The Dig Your Neighbourhood Project

Nancy Holmes won the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Teaching Award with the project below.

The Dig Your Neighbourhood (DYN) Project is an innovative community-based writing project for upper-level undergraduate Creative Writing students. What I and my students are doing in Kelowna in Dig Your Neighbourhood is usurping a very old and strange outfit, The Welcome Wagon, and using it as a delivery service to provide new homeowners (a subset of the Okanagan’s large migrant population) with a package of locally produced and locally relevant literature.

For the past three years, I have worked with UBC Creative Writing students, and some Visual Arts BFA collaborators, to create a series of literary productions that provide a unique vision of specific Kelowna neighbourhoods.

In term one, in CRWR 473 (Writing and Community Learning), the students research a neighbourhood, engage in community consultation, and then create texts for various unique literary items related to that neighbourhood. These texts are then moved into CRWR 472 in term 2 (Editing and Publishing) where the students (often not the same set of students) edit and produce the works, learning developmental and copy editing skills, as well as skills in InDesign and graphic design. The final works are published under the DYN imprint of Lake Publishing Society, a local non-profit. Then these items are delivered as gifts to newcomers by the Welcome Wagon.

Nancy Holmes and Dig Your NeighbourhoodThe packages have included children’s books, calendars, flash fiction cards, meditation cards, maps, board games, books of poetry, graphic novels, music CDs, and all kinds of fiction and one-of-a-kind guidebooks that are completely neighbourhood-specific (you can see the list of projects on our website).

In 2013 the pilot project started with the North End, a compact inner city area of town; in 2014 DYN launched a package for Rutland, a sprawling suburban neighbourhood with a poor reputation, and for 2015 we are taking up the Lower Mission, a prosperous urban/ rural mix. Ultimately, the goal of DYN in the community is to reconnect people to their place of residence, and to generate discussion around cultural, historical, and ecological issues. The goal of DYN for students is to engage emerging artists in a real-world endeavour, to give them a taste of socially relevant community-based art, and to give them marketable editing and design experience.

Pedagogical reasons include studio art practice skill development— the project gives students excellent experience in applied and commissioning practices, which they can use in the future as artists, and published works they can put on their CV. I essentially commission them to write and design a new work that will be published by a local publisher if it meets high standards. The students develop professional habits of community consultation, research ethics for interviewing, learn the joys of archival and applied research, and then produce the work. The students also manage events for promotion and launches.

The project has practical applications for artists who have to go out in the world to work– students understand this practical content and find it meaningful. I give them three restrictions: the work has to be about or gesture towards the selected neighbourhood, they have to keep production costs in mind, and they have to think about their very real audience: families and people who may have value systems quite different from their own and who may not now and who may never have any interest in literary fiction or poetry. Inevitably, they rise to the challenge and create fun, subversive, generous, interesting work.

I have other reasons, too, for this project: environmental, artistic, cultural and social concerns. I am particularly interested in local cultural development. Cultural activity has become commodified and globalized to such an extent that many of our students rewrite bestselling novels and TV shows and Hollywood productions. While some of their global influences are amazing and interesting, for the most part, there is little sense in students of nancyholmeslocally generated cultural products— particularly literature. We have given away most of our communication-making to mass media, to PR firms, to Hollywood, to Toronto, to corporate media empires, to people not from our bioregion or our town.

Thus my goal in DYN is to help disrupt in a small way the feedback loops dominating our culture, adding something new and local by giving newcomers something they’ve never seen before, something created specifically about and for their new place, a cultural product. Particularly, though, DYN introduces emerging student artists to the concept of a local culture they are empowered to create. They end up creating dazzling work that is for an audience they’ve never really considered — the people in their town — and to create stories out of material that they’ve never thought worthy or never seen. And they create terrific material which they are proud of. And that I am proud of, as well.

Nancy Holmes has taught English and Creative Writing in the post-secondary system in British Columbia since 1992. She taught at Okanagan University College from 1992 – 2005, and then joined the newly formed Department of Creative Studies at The University of British Columbia. Since 2005, she has taught primarily Creative Writing and has helped develop both the undergraduate BA in Creative Writing and the MFA in Creative Writing at this institution. Holmes has published five collections of poetry, most recently, The Flicker Tree: Okanagan Poemsshort listed for the 2013 League of Canadian Poets Raymond Souster. She is also the editor of Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009). Place, community, and artistic collaboration are her current interests. Over the past few years, she has become increasingly active in eco-themed community-based art projects with her students and other artists. These projects include the Woodhaven Eco Art Project and currently, with her colleague Denise Kenney in Interdisciplinary Performance, several initiatives of the Eco Art Incubator. Until July 1 2015, Holmes is the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at UBC. She is looking forward to finishing her sixth book of poetry and working on a new project: the Public Art Pollinator Pasture.