Lessons Taken from the Gathering of Digital Storytellers

Spending two days with a group of digital storytelling facilitators working largely outside of the world of formal education but squarely within the world of social activism was not only refreshing but useful. I learned a lot about how people outside formal ed are thinking about technology, and how they are promoting informal learning and personal empowerment. I found myself really trying to sit back and listen, to learn, to take in more than trying to push the conversation in any particular direction. Ha–Ms. Passionate staying on the quiet side!

I found it very interesting how the stories’ dependence on technology didn’t provoke particularly interesting discussions about technology or pedagogy. The facilitators were interested in learning about software and shortcuts, ways to make the work-with-technology easier and ways to keep up with developments about hosting sites and such–but really, they wanted to talk about their projects and the communities they were serving, showcasing the impact digital storytelling was having on their communities. There were lots of questions about next-steps–how to grow the movement, how to convince their own organizations or funders to support the work, and how to share the work. There was some tension between the process and the product, between the creator and the audience.

Of course I jumped into informal between-sessions conversations to talk about ways in which social software might ease that tension, and might well deepen the experience for the storytellers, and extend the reach of the work’s impact. Initially I met with some resistance to social software–blogs were seen as a waste, a distractor, or a isolating factor by some. I heard young people in the group apologize for using MySpace. This morning, an article on the front page of the Boston Globe made me think of that reluctance to think about how perhaps online tools might well help them solve the very problems expressed. Entitled It’s lonely out there: Connections fray in wired America, study finds, the article by Scott Allen opens with the following:

Americans don’t have as many close friends as they used to.
We’re networking on myspace.com, sharing photos and text messaging on our cellphones, and blogging at all hours. But a major national survey being released today shows that the average number of people with whom Americans discuss important matters has dropped from three to two in just two decades, a steep falloff in confidants that startled the researchers.

The study by sociologists at Duke University and the University of Arizona provides powerful evidence for the argument that the country is becoming increasingly socially isolated even as cellphones, the Internet, and other technology make people more interconnected.

Hmmm… Even though he doesn’t come right out and say it, the writer sure is implying that it is because we are on blogs and MySpace and wikis that we do not have strong connections with the people in our lives. This is, of course, nothing new. Book after book after article after article take this position. And indeed, if people are aimlessly wandering around about on the Web or on the streets, bored, restless, they aren’t going to be connecting with others in ways that build strong bonds and a feeling of belonging and wellness. On the heels of the conference, it helped me see why social activists hesitate to try out the Web’s connectivity through their own practice , even when they use the same words–bonding and bridging—that I do, and even when they are actively using digital media technology in their work. Blogs are getting slammed out there in the media–

So when I got up to talk with my student, Remy, I hoped to convey a sense of how blogs, for one, by giving people a place to establish a linked reflective practice (linked to one’s earlier posts by referencing them and by literally being a scroll or click away) help weave a powerful narrative of a person’s relationship with the work and the community of practice. Blogging as a meta-practice can deepen the experience for the community members by grounding it in their own lives, their own experience, their own reasons for coming to the community of practice using digital storytelling. Blogging as a meta-practice for facilitators can help clarify, chronicle, contextualize, situate the experience of facilitating for themselves and their organization.

Again (or as usual) I’ll quote from E. M. Forster: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” So, why, some might ask, does this expression have to be on a public blog? Yes, the linking aspect makes sense–but why not keep one only to be read by oneself? Well, that’s certainly a possibility, and when the context is extremely sensitive or vulnerable, that’s understandable. But with a public blog–and what I’d advocate (again as usual), is linking individual blogs from the community off of a group blog or something like drupal, where other kinds of interactions and publishing can go on– sharing the reflection means that you are reaching out to others–your community of practice directly by and the world beyond, to learn from them if they swing by and converse with you via comments, or to teach them through your own stories, experience and reaching-out. And that kind of sharing in an age-old letter-writing manner can help grow ideas for the organization through collective intelligence, deepen the bonds between the members, reach out to other communities. Informal learning can take place, developing of a strong personal and group voice, and a sense of looking out into the world and trying to make a difference. Community engagement can be positively affected. And blogs are great ways to link to digital stories–stories that can be embedded within text, or coupled with images, or open to comments.

And then I handed things over to my student Remy, who did a splendid job being a case study, in essence, talking about how he started by reading blogs, and then tried out blogging in fits and starts until the practice really informed his digital storytelling–the writing and using images and working ouut his ideas and getting feedback from his readers. And then he showed his stunning digital story (which he should have up and running on his blog soon)–he learned a tremendous amount being at the conference as a presenter as well as a participant.

After our talk many people joined us to discuss how a Web community might enhance their own experience, give their constituents more opportunities to develop a voice, and be an important tool in strengthening their communities while reaching out to other groups and individuals. But there wasn’t enough time–we were last up during at long two days. There simply wasn’t time. And so we’ll continue that conversation here and on the blog from the conference (interesting that there’s a blog but it really isn’t being used by the community except to access information) and in other venues that we’re developing.

A couple of highlights from the gathering–presentations by:
Shira Golding, Director of Education & Outreach, <a href=”http://www.artsengine.net/index.php”target=”_blank”<Arts Engine Here are my notes blogged from her session:

Arts Engine was founded by documentary filmmakers working on social issues; they wanted to make an impact with their films and realized there needed to be a much broader network for the makers and the users of film. They house MediaRights.org–a powerful resource and tool for filmmakers for social change and people who want access to films. The films here include digital stories. It is community driven for the most part. Arts Engine doesn’t curate the films. To do so, they started the Media that Matters Festival, a festival working year-round and through as many platforms as possible; it streams online (you can see photos through Flickr or the films on Google Video) On the website you can view the films, learn about them, and be linked to context of the specific film–places to learn more about the issue and to take action. They also realized that online interaction can only take you so far–they also have a traveling film festival and a DVD and tools available for people who want to use the films to make an impact (including posters, press releases, programs, etc., evaluation forms)–to watch within a community.

Concepts needing to be discussed by this movement–
Process versus Product: You can get swept up with the product when you’re talking about distibution and outreach. We can’t forget process. Taking a moment at the beginning, during the process to talk about audience–who will view it and why?
Marginalization vs. Integration: We have to think about digital storytelling as part of a larger form, independent media, instead of a wee, lesser form. They do this with Youth Media as well.
DIY vs DIWP: There is an attitude in independent media that you can do it all yourself; you have to open up to making it with partners–community groups, etc to reach your audience with the most impact.

The Story Development Process Josh Schachter of StoriesMatter and Cheryl Crow of Bridges to Understanding–Josh really gets the media literacy aspect and how to listen to the those doing the storytelling, letting them take the lead at every turn. Inspiring work. My notes:

Josh: Has been working with teenagers and their community stories in image and text; the Tuscon newspaper carries the stories. He’s worked on US/Mexico border to teach photography–what’s it like to live by the fence, etc.

Cheryl: Bridges to Understanding in Seattle –giving children who didn’t have a voice a voice, linked kids in the Amazon with kids in Seattle. The focus now is middle school and elementary students posting their digital stories to share with others around the world. It’s moving towards being an issue-driven model rather than sharing of personal stories.

Josh: He focuses on visual storytelling. He showed a story by a student on a reservation–the process took three weeks. Josh had to learn a whole new form of communication and teaching–the community didn’t want to talk about the issues.
“Why do we even take pictures? How are they used in society? Are they the truth?” These are the basic questions he starts out every class with. The essentialness of teaching image literacy. Every photograph is a self-portrait.
Taking metaphor and turning it into matter–hope, sorrow, confusion, for example. He gives students an image scavenger hunt–he gives them abstractions, and the kids have to go out and take photographs of time, memory, etc.

Then he goes into composition and lighting. And the moment in time captured (he uses film clips and has kids take a freeze frame that expresses it and talks about how the meaning would be changed if they had shifted the frame by a second) .

He talks with them about assumptions they have about people and subject matter.

Visual Variety: (Life Magazine’s formula for taking photo stories, too)

Strategies for getting students to the stories
–Take into account individual differences
–If fixated on text–force them to tell it in 5 pics or just spoken word
–Do interview exercises
–Find what excites them
–Have them tell story without looking at the script, poetry slam
–Screen clips
–Get peers to help
–Go take twenty pictures of the same thing
–Found objects within the community

Cheryl: How much do you prepare before you gather your visual data? What’s the balance between letting unexpected things arise and having a plan?
A worldwide project on the theme of water in their lives and communities– shows a short clip of a piece from Peru and one from New Mexico; the kids in New Mexico didn’t want to talk about water. On the photoshoot, the stories opened up and the kids got to talk about what they wanted to talk about.

So much potential here for social software. I’m looking forward to BlogHer where I hope to listen to bloggers such as Nancy White and Dina Mehta and many others working with activist groups and other nonprofits outside the formal education realm. Can’t wait.

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One Response

  1. Barbara – Firstly, I have to thank you and Remy for your illuminating and thought-provoking presentation! After being away from academia for 2 years, I found it refreshing to hear how a great academic mind would situate the field of digital storytelling into a broader context. Also, your energy and enthusiasm for the potential of blogs/social software was absolutely palpable and inspiring! I really wish we had had more time to devote to coming up with ways to form a digital community. I also hope to incorporate your ideas into our website and start to think about how we can encourage connections between children around the world through our site. Our biggest struggle in the past has been getting students to really open up on the forum.

    About your post, gosh, i have so much to say…I was one of those young people who apologized for using myspace, so I was really comforted to read your discussion in defense of such sites. Of course, the point is for me to develop my own opinion rather than saying, “Hey, a professor agrees with me, so it’s ok!” Your post has inspired me to develop a more coherent defense of myspace and other sites rather than remaining apologetic.

    I’ve also been annoyed by the constant reference to how online distractions are creating alienated individuals…firstly, the study that the Scott Allen article uses as “proof” doesn’t even speak very convincingly to me, because it assumes that having 3 people with whom one discusses “important issues” is more inherently “social” than 2. Is it really the mere number of people one connects with that is important/prosocial, or the depth of those connections?

    There are holes in many of these studies, because at the end of the day, “alienation” and such concepts are extremely difficult to operationalize. It seems the studies often miss the point that it’s not the media themselves that are potential causing the alienation, but rather the way people choose to use them.

    Anyway, i’ll stop ranting now, but thanks again for such a thought-provoking discussion in Boston and blog here, i’m enjoying reading it!

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