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Social Pedagogy in Action #1: Where Art, Disability, and Queerness Intersect

An Interview with Bri Noonan


A note from SPA: Welcome to the first in a series of blog posts about Social Pedagogy in Action. With so many people in the United States that are new to the history, concepts, theories, and practice of social pedagogy, we wanted to begin to tell the stories that demonstrate the how, what, and why of social pedagogy. Although we may not be calling it "social pedagogy" (yet!), it is indeed in practice in a variety of ways in the United States. By sharing these stories, we hope to engage with anyone interested in a new approach to and professional support for their educational/social work/activism work.


My name is Bri Noonan and I am a queer, chronically-ill artist. I live with my partner and our adorable, big dog—who is most likely an Irish Wolfhound mix and whose favorite thing is bubbles—in Phoenix, Arizona. I love reading all kinds of books (from sci-fi and queer romance novels to queer crip theory). I enjoy watching cartoons, trying to keep houseplants alive, and spending time with loved ones. I recently graduated with a masters’ degree in Social and Cultural Pedagogy from ASU. My BFA was in photography and as a person with an arts degree who is also chronically ill, I was initially very afraid to go back to school.


What led you to the MA in SCP program at ASU?

I am someone who participates in queer, chronically ill art making communities and in these spaces I occupy, critical conversations around higher education happen. I knew I wanted to go back to school and I wanted a different set of skills than art programs typically offer. When I first got out of my BFA program, it was hard to untangle my own voice from how I was taught to make art through my program. I knew that wasn’t the space I wanted to reengage in. I wanted a program that would allow flexibility to research and learn in non-traditional ways, including incorporating artistic practices. A program that had a critical lens and was more community based. I was already doing work, moving through the world in community with reflexivity, and I wanted to find a space that could offer me more tools to continue and expand on that work—including language to talk about it and spaces where the work could live. I wanted something that allowed research to take the communities into account (including my own communities)—something where the conversation built doesn’t take a top-down approach to research and knowledge. I wanted to bridge this gap even if only for a moment in time and the MA in Social and Cultural Pedagogy at Arizona State University seemed to be the program that could allow me to do my research in a meaningful way.


How did you choose your area of study for your MA thesis/applied project?

When I started my program I was already interested in researching the intersection of queerness, chronic illness, and art-making. Through talking to people and existing on social media, I could see links existed—people were already connecting these things and using art as a tool for exploring identity and creating a sense of belonging. I was doing it too! I had been using art for these things since I was 12. When I delved into the research, there was a lot to be found on disability and queerness, there was a lot on queerness and art-making— especially around youth, but there didn’t seem to be an extensive amount around the intersection of all three. I wanted to understand how queer, chronically ill creatives viewed art-making. What was it doing for others? Was it therapeutic, artivism? Both? Neither? Was it functioning for them in similar ways as it had for me?


Tell me about your goals for the book.

I wrote a traditional, long Masters thesis that isn’t accessible for most of my communities. I wanted my communities, especially my research participants, to be able to engage with the results and be highlighted through the work. While my book is not accessible in every way, I wanted it to be a move toward creating things that are digestible and usable by communities outside of academia. I say this as someone who felt a deep imposter syndrome—I didn’t think I’d make it through my program when I started because the material can be so inaccessible. I didn’t want what I made to be inaccessible too. Making work that is accessible allows for transparency and space for more people to engage with the work. Hence the book, but I also wanted accessibility baked into the whole process. I wanted to create a methodology of care that honored the communities and individuals I wanted to work with and recognized the way they had been historically mistreated by institutions like higher education.


How do you see your work as Social Pedagogy in Action?

In my own words, I would define social and cultural pedagogy as working within community, creating things led by community for that community. It’s not assuming what the needs of a community are or that as researchers we have the solutions. It’s engaging in a meaning-making relationship that honors those we engage in research with—what they want, what they need, their feedback (even if it is critical) matters and shapes the work. Social and cultural pedagogy works to not perpetuate common forms of harm institutions have perpetuated—social and cultural pedagogy asks for trust, but has actions and ways built in (and spaces to build in new ways as they arise) for earning that trust. It believes we are learning together and valuing the knowledge that comes from people’s stories, the knowledge I am asking them to share rather than asking for their story and assigning knowledge to it. When they speak we listen deeply.


The other, equally important piece is embracing new ways of sharing this information in accessible ways and not being bogged down by traditional higher education expectations—asking ourselves where these expectations came from, who they were built to serve, and what continues to be useful as we move forward.


In terms of the book, I built a methodology of care and tried to disperse information in accessible ways and create room for feedback at every step. I built in tiers of time engagement for participants to allow more folks to participate— you could simply send art and do a survey, you could do an individual interview, you could do a group interview, you could opt in or out of various pieces and still be included and highlighted in the book. For me, one of the most successful moments where I thought I was creating that trust, was when someone did come to me with a critique. When they voiced their critique about my survey language, I thanked them, told them I agreed, and that I also was having trouble answering a specific question. They told me they were grateful for my response and that I didn’t get defensive when receiving critique. I included a discussion in my paper about how, in the future, if I were to continue this research I would need to make adjustments to reflect this critique as the systems of research made it so changing it at the point at which I received the critique wasn’t feasible. My participant and I spoke at length about this and I was open about this inability to change being a failure. The ability to communicate across this space felt so valuable because I always want people to feel comfortable when engaging in these spaces.


Bio

Bri Noonan is located in Phoenix, AZ and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Art in Photography in May 2013 and a Master of Art in Social and Cultural Pedagogy in May 2021 from ASU. Their artwork is primarily based within their relationship ties and their own personal self reflection. Some topics include depression, anxiety, chronic illness, queerness, the connection between the body-mind and acknowledging these identities/experiences don’t exist in a binary. Bri experiences chronic illness that ebbs and flows between the invisible and visible from day to day. Bri has been diagnosed with stage III endometriosis, fibromyalgia, and hypocholesterolemia. Bri was one of the four co-founders of Femme Fotale, a photographic book/zine to empower women, femme identifying and GNC individuals and push them to the forefront of the photographic world.

Link to the webpage with the book: http://www.briananoonan.com/queer

Instagram: @briananoonan

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