Boston AIR Spotlight: Heloiza Barbosa and Boston Planning & Development Agency
Through her residency project, Heloiza has been using her experience as an audio-documentarian to capture the stories of Boston residents, and use them to examine City data through a different lens. Read their conversation below to learn more about their work to date.
Can you tell us about what you’ve been working on as part of your residency project?Heloiza:
I’m working on three audio documentary pieces. The project will actually consist of four pieces total, but three will be completed by the end of my residency. The audio pieces are different from a podcast because usually podcasts, especially journalists’ podcasts, come from the journalist’s perspective–you're reporting on or investigating something, and that's not what I do. What I do is go without any agenda whatsoever and see where my curiosity takes me. And for this project, I started with the data that the BPDA’s Research Division provided. For the first two or three months, I sat in several workshops organized by the whole team where they presented all the things that they had. We had wonderful conversations and I recorded all of it (I want to do something with that content too, but not yet!). And when they presented all this data to me, it opened up a door for me to understand the City from inside out. It's a different perspective, and so I was inspired to go out and figure out what stories I can bring to that dialogue using those numbers and those statistics. The BPDA and the Research Division, they have this beautiful, wonderful analysis of the data and numbers, but how do these numbers reflect the single individual that's living in the city? And so that was the thing that put me on the track of looking for stories that I could transform into these audio documentaries. The pieces are going to live on a website where everyone will have access to them. And we’re also working on an event where people will be able to listen collectively to them and reflect on whatever they’d like to reflect upon.
Where did you originally get the idea for Boston Stories? What was your inspiration? How do you envision community members interacting with it?Heloiza:
The inspiration came from the data, and the one thing that struck me was when the Research Division started to explain to me about the last census data from 2020, and how this data portrayed Boston through a different lens. For example, the data showed Boston to be a majority minority city and for me, this was big. I immigrated to Boston in 1994. And having this city say that Boston has become a majority minority city, what does it mean? What does it mean for all of the minority populations in the city? I was really curious about the minority population and the young population. These are the people that are living in the city. And with these two things in my mind, I tried to go and figure out stories.
And so I ended up at two high schools in Boston – John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science, and Boston International Newcomers Academy (BINCA). These two high schools have different populations of young adults. Boston International Newcomers Academy is a population of new immigrants who are just arriving here, and they’re coming full of hope, full of the idea that “I’m going to make it in this country. I’m going to make it in this city.” And they have this energy that is so palpable, it's amazing. I wanted to make stories of these newcomers to the city of Boston. So, at BINCA I decided to work with seniors. I started a four-week-long storytelling workshop with them in January, and what I decided to do was to record them reading their college essays. I gave each of the students one recorder that they could take with them for two weeks and record the sounds of the lives that had to do with their story. And we used those sounds to make these audio pieces. The pieces showed hope–what the hope is for the future, for the next four years. What they need to be part of the city, to be part of the workforce of this city and to be part of the percentage that has increasing salaries, the percentage that can afford to pay rent in a two bedroom apartment, for example, all these things.
At the O’Bryant, I decided to go to the Journalism Club, because you have kids there who are already involved in stories. And when I got there, I asked them to pitch to me what they wanted to do. This young girl came to me and said, “In three weeks I'm going to have my quinceañera party and I'm really stressed. Can I record that?” I said “Yes, please!” So the one piece that we edited together was called, “My Quinceañera”. It’s an audio diary where she recorded her life for three weeks– her home, school, being with her friends, planning for the party, everything. She sent me more than 23 hours of audio and I had to edit this into 30 minutes. And it was such a wonderful experience to do this and to capture that. She was born in Boston, her mother is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. So, having a quinceañera is very important for her community. What we also saw through that dialogue and the data was how much this immigrant cultural experience contributes to the economy of the city of Boston. There are so many things that go on with a quinceañera that it provides jobs and really moves the economy. She also lives in Roxbury and she documented her experience of living there, how the neighborhood has changed, and how she feels about that. And so it's one perspective of, again, dialogues with all the numbers that the Research Division has about the changing of these neighborhoods.
Have you worked with young people before?Heloiza:
It's a new experience. I had never worked with youth, and I have never given a recorder to people and said “Go and record whatever you’d like, and come back”. It's a lot of work, first because you have to build trust and make sure you incorporate them into the editing process, because that’s their lives. It's not my story, and that's why I'm not a journalist. I’m not putting words in their mouths, they are shaping up the stories that they want to present. And this is such empowerment for them because they can hold the stories and their voices, and tell them how they want to. It also takes a long time to produce each of those pieces. It has been amazing, but it's a lot of work.
What have you gained from working in partnership with Alvaro?Heloiza:
Oh my gosh, so much. Alvaro is an amazing person. For months we had weekly meetings for this project and whenever we’d meet he would come with this mind that would provoke me to stretch and to think in different perspectives. Alvaro has something about how he sees the data that's not something fixed. And it's such a beautiful thing. And so he’d say, “OK I have this idea, you figure out how to do it.” It was so wonderful because it was really provoking me to see the city, to see people, to see all these categories. So it has been fantastic.
Alvaro, what have you learned through your partnership with Heloiza and how does it impact your work at the BPDA?Alvaro:
One interesting thing that I didn’t really see until the end of the project is that relationship with the broad data about the population. And then to have a story that's so personal, in general we think that personal stories are unique, but when you listen to the stories they have representation of that structure that labels people as minorities, as Black, white, Latinx. So as a data person you’re always thinking of the population because you think that the individual is just a little story. That to me was an incredible revelation. And it takes a person like Heloiza to bring that out of the story. If I were to do that, I would probably come up with another story, because I was so into the data that I actually wanted to see the data in the person. The other thing that I think is very important and is a frustration of mine as being an immigrant who works with the City and works with data is that we see people–women, immigrants–as if we're all the same. Secondly, we see them as a population, a number in Boston. A number in the labor market. But when you get a story like the quinceañera, it shows you that there is an incredible culture that I don't think this city can capture yet.
What do you imagine the long term impact of your work together will be once the residency is over?Alvaro:
Well, we're going to become friends more and more. I’m going to harass Heloiza to do more projects. And I'm going to push my team to make changes, even if they are slight changes.Heloiza:
For me, I would love to see more artists working with City workers. I think it would be a much healthier way to think about policies and all these things. And another thing that I would love is a space in the city for experiencing audio pieces. Because when you isolate the audio from visual images, it's a different aesthetic experience and a different artistic experience. For example, each neighborhood of Boston has different sounds. So to experience the soundscapes of different neighborhoods–the sounds of people's homes, the sounds of schools, highways, hallways–you have to close your eyes to really immerse yourself in the sounds and not the images. We have very few spaces in the city where we can have this experience with the population, and I would love to see more of that.
To learn more about Heloiza and the other Boston Artists-in-Residence, visit the Boston AIR website.