Melissa Teng

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Melissa Teng is a Civic Designer at the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. At the 2019 BARI conference, The Smart, Connected Commonwealth: Data-Driven Research and Policy Across the Region, she presented her work on the participatory design process of an in-prison virtual reality-based curriculum for women preparing for reentry back into the community. We sat down with Melissa recently to discuss this work.

BARI: Your work centers around creating an immersive approach to preparing women to rejoin society after being incarcerated. How do you think about designing that kind of experience?

Melissa Teng: There’s a lot of hype around VR as a disruptive force in different areas, one of which is immersive training simulations. That was the original excitement from our client, the Department of Correction, in using VR to help practice the emotional aspects of prisoner reentry. It could be useful, as we are trying to understand with our participatory VR design process and prototype, but there are so many ethical concerns when using VR with incarcerated folks. For example, what happens after someone experiences a realistic and highly evocative virtual scene, take off the headset, and find themselves “back” in prison? Can we understand and help someone through the pain, shock, or disappointment we may cause in that moment?

I see “immersion” less about the technology or hardware and more about a mental state we can help to create with folks. How can we design “immersion” to be an experience that starts before someone puts on the headset, is elevated while in it, and lasts after they take the headset off? More important, can VR help to support a safe and healing immersive space?

I’ve been exploring different group facilitation methods as an approach. Specifically, I have been learning about restorative justice circles from my project partner, George Halfkenny, and the creator of Restorative VR, Tyler Musgraves. I’ve also started working with an organization called the Central Mass Recovery Learning Community. They practice peer-supported recovery, where–as opposed to a traditional psychiatric relationship where you have a therapist-patient dynamic–you are among peers who shared a personal lived experience, you are led by a certified peer specialist, and you can work towards recovery together.

BARI: So it looks more like a support group?

MT: Very much like a support group. I’m working with them [the Central Mass Recovery Learning Community] to design the facilitation around how we might adapt the VR media we created to their existing peer-support circles. I won’t be part of those circles when they happen, as an outside researcher without that lived experience. I hadn’t realized that things like note-taking can feel very threatening, but I appreciate and want to respect the sanctuary-like space we’re trying to create. The sessions would be facilitated by George, who is a restorative justice practitioner and has his own experience going through the criminal justice system.

BARI: Were you able to do interviews with people afterwards?

MT: That’s what we’re currently planning to do–I will interview folks before and share a preview of VR so they can know better what to expect. Then I will do another round of interviews afterward. [Central Mass RLC and I] are trying to figure out how to do this carefully.

BARI: How did you come to VR? Were you interested in the process and then saw VR as a tool, or were you interested in VR and looking for ways it could be an effective tool?

MT: I wasn’t interested in VR at all. I was a Master’s student [at the Engagement Lab at Emerson College] and we were learning about a design process called participatory design. For my thesis, I had wanted to work with folks in Chinatown on an art project about cultural memory and displacement. But after talking with several residents and organizers in Chinatown–first, I learned more about the complexity of the networks, politics, and history–and second, they were understandably hesitant to work with another student doing research. Even if I say the research will be in collaboration with them, they have had so many students come in, take the community’s time and labor, and then leave without sharing the fruits of their research. They get their degree, but the community hasn’t really benefited–or if they have, it’s not on par with what they gave. This trust takes time, and I didn’t have that at the time.

Luckily I talked with Eric [Gordon, the Director of the Engagement Lab], who said the Massachusetts Department of Correction (DOC) had reached out earlier that year. He made the connection and then I had a partner with an interesting proposal involving VR who was willing to go through this research thing with me.

BARI: I think this is a really common problem that policy labs, that want to partner with government, run into. You can do something like embed a Master’s student or a group of Master’s students in a city government, and they can temporarily add a lot of capacity, but that capacity can evaporate when those students leave. It takes a lot of bandwidth from a professor and from a city manager to maintain a longer-term, more substantive policy partnership.

MT: This is something that Eric [Gordon] thinks about, this process of institutional innovation–especially bureaucracies like government agencies that are historically not seen as “innovative” or progressive. He uses the example of Code for America [Fellows]. The benefit of having these Fellows embedded in organizations is not so much from the thing they develop, as it is from their different ways of approaching issues and their methods, like design thinking. These become things that whatever organization they’re in can choose to adopt.

In the case of the DOC–actually, it’s interesting, because we couldn’t physically bring the VR headset into the prison we were working with, so we had to design VR in a completely analog way. In retrospect, it was really great for our workshop cultures because, while our goal was to make a VR tool, on the ground we were running these storytelling workshops that were comprised of activities like storyboarding, writing, and acting. There was so much laughing and advice-giving among participants–the women who were incarcerated–and between the women and staff who were there to watch over us. I think that culture was thought-provoking for Lynn [Lizotte], the Deputy Superintendent who came up with the VR project idea. Later on, when she was talking about how we might pilot the media, she really focused on this multimodal way of learning–asking the women to write on post-it notes, act, or draw. From what I understand, this is a big departure from how they normally run educational programming in that prison. Just to hear her talk about interacting with the women inside differently, that was a good sign for me. I thought, OK, there’s appetite and room to change things from within the DOC.

Eric [Gordon] and Gabe Mugar write in their new book about how innovation is when novelty becomes banal. Things are novel when they’re first introduced, like VR to the DOC. Sometimes that novelty goes through the messy, human process of actually being adopted by and integrating into an institution, changing existing ways of doing or being along the way. Then those changes become just another way that institution does things, or they become institutionalized. That’s innovation, where the institution has had to learn how to shift its way of doing or seeing things.

BARI: Thank you for sitting down and talking with us! How can people find out more about your work, or get in touch with you?

MT: Thank you for having me. I can be reached by Twitter or Instagram at @mqqt_ or by email at

Published On: September 6, 2019