The Center for Digital Storytelling, based in Berkeley, California, is a nonprofit community arts organization rooted in the craft of personal storytelling. The CDS mission is to assist youth and adults from around the world in creating and sharing meaningful stories from their lives, as short digital videos. Since 1993, the Center has been developing unique workshop methods that blend oral history, autobiographical writing, and participatory digital media production. CDS has partnered with organizations in well over 50 countries to document and distribute more than 10,000 stories and is recognized globally as a leader in training, capacity building, and innovation on digital storytelling in the education, health, and community development sectors.
Silence Speaks, which since 2000 has been one of the Center’s key international efforts, supports the telling and witnessing of stories that all too often remain unspoken — of surviving and thriving in the wake of violence and abuse, armed conflict, or displacement … of challenging stigma or marginalization related to health and sexuality. Our Projects blend oral history, popular education, and participatory media production methods adapted from the CDS core workshop model. We modify the methods used to accommodate languages, literacies, and technologies in a given setting and emphasize reflection on the implications of bringing sensitive personal narratives into the public sphere. Following careful informed consent processes, stories are shared locally and globally, as strategic tools for training, community mobilization, and policy advocacy to promote well being, gender equality, and human rights.
Exhale partnered with Silence Speaks to produce a digital storytelling workshop on abortion stories and abortion listening. The February 2010 workshop was facilitated by Amy Hill, a digital video instructor/producer and public health/community development consultant. Her twelve-year history of involvement with women’s health and violence prevention programs led Amy in 2000 to found Silence Speaks Digital Storytelling, which blends oral history, participatory mediamaking, and popular education in workshops to support the telling of stories that all too often remain unspoken. Her wealth of national and international experience with this project has led her to specialize in the ethical implications of producing and sharing sensitive personal narratives and in modifying digital storytelling methods to accommodate multiple languages and scarce technology resources.
I interviewed Amy about her experiences with digital storytelling, stigmatized issues, and abortion.
Me: Can you tell me about some of the “silenced” people and issues you have worked with through the Silence Speaks project?
AMY HILL: Since our beginnings in 2000, we have coordinated more than 40 projects in locations across the United States and in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Congo-Brazzaville, Guatemala, South Africa, and Uganda. Workshop participants have shared stories that address child sexual abuse and domestic violence; historical grief and the epidemic of sexual violence against women in the wake of apartheid; risks for human rights violations and HIV faced by labor migrants in Sub-Saharan Africa; stigma associated with obstetric fistula; post-conflict issues facing female ex-combatants and youth formerly associated with fighting forces; and the silences around/control of adolescent sexual expression in conservative social/political environments. There are some great case studies on our web site, where a number of stories on these topics can be viewed.
Me: There is often tension between the need to support people whose voices have been silenced and the need to bring more public attention to a silenced issue. How do you approach this tension in your work and how have you resolved it?
AMY: This is a key question that has become even more critical in the age of YouTube, which has led to an explosion of previously marginalized voices and images, online. The need to carefully navigate this tension that you describe has been a central aspect of the development of Silence Speaks over the years. The idea of resolving it is ongoing, a work in progress — we’ve learned both from mistakes and successes about how best to prioritize a storyteller’s sense of ownership of her/his creation, wherever it is (or isn’t) shown. When our partners have an agenda to share stories publicly, we weave informed consent throughout a project. This allows storytellers to make conscious decisions about whether or not they are ready and interested in sharing their stories at all, and then, if they do decide to participate in a workshop, they can be assured that there will a lot of discussion about what it may mean and whether or not they feel safe sharing names, images, and experiences in their stories. These measures are intended not only to keep people free from harm (ie, from retribution, from stigma in their communities, etc.), but also to ensure that they have a meaningful experience as they go through the process of creating a digital story.
And then there’s the issue of context, when it comes to bringing public attention to “silenced” issues. With Silence Speaks, I am interested in critically examining the ways in which the process of sharing and listening to stories can lead to specific changes across multiple levels of human experience and influence. We take special care, in working with our partners on story distribution, to contextualize individual narratives against a backdrop of larger social, political, and economic structures. We have seen that with skillful presentation, first-person voices can illustrate the systemic causes of issues like poor health outcomes and demand change at community, institutional, and government levels. We focus on projects that position storytellers as leaders in speaking out about issues that affect their health and well-being.
When it comes to the role of the internet in bringing attention to topics often surrounded in silence, I caution readers to think carefully about who benefits from the proliferation of narratives of suffering and sorrow, online. Is it the storytellers themselves? Or is it journalists and media outlets, always on the lookout for a story that sells … NGOs and government agencies with particular funding / programmatic agendas, who may view such tragedies as instruments for fundraising or communications campaigns … or distant viewers sitting alone at their computers, who may simply come away from watching the stories with a sense of helplessness, or fatigue, or relief and appreciation for their own relative safety?
Rather than prioritizing internet distribution of Silence Speaks stories, I prefer to focus on mechanisms for sharing stories with local audiences, where they have the potential to really make a difference – as tools for training and eduation, or prompts for community dialogue and discussion. Our colleagues at WITNESS have offered useful mentoring along these lines, with their emphasis on sharing activist videos with “micro audiences” who are in a position to influence key human rights issues.
Me: How does the presence of violence or stigma in someone’s story change the practice of digital storytelling, if at all? For example, why did the CDS need a distinct program to deal with stigmatized issues and do Silence Speaks workshops teach differently than a typical CDS workshop?
AMY: In the way it’s practiced at the Center, digital storytelling requires a huge amount of humility and sensitivity, on the part of facilitators. When it comes to stories that touch on the trauma of violence or other heavily stigmatized issues, this is especially true. I come from a violent family, and it was my own challenged participation in a more general digital storytelling workshop that led me to create Silence Speaks; I saw the value in bringing together groups of people who have shared similar difficult experiences.
I also take very seriously the notion that asking someone who is currently “in” his or her story (i.e., someone in crisis or suffering from flashbacks, anxiety, etc.) to narrate that story can (but won’t always) be problematic. This means that we emphasize to Silence Speaks project partners that the recruitment of storytellers must involve careful screening, and unlike in other kinds of workshop, in a Silence Speaks workshop we require that staff who are trained in crisis counseling be available, should someone need extra support. I believe that most people choose to tell their stories, even if the telling is emotionally challenging, when they are ready. This means they feel they have the strength and internal resources necessary for the storytelling work, and when they do, we make sure that facilitators who are capable of truly listening will be available to hear them. That certainly doesn’t make the process easy or simple, and it means that in our workshops we seek to build an environment and an atmosphere that respects the significance of the process.
Me: How was working on the issue of personal experience of abortion, and abortion listening, similar or different to the other issues you’ve addressed through digital storytelling?
AMY: The work with Exhale has been really deep, for me. Like one of the Exhale storytellers, I’ve identified for most of my life as Pro-Choice, without giving much thought to the issue of whose agendas shape the presentation of so-called “abortion stories” in media. This means that I built a pretty solid wall between my own abortion experience, as a younger woman, and my staunch advocacy on behalf of a woman’s right to choose. It really felt like there was no way to reconcile my own very understandable pain and grief with the urgency of protecting abortion laws. Working with you and Kristin and the Exhale storytellers helped me dismantle that wall, helped me to more comfortably hold both the sadness and tenderness of what I went through and my belief in the importance for women’s health and well-being of making sure that abortion continues to be safe and legal.
In terms of differences from other issues I’ve addressed as part of the Silence Speaks work, in some ways, the topics explored by the Exhale storytellers seem surrounded by the most silence of all. While public naming and discussion of violence and abuse, for instance, has been fairly normalized over in the past 20 years (in no small part due to the publicity surrounding the OJ Simpson trial, Oprah’s disclosure of her own sexual abuse, and, more recently, the huge visibility that is being given to the problem of rape as a weapon of war, for instance in the DRC), the intensity of the abortion wars in the U.S. seems to have kept most women who have had abortion from feeling safe or comfortable speaking out. The dangers are obvious in a context where abortion clinics are harassed daily by right-wing protesters and physicians who perform the procedure have to wear bullet-proof vests.
And we can’t forget the emotional risks of sharing, in an environment that emphasizes only the right to choose without acknowledging women’s right to have whatever feeling and emotions they may have, in the wake of those choices. This is the mistake of the pro choice defenders, who are so busy with the immediate struggle that they have forgotten to recognize or ask women themselves what they need and want, in terms of support around abortion. It seems to me that those on both sides of this war who lament women’s lack of willingness to share their individual stories are failing to see what a monumental request they are making of such women. They seem to view stories as fodder for their battles, as commodities that will assist them in winning, in “owning” the discourse around abortion, rather than considering what it would like to put their own most personal struggles and life decisions out on the table, for all the world to see.
Me: What is your hope for the role of digital stories in the public dialogue about abortion?
AMY: My hopes are really aligned with those of the folks at Exhale: first, to create a truly safe environment in which women can speak honestly about their experiences with abortion and achieve some kind of resolution or relief or peace, just through the simple act of listening and telling. And secondly, to support these women in defining how, when, and where it seems right to bring these stories into the public dialogue, rather than simply “extracting” their stories to advance a particular agenda. While these hopes may seem to fly in the face of some contemporary notions about health communications, which emphasize the importance of specific and clear “messaging” derived from individual stories and don’t seem interested in the process through which such messages are developed, I feel that our approach has a kind of basic integrity and truth that is truly women-centered. We don’t live our lives or tell our stories in the shape of bullet points or taglines, but as stories, and honoring these stories brings out our compassion and our humanity … essential ingredients, I think, for establishing abortion peace.
Thank you Amy Hill!