Authenticity Begins at Imagination

You see the seared steak in front of you and smell char as you slice into the middle. As you pick up the piece of cut steak you think, “Yes, this is really a steak. Although I know it’s not. It’s not a steak yet that is what I see, smell, and taste.”

In my efforts to explore everyday I have come across three different areas where describing what is “authentic” leaves many struggling for answers.

Tourism is of key interest to me for the ability to help destinations economically, educate visitors, and study globalization. However, industry stakeholders and digital influencers constantly talk about “real tourism” and “authentic experiences”.

If you are traveling and experiencing a present moment, how is it NOT real?

Inthe virtual world the ability to transport someone’s senses via VR/AR is counterbalanced by the person’s mental ability to “leave” their current environment and arrive somewhere new.

Which is “real”, your current physical space and body, the environment you are now mentally in, or both?

Inapplied ethnographic research, the debates range from “Who is an ethnographer?” to “What counts as ethnography?” to “Is ethnography a watered-down methodology?” or “Do ethnographers need to be physically present or can they telecommunicate their work?”

What is “real ethnographic work” versus pure nomenclature?

In all of these fields of study the theme I see over and over again is “Is this real?”


Ah, holidays. The ability to break free, leave all regret and responsibility at your home to be scooped up later, and to relax.

When most people — or me — are at the tail end of their vacation what is often heard?

“Well, it’s back to the real world.”

The idea of dislocating ourselves from everyday life is attractive and fuels a $7.6 trillion global industry. We travel in various ways: slow, fast, for leisure, for adventure, for food, for music, for sex, for hunting, for art/architecture/nature/history/etc.

The essence is traveling for the sake of something. We are searching for something (new/exotic/familiar) that we cannot find in our everyday, very real lives.

The “authenticity” of this time spent away from our homes is two-fold: 1) we are leaving the “real world” but want to enter 2) an “authentic” or “real” version of our destination as well.

So, what is real? Do tour groups and walking tours count as a real version or are they made for people who want the thin, flaky crust of a destination? Is it real if you visit a location and don’t eat purely local cuisine every day? Is it real if you stay in Airbnbs and go to farmer’s markets and conduct life as if you are at home?

Real versus real. Authentic versus pretend.

As a resident in a top tourism destination I can say that I go to the famous landmarks and festivals and they are very real to me. I’ve taken taken friends and family and strangers to bars and restaurants and beautiful green spaces around the city and those too are very real.

What is the main difference when talking about “authentic travel” then? Is it the physical spaces or the mentality of the traveler?


The two worlds of today will cease to be separate. “One of the things our grandchildren will find quaintest about us is that we distinguish the digital from the real, the virtual from the real.” — William Gibson

Itis interesting what people perceive as “real”. VR, AR, AI, and other newly created spaces are the talk of every marketing, business, and innovation conference at the moment. Humans have created the ability to transport consumers into an existence they desire, or to bring a brand/experience directly to the consumer. It’s a two-way street of virtual/physical collision.

Through various methods people are exiting their current arena of senses and transplanting themselves into another. Is it a complete physical manifestation in the new place or merely a mental arrival?

Companies such as Project Nourished deliver “gastronomical virtual reality experiences”. They have a litany of projects with an expansive future in providing much needed support to under-respresented diners as crazy as that sentence is. One mission goal is to “Broaden perception of food and diversify food systems for betterment and preservation of both humanity and environment.”

On their main project, if you are eating, swallowing, and digesting the Jello-like cubes they’ve placed before you is it only “virtual reality” or pure “reality”? Is it a “real” experience?

What will be an “authentic” meal moving forward? One made of completely natural ingredients or one designed to make you believe you are eating natural ingredients?


Nine ethnographic things you can’t do in ethnography by Siamack Salari(ethnographer):

> ask participants to capture their own behavior with an app and call it ethnographic research. If they know what you want to know, you are doing a conventional research project

> not present findings which include at least a few observations participants themselves were not aware of, could never have reported on

> create a task plan and stick with it. If you don’t change it based on new observations, you aren’t doing it right

> keep filtering across tasks and segments to make sense of participant outputs if you don’t first understand your participants as individuals

> present findings to your client unless you can answer the, ‘did anyone say/do…’ questions. If you are not intimate with your data, you will look stupid

> say you have captured all you need to unless you can show that events/themes are repeating themselves

> say you have an answer to a question you have sent participants unless you have posed the same question in three different ways — as an activity, as a reaction to someone/thing else and as an observation of themselves.

> [produce] nuggets/actions/insight [that] comes to you in an instant, it’s probably not there yet.

> present findings that your 8 year old won’t understand, remember and be able to repeat back to you.

In my marketing past life customer journeys and experiences drove a lot of my strategy for the brands I managed. Now, as I am new to the rigorous structure of ethnographic research, reading Siamack’s explanations provided clear insight into what I felt, but could not fully articulate.

Researchers have their different mechanisms for educating their clients/boss (via written reports, video, workshopping, etc.), but the integrity, a.k.a. “realness of research”, of what they deliver starts at the very beginning. Yes?

Set the structure and as James P. Spradley, author of The Ethnograpahic Interview and much more, said “I want to understand the world from your point of view. I want to know what you know in the way you know it. I want to understand the meaning of your experience, to walk in your shoes, to feel things as you feel them, to explain things as you explain them. Will you become my teacher and help me understand?”

The authenticity of Spradley’s intentions echo through in this quote. “Real” is down and dirty. “Real” is setting yourself aside and finding a nugget of truth.

I haven’t quite ascertained why we need “realness” or “authenticity” so much. Do we need “real” and “authentic” ideas and experiences because we listen to so much noise everyday that sometimes we just want the truth? Perhaps it is in the search and hunting for “what is real” that strikes a primal cord in us.

“Trust is the foundation of society. Where there is no truth, there can be no trust, and where there is no trust, there can be no society.”
— Frederick Douglass

Written for Medium.

"We Have No Social Lives."

Leigh Wright is a 2018 QRCA Young Professionals Grant recipient. First launched in 2014, the Young Professionals Grant recognizes promising qualitative researchers aged 35 and younger with free passes to the QRCA’s Annual Conference.

“Funny thing is, we have no social lives,” said a lady at my lunch table. Everyone laughed heartily, but I did only slightly. I am emerging into the qualitative field and as a research consultant. I’ve worked as a Director of Brand Strategy for six years, building internal marketing departments, looking through ad stacks, etc. The QRCA 2018 annual conferencewas one of the best — if not the best — places for an introduction.

All conferences are about teaching and education and professional accolades and training. QRCA is different because attendees come for the people and education is lagniappe (New Orleans’ slang for “an extra little gift”) or to support their peers’ work. As consultants, we do not get out and about to see one another during the year, so the QRCA holds a dedicated, sacred spot on the calendars of many.

Needless to say, I arrived in Phoenix with little knowledge of the QRCA, its benefits, the people, or the structure of the conference. To say I am blown away by the supportive structure of the community is an understatement.

From a beginner’s standpoint I found the talks from Naomi Henderson, Susan Abbott, Marta Villanueva, et al., all very enlightening and critical to understanding where I will find my niche in this industry. There were a lot of moderating tools discussed and quite frankly the point of creative flashcards was hammered home. Tory Gentes’ presentation on online recruiting was spot on. I’ve only done bespoke recruitment and have used online platforms to do so. (You would be surprised at how many preschool teachers are part-time babysitters through

The sessions I found the most insightful were about client presentation, online recruiting, business development, and behavioral economics. This is partly because I have done little moderating, but I believe presenting a variety of sessions is impactful. As Jim Bryson said one day during the conference, “It’s not ‘do we need another moderator.’ We need another good researcher.” So, let’s stick with the holistic approach. I believe it is working.

The roundtable discussions were fantastic and I enjoyed Peter Totman’s talk on Failure. There were so many going on at once and I did find it hard to choose which to attend.

In terms of the Young Professionals Grant, I am forever indebted to the sponsors of this program. Without them I would not have known about the QRCA, I would not have attended this year’s conference, and I would not have met the other YPs who I now consider friends. I will consider that week in Phoenix as a career milestone and springboard.

I’m sure others have tried to convey what makes QRCA special, and my words will fall short just like all the rest. The only thing left to say is thank you, and see you in Savannah.

Visit to learn more about the Young Professionals Grant.

Originally written for QRCA blog and can be read on Medium.

As a city known for its history of multi-flag reign, New Orleans can share their transitional spirit with Belize.

When the Big Easy starts to feel the biting cold of a wet winter it’s time to look south. There’s nothing like time spent in a tropical paradise where the water is crystal clear turquoise, the food is delicious, and the people friendly. As a New Orleanian you can transplant yourself into Central America very easily

True, we are already "the northernmost part of the Caribbean” but Belize is “Mother Nature's Best-Kept Secret”. Take the time to visit this often flown-over country to see the similarities and differences between us and them. That is after all, why we travel.

The People

First, let’s start with the people because, after all, they are the flavor of any destination.

Historically, slavery kickstarted it all after the decimation and mistrust the Spanish and French brought to the native people of the Yucatan. Colonialists shipped in African slaves for the lumber industry to this string of land in the middle of beautiful scenery. Belize is “built off the backs of the Creole people” as one put it. Creoles are now one of the most represented groups in Belize with their language (Creole) being officially recognized and their dishes (rice and beans, stewed chicken, etc) being national Belizean dishes. They were brought over to start the logging industry, and then married into the French, Spanish, and British populations. Many are still loyal to their heritage, the Crown, and their place in Belize.

Creole in Belize

When interviewing Franz Vernon (whose mother was a famous Creole activist and Belizean music icon) he mentioned how his mom, LeeLaa, is famous for saying “Who sey Creole no gat noh culture!” In proper English, “Who says Creole’s don’t have any culture!” The Creoles of New Orleans and Belize both have movements to represent their history and future in the midst of numerous cultural heritages.

In modern day Belize there is a mash-up of cultural groups, but primarily, Garifuna, Kriole (Creole), Mayan (descended mainly from the larger classifications of Kekchi, Yucatec, and Mopan Maya), East Indians, Mennonites, Asian, etc.

Much like New Orleans you get an eclectic viewpoint of the world from Belize. The country is built on a changing landscape of cultural history and a trip in the country reveals of lot of heart and soul of the Yucatan.

The Food

If rice and beans, fried chicken or fish, and fresh fruit is your thing then look no further than Belize. With a variety of flavors mixing up the staples (Mayan vs Creole versions of beans and rice, salsa, etc.) eating the same meal over and over again never gets old.

The Creole-influence is heavy in Belize as it is in New Orleans. “Stewed beans” are red kidney beans and white rice. Sound familiar? They serve them more than just on Mondays and they are delicious.

Belize Lunch

We may be known for our beignets, but Fry-Jacks need to migrate up to New Orleans. These are flour dough shaped into a triangle, fried so it puffs up, and then stuffed with breakfast ingredients such as: ham, eggs, and hot sauce or honey and fruit. They are delicious for an on-the go meal or as you watch the sunrise over the Caribbean Sea.

The coffee is surprisingly underwhelming for a country around so many well-known coffee regions, but again, you’re in a post-British colony heavily influenced by the crown. New Orleans, for all the delicious flavors we produce chicory does not fit the bill. Belize and New Orleans are once again a lot more similar than different.

The Scenery

Punta Gorda

When you go to Belize don’t spend the entire time drunk on the beach (maybe just 75% of your time). Take the time to travel throughout the seven regions (central coast, Northern Belize, North Islands, Belize Reef, Southeast Coast, Southern Belize, Western Belize) and experience mountains, jungles, marine life, open water beauty, etc.

The Mayan sites are not as well known as those in Mexico, but they do not disappoint. Many are secluded down gravel and dirt roads which add to the mystique of visiting places where people not only survived, but thrived 1000s of years ago.

Out in the jungle you can hear howler monkeys waking up to the day, but watch out for the big cats, they are out there. The reef on the islands in the Caribbean Sea are said to be some of the best in the world. Whether scuba diving or snorkeling you can see marine life like never before.

So, why travel to a place that is similar to where you live? Because even when two things seem similar they are worlds apart. New Orleans and Belize may be bred along the same lines, but a visit to this wonderful country reveals much more about the world, and how it influences your city.

And for goodness sakes only go to Guatemala if you’re into getting rowdy, or hiding from the police.

Local logistics provided by Julian Monroe Fisher, owner of Jacinto Creek Belize.

Written originally for Where Y'at. 


My toes have not even moved before my mind races as I wake up. I am a light-sleeper and a morning person so I know as soon as I open my eyes my day has started.

I normally take about five minutes to visualize my day in my head just so I know what I'm about to get into. It helps since my days vary dramatically.

Today, I woke up with a typical feeling of "What day is it? What do I have to do?", but I also have a feeling of appreciation greater than yesterday. 

This past year (2017) has taught me to follow my natural curiosities in search of answers to the larger questions. Life, careers, family, essentially everything is murky, but I'll always keep moving, keep exploring. 

I cannot join the club of 2017-haters since this was a great year for accomplishing major changes in my life. I helped myself through helping others.

That's a practice I am focused on continuing.

I came across a quote from Bruce Lee that sums up a lot of opinions about our progression as a people and the technology that we use. 

Where some people have a self, most people have a void, because they are too busy in wasting their vital creative energy to project themselves as this or that, dedicating their lives to actualizing a concept of what they should be like rather than actualizing their potentiality as a human being, a sort of “being” vs. having — that is, we do not “have” mind, we are simply mind. We are what we are.
— Bruce Lee

A lot of people waste away, spinning their tires in a permanent residence of despair over how they see themselves and how they assume others see them.

As the saying goes, "You can have anything, but you can't have everything."

Moving forward

I will work to have restful nights knowing that my contributions in work and the community were heard, understood, and beneficial.

I will work to finally write the book I've thought about for years to tell the stories of others.

I will work to be the best provider, care-giver, supporter, cook, handy-woman, and social butterfly for my partner. 

Thank you to everyone who has helped me with kind words, introductions, financially, with training, etc. this past year. Hopefully, this year I will give everything back.