues raised by the interviewee. Qualitative methodologies are seen as less structured and consequently more flexible: For example, as mentioned above, the interviewer can modify the interview process to explore in more depth aspects deemed important by the interviewee, which means that any and all of the data collected can be considered important even if this does not correspond to initial “hunches” of the team. Feminist standpoint theorists tend to be more favourably disposed toward qualitative methods because, in principle, they allow women to be “experts” about their own experiences and to “correct” the researcher whose questions are on the wrong tack. For example, every woman’s story was read, corrected and approved by each of the 12 women participants.
In-depth interviews were conducted with all 12 women participants to learn about their community involvement. In some cases more than one interview was carried out to gather this information. Participants were asked to provide consent for the information collected and compiled for the project that included written work, DVD material and photographs. The purpose of collecting this material was to honour the community work performed by women participants over the course of their lifetime. All participants were invited to review all of the information provided in written and video format prior to being published. Sample exploratory interview questions were developed to learn about women’s community involvement, the reasons for their work, and process of how they became involved at different periods of time.
A partnership was strengthened through this project between social work and visual arts faculty and community agencies. Panet-Raymond and Bourque define partnership (1991: 9-10) as “…an egalitarian and equitable relationship between two different kinds of groups, with different missions, activities, resources and operating methods. In this relationship, each partner makes a different contribution but both consider this contribution to be equally important. Genuine partnership, therefore, is based on respect for and mutual recognition of the contributions of the partners in an interdependent relationship.” In this context, the goal of the partnership becomes “…an exchange of different kinds of services and/or resources that are recognized to be of equal importance or value by the partners involved.” The same authors (1991:10) contrast this model of partnership with “paternal-ship,” in which “…relationships are unequal and the objective is generally domination.” In the entirely different context of New Zealand research (Park 1992: 582), the term “partnership” does not necessarily imply that the partners are equal but that the relationship is a joint commitment based on negotiation.
Characteristics of Women’s Groups Representatives
The women volunteers who participated in the project had a personal interest in the theme of the project they were involved in. It was important for all the stakeholders to have compatible personalities, to be able to acknowledge and recognize their respective skills and to be completely open and clear in their actions. It is clear that the criteria for a successful research partnership are based in very large part on the qualities of the people involved. Aside from personal qualities, the quality of the relationship among the various partners also ensured the success of the experience. Real partnerships between research teams and community groups require the involvement of both from the beginning and at each successive stage of the research project. The partners must have an egalitarian and complementary relationship. Every woman involved in the project valued the process of honouring women’s achievements and contributions to community life.
The process of this participatory project honors women’s skills, experience and wisdom in support of social well-being and quality of life in the community. The project aims to share best practices in staying connected in community life throughout the life cycle. Opportunities for volunteering, mentorship and leadership training were created for women of many generations through the Society.
Artist as Researcher
The project developed artwork in response to the lived experiences of women’s stories. “The aim of research in the visual arts, as in other similar forms of exploratory inquiry, is to provoke, challenge, and illuminate rather than confirm and consolidate (Sullivan, 2005).” The involvement of artist/researcher allowed for the creation of a visual statement that does not simply illustrate the women, but reveals them as larger than life. The women as they were interviewed for this project often stated that they were “just” housewives or “just” mothers or were “just” doing what needed to be done, thus diminishing their contributions. The larger than life images of the women are meant to contradict notions that their involvement in the community has been insignificant.
Each of the twelve women was visited and photographed individually. Meeting with all twelve women allowed for the comparison and contrast of their stories and achievements. Before meeting with the women the artist/researcher prepared by reading their biography and, when possible, read the transcripts from their interviews. Women were photographed in their home or in their yard so that visual information about their personality, interests, and their accomplishments could be included, as well as what they perceived as important to them. With the photograph it was possible to work with it digitally and enlargements were made to over life-size scale, usually 40” x 115.” It is impossible to dismiss the over-life-size images of the women and the large scale allows access to their presence in unexpected ways. Using graphics software I divided the large image into parts and then created stencils for screen printing. The parts of the women’s images were pieced together during the printing process as the sections were printed side by side on transparent drapery panels. Each print has a discernible grid, reminiscent of quilting. What became apparent in the process of making the screen print, was that the method of preparing the image for printing replicates by analogy the methodical and repetitive work done by many of the women over their lifetime doing such as, quilting and needlework, the daily chores, and housework. Marking the women’s images with a quilt-like grid bears witness to the patchwork of roles they have performed for their families and communities. Each women is the sum of many and diverse parts.
Printing on fabric that stretches and moves and receives the ink unpredictably is a process of coming to terms with imperfection and disappointment. Within the possibilities for imperfection are also the possibilities for transcendence when insight about one of the women or insight about the process of working surfaces. There is only one chance to make the print work and because of that artist/researchers have to relinquish the degree of control that usually accompanies printmaking and the creation of multiples. Normally the printmaking process creates several original prints and only those that meet rigorous standards are included in the edition.
The process of screen printing, as used in the project, is comparable to painting. The process leaves a mark the way a brush leaves a signature—whether it is a moiré pattern, variations in intensity, degraded stencils, mis-registration or any other number of problems that are inherent to screen-printing. The process of making the work is an analog to women’s lives; a continuous coming to terms and persevering regardless of outcomes or results.
The screen prints are designed to be suspended in a space wherein they are separate from each other but overlap and are visible from all directions, allowing sightlines through the transparent material and intensifying the images in areas where they overlap. As the viewer moves around and between the suspended images, the women visually meld into each other. The overlap and interplay of the images is revealing in light of Joanna Isaak’s statement, “One woman’s work or words lead onto or enable the next woman to work or speak” (9) (Isaak 247) The work that the women in the Untold Stories Project have done will only have the capacity to “lead or enable” if it is recognized and made available to others. The work as artist/researcher adds to the multifaceted approaches of collecting and disseminating the stories of the twelve women.
This paper discusses an innovative community development project that aims to document women’s stories of community involvement. The continuing role of women in a community’s growth and development has become increasingly important today. Through women’s experiences it is possible to explore and to document the developments in community work in a small city. By linking historical material to the present, the project aspires to publish women’s untold stories to enhance the quality of life at the individual and community levels. The Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society hopes to further document women’s stories of community involvement across the lifespan and to develop resources for building more socially cohesive communities that promote egalitarian social relations.
The research team gratefully acknowledges the financial support of New Horizons for Canada and the BC 150 Years. This paper was presented at the Small Cities CURA conference held at Thompson Rivers University in August, 2008.
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About the Authors
Julie Drolet is Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and Human Service at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Trish Archibald is Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and Human Service at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, BC. She is Treasurer of the Board of Directors of the Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society and has worked for many years in women’s organizations. Email: email@example.com
Ila Crawford is a faculty member in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at Thompson Rivers University, Kamloops, British Columbia. She is an artist/researcher and a member of the Kamloops Women’s Resource Group Society. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org