Students Created Drone-Captured Protest Art About Social Inequality in the Choice City

In order to develop effective solutions to social problems, sociologists are trained to examine multiple points of view. Students in Dr. Joshua Sbicca’s SOC 474: Social Movements course literally do just that as they use photography and drone technology to capture social inequalities in Fort Collins and create protest art about the “Choice City.”

Throughout the semester, students learn about social movements and how protest art is central to communicating a vision and inspiring collective action. Using Fort Collins as a case, students investigate social inequalities and place as they hone their visual sociology skills and collect data such as images, ambient sounds, and voices. Drone technology makes capturing new perspectives possible, and editing software allows students to zoom in, speed up, slow down, juxtapose, and add elements like text to create meaning, tell a story, and call for social change.

“Dr. Sbicca’s class was an incredible change of pace,” says Hannah Golditch (’17). “Within a typical classroom, we hear lecture, take notes, and then we are tested. But with this class, our small groups were able to dive in on what makes social movements an art form. With drones, our class was able to truly see what our community doesn’t always see. We made specific social issues in Fort Collins more accessible for others in the community.”

“Offering varying degrees of freedom for creativity and self-expression and tying them to specific focal points really creates opportunities in the classroom for students to think collectively,” says Sbicca, assistant professor of sociology.

Sbicca is an avid photographer as well as a scholar. Always with a camera in hand, he has visually cataloged the diversity of social life and public art during his travels and fieldwork, which have taken him around the United States and the world.

New Ideas Taking Flight

In 2014, Sbicca was inspired by Harper’s Magazine’s article “Blue Sky Days” by Tomas van Houtryve. The photographer described modifying a drone from Amazon.com to enable it to capture images that “engage with the changing nature of war, of privacy, and of government transparency.” Van Houtryve was able to purchase and fly his drone legally thanks to the 2012 Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Modernization and Reform Act that allows civil unmanned aircraft in national airspace. As Michael Huerta, the FAA’s acting administrator at the time said, “We are going to allow new ideas to soar to their potential.”

Sociological Perspectives Reach New Heights

As Sbicca researched how drone technology was beginning to be used globally to support or undermine social movements and how this emerging technology was becoming accessible in the United States, he started considering how he could bring such opportunities to CSU.

“I want to provide my students a really unique educational experience and opportunity to develop sets of skills and tools to both examine visual images in the world around them and to produce content that questions assumptions by using their sociological imaginations,” says Sbicca.

He applied for a professional development award through CSU’s College of Liberal Arts and was granted funding to help purchase a drone for student use in his courses. “The College has been supportive of this work from the beginning, even before CSU had formal policies about drone use,” says Sbicca.

Though nervous about using or crashing the drone, students are intrigued and excited to use one within the context of their education. In addition to learning how to fly a drone by completing written and flight tests, like going to the DMV to get a driver’s license, students also study copyright and libel laws, data protection regulations, and the Human Rights Act. They become well-versed in visual sociology’s best practices that include ethical guidelines such as reporting their findings accurately and truthfully and considering the safety of themselves and participants like activists who, if clearly visible, may be in danger of retaliation by opposing groups.

Students in the class also examine many forms of protest art, including billboards, zines, graffiti, posters, photos, videos, and more from global social movements that have questioned inequalities, challenged power structures, and called for social change. Throughout history and around the world, activists have created protest art as an important tool for quickly and easily getting the attention of wide audiences of citizens. Sbicca challenges his students to engage in methods of critique like those of Adbusters that claim to fight big business, hold corrupt politicians accountable, and wake up a complacent culture.

Soaring into the Community

Empowered by the opportunity to use their own voices to advance social change, students hit the streets of Fort Collins to capture imagery. Many students end up engaging with community members who are also on the ground, some quite literally. Homelessness is currently a contentious social problem in the “Choice City,” and conversations flow as the drones fly.

“Students see homelessness, gentrification, spatial inequality, and xenophobia. They analyze these moments as they conceptualize their final projects and later present them for critique and conversation,” says Sbicca.

As students develop ideas for their protest art, they work with Sbicca to operationalize each project by assigning team member duties and consider the most compelling locations and times of day for the stories they want to tell. The professor’s goal for his students is not just to produce images, but to dig deeper into social inequalities and imagine solutions by working cooperatively to edit photos and make them into persuasive art pieces.

Students created protest art from drone photography about issues like gentrification and homelessness in Fort Collins.

“This project sparks conversations about really critical issues like homelessness, gentrification, housing and spatial inequality, as well as about problems that exist on campus. Last year, many students wanted to do projects related to racism, hate speech, gender disparity, sports, the stadium, and student housing,” says Sbicca. “What I love about this project is that because students really are the drivers, they’re able to put into it what they perceive to be problems. They bring their experiences as students and engage with the community as well.”

Sbicca hosts a website to present his students’ work as a collaborative effort for each semester’s cohort to build on and consider what kind of city is the “Choice City?” Who really lives here? Who has chances to live the good life, and who lacks those chances?

The Fort Collins Human Relations Commission asked these future sociologists to exhibit their protest art at the 2017 FoCo Speaks Out! event sponsored by the Poudre River Library District and Ignite Fort Collins. The event promoted civic engagement around local issues of social justice.­­­

“Dr. Sbicca’s class was a brilliant combination of social movement theory and hands-on spatial analysis. The incorporation of drones was especially eye-opening,” says Leah Eyob (’18). “Within our project, aerial drone imaging helped us visualize the distinct lines of gentrification and racialized displacement in Fort Collins. More importantly, it showed how social movements can occupy that space to mobilize collective action. The class served as a powerful reminder that the fight for justice is far from over.”

Visit “Right to the Choice City?” to see Fort Collins from a whole new perspective.