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Using Participatory Approaches to Support Students and the Homeless

Ben Lauren, Homelessness

Benjamin Lauren, Assistant Professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures (WRAC), is working to help reduce the social stigma associated with homelessness and, drawing from his research on project management and leadership, helping to establish a network of MSU faculty, staff, and students interested in making MSU a basic needs secure institution.

Lauren is collaborating with Laurel Burchfield at the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness (MCAH), who last year started a speaker’s bureau to create a platform for people to share their stories and experiences with homelessness. Experienced in audio recording and editing from his previous career as a musician, Lauren offered to help those participating in the speaker’s bureau by making spoken word compositions out of their stories. He also recruited Associate Professors Mark Sullivan in the College of Music and Rebecca Tegtmeyer in the Department of Art, Art History, and Design to work with him on the project.

We believe the spoken word recordings will help raise awareness and reduce social stigma on homelessness.

“We’re doing this work in a participatory manner, which means that the speakers collaborate with us on recording, editing, and composing the music for their stories,” Lauren said. “Our goal is to finish these compositions and release them digitally with the hope that the stories can circulate in places they were perhaps less visible before. We believe the spoken word recordings will help raise awareness and reduce social stigma on homelessness.”

Helping Students with Basic Needs

In addition to this work, Lauren has partnered with Kim Steed-Page, Director of the Student Parent Resource Center, and Stuart Blythe, Associate Professor in WRAC, on developing a support network for students experiencing issues with basic needs, such as having access to healthy food and stable housing. To assist in this work, they’ve put together a learning community through MSU’s Academic Advancement Network.

“We hope to make visual where and how students can go to get support for basic needs,” Lauren said. “If students are worried about basic needs issues, they aren’t thinking about classes or homework. They are trying to figure out where they are going to sleep or what they might eat for dinner that night.”

If students are worried about basic needs issues, they aren’t thinking about classes or homework. They are trying to figure out where they are going to sleep or what they might eat for dinner that night.

The community is also considering how university stakeholders can support students as they navigate basic needs issues. Additionally, they are looking into current policies already in place and how those policies are enacted around campus. They just hosted a public conversation on February 28 for groups of students, faculty, and advisors, and are planning another on Friday, April 19, to spread the word on resources and policies. In addition, the community is supporting the work of Bezil Taylor, a graduate student in Social Work, and Erin Campbell, an undergraduate student in Experience Architecture, who are planning a Basic Needs Dinner and Discussion for students on Friday, March 22, in the MSU Hub.

“If a student finds themselves in a place where they feel stuck, they need somebody to say ‘we have all of these resources available to you,’” Lauren said. “We want to make those resources visible, and that requires a network of people working together and taking responsibility for basic needs being met in our community.”

Researching Student Communication and Participation

In addition to this work on basic needs, Lauren also is using his research in project management to consider how students communicate and participate in class.

“By studying project managers, I learned that participation contributes to the ways in which we think about entering the classroom,” said Lauren, who invites participation in his classes by building relationships with his students to understand how they prefer to participate. He defines participation as varied and doesn’t define specific behaviors on a syllabus for participation points.

“I don’t believe that just because somebody isn’t speaking that the behavior indicates they’re not participating,” he said. “I don’t think instructors can think of participation as looking or acting a particular way. Instead, we have to design our courses to allow for multiple ways to participate.”

I don’t think instructors can think of participation as looking or acting a particular way. Instead, we have to design our courses to allow for multiple ways to participate.

Participation may mean different things to different students or, in the context of Lauren’s recent book, Communicating Project Management, to employees or coworkers.

“We need to encourage students to engage in ways that matter to them,” Lauren said. “Students are in our classes for particular reasons, and I see my job is to not stand in the way of their reason for participating but to help them meet their goals, whatever those might be. Good project managers are often doing the same thing; they’re facilitators.”

Communicating Project Management, which was published last year, brings together Lauren’s research on project managers and presents his findings with a focus on participation.

“Many workplace communicators have spent time thinking about the design of computing systems, apps, documents, and so on, but we don’t often think about workplace systems as designed,” he said. “I wanted to think about that for my book; the role of communication and participation in workplace systems as part of a larger network that is designed by interactions and habits, and therefore, can be iterated to be more inclusive and participatory. I think of this as composing a network for participation.”

To learn more about Lauren’s book or his work, visit his website at benlauren.com or follow him on Twitter @benlauren.

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