Homeless Students' Photography to Show Life and Strength

With cameras in hand, homeless college students in Humboldt County will capture their experiences through a new Humboldt State University photo project.

Led by HSU Social Work Professor Pam Bowers, the “Humboldt County Homeless College Student Photovoice Project” is being funded by a $4,091 Humanities For All Quick Grant from California Humanities, which supports locally initiated public humanities projects.

Students participating in the project will be given digital or disposable cameras to document aspects of resiliency while attending college and experiencing homelessness.

Photovoice images—to be displayed in local galleries this year—are meant to do more than move the viewer. Bowers plans to have student participants reflect on the photos and ultimately inspire policy changes.

<< Related Links: Homeless Student Advocate Alliance | CSU Study: Students’ Basic Needs | Photovoice: Concept, Methodology, and Use for Participatory Needs Assessment >>

“Our primary goal is to honor homeless student experiences, highlight their resiliency surrounding the housing challenges faced in our rural community, and seek solutions through action research,” says Bowers.

The project comes as HSU faculty, students, and staff have taken a leading role in efforts to combat student hunger and housing insecurity. Just this month, Social Work Professors Jennifer Maguire, of HSU, and Rashida Crutchfield, of CSU Long Beach, published a significant study on food insecurity and homelessness affecting California State University students. In addition, the campus provides the Oh Snap! Food Pantry, accepts CalFresh benefits, and supports HSU’s Homeless Student Advocate Alliance (HSAA). A club for students currently experiencing homelessness, the HSAA is working closely with Bowers on her project.

The upcoming photo project’s topic on resiliency is based on HSU Social Work Professor Marissa O’Neill’s research of student success. Contrary to what O’Neill initially believed, homeless students performed just as well academically as other students.

“We hope to identify photographs that demonstrate their strengths and supports and other things that worked well for them during their time being homeless,” says Bowers. “In the end, we hope that we can build from these things, and advocate for more services.”

Photovoice is an empowerment research strategy first developed in the 1990s by University of Michigan’s Caroline C. Wang and Ford Foundation Program Officer Mary Ann Burris, who used it to create and discuss photographs as a catalyst for personal and community change. Since then, many fields such as public health, social work, and education have implemented the process.

As a social worker in Colorado, Bowers found photovoice to be a highly effective way to empower vulnerable populations, such as the students she taught at a school for pregnant teens.

Students said bus drivers were passing their stops and that they felt judged by other passengers. Bowers had her students take photos while riding buses and then survey the school about the issue. Students later shared images and data with bus district representatives.

“Students and people from the bus district were able to have an open dialogue about what was happening on those buses,” says Bowers. As a result, drivers received training on the needs of this population. The district also adjusted its policy so that passengers sitting in front of the bus no longer had to collapse their strollers.

About California Humanities
California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, promotes the humanities – focused on ideas, conversation, and learning – as relevant, meaningful ways to understand the human condition and connect us to each other to help strengthen California. California Humanities has provided grants and programs across the state since 1975. To learn more, go to www.calhum.org.