* Post by Kristen Schultz Oliver, Exhale Director of Programs
In February this year, five exceptional women, all Exhale volunteers, decided to join in a new adventure: making their own digital stories about abortion and listening! For people who care about improving the public dialogue on abortion, the storytellers now have some valuable reflections and realizations about the journey they took.
It all started with the decision we made organizationally at Exhale, to embark on a learning expedition on how to implement our pro-voice mission on a broader scale. We asked ourselves: what kind of strategies do we need to ensure that women’s voices and experiences drive public dialogue? And how do we grow these strategies in accordance with our core values of promoting individual wellbeing and creating a climate of support and respect? To that end, we established our goal to create and grow forums where each woman’s story is heard with dignity and respect.
Over the course of two long weekends, these generous, daring, courageous women engaged in self-reflection, disclosed private details, let the creative juices flow, collaborated closely, utilized film-making tools, and cried and laughed a whole lot!
Two months later, they have incredible insight into the storytelling process – insight that may serve as instructive lessons to those of us who want to increase supportive, respectful public dialogue about abortion.
Here are their thoughts, in their own words, about what it was like*.
KRISTEN: When you first heard about this opportunity, what did you think? Why did it appeal to you, and why did you decide to participate?
EJ: It appealed to me for two reasons. First, I am an anthropologist by training, so I’m used to trying to uncover other people’s stories. This felt like it would be an interesting exercise to be the one who tells a story instead. Secondly, I’m a pretty reserved person in general, so I was interested exploring my creative side in a safe environment.
SS: I thought it sounded like a creative and a potentially very healing project for me. I had my abortion three years ago, and had never really told the story from beginning to end. At that point, my abortion existed in my past as something that had happened to me, but I rarely thought about the experience and definitely didn’t understand the impact of it on who I am today. The storytelling workshop appealed to me mainly because I saw an opportunity to explore a painful part of my past in a safe place, to process what I experienced thoroughly so I could integrate it into the fabric of my life in a healthy way, and hopefully begin to move forward, to have peace with that part of my life.
KRISTEN: What was the process like, of going through the workshop and creating the story? How was it to share such a personal story in that setting? What was it like to channel your creativity into the digital story format?
IE: It was hard because it asked me to dig into myself and be okay with exposure in a way that I still hadn’t been fully prepared for. I think the fear wasn’t really around sharing details of my story but around the emotion and the humility I had to present in saying, “Here is my story as it is and I’m presenting it here for you to cast your judgments, opinions, accolades, or criticisms, to ignore it, to question it, to support it.” I had to do a lot of internal battling around putting out what was raw and spontaneous and putting out what was rehearsed, groomed, and appropriate for public consumption.
KS: I didn’t realize what I was getting into until we met. There were a group of five of us who really didn’t know each other outside of our counselor meet ups and we were supposed to share our personal stories with each other. I felt more comfortable knowing that Aspen and Kristen were there because I knew that they would do everything within their power to protect us from judgment and criticism. I’ve never shared my whole personal story with anyone. I thought that throughout the years, I was able to overcome those feelings. I felt that it was time for me to share. Just going back and recalling what had happened brought back the feelings I had nine years ago. It was difficult being so vulnerable with a group of people I didn’t really know.
RD: I had told my story several times and in several different forums — ranging from in person at abortion speak outs and educational panels, to writing for the online community. Given that, it was very interesting to me to think about how I could use digital media as a new means to share my story, and in the process heal around a different piece of my experience. In an effort to experience storytelling a means of healing, I chose a topic that I had not explored much in my past processing of my abortion experience, certainly not in public. It was a very intense experience to channel this particular experience into a video, particularly in the editing process. While editing, you are hearing your voice tell your own story back to you, over and over, while matching it up with the images visually depicting your story. Hearing your story spoken back to you in this way was difficult…I had my script memorized for weeks after! The final product was really satisfying and amazing — to be with a group of women who had zero experience in making videos and seeing everyone’s beautiful final products was a moment of real pride.
KRISTEN: How did you feel after the workshop was over? Were you glad you did it? Did you have reactions you were surprised about in yourself or others?
EJ: I was extremely proud of how my story came out, and I was relieved that it was over. It’s an intense experience to focus on something so personal.
RD: I LOVED the experience and am very glad that I did it. I was so proud and impressed with all of the work the women created in such a short time. So honest and raw, very intimate. I was surprised by how burned into my memory each woman’s story was after seeing it visually. It took me a few weeks to fully process all of it.
KS: Once we completed the project and finally saw the end result, I was shocked and pleased with myself and everyone else in the group. I knew the other girls were talented but I didn’t realize how talented they were. I was also very proud of myself because of all the work I put into it and how good it turned out. I was able to put something that was such a personal and shameful event in my life to something that was beautiful. I felt that my story was finally over with and I was able to move past it.
KRISTEN: Would you have created the digital story if you knew it would automatically be available to the general public, up on YouTube right away, for the entire world to see? Why or why not?
EJ: I approached the workshop with the assumption that I would want to share my story. For me, part of doing this was my belief that these stories ought to be told and shared — *safely*. That being said, I think that I would have created a very different story if I didn’t have final control over how it was shared.
SS: I may have still participated in the project, but I would have been MUCH more censored in what went into the final story. And at a certain point, I don’t know that it would have been worth the time and energy if I had to censor myself that much. The beauty of this project was that I felt the ownership and control over what happened to MY STORY. I was able to open up freely and honestly precisely because I trusted that my story would be used only in ways I was comfortable with. As the process continued and my digital story took shape, I became more open to revealing it to others. But if I started the process knowing the entire world would see it, I doubt I would have been as open or as authentic as I had the opportunity to be. I don’t think I would have been as attached to the end product.
KRISTEN: We developed a very specific informed consent process for showing the digital stories, to respect the storyteller’s ownership and privacy. What did you think about the different forum options available to you?
IE: I was grateful for the very detailed consent forms. I hadn’t thought about a few of the various avenues presented and definitely had to give deliberate thought to each one. Some things like sharing it with future counselors were easier to decide on than other things like sharing it on Huffington Post. In a way, it was cool to see the various avenues because I felt like, “Wow, my story could reach a lot of people,” but I also thought, “Wow, my story could be misappropriated or misinterpreted by a lot of people.”
KS: I was very happy to see how detailed the consent form was. It listed all of the different situations where our stories could be shown and we were able to opt out from any of them. I’m glad that Aspen and Kristen put together this consent forms to protect our privacy.
KRISTEN: What was it like to have your digital story screened in a small, moderated gathering of supporters? Would you participate in something like this again – why or why not?
IE: I totally loved the format and truly appreciated Amy, Kristen, and Aspen for everything they did to make it a reality. In the back of mind was the thought, “What will people remember after this is all done, what will they say about me, about us when this is all done?” But I’m glad I did it. I like to challenge myself that way. I love the stage so I was surprised at how jittery and fluttery I was sitting in the panel but other than that my only regret was that I hadn’t brought a dish. :)
SS: I had a wonderful experience during the screening. It felt like a celebration of something unique to be able to show the digital stories with our most intimate friends and colleagues. I appreciated what one panelist said, about feeling protective of the other storytellers’ stories, taking care to respect who was invited given the topic and considering how outside acquaintances would respond. I felt the same way. There was a lot of trust among the participants involved in the workshop, and I appreciated the respect and concern that was extended at every juncture, by everyone. I enjoyed the Q&A period as well. It was very interesting to hear the responses of the observers, and to reflect back on the whole experience after giving it some time to settle in. The screening provided a lot of closure for me, which was an unexpected and delightful bonus to the whole experience.
Thank you to all the storytellers!
*The storytellers approved use of their initials, not their full names, or photos, in this interview. Also, the storytellers are looking forward to showing their stories in a number of public forums in the months ahead, though this does not include public online forums. For more reading and information on telling a personal story in public, and what it means to be “super public,” please read Aspen Baker’s interview of Baratunde Thurston. If you are interested in hosting a screening of the stories, please contact info [@] 4exhale [dot] org.