Published November 23, 2020
A team of UB researchers used the power of storytelling through comic books to help high school students around the world better understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The UB program, Working for Educational-Equity: Scientists Artists and International Design (We Said), brought together students from the United States, Mexico and India to discuss problems at the intersection of science, community and equity, and learn the art of graphic novels.
The free, three-week program, which ran during July, allowed students to create comics about how the pandemic impacts communities disproportionately. Some of the comics explored students’ personal experiences, and topics ranged from inadequate access to health care to wealth disparity.
To view comics created by the students, visit the We Said website.
“Storytelling is a pathway to learning,” says program coordinator Sameer Honwad, assistant professor of learning and instruction in the Graduate School of Education.
“A lot of cultures around the world, particularly non-western cultures, use stories as a platform to think about and understand the complexities in our world. The social interactions around them build relationships between people.”
Over the past decade, graphic novels have become one of the fastest-growing categories in public libraries and other educational settings in the U.S., Honwad notes.
“Comics are a well-known medium that young people can get excited about,” adds program coordinator Shakuntala Devi Gopal, a doctoral student in the Graduate School of Education. “It’s an accessible art form that many of us grew up looking at, and the illustrations enable another layer of creativity and expression.”
Additional program coordinators include Ryan Rish, assistant professor of learning and instruction; Jessica Scates, administrative coordinator in the UB Community for Global Health Equity; and Anthony White, research assistant and adjunct instructor in the Graduate School of Education.
Honwad’s research interests include creating inclusive learning environments using storytelling platforms.
He initially designed We Said as an in-person program for a Buffalo high school to use graphic novels to explore issues surrounding local food systems. However, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the program transitioned online with a focus on the pandemic’s community impact. Honwad leveraged his connections with universities around the world to draw 14 students from the U.S., India and Mexico.
The first week of the program was dedicated to conversations about the students’ experiences during the pandemic. The students also discussed issues of inequality that directly affected them and their communities, including a lack of access to technology and health care, unemployment and wealth disparity.
The students talked about the protests for racial justice that occurred in the U.S. as well. When learning about inequality in other cultures, the participants from the U.S. and Mexico were shocked to learn that India had a caste system, Honwad says.
“How do you build solidarity between people who are in parallel situations in terms of oppression across the world,” says Honwad, who hopes to foster conversations among students in future iterations of the program on how colonialism and imperialism impacts cultures around the world.
“There are a lot of similarities in how powerful individuals oppress people who have lower economic status. In the U.S., it revolves around race. In India, equity revolves around caste. The Dalit are deemed low caste members and have been oppressed for centuries.”
Following these conversations, the students learned comic book design from Rish and guest speakers, who included several comic book artists.
The students eventually divided into groups, each focused on one of three areas impacted by the pandemic: life at home, school and relationships.
“The students enjoyed connecting with people in their age group that they would not have met otherwise,” Gopal says. “The experience also allowed them to work creatively. Some of the students don’t have opportunities for that type of expression.”
The researchers plan to apply for grant funding to expand the program.