Callista Ottoni on community-engaged research, social connectedness and the magic of informal conversations

We had an enlivened conversation with Callista Ottoni, PhD candidate at UBC and Mitacs Intern for Hey Neighbour on her community-engaged research and recent photography exhibit.

How did you first learn about the Hey Neighbour Collective?

My PhD supervisor, Meghan Winters, who is a principal investigator with the Collective, introduced me to the team. My doctoral research explores the social connectedness experiences of older adults who live – mostly alone – in multi-unit housing. So there was a natural synergy between my research and the goals of Hey Neighbour.

How have your past interests and experiences brought you to where you are today?

I’ve been interested in how to make neighbourhoods more inclusive for a long time. I have a master’s in community planning, where I made a collaborative documentary with a group of Queer older adults on the importance of arts in community development. Before my PhD, I worked as a knowledge broker for eight years with Meghan Winters and Joanie Sims Gould. All of my projects essentially addressed the question – what makes a neighbourhood a good place to grow old? I directed and edited the documentary ‘I’d Rather Stay’ as a way to share our research. 

My doctoral research grew out of that work with Meghan and Joanie.  When I started my PhD, I was set on studying how neighbourhoods can better support social connections for older adults, but COVID threw a curve ball into my approach. I chatted with my community partner, the West End Seniors’ Network about what to do, and we made a revised plan. 

I wanted to collect data during the pandemic lockdown because, from a social science perspective, it was just so fascinating. So many of our social norms and avenues for well-being were disrupted. There was also a ton of news swirling through the media about long-term care homes, but almost nothing about older adults living independently. I started to wonder, “What do their day-to-day lives during the pandemic look like, and what can we learn from their experiences?” The West End Seniors’ Network had that same question. 

What is it that drew you to this field?

I’m passionate about community-engaged research where researchers work in an ongoing way with non-academic partners. For me, it’s important that research results are shared in a meaningful way. I think there’s lots of potential for positive social change that comes from these relationships. So that’s a big part of what drew me to the field. I stayed in the field because I love the people I work with.

Why did you incorporate photography into your research?

I realized visual methods like Photovoice might be a way to work with older adults and get a window into their lives while respecting physical distance guidelines. I had wanted to use video (because I love how video really foregrounds the voices of participants), but it felt too tricky to navigate with older adults over zoom. Still, with photovoice, participants can lead you to what they find important. So it was an internal compromise, that worked out great. I also knew that photos are an accessible way to share research with the broader public. And from the outset, I felt bringing the research back to the community was important. 
I had 31 participants in total. Twenty-two people opted for the low-tech option and I interviewed them via telephone. Nine chose to be interviewed via Zoom and to take photographs. Two years later, I followed up with those nine participants. In a recent article I wrote for Hey Neighbour, I talk about how powerful it was to share their photos at an exhibition and meet them in person.

Tell us more about the feedback you received from your photography exhibit

For me, the highlight was meeting the participants in real life! When we initially started planning the exhibit, I wasn’t sure it would be possible. But my partners at West End Seniors’ Network, Barclay Manor, were determined to host the exhibit in person if it would be safe to do so (let’s be honest, we were all feeling a little burnt out from webinars).  When it finally happened, it felt so special.

I think one of the things we lost during the pandemic is the magic of informal conversation, those interactions in the hallway and chatting with the person next to you while you are pouring your coffee. Surprisingly often these chats can lead to something fruitful. Putting together this exhibit was one way to build a space for those kinds of conversations, particularly between WESN, other community organization staff, participants and the researchers.

What is it like to be a mother who is also working on your PhD?

I think having a young child has taught me to be very judicious with my time. As a doctoral student, you really can work all the time, until the end of time. But I have a family, that has needs, so I have to make decisions about what to prioritize, and when. It’s also made me better at asking for help. I am privileged to have a good network of care for my son. There is no way I could stay on track with my PhD without my village of support. 

I will say, having a little human around brings a constant stream of curiosity, play, and joy to my life. Five-year-olds are the ultimate researchers because they are always asking, “Why?” and they see the world with such rawness. I live with this little co-researcher who asks great questions and helps me to not take things so seriously. Like, he asked, “Can spiders smell?” And, “Why are red lights stop and green lights go?” (I don’t know the answers to either, do you?)

You’re part of the UBC Public Scholars Initiative. What’s that been like?

The PSI supports students who want to pursue public-facing and non-traditional forms of scholarship as part of their doctoral research. They funded the photography exhibit and all my other community engagement activities. Overall it’s been good, but also a little tough, because I’m part of a pandemic cohort and we weren’t able to do a lot of activities in person. One great thing the PSI team did was coach us on how to present our research in an accessible language. I was so thankful for this because when CTV News contacted me to give an interview recently, they told me it had to happen that same day. Thankfully, I had already prepared. It was also helpful when I was interviewed by the Vancouver Sun.

Knowing how to talk about your research to the general public is so important, and often overlooked, in my opinion.

Callista Ottoni stands in front of a camera during a news interview at her photography exhibit.

You love to bike around Vancouver, why is that?

I love riding my bike and cycling around the city because it’s faster than transit, less hassle than a car, and you arrive at your destination refreshed. I also have an e-bike that I take my 5-year-old on – we boot around to beaches and parks. He’s super chatty so the time flies, and we always arrive at our destination happier!

Callista Ottoni rides her e-bike with her son.

How has living in different places influenced you?

I was born in Vancouver, then lived in San Diego and Saskatoon, but eventually moved back to Vancouver near the end of high school. In my 20s, I lived in Mexico for two years before coming back to Vancouver to pursue a master’s degree. All of this moving around helped me to be adaptable to new situations and people. 

Without wanting to sound Pollyanna-ish, I learned so much about myself when I lived in Mexico. I think everyone should have the experience of being a foreigner and learning the nuances of another culture. I was so shy to speak Spanish at first because I made so many awkward mistakes, but I kept trying, and over time I got better. Near the end of my time living there, I was communicating fluently and even dreamt in Spanish!

In relation to Hey Neighbour, Mexican culture can teach us a lot about sociability. The people there are so friendly and there’s this sense of openness and willingness to help. I’m sure globally there is a lot we can learn from other cultures as we think about how to increase social connectedness in our communities here in (farther) North America.