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If you are one of our 235 Instagram followers (or, more realistically, one of the 8 people who regularly likes our posts), you’ll know how much we center direct quotes in how we talk about what we do. I’ll admit, this is largely my doing. I am the DIA’s self-proclaimed quote stickler. Quotes or it didn’t happen is my ‘pics or it didn’t happen’. 

As a researcher, the practice of talking about our work in a way that centers the voices of those we are learning from is self-explanatory to me. Thankfully, at the DIA, I work with people for whom this is also self-explanatory. However, as we engage in the work of documenting our ways of working and examining why we do what we do, it feels important to unpack this practice that underpins all of our research. 

So, why direct quotes?

Respect for the process of storytelling

It takes SO MUCH to be able to tell one’s story, especially in a second, third, or fourth language. Recalling and then putting words to joyful, traumatic, frustrating, inspiring, and/or mundane experiences requires energy, time, and labour. Especially in a second, third or fourth language. So why would we then make our storytellers or our interviewees go through that labour and then paraphrase or summarize their experiences in our own words?

The ‘how’ also tells a story

How someone tells a story – the words they use, the order they follow, the way they organize their sentences, the metaphors they use – carries just as much, if not more information than what they share. The unique ways in which each person strings words together can convey a wealth of emotion, culture, and identity. While I can see the value of summarizing key themes for the sake of expediency, so much of the complexity of the human experience is missed when we don’t also create a space for stories and experiences to be showcased in the raw, unedited way that direct quotes afford.

For example, I could tell you that ‘newcomer women identified the importance of setting boundaries and prioritizing themselves’, and/or I could share Na’s words with you directly:

“I think I need to learn to say no to people and protect my feelings. I can’t always think of other people’s feelings, and thinking that if I talk in this way it might hurt other people. My needs are important. I should listen to my voice and myself. It’s very challenging to do this. I’m always thinking of my kids and my family. I always give and I like to sacrifice for them. It’s hard to say no, but I need to put myself first. Otherwise, I get hurt inside.”

The first describes a theme, and the second immerses you in her experience. It bridges the distance between you and her almost immediately, even if you don’t share that experience.  

Showing your work

Where we do have to draw conclusions or summarize themes from the stories or other data we collect, I think showing our quotes alongside this analysis is part of a rigorous research practice. Showing our quotes allows the readers to trace the lineage of a theme or a narrative, see if the dots add up, or perhaps add them up differently. Where the dots do add up for the reader, the quotes add weight and credibility to our analysis. Where they don’t, they offer the reader enough raw data upon which to come up with their own analysis. 

Once a story is out in the world, it is inevitably up for interpretation and judgement. And if that’s the case, isn’t it better that people are interpreting and judging the words and the stories as they were shared by the storyteller, rather than interpreting and judging my interpretation of them? Research, as much as we try to mitigate it, is inherently biased. For me, showing our quotes is a way of protecting against the transmission of that bias. 

Transcribing and sharing quotes as a decolonial practice

(Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that ‘decolonizing’ [insert any practice/construct here]’ is the newest trend these days. Personally, I am in the process of trying to understand the theories around decolonization while embodying it, practicing it, and letting my body re-member what it always knew. I may not get this right, whatever ‘right’ may be for you today, but know that I am in process and open to new learning)

As I see it, when we summarize and edit and paraphrase stories – ours and others’ – we do so with our colonized mind. We are inherently trying to make the stories more palatable to the powers that be in whatever situation we’re in. In the settlement sector, one of these powers tends to be our funders. We pay more attention to what they might make of what was shared, than what was actually shared. We ‘simplify’, ‘summarize’, ‘massage’, and ultimately shrink the multi-dimensional and dynamic experiences of being a newcomer (and being people who support newcomers) in order fit into the uni-dimensional metric that says nothing but will ultimately determine everything. 

In this sense, transcribing stories as they are told and sharing direct quotes from the people we work with, for me, is an act of resistance. And in the process of transcription, in the process of comparing what someone actually said with what I remember them saying, I’m starting to become more familiar with the ways in which my colonized mind does exactly what it was programmed to do. It’s a long game, I’m aware, but keep your enemies close, amiright?

The power of a story reflected back

Last but not least, as someone that has had the privilege of listening to, transcribing, and sharing back many stories over the years, I can tell you that the experience of seeing our words reflected back to us, as we said them, is powerful. When I share their story transcripts or direct quotes back with the people I / we have worked with, the initial reaction is often some version of shock. This is followed by a peeling back of the layers, which reveals a series of realizations: Somebody listened to me. They actually listened to me. And then wrote down what I said word-for-word. Somebody thought my words, my story, my experiences were valuable enough to record. Somebody thought that what I said was enough, worthy, and dare I say inspiring, exactly as I had said it. 

Something about having someone else reflect back the worthiness of our stories as they are, having someone else reflect back our inherent worthiness as we are, appears to quench a primal thirst in us. One of my biggest sources of joy is watching our storytellers become so engrossed in their own story when we share their final storybook with them and they read their story for the first time. So if I can offer someone that, why would I offer them anything else?

There you have it, the inner recesses of a quote stickler’s brain, explained.

Mathura Mahendren

Mathura Mahendren

Mathura is a design researcher by nurture, and a storyteller by nature. She holds a Bachelor of Health Sciences from McMaster University, and Masters of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from the OCAD University.

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