Amplifying University-Community Voices: Writing by/as Design: DU Student Partnership with Digital Agency Elevation Web

By Libby Catchings, Assistant Teaching Professor, University Writing Program

The Clinic for Writing and the Public Good amplifies the voices of writing-centric organizations to benefit nonprofits, social movement leaders, and academics in ways that are accessible and inclusive. Driven by student writing and research, the clinic conducts that work by showcasing community partners’ best (writing) practices through a series of digital exhibits.

This Spring, Honors students from “Writing and the Public Good” worked with staff and clients of Elevation Web, a global nonprofit digital media group that helps nonprofits better leverage digital technologies toward social change. Students would learn from Elevation, and, in turn, produce digital content for Elevation’s Thought Leadership page by developing original blogs on UX design.

To prepare for that partnership, students surveyed social innovation research, qualitative research methods, and theories of the public sphere, creating a framework in which they might productively interrogate their own relationship to digital platforms and their desire to write for the public good.     

Zooming across continents and time zones, students designed and conducted interviews with Emily Friedrichs (Communications and Partnerships Manager) and Brittany Frater (Content Strategy, Marketing) to learn about the competencies, concepts, and processes that create rhetorically effective Content Strategy and User Experience (UX) design. To understand how those skills, concepts, and processes help organizations connect to their own constituencies, students also interviewed Elevation client Kelly Hollimon, Executive Director for Our Path. In turn, Friedrichs structured activities in which students would evaluate the UX design of the digital platforms students use in daily life – thinking they used to evaluate the user experience of the Clinic website itself. In the words of student Mubeen Matin,

“Interactivity with the content allows for deeper understanding and allows these issues to be addressed to various publics. A lot of the information nonprofits will provide will be sequential. This is where the importance of content design, user-experience design, and website building come into play. The technical aspect of writing and actually arranging material for different [Clinic] audiences was what the work with my group allowed me to experience.”

Students worked in groups to transcribe, code, and distill interview content for nonprofit audiences, culminating in the multimodal exhibit, “Writing as Content Strategy and UX Design.” The exhibit outlines not only the contours of UX practice for nonprofits, but also the critical roles that empathy and storytelling play in shaping an organization’s digital presence.

While this process exposed the challenges of the granular, preparatory work that goes into a digital exhibit, students nevertheless recognized the extent to which their own work mirrored the invisible, collaborative labor that moves nonprofits toward their organizational goals. In the words of student Madison Sinar,

“So often in school we only learn about the intellectual and theoretical side of topics, but we do not get the chance to see it applied in the real world. The menial and unglamorous side of Elevation Web’s work was revealed in the interview, but also the necessity of those tasks. We were able to see how Emily and Brittany balanced their own philosophies and passions with the realities of their job. I think this is a very important lesson to learn. We are driven by our passions and held accountable by our values, but these can be very intangible things in the light of messy and frustrating work.”

This project was made possible through support from Clinic founder Dan Singer and CCESL’s Community Engagement Training. To learn more about the Clinic, contact Libby Catchings at Elizabeth.catchings@du.edu. To learn more about Elevation’s work, email (efriedrichs@elevationweb.org).

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