Assistant Professor Priyank Chandra’s STREET Lab marks its first birthday this fall
In its first year of existence, the STREET Lab, founded by Assistant Professor Priyank Chandra, has explored topics including farmers’ protests and the unionization of gig workers in India, the activism of the Belarusian diaspora, and, closer to home, accessibility accommodations at the University of Toronto. The common theme in all the Lab’s research has been looking at how communities, especially marginalized ones, self-organize in very different circumstances and the role that technology plays.
Chandra sees the STREET Lab – the STREET in its name stands for Socio-Technical ResistancE and Ethical Technologies – as a “research collective where students take ownership of projects based on their interests.” At the same time, Chandra adds, a lot of the lab’s work relates to his own research, which focuses on understanding and designing with communities at the margins.
STREET Lab research begins with gaining a thorough understanding of the communities being studied by looking through what Chandra calls “the lens of resistance” to see what the communities are already doing and then supporting them while actively avoiding what’s come to be known as saviour mentality. “We’re looking at design more critically and asking how can we rethink design itself?” says Chandra.
STREET Lab’s projects are mostly long-term as building trust takes time. For a recent research project on social movements beyond the country’s borders, the lab needed to search beyond U of T to find a researcher who understood the historical and political contexts adequately. STREET Lab members were conscious of the risks involved and the need to ensure activists’ safety. As a next step, they are planning a series of participatory workshops to support the activists.
Closer to home, STREET Lab is interested in labour activism including low-wage and gig workers. A student intern from Colombia explored how cleaners from Latin America use technology to find work, get support and ensure they don’t get exploited. “With so many different immigrant groups, there are a diverse set of issues in Toronto that need to be looked at it,” said Chandra, who seeks out students from diverse background to work at STREET Lab.
“I’m focused on making this an inclusive and diverse space with voices from a lot of different spaces. We want to understand the many complexities instead of all looking at the world in the same ways.” To accomplish this, the lab also makes an effort to bring together researchers with tech, humanities and social science backgrounds who can work collaboratively on shared problems. Computer science students get to see, for example, how technology interacts with social justice work.
STREET Lab is further developing a focus on accessibility and disability rights. In a professional program like the Master of Information, students get to hear from industry and researchers, but they don’t always hear from activists, “who are out there fighting for rights,” says Chandra, who teaches Accessibility and Inclusive Design. “We want to make sure they hear the activist perspective.”
One step in accomplishing this is Dis/Usability, a monthly cross-disciplinary speaker and workshop series. Dis/Usability is a collaboration between STREET Lab, the DSA Accessibility Committee, and the MISC Accessibility Interests Working Group. Chandra hopes to see this type of activity grow and lead to pan-Toronto events with other universities.
Whether Lab members are exploring political resistance, labour activism or disability rights, Chandra says STREET Lab’s goal is “to go deeper into problems rather than making broad statements. We also want to be future oriented more than present oriented.”
STREET Lab is housed at the Faculty of Information’s Knowledge Media Design Institute (KMDI)