For over eight years, Exhale has been a confidential listener to the stories of thousands of women and men, after an abortion. Yet, rarely are these voices heard in public discussion. Thus, the evolution of our pro-voice agenda that aims to transform public dialogue so that it is grounded in the voices and experiences of people who have had abortions.
But, how do we go from confidential listening to public storytelling around abortion given the great risks women and men face if they share their story with abortion?
Enter our partnership with the Center for Digital Storytelling who is the leader on how to do storytelling around stigmatized or sensitive issues in ways that empower and support storytellers. We were honored to learn from them in a recent digital storytelling workshop we held where women told their stories of listening and abortion.
We are honored to give a “Pro-Voice High-Five” to the Center for Digital Storytelling for Leadership. I hope you enjoy my interview with its Executive Director, Joe Lambert, and the Director of their Silence Speaks program, Amy Hill.
Staff of the Center for Digital Storytelling
Aspen: Tell me about how the Center for Digital Storytelling came to exist and about your mission.
Amy & Joe: The Center for Digital Storytelling assists youth and adults around the world in using digital media tools to record meaningful stories about their own lives and share these stories in ways that enable learning, build community, and inspire justice. We came into being in the early 1990s, as a result of a unique artistic collaboration between current Executive Director Joe Lambert and performer Dana Atchley, who, sadly, passed away some years ago. On the heels of Dana’s live solo performance, “Next Exit,” which highlighted a series of intimate moments from his past and was accompanied by projected still images and film clips, Joe and Dana developed a workshop model that enabled people with no prior storytelling or media-making experience to craft, record, and produce their own short, first person videos. Since our early days, we have facilitated the creation of more than 10,000 of these “digital stories” in countries around the world and have been recognized as leaders in the growing field that we inspired. We’ve received awards from the New Media Consortium, the International Digital Media Association and the Media that Matters Film Festival.
Aspen: What are some of the projects you are most proud of/had the most impact?
Amy & Joe: We work with numerous partners to integrate and adapt digital storytelling methods across multiple sectors (ranging from K-12 and higher education and community arts, to health/human services, international development, and land preservation), and we are proud of all of these efforts – we invite readers to take a look at our online case studies. Because of the commitment our staff has to promoting artistic expression, human dignity, and social and economic justice, several projects stand out …
Our work with the Managing Information in Rural America project in 1999-2000 had us develop strong ties with grassroots planning and organizing groups in 2 dozen communities around the country. In 2001 we helped to launch Capture Wales, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s national implementation of digital storytelling, sparking interest in our work from around the world. That same year we initiated work with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, which led to a Australia wide interest in the process in countless community implementations dealing with public health, indigenous rights, and local history. We are also proud of our collaboration with Brazil’s Museum of the Person, which adapted our methods for their One Million Stories for Youth project in 2007-9, as well as working with us to create the International Day for Sharing Life Stories on May 16 each year.
For the past five years, through our Silence Speaks initiative, we’ve been collaborating with the Sonke Gender Justice Network in South Africa on a large-scale digital storytelling program. This work has not only been instrumental in pushing our ethical thinking about highly sensitive personal stories, it has served as a model for our approach to ensuring that stories have an impact in the world. Sonke stories have been shared as health education and health provider training tools; in community settings, to mobilize action planning for local change; on radio, to raise awareness about the country’s new Sexual Offenses Act and to spur learning about and involvement in gender-based violence and HIV prevention; and in South Africa’s parliament, to press for policy shifts in terms of how government health funds are allocated.
Aspen: What is it about stories – sharing and telling each other our stories – that is such a powerful tool for social change?
Amy & Joe: Regardless of where we are from, what our material circumstances are, and how our daily lives unfold, we all have stories to tell. Through sharing and listening to personal narratives, we come to know each other, our communities, our world, and ourselves. Stories can inspire us, educate us, and move us deeply. As a result of being touched by someone else’s story, we make connections between their circumstances and our own. When it comes to confronting complex social issues, these connections can help us bridge the differences that often divide us and instead act with wisdom, compassion, and conscience.
The Sonke Gender Justice – Silence Speaks collaboration noted above has led to the creation of an important model of the multiple potential impacts of digital storytelling, which rests in a continuum of strategies for developing and sharing stories – from stories that are created as part of the individual healing and growth of workshop participants, to stories that are utilized to educate/build skills, mobilize communities to action, and influence institutional or public policy. Below is a graphic representation of the continuum that describes the ways in which the digital storytelling process and the videos produced through this process can elicit and document change at a number of levels:
Aspen: What kind of an impact has the explosion of video on the internet had on the practice and art of digital storytelling?
Amy & Joe: An enormous one. In 2005, YouTube appeared almost out of nowhere in the online media scene. Suddenly our work took on an entirely new meaning in terms of its perceived ability to make a difference in people’s lives – specifically in the lives of viewers. The number of partners who began to approach us out of a desire to develop personal stories that would become very public mushroomed; while we had of course worked with the BBC and other big media outlets to build programs which showcased digital stories online, before YouTube’s emergence, the capacity of individuals and non-tech. oriented groups and organizations to upload video content was much more limited. Suddenly, all of our clients were interested less in how digital stories could be shared in relevant local contexts and more in how they could be available on the web – via YouTube or other similar sites — for the whole world to view.
While there are clearly benefits to online video – larger audiences; enhanced ability to reach likeminded supporters, funders, etc. — we have become increasingly concerned about the ways in which simplistic assumptions about these benefits, absent consideration of potential harms. When does the drive to “collect” stories, fueled by the ease with which they can be put up online, lead to exploitation and commodification instead of healing, learning, or self-determination, particularly when the storytellers represent vulnerable groups (i.e., refugees; survivors of violence; the frail elderly; poor, single mothers)? What processes of transparency and informed consent must be developed to ensure that storytellers are fully aware of the implications of what they are doing and are in some way benefitting from making intimate moments of their lives visible to broad publics? How can we as participatory media production consultants best advise our partners about complex issues of safety, confidentiality, exposure, etc., so that they internalize the values of our Center rather than becoming callous story entrepreneurs who are focused on their own agendas rather than on ensuring that workshop participants have something meaningful to gain in creating digital stories? What other ways of sharing stories can we encourage, where careful facilitation and discussion is part of the process, and where local impact in community settings is emphasized, rather than distant viewings by isolated individuals seated at their computers? These questions represent just a glimpse of the mountain of ethical dilemmas we are facing as the world of online and social media continues to evolve. While our bottom line allegiance is to our storytellers, and to the classic notion of “do no harm,” we also recognize that in our humanness, mistakes will be made, and that we must be committed to constant growth and learning.
Aspen: What is your advice for people who want to share their own stories about a topic seen as sensitive, stigmatized or private?
Amy & Joe: Take lots of time to reflect and explore your reasons for wanting to do so, and your anticipated audience(s), and choose your method accordingly. Remember that the classic media tools of pen and paper allow for a kind of anonymity that is not as easy to achieve with digital audio or video. And even if you do decide to speak publicly, there is nothing wrong with wanting particular aspects of your story to remain private. If an individual or group is pressuring you to “get your story out there,” react with skepticism until you are sure they have your best interests at heart and are not simply interested in how “your message” can support their particular social or political agenda. Our Silence Speaks program has really been instrumental in the development of appropriate ways to walk people through this kind of decision-making. Silence Speaks understands that survivors of trauma, stigma, or simple grief and loss can thrive in environments where their stories are listened to deeply, with presence and compassion, and that this may be enough – that disclosing stories to the masses may not be the best option. The program has created a number of screening and assessment tools, and guidelines for organizational partners, that are designed to protect without patronizing by making sure that potential workshop participants understand a given project’s objectives and are truly ready to share their stories.
Thank you the Center for Digital Storytelling for your Leadership!