In 2016, professors Tracey Meares and Vesla Weaver of Yale University had an "...idea to use the Portals to initiate conversations about policing and incarceration in communities like Freddie Gray’s, Michael Brown’s, and Eric Garner’s, all felled by police violence." As professors, their language best explains the project and its goals. We quote from them at length below.
Research benefits of Portals
"Our motivation for this was two-fold: first, current research on policed populations was totally inadequate to help us understand how the Michael Browns of America – whose neighborhood was a deep reservoir of adversarial citizen/state relations where discipline and extraction was built into the architecture of community life—come to experience the police and state authority more broadly.
And second, we wanted to disrupt the traditional method for understanding American citizens – through survey questions that ask people whether they strongly agree, somewhat agree, and so on with this or that policy or practice – by actually listening to what people in communities say in their own words, in interaction with others distant physically but from similar neighborhoods.
The traditional survey approaches, we argued, came at a cost. They constrain subversive forms of expression by avoiding the articulation of ideas that the researcher does not ask. Moreover, survey research can sacrifice dynamic interactions for replicability and generalization.
Portals are, to my knowledge, the first largescale public arts initiative to connect residents of highly policed communities to one another and to allow them to speak, unscripted, about their experiences.
Shared_Studios has enabled a fuller understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, experiences, and resistance of the urban poor by placing Portals in several neighborhoods around the country that are sites of concentrated policing, including Milwaukee’s 53206 zipcode, which endures the highest rate of incarceration in the nation.
Hundreds of conversations have occurred between community residents in Newark, Chicago, and Milwaukee and many hundred more will occur over the next few months in many more locations (and eventually connecting to neighborhoods without high police contact). We are using the recorded conversations to explore how police are experienced by community members and to identify patterns across different ecological contexts.
The Portals are unlike anything we have seen to date in the research community and beyond. It is MOBILE (we can place the portals where we want). It is INTERACTIVE (people are having face to face conversations). It is DEEP where surveys often are shallow. It transcends SPACE (we can have conversations with people in very different places. Upon entering the container, a participant is connected by life-size video and audio with another participant in an identical gold shipping container in a different city. These individuals are complete strangers, are able to dialogue and connect in real time despite their geographical distances.
Community Benefits of the Portal
The PORTAL is staffed by a member of the community – a curator - who does outreach, holds events, and describes the study. Two things are important here: 1) the curators have longstanding connections and trust in the communities; 2) they do many things with the Portals on the days and times that conversations aren’t being recorded for our study. Specifically, Portals are used to show movies to kids, as a space for art and performance, as a gathering spot for kids on hot summer days, and to hold chess tournaments, etc.
We are academics and thus our primary aim has been to advance research and substantive concepts, which the Portals accomplish in spades. But the Portals project is also an intervention that is geared towards advancing justice, empowerment, and creative ways to dismantle incarceration from the ground up.
The Portals project does not tokenize these communities but makes them the center of a national conversation on the deleterious effects of incarceration and policing. In the aftermath of Trayvon Martin and Ferguson, one would regularly find news commentators, academics, and pundits saying things like “people in places like Michael Brown’s think …” They did this without actually ever speaking to the people from these communities or “walking a day in our shoes”; similarly, the reformers at the policymaking table regularly disappear the very individuals, families, and communities whose neighborhoods are ground zero of our nation’s failed policy experiment of mass incarceration.
Portals gives the microphone to places like the Amani neighborhood in Milwaukee, a place where only one-third of men have not been confined in a cell. It acts as a bridge to other communities. It empowers residents through encouraging cross-community dialogues. It takes a difficult topic of policing, so often the source of trauma, stigma, joblessness, and community destabilization, and turns it into a space for ideas, activism, shared meaning, and resistance.
The positive/transformative potential of Portals has been on full display in the neighborhoods that have a Portal. Residents have a space to share ideas across communities, they come to see their experience as linked to strangers in neighborhoods many miles away, and they come to feel they are heard and have ownership over this issues that dog their lives. The curators have living wage jobs and many say the experience has been transformative to their lives and communities. And through making our nation’s conversation about criminal justice more democratic, more inclusive, and more informed by the people directly affected, it has the potential to affect wider political discourse.
Through our work with Yale University, we have refined our ability to implement research studies across global Portal sites. We can alter Portal locations and conversation or activity prompts, and we can deploy pre and post-encounter surveys. In addition, we can handle staffing, research administration and daily transcription. The research institution must acquire all relevant review board approvals.