Campbell's Chicken Soup for the Stamps

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by Tim Carlin. Featured in WRIT Large Vol. 4, a journal of undergraduate writing published by the University of Denver's Writing Program.

Transcript

  • Tim CarlinWRIT 1133: Writing and Researching Local Food CommunitiesProfessor Megan Kelly

    CAMPBELLS CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE STAMPS:A PerformAnce ethnogrAPhy

    44 WRIT LARGE: 2015

    Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia has largely shaped who I have become and how I feel about culture, art, equality, and diversity. Thinking back to my childhood, I remember colorful people and streets dotted with undertones of poverty and hardship I was too blind to see. Not to say I dont love my roots, but the reality of the situation is that I witnessed people depend-ing on the very government that was holding them back. When I came to DU, I began taking classes in whatever seemed interesting to me, especially theatre classes like Aesthetics in Performance and Slavic Is Sexy and sociology classes like Gender in Society and Un-derstanding Social Life. These courses all made me question what privilege is and where the causes for social problems like the achievement gap lie. I began to question my own life and the social inequities I witnessed, without realizing, my whole life.

    Entering WRIT 1133, my professor asked us to consider how people define their relationships

    to food. I thought about my experiences growing up and how those memories have crafted my own relationship with my plate. As I started researching food in my hometown, it quickly became clear to me that there was a story that needed to be heard. I found that Philadelphia is one of the poorest big cities in the country, has a plethora of dietary and health issues, and has a staggering amount of the population living off of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp, benefits. Possibly the most shocking information I learned was that my

    own neighborhood has been identified as a food desert, meaning that people living there have

    limited access to and funds for acquiring healthy foods for their families.

    I created a performance ethnography as my final piece for this WRIT 1133 class. I want to give

    a special thanks to my best friend Amber (which is not her real name) for her contributions to this project and her willingness to be a voice for her community. In the end, it is my hope this piece may spark an interest in performance ethnography and also allow the reader to identify his or her own assumptions about this community by engaging with the text.

    In WRIT 1133, I was tasked with developing my own research questions about food and then producing an ethnography. The first questions I

    developed related to food access, and I was taken back to my childhood in Philadelphia. I gathered information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food as-

    sistance programs around the world, and I real-ized there were too many voices in this commu-nity to bring together in one project in less than ten weeks. I decided to conduct primary research on one voice in one food community and sup-port that research with secondary sources.

    When I began to consider how to tell this

  • 45VOLUME 4

    Performance ethnography is a way of researching a

    community by using peoples words and enacting them

    verbatim. These performances involve in-depth study

    of peoples body language and life styles and are often

    accompanied by some form of written analysis or dis-

    cussion on how the community is portrayed through the

    piece. The transcript for my final ethnography has been

    included here, as well as a description of my research

    process and techniques.

    story, I looked to my love of theatre and specif-ically the ethnographic performances of Anna Deavere Smith, whose works explore the top-ics of race and ethnicity. Smitha well-known actor, playwright, and professorconducts her research by interviewing people and then cre-ating full plays centered around one theme that emerges from these interviews. Smith uses her interview subjects actions and words verbatim in these monologues, giving an authentic rep-resentation of peoples feelings about the issues being investigated. For example, in her play Twi-light: Los Angeles 1992, Smith takes on the roles of people she interviewed following the violent responses to the 1992 Rodney King trial. In her TED Talk, Smith says, If you say a word enough, it becomes you. This observation has largely shaped my interest in carrying out per-formance ethnography. I realized that many Philadelphians, myself included, have discussed their difficulties with money, food stamps, trans-portation to and from the food store, and every painful aspect of our food shopping experiences so much that these conversations have become us. All of these experiences have shaped our re-lationships to food and also made us accept our situation, while at the same time we stopped questioning the world around us.

    COLLECTING INTERVIEWS: BEING IN IT, OUT OF IT, AND ALL AROUND ITInspired by Smiths performance ethnographies, I interviewed my best friend from back home, Amber, to construct an accurate monologue de-picting her changing relationship with food. My

    best friend growing up, Amber lived down the block in her uncles home with her mother and little sister. Ambers family has been on food as-sistance of some form since she was a child. This situation has greatly determined her relationship with her family and how her own developing

    family is handling food in a hard economy; it also has made her appreciate a new level of ac-cess to food that she has recently acquired now that she has a car and a better-paying job. I have known Amber my whole life, and her family once opened their doors to me, adding me into their thin food budget. Knowing her family well was an incredible help with my research because it increased my investment in the project. I cared about Ambers story and thought it needed to be told. Being in it helped me focus on her expe-rience, even as I kept in mind the implications her story has for the community for which she is speaking.

    Voyagerix / Shutterstock.com

  • 46 WRIT LARGE: 2015

    Tim is a transfer student in his junior year at the University of Denver. He is current-ly pursuing a double major in psycholo-gy and sociology with a minor in theatre. Tims interests include acting, directing,

    camping, baking, eating baked goods, and spending the summers in Estes Park exploring the Rocky Mountain National Park. He hopes to further his research in performance ethnography and encourag-es people to find a way to bring art into

    their research.

    One hurdle I faced was how to shape ques-tions and create an environment that would be conducive to eliciting responses people would want to hear and watch on stage. Since I would be composing a performance from this interview, I needed Amber to be active while she spoke: this is the key for performance ethnography. My first

    thoughts were to put Amber in a situation where she would be actively food shopping and I would interview her over some form of video chat. We quickly realized that food shopping, staying in budget, and keeping track of a 2-year-old was al-ready too large a task to add an interview into the mix. While it was a shame to lose out on inter-viewing her in the store, it did give me an even deeper understanding of the experiences Amber was having with food.

    We settled on a Skype interview that took place while Amber was putting away her grocer-ies. This allowed for a calm environment where

    Amber could think while also physically inter-acting with her surroundings. Interviews can be very informative when the researcher pays atten-tion to the circumstance in general: What is the interviewee doing? Where are they? What time is it? What will they do right after the interview? What did they do right before the interview? A thorough understanding of the interview subject prior to the interview allows the researcher to structure a productive research environment.

    After collecting my interview data and en-grossing myself in Ambers relationship to food, I began to feel overwhelmed with the amount of information I had. I was losing perspective, see-ing my friend and her life as opposed to an eth-nographic inquiry. While being very involved in my topic gave me great insight, I quickly realized that it was also something that could potentially hold me back. Could being Ambers friend and knowing all of these things about her life be giv-ing me a bias too significant to notice from the

    inside? It was time to get out.I got out of it by focusing my research on

    the larger context of the issue. I read news arti-cles and academic essays about food assistance programs, as well as reports by public health of-ficials and other public health data. Though none

    of these resources directly addressed my specific

    topic, they helped me craft a new set of interview questions and also helped me compare Ambers situation to other cases. This process of review-ing the literature also afforded me a chance to consider how this performance ethnography could reach a variety of audiences by including a wider range of themes. One of the best lessons I

    (left) Tim Carlin / LP Picard

    (right) mikeledray /Shutterstock.com

  • 47VOLUME 4

    learned from this project was the importance of being deeply involved and connected to your re-search but also being able to disconnect and look objectively at the data to see how they connect to other research.

    WHY IS THAT?Another influence on my ethnography was the

    framework for Understanding Social Life with Dr. Paul Colomy, which I took in my spring quar-ter while enrolled in WRIT 1133. In this class, we consistently considered the question: Why is that? Though simple in theory, this question forces you to figure out the essence of the sub-ject. For example, I had noticed t