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New Roots Charlottesville Work Shared as a Model for the World

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by Brooke Ray

A Small Program with a Big Impact

As one of the world’s leading humanitarian organizations, the International Rescue Committee has long engaged in policy and advocacy work for displaced people across the globe. And December of 2019 was no exception. The IRC’s leadership delegation, including President David Miliband, attended the first Global Refugee Forum (GRF) held at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to pledge and press for commitments aligned with the Global Compact on Refugees to address a growing population of displaced people worldwide. But one of the IRC’s smallest U.S. offices, the IRC in Charlottesville, also made a big splash when their New Roots program was invited to the GRF to share their work on the New Roots Photovoice project in the forum’s Marketplace of Best Practices.

Presenting their work to some 3000 attendees from around the globe, New Roots Charlottesville’s PhotoVoice project demonstrated a scalable and replicable model for including refugee voice in the process of program design and evaluation while highlighting the benefits of land-based programming. Former Food and Agriculture Program Manager Brooke Ray attended the forum on behalf of the Charlottesville office. Her trip was sponsored by the University of Virginia Humanitarian Collaborative, an initiative of the Batten School of Leadership’s Global Policy Center. The Humanitarian Collaborative also co-sponsored the PhotoVoice Project evaluation with the NoVo Foundation.

New Roots presented with two Australian organizations also specializing in resettlement – Settlement Services International and the Multicultural Youth Advocacy Network. Together they shared best practices around Building Welcoming and Inclusive Societies, which was one of the themes of the forum. The presentation included images and stories from participants who engaged as co-researchers on the project.  

About the PhotoVoice Project

Through the Photovoice Project, New Roots aimed to work in partnership with gardeners and farmers to learn more about how they experience the program and what values they share. This project served as an evaluation tool, engaging participants as co-researchers in the process using the universal language of images—images which they captured themselves.

Photovoice is a participatory action research (PAR) method that involves individuals taking photographic images and participating in group dialogue to deepen their understanding of a community project, issue or concern. Participants become “co-researchers” whose images build the context and set the focal point for discussion. For the New Roots Photovoice Project, the IRC collaborated with eight refugees from three countries. Their research question was “How has New Roots affected my life?” The final collection of photographs, narratives and themes was displayed in a public exhibition and community event of local stakeholders and has been used to guide program design, to build understanding of refugees in Charlottesville, and to provide a more public platform for refugees in Charlottesville.

Photovoice can be used in many environments and with people of all ages and has been used widely in the developing world to shift narrative control. This method avoids stereotypical imagery common in these contexts, increasing refugee voice in the public sphere.  It can be used to highlight how refugees are using their self-reliance skills to make positive contributions or to gather and share the perspectives and opinions of people across languages, educational backgrounds or status. It is a powerful way to create tools and materials for communicating refugee values, skills and needs to local policy makers and to help host communities better understand refugees living there. It also provides a more accessible, participant-centered evaluation approach that honors those from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds.