Comic Jams, Intersectoral Research and Responses to the Impacts of Resource Extraction

By May Farrales
What can drawing and doodling together do? 

For a team of researchers, practitioners and community organizations who are working together in the Environmental, Community and Heath Observatory Network (ECHO), drawing together proved to be a challenging yet worthwhile effort.

In spring of 2019, members of the ECHO Network took part in a series of comic jam sessions. Inspired by how health and humanities scholars, artists, and practitioners are engaging in collaborative comic-making (see for example Graphic Medicine), the Network organized a series of sessions for its members to take part in. The ECHO Network seeks to explore whether public health observatory approaches can enable coordination between sectors to address the cumulative health impacts of resource development. Given the challenges that come with working across a broad and large network of members who come from geographically-, disciplinary-, and socially- diverse people and places, the Health Arts Research Centre’s (HARC) role in the project is to work with the Network to reflect on how and what they are learning as a team. Since its launch in 2017 at the University of Northern British Columbia on the unceded and traditional territories of the Lheidli T’enneh, the ECHO Network has been using arts-based and narrative approaches to scribe the team’s learnings. Last year, the Network initiated a photovoice activity and exhibition that highlighted how individual participants understand their particular roles and relationships in resource extractive landscapes (learn more about the photovoice activity here).

Building on their individual photovoice reflections, the comic jam sessions asked members of the Network to think, work, and create collectively and collaboratively. The overall objective of the activity was to allow for a creative way of dialoguing and documenting challenges emerging from participants’ engagement with the ECHO Network after two years since its launch. We conducted a series of on-line sessions virtually connecting pairs of Network members from different parts of the country. At the Network’s third annual meeting, held at the University of Moncton on the traditional unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People, a set of face-to-face comic jams sessions was organized. At the meeting, groups of 6 members were asked to work together to create a comic strip.

For both the online version and the session held at the annual meeting, members were asked to collaboratively create a comic and narrative arc around the prompt “It’s sometimes challenging to work together across environment, community, and health, I wish…”. From this prompt, each participant took turns to individually draw in a comic frame to build a story. Encouraged to draw and visually represent their thoughts and feelings in silence, participants moved through the activity intentionally trying to communicate their ideas while interpreting and responding to their colleagues’ drawings. After each person had a chance to draw a few frames, they were asked to provide text to describe or give dialogue for drawings their colleagues made.

The activity proved to be challenging, fun, and insightful.

The comics themselves highlighted the complexities involved in working together to address the cumulative impacts of resource extractive projects that cross health, community and environmental concerns and sectors. They pointed to how categories, people, and places are often separated when dealing with cumulative impacts limiting how, for example, health in the comic frame below, is lived and realized in relation to multiple spheres.

The process of creating comics together also highlighted the challenges of working across differences and sectors in meaningful ways. After each session, participants were asked to write down or comment on what they learned from the activity. Many people responded by commenting on the difficulties associated with communicating with and understanding one another. One person noted that “non-verbal communication could be fun but can result in very mixed communication – unshared symbols lead to confusion”. Another person wrote, “We all had our own story. It was hard to tell a connected story one-to-the-next”.

Such reflections on the process of collaborating on building a story together in a comic jam mirrors real-life and everyday challenges of working together from diverse positionalities to address the complex problems of cumulative impacts. While fun, the comic jam sessions also importantly highlighted some of the bigger and underlying tensions involved in trying to cross boundaries and communicate in ways that can effectively respond to the effects of resource extractive projects in our different communities.

Thank you to all the participants who collectively generated insights on how we might better work together!

For more information on the ECHO network, please visit the ECHO Network website. For more information on HARC, please visit the HARC Network website.