Final Project Wrap Up

Throughout the final part of the semester I have been exploring the issue in America known as 'the opportunity gap'. This gap is a blanket issue that encompasses a laundry list of interconnected factors, institutionalized problems, and individual social issues, such as race, access, and poverty, that make it so a large part of the American population has little to no chance of seeking opportunities of higher education, employment, and overall a certain level of autonomy. There are large portions of the country who live inside this gap and it is growing. Even simple opportunities like after school activities are out of reach for families, with high income families who live outside of the gap getting to participate at twice the levels of low income families. So, how do we talk about this gap that affects such a large portion of the country? How do we show the importance of it? And how do we show them as individuals and not as a statistic that further takes away their autonomy?

We began by focusing solely on the moments that change the path given to those who fall within this opportunity gap, hoping to shed light on the complexity of 'making it' out. We sought to create something that addressed the question: How can seemingly simple interventions shift a person's life in large ways?

We had the hope that showing the stories of people who came from the gap, and experienced interventions that pulled them out, would show contrast that exposed the gap to a viewer. But this proved to be difficult, and counteractive to our main goal of bringing this very real issue that is swept under the rug into broader conversation. By showing the 'success' stories, we were only creating something that ignored the heaviness of living inside the opportunity gap and allowed people to think, "Well hey, they made it out. So it can't be that bad."

So we decided to back up and look at the issue again.

This led us back to some broad questions: Why is this conversation so invisible? Why is something that affects millions of people not in the minds of many of us in this country? Why does the opportunity gap seem so surprising to those who live outside of it?

The basic answer to this became a conversation around the storytelling that builds the foundation of America itself. America is a place strongly, and foundationally, built on stories. It is a land of opportunity, where anyone has the chance to create the world they wish, learn what they want, and build what they dream. If you are willing to get up in the morning, and be the exceptional American we all are, you have the opportunity to be and have whatever you want. 

This is a very simplified way of speaking about the American narrative, but it is one that permeates our culture in heavy ways. Ways that severely effect how we can talk about issues such as the opportunity gap. The opportunity gap stands in direct contradiction of what the American story is, and to acknowledge its very real presence means acknowledging that maybe America isn't quite the exceptional land of opportunity.

So, with that rabbit hole explored I found ingredients that were really building, or hindering, our narrative. This created a new insight and challenge: in order to create a conversation about the opportunity gap, you have to counteract or interrupt the narrative of American exceptionalism. We needed to go to some of the sources of this American narrative and show what the more complex narrative of America really is. So, what is the medium this narrative is in? And how do you capture the real stories of American opportunity?

To answer those two questions I explored these:

What are the some of the spaces that push the exceptional American narrative?

  • our currency 

  • news

  • advertising

  • reality tv / contest shows

  • elementary / public school

Where do citizens share their more complex personal stories? What tools already exist?

  • social media comments

  • personal blogs

  • letters to the editor

  • contacting local government

  • writing a letter to the president 

It was within these two lists that I found my voices and the platform to put them on. 

Each day thousands upon thousands of letters are sent to President Barack Obama, which are sorted by the Office of Presidential Correspondence. Out of those thousands of letters ten are picked to be given to the President each night. The ten are picked to show a wide range of political and cultural beliefs, and capture the issues that are facing the average American. These letters are kept in a collection by the White House, a large portion of which are open to the public. It was in these letters that I found the genuine voices that showed those living within the opportunity gap. There is little need for a new platform to gather stories, or record interviews, or reach out to hear what people are experiencing, when there are already those who have reached such a point that they feel they should write the president. 

So I had my voices and their stories, next was working out how those voices could find a place in a culture inundated with an American story that was different than theirs. Looking to my first list I saw that space. With the media being one of the biggest sellers of the American opportunity narrative (through news headlines, advertising, and reality shows) I needed to create a piece that used mainstream media as an outlet. I needed to place the individual voices of American citizens on the same level as advertising and news media. To do this I turned to a Chrome extension and online sites and advertisements. 

 

The Chrome extension targets any set of words or phrases set by me and replaces them with curated letters sent to the president that display the complexity of opportunity in America. Words that promote a sense of proud nationalism and advertisements are all replaced by the voices of American citizens that I have collected and sorted. 

 

The piece accomplished many of my goals. It interjected the individual voices of Americans into a space that consistently discounts them and the difficulties they face. It showed the contrast of what the conversation most often can be and what the actual conversation is. But in many ways, this is still a proof of concept and a prototype to telling stories in this way.

Some of the continuing goals and opportunities for growth in the project are:

  • Continue to develop what it is targeting. Currently it targets language, but if it could target imagery as well there would be a huge opportunity

  • Work out how to do this without downloading a Chrome extension. A Chrome extension is not used by a large portion of people online, and it requires them to download and opt in. This project is more effective as a piece that intervenes without the explicit consent of the viewer.

  • Focus and tailor the content based on the individual viewer. Using tools, such as geolocation, to serve stories that provide different narratives on opportunity to different readers, much like targeted ads. 

 

Skylar JessenComment