Asian Community Development Corporation

A Voice for Boston Chinatown

The Problem 
Over the years, unchecked effects of gentrification have forced Boston Chinatown into crisis, pushing outsiders into a shallow view of Chinatown as a cheap and dirty grub hub. Wealthy newcomers are buying up real estate around the area, dramatically inflating living expenses without government intervention. 
How can we empower the multicultural residents of Chinatown both socially and politically? 
How can we foster understanding between gentrifiers and long-term residents of Chinatown? 
My Solution 
This collaborative project resulted in a Storytelling campaign that unifies the people of Chinatown with a unique voice to represent and validate their importance as a community. 
This project was prompted by the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC) and Boston Mayor’s Office of the New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), in collaboration with the Urban Interactions course at RISD.
Storytelling Community Engagement Initiative

To reach the diverse audience in Chinatown, we proposed multiple methods of engagement. Trained journalists and writing workshops would gather stories and help curate them. These stories would then be applied to the billboards, news app, and zine in varying depths for each mode. This would be the new initiative for ACDC’s Community Organizing & Civic Engagement program, while MONUM would monitor the progress of this bottom-up community engagement approach. 

“What is the symbol of Chinatown?”

When we asked this same question to a woman from the Residents Workshop with ACDC, she answered, “I don’t really know, but when the people of Chinatown move away, so does the culture and feeling of home.” From that, we realized that the people of Chinatown are the most important part. How could we help the residents stay and have a rewarding time in their neighborhood?
Major Cultural Barriers
Our first effort to conduct design research through conversation and a Cultural Probe was a flop. Issues of personal privacy, language barriers, and most importantly, the concept of the image of self to others, hindered our ability to fully understand our audience. It was impractical for us to try and engage with older residents who were not fluent in English, so instead we focused on bridging the connection between residents and non-residents.
Fictional Storytelling Workshop
To engage with the younger generation in Chinatown, we held a creative workshop with the Asian Voices of Organized Youth for Community Empowerment (A-VOYCE). Students paired up and role-played as imaginary characters in a futuristic city, generating dialogue about their life. Despite the far-fetched setting, significant aspects of the writers’ identities still passed on: one character worried about financial security, and another’s family was “from another planet,” parallel to the immigrant experience in America. 
From this, we learned that storytelling was powerful, not to convey messages, but to learn about people. We wanted to help others learn about the people of Chinatown through their stories. 

Photos in mockups courtesy of:

Reflection and Learnings
We originally started this project with a tech-focused mindset with AR and chatbots. As we progressed, we realized that high tech wasn't the most valuable first step to solving issues of gentrification. While digital overlays and anonymous communication have massive opportunities for innovation, it would not solve displacement in low-income communities that have been exoticized and ostracized throughout history. 

Realistically, it’s about the people, building relationships, and opening up dialogue for everyone to create a shared understanding of community. This is why we proposed 
person-to-person initiatives that would generate a more human experience. 

While it was incredibly difficult for us as both students and "non-residents" to insert ourselves into the Chinatown community, our Storytelling approach could revitalize any community going through gentrification in their neighborhood. 

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