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Community, Politics and Resistance in DTES: a participatory research and arts project



Vancouver’s (Canada) Downtown East Side (DTES) is consistently described in the mainstream media as a problem community and ‘Canada's poorest postal code.’  Yet DTES also has a long and deeply embedded history of community organisation, activism and resistance.  Utilising participatory arts and participatory action research methods the research aimed to recover and document the meaning of community, what community looks and feels like to residents of the downtown eastside Vancouver.  

Aims of the Research

This research aimed to conduct a critical recovery of the DTES through the images and  biographies of DTES residents. Using participatory arts and participatory action research methods  the research was undertaken in partnership and collaboration with five DTES  community organisations.

The research facilitated the space and opportunity for the residents of DTES to participate in the research as community-co-researchers. 

Using arts based participatory research the project  documents ‘community’ what community means, looks and feels like through the eyes, photographs, digital stories and lived experiences of DTES residents.


The Research Partners

AHA Media

Enterprising Women Making Art (Atira)


Providing Alternatives Counselling & Education (PACE) Society

United We Can

Participatory Arts research methods: mapping, walking & video

Community researchers in each organisation took part in the participatory research by first of all drawing a map from a place they call home to a special place, putting landmarks along the way that are important and familiar to them; then they walked their map with Maggie and/ or other residents, took photographs and conversed. The conversations were captured on a flip video or a sound recorder. Some chose to walk their map alone, take photographs and discuss them with  Maggie afterwards. AHA Media worked with Megaphone to document one of the walks and were later commissioned to document the  symposium and exhibition.

18 walks in total were undertaken and 24 images were exhibited between 14th and 21st June at the Interurban art gallery in DTES.


Walking as a community arts research method is a powerful route to understanding the lives and experiences of others.  Walking is not just what we do to get from a to b but integral to our perception of an environment. Taking a walk with someone is a powerful way of communicating about experiences (Tom Scheff calls this ‘attunement’) connecting in a lived embodied way with the feelings of another.  Walking with another opens up a space for dialogue where embodied knowledge, experience and memories can be shared


The research data is made up of:

•         the images and narratives from the walks;

•         some writing from participants;

•         some recorded conversations;

•         and some interviews with managers from the four organisations. 


Research Outcomes

A research report co-written with the community researchers.

An exhibition of photographs by the residents who took part in the research.

A magazine article written for the Megaphone.

O’Neil, M. . Numminen, J. Painchaud, L. Snider, G. Smith, A. Wall, K and Cynthia  (2011) Community, Politics and Resistance in DTES summary report of participatory action research conducted in DTES, in the Megaphone street newspaper, Vancouver.


Book Chapters.

O’Neill, M. and Stenning, P. (2014) Walking biographies and innovations in visual and participatory methods: Community, Politics and Resistance in Downtown East Side Vancouver in The Medialization of Auto/Biographies:Different Forms and their Communicative Contexts co-edited by Heinz,C. and Hornung, G.  Hamburg:UVK

O'Neill (2012) 'Crime, Poverty and Resistance' Chapter 8 in Transgressive Imaginations: crime, deviance and culture  (2012) co-authored, O’Neill, M & Seal, L. Palgrave Macmillan Press.


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