They Made a Comic About Workforce Housing

Michael McCrory

How can you explain workforce housing to people without losing them halfway through?" asked Anne Duncan Cooley, executive director of the Upper Valley Housing Coalition. Anne has worked for years as a housing advocate and developed many successful education and outreach programs for a broad range of audiences. She is also on the Orford's selectboard and encounters another set of challenges when she is working on municipal matters. "We have to be experts in everything, understand many issues, and clearly communicate the concepts to the public. I would greatly appreciate any help I can get communicating complicated issues to my constituents," she said.

Over a year ago, Anne and I met at a coffee shop in White River Junction, Vt. I had recently completed a weeklong workshop at the Center for Cartoon Studies just down the street. We were discussing how to apply the theory of graphic infomedia (a.k.a. comics) to my work as a regional planner. We tossed around ideas about planning and land use concepts and then Anne stopped and asked, "Why not a comic about workforce housing?"

From that point forward, we had a mission to create a workforce housing comic. First, we needed help.

Sam Carbaugh, a graphic artist and alumnus of the Center for Cartoon Studies, joined our team with a specific set of skills for the task. Sam's portfolio included a number of educational publications. One in particular grabbed our attention: translating a thick, technical manual about the Incident Command System into a comic for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Sam explained, "Comics are more accessible to a wider variety of readers than a text-heavy document." Sam is also quick to point out, "Just because something is a comic does not mean it is childish." In fact, the target audience for the FEMA comic is first responders and emergency response volunteers.

The medium of comics has grown in popularity over the past several decades. Since the graphic novel Maus won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1992, comics have been a proven medium to convey the full range of human experience and emotion. The U.S. Army understood the power of comics in the 1940's when it began including cartoonists as the principal designers for PS Magazine, a technical publication using comics to instruct service members on the care and maintenance of vehicles and weaponry. Comics are also employed in textbooks to break down complex theories and ideas into a more readily understandable format without betraying the integrity of the source of information. More recently, Google engaged master cartoonist Scott McCloud to create a comic to explain the functionality of its Chrome web browser. The printed comic can be an engaging and powerful tool that can be distributed as a booklet or take advantage of ubiquitous online and digital media.

Our workforce housing comic team then contacted George Reagan, housing awareness program administrator at New Hampshire Housing, to see if there would be opportunity for a mini-grant to fund the development of the comic. George was initially hesitant. "The idea from the start was exciting and innovative," George recalls, "but it was also an unconventional format. They worked hard to convince me, and I ultimately became their biggest fan." New Hampshire Housing ultimately awarded our team a Community Mini-Grant and we went to work on the comic.

The final comic, "What is Workforce Housing?" was published in hard copy and online in August 2012. It tells the story of a cast of characters gathered in a couple's home discussing a housing development proposed in their neighborhood. Their conversation becomes the means to inform the reader about workforce housing and related land use topics relevant to New Hampshire communities. The comic provides an introduction to the concept and gives the reader links to online resources for further research on the topic.

"What is Workforce Housing?" has so far received overwhelmingly positive feedback from technical and nontechnical readers, alike. Katrina Spaulding, business development specialist at the Claremont Planning and Development office, responded enthusiastically after reading the comic, "I really, really enjoyed it. I have to say it takes a very dry topic and makes it readable."

Sam presented the comic to one of his comic workshops and witnessed the intergenerational appeal of the comic. "My students read the whole comic, enjoyed it, and learned from it. (I can't imagine the same kids reading a workforce housing brochure.) This level of accessibility enables them to share what they learned with their parents and vice versa. I can imagine, with the information in this comic, teenagers participating in conversations about housing at the dinner table."

The goal is to expand the reach of housing education to a broader segment of New Hampshire's population. We are hopeful that the comic will continue to be a useful tool for housing education throughout the state and serve as a model for future comics that may cover other housing or land use topics. The comic is free to download from the Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission web site (Go to the website and enter 'comic' in the website's search tool).

Michael McCrory is Senior Planner at Upper Valley Lake Sunapee Regional Planning Commission. Please share your thoughts about the comic with Michael at 603.448.1680, or by email.

New Hampshire Municipal Association Made a Comic Explaining How a Bill Gets Passed

Planner Michael McCrory produced a comic strip to educate people in the Upper Valley and Lake Sunapee regions about workforce housing, a dry but important topic he imbued with wit and wisdom. His was an approach that has become popular in recent years. In 2006, for example, the New Hampshire Municipal Association produced a comic explaining how a bill gets passed in the Legislature. The comic remains current and useful. To learn and enjoy, visit, the NHLGC website.