Alberta Avenue residents gather stories to study health of neighbourhood

Hundreds of personal stories collected in Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue neighbourhood could help the City of Edmonton better measure residents’ well-being.

City of Edmonton-funded Auricle project still accepting story submissions

Local listeners Rochelle Nieuwenhuis, left, and Christina Ignacio-Deines wore clown costumes while collecting stories from their neighbours in Edmonton's Alberta Avenue neighbourhood. (Ivy Staker/InWithForward)

Hundreds of personal stories collected in Edmonton's Alberta Avenue neighbourhood could help the City of Edmonton better measure residents' well-being.

InWithForward, a Vancouver-based social design firm, hired 10 residents of the core neighbourhood to gather short stories from neighbours this summer.

The residents, known as "local listeners," are participating in a research project called Auricle.

Auricle is part of a multi-year city initiative addressing problems in core neighbourhoods by connecting residents of different backgrounds. The city-funded story-gathering project cost $50,000 and local listeners are being paid $1,000 each for their work over the course of 10 weeks.

Ivy Staker, an applied ethnographer for InWithForward, said the project is a new way of listening to what well-being means for people living in the same area.

Neighbourhoods' crime rate or access to grocery stores and parks can be good quantitative indicators, she said, but they do not always reflect residents' feelings and experiences.

"We wanted to have more nuanced data to help us understand what it looks like when people are experiencing well-being," said research and storytelling lead Natalie Napier.

Staker said over the past few months, local listeners found creative ways of connecting with people, including playing music on stoops, chatting with volunteers at local festivals and even dressing up as cats.

Mary McDermott uses the voice memo app on her phone to collect stories from neighbours for a city-funded research project called Auricle. (Madeleine Cummings/CBC)

Mary McDermott, a local listener who has lived near 118th Avenue for about six years, stationed herself by a concrete wall near her home.

The spot is a popular resting place for people experiencing addiction, said McDermott, who has a background in social work.

More than a dozen people shared stories with her about trauma and resilience, she said, with drug use and the opioid epidemic emerging as a common theme.

McDermott said she was honoured to hear her neighbours' stories and they appreciated the opportunity to be heard.

"They were quite happy that somebody actually wanted to know about them and their well-being," she said.

Local listeners have gathered stories from nearly 150 people. Alberta Avenue residents who have not already connected with listeners may submit stories online or over Zoom.

Community sessions discussing the stories and data use are scheduled to start next month.

"This is really also about a different way of engaging people, that is less polarizing, and engaging people in more humble and authentic ways," said Sue Holdsworth, a project manager with the City of Edmonton.

"The project is significant and I hope that it changes the way people do research," said McDermott.

She said Auricle aligns with her own Indigenous beliefs about how research should be conducted and shared. Historically, she added, research has been done on Indigenous communities, not with them.

McDermott said she plans to return to the concrete wall near her home to invite her neighbours to participate in discussions about the data.

"I hope they understand how important their story was, that their voice did matter in this project and it did make a difference," she said.