Raising awareness about migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, and people with physical disabilities is just a small part of what the “Story in My Eyes” team does. The project was created within the framework of an international competition Peer-to-Peer: Fighting Extremism, a Global Digital Challenge, which was initially sponsored by the US State Department along with Facebook. This fall, the “Story in My Eyes” team hosted a wheelchair basketball game where the LCC Moose basketball team played with people with physical disabilities. This event raised awareness, and the team won an Honorable Mention from an international panel of judges for their efforts. Katya Hlova, senior International Relations and Development (IRD) major, Eduard Andreev, junior IRD major, and Dr. Eglė Verseckaitė-Grzeskowiak, an Assistant Professor from the IRD Department at LCC, described the project, its success, and future plans.
Professor Verseckaitė-Grzeskowiak, could you share how the idea for the “Story in My Eyes” project came about?
The “Story in My Eyes” project is part of a larger global student participation project, Peer-to-Peer: Fighting Extremism, a Facebook Global Digital Challenge, which was initially sponsored by the US State Department and Facebook. The main idea is to counteract extremism through peer to peer communication and engagement. Usually, the campaign is integrated as a part of a class in a university with a professor who supervises the project to ensure some quality control and accountability. EdVenture partners, the company that manages the global competition, choose the universities who get to participate, and in smaller, less terrorism-affected countries like Lithuania usually, only one university gets to participate. I learned about this project through my academic contacts and in 2016 I participated with students from another university. When I came to work at LCC in the 2017 spring semester, I saw that the project was a good fit for the ethos of the university and especially for our IRD students. Therefore, I decided to incorporate it into the Research Methods class. The students had to come up with their own expression of a peer-to-peer campaign against prejudice, and this is where the Story in My Eyes began.
What was the first project?
We had a great group of IRD students, with leaders such as Atika Barjamaj, whose argument was that the best way to counter extremism, hate speech, and prejudice is through encouraging empathy. For the project, the students conducted a social experiment in which about 20% of LCC students participated. The idea was to seat two people face-to-face, to let them have eye contact without speaking for a couple of minutes, and later everyone shared their experiences, acknowledging the increase of awareness and appreciation of another person. The event was so successful that LCC President Marlene Wall designated March 20th as the Story in My Eyes day. In 2017, LCC participated in the competition for the first time, with over 100 other universities. Our team received 194 out of 200 total points, so it was an amazing result. Every semester the eligibility of various universities differed depending on the preferences of the sponsors. Whenever LCC has been eligible, the global project managers have acknowledged the high quality of our contribution. We choose a different target group every time; in the previous years, we focused on migrants, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, and this year it was people with physical disabilities.
Katya, you have been a part of the “Story in My Eyes” team for a number of years now. When did you decide to join this team?
When I was a freshman, I was interested in the project because the topic and format were appealing to me. Even though we always had things going on campus, it was quite refreshing to have an initiative from the IRD Department. I started helping junior students who were doing the project as part of their class, and later, when I was in the class myself, I was already on the team.
What do you see to be the purpose of this project?
Eduard: Even though I got involved with the Story in My Eyes team only last semester for my class, I can see how much impact it has created on campus already. I agree with the official purpose of the project, to raise awareness about intolerance, and fight radicalism in using Facebook as a social media platform.
Katya: First of all, it is a great chance to get to work for something that has further reach than just LCC or Klaipėda. Many of our students are not locals, and “Story in My Eyes” helps us build our networks and feel empowered knowing that our work and research has influence on others. By participating in this, we feel like it is a home away from home since we get a chance to find new people and opportunities for ourselves, while still working for a bigger cause.
How does Story in My Eyes influence others and challenge their perception of the world?
Katya: Even though we are a small group of people involved in this project, the big impact on the community is definitely there. By simply talking about it with peers, and self-educating on various topics, this is already a step forward to spread awareness about tolerating other people, accepting refugees and other issues. During one of the years of our research, the theme was migration, considering perspectives from both sides. Both points of view were relevant here to LCC people. It might be hard to measure the results of such influence, but the fact that people are talking about the issues we have discovered is already extremely valuable.
Eduard: Last semester, we had a basketball event, where the wheelchair team from Vilnius came to Klaipeda and played against our LCC Moose Basketball players fitted with wheelchairs for the competition. Despite the fact that you can hardly empirically measure the impact of the project, the results of our study showed an improvement in people's perceptions of people with physical disabilities. The whole event and discussion afterward raised awareness of the issue, which was reflected in the feedback of the Moose basketball team, as they showed interest in doing more of such events. Receiving Honorable Mention for the achievements with this campaign shows that the “Story in My Eyes” team is on the right path with research and projects.
Professor Verseckaitė-Grzeskowiak, as Eduard mentioned, the team received an Honorable Mention from the international panel of judges of the Facebook Global Digital Challenge for their work. Could you share more about this?
We have participated in the Peer-to-Peer: Challenging Extremism several times upon invitation of the organizers. This school year was a bit different, in that the sponsors invited the best campaigns from the last four years to expand their work. Thus, LCC was on the list of top 28 universities out of hundreds all around the world who have participated in this competition throughout the years. For the Fall 2019 semester, IRD students from the “Story in My Eyes” team chose to focus on the attitudes towards people with disabilities. After they conducted the interviews prior to approval of the project topic, they realized this topic would be best to research since people with physical disabilities are a relatively ignored vulnerable social group. The wheelchair basketball event was quite successful, and we received a lot of positive feedback. In total, there were three main winners who traveled to Brussels, Belgium, to present their work, from an educational game on how to escape fake news to campaigns fighting violence against women. In addition, there were three teams who won an Honorable Mention. We were one of those teams that received an Honorable Mention and we are extremely proud of that. This award and the very acknowledgment of the students and their work is important, and I am proud of this team.
How do you plan to continue the legacy of this project?
Eduard: I think part of it is encouraging LCC students to participate in the “Story in My Eyes” when they take the IRD Research Methods class. Also, as part of the Honorable Mention award, we won $500 for Facebook ads, so we will keep posting and raising awareness of people with physical disabilities through our Facebook page. The “Story in My Eyes” projects fit well with the LCC community and the values that we have here.
Katya: As I am planning to continue my education and get a Master’s degree abroad, I would still like to volunteer and help the team with their research. Even though I will be away physically, I can still gather research and data for any of the projects our professor and the team will be working on. By being in a different context, I feel I have a unique chance to look at things from a different perspective and gather data to add to the research. I would advise other IRD students to choose this project for their Research Methods class. Professor Verseckaitė-Grzeskowiak supported, encouraged, and helped us with the project. We learned a lot from our professor, and it gave us extra motivation to keep working. In the end, our project turned out to be a success.