Story Circles and Digital Storytelling
All struggles against oppression in the modern world begin by deﬁning what had previously been considered private, non-public, and non-political as matters of public concern, issues of justice, and sites of power.
— Seyla Benhabib (Situating the Self)
The most powerful therapeutic process I know is to contribute to rich story development.
— Michael White (Founder of Narrative Therapy)
by Patrick Jagoda and Alida Bouris with contributions from Evan Wisdom-Dawson
Stories are among the most common forms we encounter on an everyday basis. We share stories about our days or our pasts with close friends, colleagues, partners, parents, children, social media acquaintances, and sometimes even strangers. We experience structured narratives via films and television, ranging from long form serial dramas to reality TV shows that use editing to convey narrative frames and arcs. At a smaller scale, we watch TikTok videos or read Twitter posts that often communicate a short-form story in just a few seconds. Though the generalized “we” tends not to be advisable, given vast differences of experience among people, narrative is a form that most human beings have in common. As literary critic Matthew Garrett puts it, “we really cannot help but live in narrative” (1). Storytelling has countless variations, but in all cases involves both the “what” of a narrative (in shorthand, its “content”) and the “how” (its sequence of telling, form, and medium), including the interplay between the two.
The study of narrative has a long history, especially as it has become a central object of study in the discipline of literary criticism via the formal designation of “narratology” as well as the looser constellation of “narrative theory.” Narrative received early systematic treatments through movements such as Russian formalism and structuralism, continuing through poststructuralism and later theories of fictionality and cultural studies contributions such as feminist and queer narratology (Puckett 14). This chapter, however, is less interested in overarching theories, structures, and definitions than in narrative practices. In the pages that follow, we introduce the specific methodologies of story circles and digital storytelling, and animate them through the in-depth case of the South Side Stories project that we conducted in Chicago. In addition to describing the methodological decisions and composition of the workshop, as well as key ethical considerations for this kind of work, we include three of the resulting digital stories and analyze them using close reading techniques taken from the humanities and demonstrated by Patrick Jagoda and Evan Wisdom-Dawson. Following this extended case and story samples, in the chapter coda, we turn briefly to another Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) project, Kissa Kahani, to suggest how these methods worked for us when moved from the South Side of Chicago, where most of TSL's work takes place, to the city of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh, India.
Beyond characterizing story circles and digital storytelling in general, we are interested in how these narrative methods can serve as social interventions. Unlike stories told to communicate (as with everyday storytelling) or to entertain (as with the stories we encounter on television or social media), we are interested in stories that seek to intervene in the knowledge and practices of a social space, in this case public health and medical programs. Traditional interventions in these fields often use didactic methods to improve young people’s health-related knowledge, skills, and behaviors in a unidirectional fashion. By contrast, story circles and digital storytelling are informed by participatory theater and participatory research methodologies, both of which aim to involve individuals as active co-creators rather than as passive subjects or consumers (Michna 2009). This value — that young people can and should be directly involved in research and programming designed to support their health and well-being — is foundational to all of the work we describe in this book. Before showing how story circles and digital storytelling operate in practice, and with a particular group of young people, we offer a brief overview of these methods.
Story circles and digital storytelling are related but not identical narrative methods. First, story circles are a process for soliciting self-reflective participation through a series of oral and written prompts related to an overarching theme. Unlike most other methods in this book, this approach does not necessarily include a digital dimension. The democratic impulse of the circle — a space that consists of check-ins, group agreements, deep listening, and witnessing — fosters a comparatively safe environment for learning across a broad range of capacities and experiences. Story circles emerged from the history of participatory theater that accompanied the Civil Rights movement in the United States. In 1963, artists working with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee established the Free Southern Theater (FST), an organization designed to make theater accessible to Black people living in the rural South (Cohen-Cruz; Larocco). The theater was based on a foundational belief in “radical democratic philosophy, which insisted that local people were the most important sources of usable knowledge and social change” (Larocco 510). John O’Neal, one of the original founders of FST, along with Doris Denby and Gil Moses, developed the Story Circle Methodology as a tool to engage audiences and performers in critical dialogue with the goals of reflecting on and creating new plays that deal with the struggle for racial justice (Cohen-Cruz). For O’Neal, deep “listening is what gives definition to the story,” as “hearing itself is a creative act” (O’Neal as cited by Michna 2009, 539).
THE RULES OF THE STORY CIRCLE ARE THE RULES OF CIVIL PARTICIPATION IN SOCIETY. YOU AGREE TO LISTEN. YOU AGREE TO RESPECT.”
In story circle work, listening to young people and supporting them to listen to other people’s stories is critical to the workshop process and associated research. As Aline Gubrium and K.C. Nat Turner note, the story circle’s emphasis on collaborative sharing and learning “disrupts traditional notions of authorship that see thinking and learning as individual in nature, instead of rooted in a sociocultural context where people collaborate in knowledge production” (472-473). Similar to story circles, narrative-based work in health promotion research actively encourages young people to create and share stories about their health, relationships, and life (Miller-Day and Hecht). Some scholars have argued that narrative content in health programs is more likely to influence young people’s understanding of their worlds, as personal storytelling is grounded in lived experience (Miller-Day and Hecht). We view story circles as a method through which to engage youth both cognitively and emotionally (Miller-Day and Hecht).
Second of all, digital storytelling, a more production-driven method that can follow from story circles, involves a workshop in which participants craft a script and use video editing tools to integrate images and audio to create an autobiographical essay film. Like story circles, digital storytelling is rooted in a tradition of arts-based activism. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists and educators developed pedagogies to make art accessible to communities that had been excluded from the processes of production, reception, and circulation that make up the fine art world. As this activism progressed, artists and educators collected powerful stories, many of them autobiographical, and sought to capitalize on emerging digital technologies as a means to publicly share these stories. Much of this work was formalized within the Center for Digital Storytelling, which was established in Berkeley in 1998 (a previous incarnation, the Center for Digital Media, was established in San Francisco in 1995). The Center for Digital Storytelling, which became Story Center in 2015, is the preeminent organization working in digital storytelling. By their own estimates, the Story Center has held thousands of digital storytelling workshops around the world.
As a method, digital storytelling is a workshop-based practice that invites participants to become storytellers by coming together over a defined period of time to identify an experience, share it verbally, and craft a brief script to give it form (Gubrium 2009; Lambert). As a story crystallizes for each storyteller, workshop participants finalize their script, select images and music, and use video editing tools to integrate their story, images, and music into a single work. The final product is a short digital video that usually lasts from two to five minutes and is akin to a digital memoir, in-depth interview, or multimedia poem (Lambert; Rossiter and Garcia). Digital storytelling has been used for a variety of purposes: to preserve individual stories, document collective histories, develop leadership skills, and advance social causes (Lambert).
Particularly in the 2010s, when we have practiced this work, digital storytelling has served as an ideal method to engage young people, as it benefits from their position as “digital natives” who have grown up with digital and networked technology and are actively involved in creating and sharing stories via social media (Prensky). Of course, youth experience in such workshops, and previous access to relevant technologies, is always variable, so this generational status is not an automatic guarantee of equity. Nevertheless, we have witnessed a frequent excitement about digital storytelling formats from youth in these workshops because of its continued relevance to their everyday lives. Because digital stories are often deeply personal, educators, advocates, and scholars have embraced digital storytelling as a way to promote individual and collective learning about a range of topics, including identity development (Anderson and Mack; Davis), gender roles (Hull et al.; Wexler et al.), sexual health (Botfield et al.; Guse et al.), sexual assault (Reed and Hill), pregnancy (Gubrium et al. 2014), education (Robin; Rubino et al.), and mental health (Ward and De Leeuw). While story circles are a more open-ended and process-oriented method, digital storytelling uses digital tools to create narratives that benefit from iteration and editing. These stories frequently move beyond the workshop format and can be circulated online.
At the beginning of each digital storytelling workshop is the story circle that we previously described. As young people sit in a story circle, they are asked to share their story and to receive feedback from other storytellers about how to refine and clarify the language, narrative arc, themes, meanings, and emotional impact of their story. In addition, they are asked to listen deeply to other young people’s stories and to offer their feedback to each storyteller. Story circle discussions are designed to help storytellers embrace their vulnerability and develop courage in identifying patterns and themes in their own and other participants’ stories, before they ever consider the technical or medium-specific dimensions of the production. Through this method, youth are encouraged to analyze power dynamics and dominant narratives, which allows them to situate their personal experiences within the context of broader social and structural factors and inequalities (Gubrium 2009; Guse et al.). The process affirms and emulates the teachings of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who posited that the development of critical consciousness — a close examination of one’s own experience and its place within a social and political context — is a necessary step for broader social change (Freire). In addition, Freire posed a group-based process to facilitate empowerment that includes (1) group listening, (2) structured, participatory group dialogue, and (3) the generation of individual and collective solutions. These elements are central to our story circle method, as we actively invite youth to engage and listen to one another and to generate new ideas about how to make sense of and respond to the issues that shape their daily lives. Additionally, the dialogue and thought unfold through experimentation with digital media, which have been increasingly central to communication and expression in the lives of young people in the early twenty-first century.
To summarize, as practices rooted in traditions of community organizing and social justice, story circles and digital storytelling are designed to bring people together to share, relate, and learn about themselves and the larger social and political worlds that they inhabit. For this reason, these methods are ideally suited to the larger mission of both the Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) and the broader Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3) within which we conduct this work. Although a number of studies have documented the powerful role of storytelling for storytellers and for those who bear witness to people’s stories (Crogan et al.; Holm et al.; Yu et al.), few studies have compared the effectiveness of narrative-based interventions to non-narrative interventions. While we continue to develop and optimize narrative- and arts-based practices with youth, this chapter aims to develop a body of theory, knowledge, and media that can be used to guide ongoing story circle work in the future. While we focus on these methods here, they also inform the other methods we develop throughout the book. For example, in Chapter 3, story circles serve as the foundation of collective storytelling that, in turn, constitutes the basis for collaborative narrative game design projects. The remainder of the chapter, however, focuses on story circles and digital storytelling through the case of one collaborative Ci3 project that unfolded in and responded to the South Side of Chicago. We describe this case in detail, including the process by which we made certain methodological decisions, in order to encourage practical replication and adaptation of these techniques to other projects at different sites and with different constituencies of participants.
In 2013, Ci3 began to conduct South Side Stories, a two-year project that partnered with African American heterosexual and sexual minority youth between the ages of 15 and 24. Youth were initially attracted to the project as a storytelling workshop at the University of Chicago, and an opportunity to work with digital video tools. Facilitators and organizers for the project included a mix of professional storytellers and researchers, made up primarily of people of color and women. The project used story circles and digital stories to elucidate how social-contextual factors shape young people’s sexual and reproductive health. As an exploratory study, this project also sought to determine the feasibility and acceptability of storytelling methods for confronting complex personal matters of health and identity. As researchers, we were interested in ways that youth expression could expose limitations within healthcare systems and generate media to challenge and change those systems.
The project was conducted in partnership with three community-based organizations working with Black youth on the South Side of Chicago: (1) Global Girls (a performing arts and arts education organization that uses dance, music, and storytelling to foster communication, leadership, and social-emotional skills among girls aged 8 to 18 years old); (2) the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago Youth Development Program (a YMCA affiliate that offers a range of programming designed to support the health and well-being of youth of color on the South Side of Chicago); and (3) the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus (CBGMC) (a grassroots non-profit organization led by Black gay, bisexual and same-gender loving men that conducts community-driven HIV/AIDS programming, research and advocacy to advance health equity for same-gender loving Black men).
A core commitment of Ci3 and its media and design labs is to collaborate with youth on all aspects of any project we undertake, from planning, development, and implementation to circulation, evaluation, and publication. As we will see in Chapter 3, the nature of this collaboration, in terms of the roles of designers and researchers relative to youth, has changed across our workshops over the years. However, we have always sought to honor the principles of participatory action research, combat the potential for adultism to drive the trajectory of the project, and invest in young people’s development. In the case of South Side Stories, while youth were not involved in developing the proposal that ultimately funded the work, the project featured a youth advisory board that sought to actualize these principles in other ways.
Specifically, working with our community partners, nine youth were selected to serve on the advisory board. In this role, the youth advisors worked closely with project staff for the duration of the study. They attended meetings and retreats, provided feedback on proposed methods, and assisted with recruiting young people for the digital storytelling workshops. In addition to these activities, the youth advisors assisted with analyzing the digital stories and with planning dissemination events to share and discuss the digital stories with different South Side communities. During this period, they collaborated with a small cadre of graduate students being trained in the use of participatory action research and digital storytelling as mechanisms through which to address racial inequities in sexual and reproductive health. In this way, South Side Stories operated through an intergenerational community.
With this structure in place, the team confronted two early methodological decisions about how to organize the storytelling workshops. First, we had to consider whether to hold single- or mixed- gender workshops. As a group, we saw strengths and limitations of each option. On the one hand, single-gender workshops could provide young people with a safe space in which to explore the social contextual factors that influence their sexuality and health. This space could be especially productive for boys and girls to discuss gender roles and to examine how gender roles influence their sense of self, sexuality, and social relationships. On the other hand, there is also value in creating a space of deep listening and sharing between young men and women on issues related to gender, sexuality, and health. Indeed, one of the most powerful qualities of the story circle methodology as practiced by the Free Southern Theater was to generate deep listening and dialogue among people from different backgrounds. Moreover, even as all participants in this particular project ultimately identified as cisgender, this latter approach also had the benefit of moving beyond binary gender to offer inclusivity to potential non-binary or transgender participants. Because no strong consensus emerged from our discussions, we decided to start with mixed-gender workshops and to modify this approach if needed. There was one exception to this rule: at the request of the CBGMC, we held a single workshop for young men who identified as gay, bisexual, or same-gender loving. In making this request, CBGMC noted that young, Black, sexual minority men, who made up a sizable subset of our participants, face a unique set of challenges and might benefit from a stand-alone space in which they could share and listen to each other’s stories.
The second methodological decision focused on which story prompts to use during each digital storytelling workshop. In traditional story circles, the facilitator does not usually prepare a prompt, instead opting to tell a story and to invite storytellers to share whatever story feels most important to them (Michna). Additionally, storytellers are discouraged from preparing their story in advance of the story circle (Michna). Likewise, two core tenets of digital storytelling are that storytellers can tell whatever story is most meaningful to them and that all stories can contribute something to the occasion (Hessler and Lambert).
Because we were specifically interested in eliciting stories about how social context shapes young people’s sexual and reproductive health, we had to balance the tension between the project’s interests and the creative improvisation that characterizes traditional story circles and digital storytelling. As a result, we developed four prompts to use across workshops and a fifth prompt for the stand-alone workshop with same-gender loving young men. For each workshop, the facilitator introduced the prompt and asked participants to begin by writing down their story. The facilitator also told participants that they could tell whatever story they wanted, thus ensuring that participants were not compelled to tell a story that felt forced to them (Gubrium et al. 2013). The table below describes each prompt and the number of stories they elicited, as well as the number of youth who told self-prompted stories.
After finalizing the gender composition of the workshops and the wording of the story prompts, the team (i.e., project staff, youth advisors, community partners, and graduate students) organized and executed a series of seven digital storytelling workshops. The first workshop was conducted with the entire project team, which enabled us to observe, communicate, refine our methods, and experience the intimacy and vulnerability that can accompany a digital storytelling workshop. This experience was especially important for the ways that it enabled the team to move gradually from an academic to an experiential understanding of digital storytelling and to anticipate, as much as possible, what it might feel like for the young people who were consenting to join the study and to share stories of their own.
In total, we held one facilitator-focused experiential workshop and six youth-focused workshops with a total of 52 young people aged 15 to 24. Participants were recruited via email, flyers, and from the youth advisors and community partners. All youth identified as African American or Black, with a mean age of 17.63 years (SD = 2.93). Of the 52 youth who participated in the project, 62% identified as cisgender female and 38% identified as cisgender male. Among those who identified as a cisgender male, 45% identified as gay, bisexual or same-gender loving. Written assent and parental permission were obtained for all youth under age 18, and written consent was obtained from youth aged 18 and over. In addition, all participants were aware that their stories might be shared with adults and peers in the future. Therefore, participants signed a release of information documenting youth assent, parental permission, and youth consent to share their digital story with a public audience, which enables us to share a few of those stories later in this chapter.
A detailed overview of the story circle and digital storytelling components of the South Side Stories workshop is important not only for this particular case, but to offer a sense of the types of organizational decisions that inform all of the workshops featured in this book. While we do not go into equivalent detail about processes of sharing in other projects, including check-ins and debriefs, similar principles informed that work, including the process that yielded the Lucidity narrative game in Chapter 3 and the historical multimedia collages in Chapter 4.
While digital storytelling workshops can last anywhere from a single day to a week, we opted to hold a three-day workshop that started on a Friday night and continued through Saturday and Sunday. We selected weekends in large part to minimize scheduling conflicts such as jobs, camps, and other summer activities that youth might have. On average, each workshop lasted for approximately 20 hours total. Staff, youth advisors, and graduate students helped to facilitate workshops, providing intergenerational models of collaboration within the team and for youth storytellers — another approach that characterizes all of the projects described in this book.
On Friday, the first night of the workshop, facilitators guided participants through a series of ice-breaking activities designed to introduce them to one another and to enter the story circle space with a sense of comfort and readiness. For example, all youth were asked to sit in a circle and to participate in a “two truths and a lie” activity, wherein each person was asked to say their name and to share three things about themselves, two of which were factual and one of which was fictional. Facilitators then asked youth to guess “the lie,” before the participant revealed which elements were true and which were fictional. This activity not only offered an early interaction but also introduced youth to basic storytelling and helped them to understand that everyone could be a storyteller — including themselves.
Following this activity, the lead facilitator asked youth to discuss the stories that had made a difference in their lives. Through this process, young people participated in a high-level discussion about the power of stories and storytelling. The intention behind this conversation was to help youth generate ideas about what made stories compelling rather than lecturing to them regarding what we thought made a story powerful, thus promoting the collaborative knowledge production that characterizes story circles (Gubrium and Turner). This approach also enabled the facilitator to use young people’s stories to subsequently introduce the seven steps of digital storytelling. These included the importance of (1) owning your insights, (2) owning your emotions, (3) finding the critical moment in your story, (4) seeing your story, (5) hearing your story, (6) assembling your story, and (7) sharing your story (Lambert). In this way, we moved between practice and theory, participation and presentation of shared vocabulary. After reviewing these steps, the facilitator screened two digital stories and led young people in a discussion about how each story embodied the seven steps of digital storytelling. For example, youth were asked to consider the following questions:
- What were the meanings and insights embedded in each story?
- What was the key moment in each story and how did you come to identify it as such?
- What emotions were conveyed in the overall story and in the story’s key moment?
- How did the images, voice, sound, and music contribute to the overall story?
- What was it like to watch another person’s story?
- What would it be like to write, tell, and share your own story?
This process enabled youth to see how the seven steps of digital storytelling came together in a finished story and to envision their own digital story. Youth participants were also able to express any fears they might have about sharing their own story and to have these affirmed in the group context. At the end of this process, the facilitator provided the prompt for the workshop and asked the youth to take 30 minutes to write a first draft of their story. Youth were given permission to follow the prompt or to write the story that was most important to them at that time. In writing their story, youth were asked to own their insights by reflecting on the following questions: “Why this story? Why now? What makes it today’s version of the story? What makes it your version of the story? Who’s it for? Who’s it to? How does this story show who you are? How does this story show why you are who you are?” (Lambert 10).
After completing the initial draft, all youth were asked formally to enter the story circle where they would share this version of their narrative, receive initial feedback, and listen to and provide feedback regarding the stories of other participants. In the story circle, the youth began the fifth step of “hearing your story” and deepened their engagement with the first three steps of digital storytelling.
In our process, step five of "hearing your story" came before step four of "seeing your story," as we wanted to center the sharing and listening of the story circle, prior to moving into the digital story production process. For some youth, this was the first time they had ever shared that particular narrative. To honor the vulnerability that sometimes accompanies giving voice to one’s story, youth were reminded to listen deeply and not to interrupt any storyteller. When subsequently giving feedback, each young person was asked to provide constructive feedback and to start their feedback by saying, “If it was my story, I would…” This process continued until each young person had given voice to their story and received a sufficient amount of feedback that would enable them to sharpen the meaning, key moments, and emotions at the heart of their narrative.
At the end of the story circle, the facilitator expressed their gratitude for everyone’s presence and led the group through a closing activity where each young person was asked to reflect on their experience up to that point of the circle and to express their thoughts and feelings about the second day of the workshop. In addition, the facilitator previewed the second day of the workshop, alerting youth that they would begin the process of seeing and assembling their story. To that end, youth were invited to return the next day with photographs or images that could bring their story to life.
The second day of the workshop layered on several additional elements. First, facilitators asked youth to revise their story based on the feedback from the prior evening’s story circle. Because several project staff supported every workshop, staff were able to spend focused time with each young person. This personal attention and mentorship improved the revision process. As each storyteller crafted their story, staff helped them to clarify the crucial events, meaning, and arc in their story. During this process, which lasted for two hours, youth were encouraged to read their story aloud to themselves and to workshop staff. The practice of vocalizing the story during the revision process was critical because, as Joe Lambert writes, “the more the spoken voice is inserted into the written script, the more the qualities of a person will come across and pull the audience into the story” (18). This technique of foregrounding the storyteller’s voice also ensured that the perspectives of adult staff members did not unduly influence the final shape of each young person’s story.
Upon completing the written text, storytellers began the process of seeing their story by selecting the images that would accompany it. The visualization process began with images that we asked them to bring from home. For youth who needed additional images, the afternoon portion of the workshop included an optional photo walk with a project staff member. In total, 40 youth participated in a photo walk. Each walk lasted for approximately 90 minutes, with staff and storytellers traveling around the neighborhood and the city of Chicago to take still photographs and videos to accompany each narrative. Youth were given the opportunity to use digital cameras to compose the shots and sequences that they believed would bring their story to life. After the photo walks were completed, youth reviewed their collections, selected final images, and sequenced them. As with the writing process, this work was conducted both individually and collaboratively, with young people working with staff and other youth to bring their words and images together.
On the third and final day of the workshop, youth made final revisions and worked with the lead storyteller to record their story in a professional recording studio. Because digital storytelling is both an individual and collective process (Lambert), youth moved through the workshop at different paces. Whereas some youth found it easy to write, share, and visualize their story, other youth struggled with different steps of the process. For certain participants, writing and revising their story took longer than anticipated. For them, the looser structure of the third day provided the necessary time to finalize their story. For other participants, the difficulty lay in working through emotions that accompanied deeply personal events. Staff worked closely with these young people as they processed complex feelings during the three days of the workshop. At the end of the workshop, each participant had a written script of their story, a set of digital images to accompany their story, and a voice-over of their story. Because the team was not able to produce a final digital story in the three days of the workshop, facilitators told all youth that they would be contacted when their story was complete to view and receive a copy of their work. For the closing activity, the lead facilitator asked youth to discuss how it felt to create and share their story, and what they had learned about themselves in the process (Lambert).
Across all of the work analyzed in this book, complex ethical issues are an important part of research and intervention design, as well as real-time responsiveness to the unfolding of any project with young people. Before discussing the results of this work, we would like to consider this dimension of the digital storytelling method. Certainly the very act of creating autobiographical stories about often difficult matters of race, gender, sexuality, and class, as well as sexual and reproductive health, poses challenges to young participants, including the marginalized youth with whom we work. In the context of a safe space generated by a story circle, this challenge is also an opportunity. Facilitators were prepared to listen and respond carefully with anti-discriminatory and healing approaches. The process of telling and making stories became a chance to confront or work through complex memories.
Though there is writing on the dynamics of digital storytelling workshops, we were also committed to thinking through the ethics of distribution of the resulting stories. Following the South Side Stories workshops, the team worked to finalize the stories, return them to the youth, and prepare them for public distribution. As this work progressed, we quickly realized the need to re-conceptualize how we understood participants’ consent to release their videos to a public audience. In a traditional research study, informed consent is obtained prior to undergoing any research activities. Because digital storytelling was not originally developed for the purposes of research, transporting it to a research context can pose unique challenges. The reason for this is that research is held to different ethical standards than digital media produced and distributed by individuals outside of a research context because of a robustly described history of human subjects abuse in research (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research). Lisa Dush uses the documentarian principle of “moral and psychological accountability” to highlight the need for those facilitating digital storytelling projects to think through how they may be obliged to care for participants. For Dush, this ethos of caring is distinct from the types of formal and legal accountability in traditional human subjects research. For example, Dush argues that digital storytelling facilitators should be obligated to obtain verbal consent to publicly share a completed story after a workshop is complete, as that is the only time that storytellers can make a fully informed decision.
Another concern, which Dush characterizes as “relational self and proximate others,” highlights the questions that arise from representing other people in a digital story. In digital storytelling, storytellers often portray other people in their lives (i.e., proximate others) when telling their own story (i.e., relational self). These issues are especially sensitive when using digital storytelling with vulnerable or socially marginalized populations, as publicly sharing stories may expose storytellers to harms above and beyond those associated with more traditional research (Dush; Gubrium et al. 2013; Vivienne). In South Side Stories, a number of stories dealt with sensitive or traumatic experiences, such as coming out, losing a parent, or the dissolution of romantic relationships. In other stories, youth described being subjected to intense bullying at school or being witness or party to criminalized activities. Almost all of the stories featured images of the storyteller and/or important others in their life, thus pairing sensitive information with “identifiable” data.
Following the guidelines from Dush and Gubrium et al. (2013), we revisited young people’s consent to release their story, as all of them had signed these forms prior to completing the workshop. In doing so, each storyteller was invited to meet with the lead facilitator to view and receive a final copy of their story. During these meetings, the facilitator discussed the team’s plan for publicly disseminating the stories, which included posting the final videos on YouTube and a dedicated project website, showing them at community events and conferences, and sharing and writing about them in various publications. After explaining the potential risks associated with sharing their story in each domain, participants were again asked if they consented to release their final story. All but one participant agreed. While conventional digital storytelling protocols recommend that each digital story include the storyteller’s name (Lambert), it is important to consider that this information can heighten the risk for unintended harms to occur. Thus, after giving consent to share their story, we asked youth if they consented to have their names and identifying images remain in their story. With the exception of the one young person who revoked consent to disseminate their story, all other participants agreed at this stage.
Because digital stories can live online in perpetuity, Gubrium et al. (2013) recommend that researchers carefully consider the potential for stories to have unintended viewing consequences. For example, a storyteller who consents to have their digital story publicly shared could later attend a public event where their story will be shown, unbeknownst to them. In addition, cases may arise where researchers see consequences in sharing stories that are not identified by the storyteller. We faced two such scenarios in South Side Stories. In one case, we had organized a public screening event at a local college for some of the stories from young gay and bisexual men. Before the talk and screening, the staff recognized that one of the storytellers was in the audience. In his story, the young man detailed his close relationship with his mother and the process of coming out to her during the storytelling workshop. Realizing that showing his story had the potential to out him in a new context, project staff talked with the storyteller to determine whether it was acceptable to show the story in this setting (he again consented). In another case, one of the storytellers consented to publicly sharing a story about sexual violence that contained identifying pictures of the storyteller and their family. While the storyteller was firm in their belief that the story should be shared as is, the research team believed that the potential harms of sharing the story were too substantial, thus outweighing any benefits accrued from the research process. The final version of the story was edited so as to protect the storyteller, thus invoking the extra-legal ethos of caring articulated by Dush and others (e.g., Gubrium et al. 2013). The types of ethnical considerations described in this section have informed the work represented throughout this book.
Beyond the method and research design, the South Side Stories project also collected qualitative and quantitative data about the efficacy of story circles and digital storytelling. One month after the conclusion of the last digital storytelling workshop, we invited all youth to participate in a focus group about their experiences in the program. Although each workshop had closed with a brief activity asking youth to reflect on their experience, this process was largely for participants themselves and the information was not systematically recorded. With the focus groups, we wanted to elicit youth perspectives after they had additional time to reflect on their storytelling experience. Of the 52 youth who participated in South Side Stories, 24 agreed to participate in a focus group. Following standard protocols, we obtained written assent and parental permission for all youth under age 18, and written consent from youth aged 18 and over.
At the start of each focus group, youth completed a brief demographic survey. All focus groups were held at the University of Chicago and lasted for approximately 1.5 hours. Two facilitators supervised each group, with one taking a lead role and the second taking field notes and co-facilitating as needed. We recorded all focus groups on a digital audio recorder and produced a written transcript. Each transcript was uploaded into the Dedoose web application and a content analysis was conducted by three independent coders using a pre-defined codebook. In addition, the coders utilized open coding to identify emergent themes and any negative incidents that spoke to divergent statements or themes (Strauss and Corbin).
Space constraints do not permit a full discussion of all findings. However, we present below some key findings and themes as they relate to the importance of providing young people with safe spaces to explore and reflect on their lived experiences and the power of intergenerational relationships in facilitating young people’s learning. These excerpts from the focus groups are meant to offer a sense of how the young people themselves, beyond our research design and framing in this chapter, responded to the storytelling workshops.
In all our projects, the Transmedia Story Lab seeks to create safe spaces that foster deep listening and storytellers' learning about themselves and others. In this case, across the focus groups, youth discussed how participating in story circles and digital storytelling workshops in South Side Stories enabled them to explore, identify, and release feelings that they previously did not acknowledge or know how to face. As one participant noted:
So I learned about myself that no matter what I’ve been through, I am powerful and I learned that because though I have experienced a lot in the 18 years that I have lived, this experience with, like, digital storytelling kinda just made me realize that I am the kind of person that avoids feelings and I avoid how I feel about certain things or certain experiences, simply because I don’t know how to deal with them.
Other youth faced anger that they did not realize that they had felt until the moment of transforming their experience into narrative form:
I learned that I didn’t know that all the anger that I have bottled up in me, I didn’t know it was actually a problem until I told my story so I didn’t know when I actually got it off my chest, what a relief it felt like.
In addition to the learning and clarification that came with creating their own stories, youth discussed the power and learning that occurred while listening to the stories of their peers. In each focus group, youth repeatedly noted that the listening that made up the workshop was not supplemental but central to the process of learning:
I think other people’s stories affected me more than my own story did. So like what I heard when we were like doing sharing circles or… hearing other people’s, like, advice to themselves, helped me.
Numerous youth shared similar perspectives, lending credence to O’Neal’s belief that “listening is what gives definition to the story” (O’Neal as cited by Michna 539). For example, another young person described the emotional impact of listening to a fellow participant’s story about her first sexual experience:
I actually learned a lot from her… because I saw her express herself and tell her story about how she believed that she was in love with someone and most people, most young girls do, and it just made me realize that a lot of young ladies go through the, “Oh baby, if you love me, you’ll have sex with me” thing. And that’s just, it goes based off of the whole conﬁdence thing, based off of not knowing your worth, and she taught me to always, like, to value myself. And not to just to value myself, but to teach others to value themselves. Because she said the story, and it’s like, the way she shared it was different, I never heard anybody like actually express themselves.
Throughout South Side Stories, we also sought to create an intentional and safe space that was characterized by supportive partnerships with adults, while avoiding adultism whenever possible. Overall, the qualitative data suggested that our approach was successful, as numerous youth remarked on the importance of adult facilitators in creating a space in which they were able to share and creatively construct their stories. In particular, youth felt connected to the lead facilitator and his ability to acknowledge the challenge in feeling safe to share their story and to help them “knock down their walls.” On this point, one participant shared the following:
He knocked down that barrier that I had about not expressing what goes on and like, I, a tragic – a couple of tragic things – but a tragic thing happened to me or whatever and I built a wall up and didn’t express it and he basically was like, “It’s tearing you up inside and if you don’t want to talk about it to anybody then write about it.” So I wrote that story to express everything that had happened and it’s kinda like, it was like, basically, knocking down the wall that I had built up.
While youth repeatedly discussed the power of the facilitator during the focus groups, one participant generalized this particular observation, realizing the potential that all adults carry in their ability to support youth. He observed:
It just made me realize that not only is [Name Redacted] a cool person, but other adults can be cool too. They can just reach you, not from a level you can be reached on. You don’t always have to be, oh I’m an adult, I’m high and mighty, you know, you gotta talk to me this way, yes ma’am, yes sir, simply because I’m an adult. You talk to me like I’m an equal instead of like I’m beneath you. And that’s what I respect about him.
One participant also pointed to the value of communicating with adults not directly involved in their life, as they had emotional distance from the narrated events in their stories:
Also, they created a positive atmosphere. Because a lot of times when you try to like express things to your parents, it’s kinda like you say this you get in trouble. Because they were adults, they didn’t make it seem like, I’m gonna…so you know, it didn’t feel bad trying to express the stories that I had.
In addition to the strength of the facilitator in holding a safe space for youth in the workshop, the focus groups illuminated the extent to which youth were surprised by the degree to which the workshop allowed them to connect with their peers, most of whom were strangers prior to entering the workshop space. One young person remarked that they were surprised that others in the group related to their story:
The reaction I thought I was going to get was nobody would relate and probably be confused. And the reaction I got was, people who were actually like oh went through this and even older people were like, “Really? That sounds similar to my life experience.” Beyond the adult facilitator, another participant noted the bonding experience within the entire group as an important feature of the workshop as a supportive community: And like just to get that out there and share with people, it was like a bond in our group that people had. No one was—we were all supporting each other... For many of the participants, the success of the workshop did not have to do with any particular person but with the rules and processes of the nonjudgmental space of the story circle and digital storytelling process: But the thing that helped me through was the fact that they didn’t judge me. They was like, “Yes, we understand you.” And that made me go even further with what I was writing. So at ﬁrst I was kinda scared but then I agree with you, like, didn’t nobody judge me, if anything they can relate to me, everybody was kinda open- minded, kinda friendly. So that was cool, and then some people were like, “Oh that’s cool! Like, yeah, that’s cool!” I liked it, like hey, K-pop’s my thing, but since we were, I think the space and the environment that was created was so welcoming and warm that it kinda comforted that fear.
Alongside the more commonly transformative moments, it is worth noting that some youth also experienced some struggles with storytelling as the workshop unfolded. As one participant expressed in greater detail:
I think it was horrible to share my story. I didn’t want to share my story and people look at me differently, especially like, uh, when we were in the computer lab and whatever and people would look over my shoulder as I was typing or whatever, I didn’t want people to see my story and, “Oh I’m sorry that this horrible thing happened to you.” Like, four minutes ago before you read my story you looked at me differently, I don’t need a pity party for what has happened to me, like, everybody goes through stuff, some worse than others, but I didn’t need a pity party and I feel like everyone who has heard my story, everyone who has read my story, “This is so tragic that this happened to you, especially so young.” Yadda yadda yadda. It happened, can’t change it, I don’t want to hear your pity party ‘cause that’s going to do nothing but throw me back into the state of mind of being a victim so, yeah. I think it was horrible sharing my story because that’s all I heard was, “I’m sorry,” and you know, “How you feeling? How you holding up?” I’m sorry, this happened what, three years ago? Yeah, three years ago and people still do that, once they hear it’s just like, “Are you okay?” I’m ﬁne. If I’m talking to you, I’m ﬁne. And I just felt like every time I shared my story, especially in the digital storytelling, that’s the reaction that I get, people feeling sorry for me or people sad that it happened. I can understand that if you know if it’s within that year, I can understand it if I wasn’t over it, but if you see me standing strong, don’t give me a pity party, don’t do it. ‘Cause it’d do nothing but make me angry and that’ll make me lash out on you. And because I haven’t gotten rid of all the anger that I have throughout my entire life, you might be hurt.
Given the intimate and revealing nature of many of the stories, the process of composing and sharing was a struggle for participants such as the one quoted above. This is one reason that the ethical considerations we discussed in the previous section are so important in story circle and digital storytelling contexts. Despite some challenges, all participants committed to the process and worked through many of the emergent social and emotional difficulties. In the majority of cases, emotional difficulties did not lead to participants shutting down or discontinuing work on their digital stories, but served as an opportunity for live conversations with facilitators and other participants. In this way, beyond the resulting digital stories that could be shared with others, the process of digital storytelling — thinking, processing, and making together in the workshop itself — mattered to the participants. Even so, in the next section, we offer an overview of and share three digital story videos created in the South Side Stories workshop.
Some of the contributors and designers working on South Side Stories and other projects in this book come from a background in the humanities, rather than one in public health, medicine, or the social sciences. This section is written by two humanists (Patrick Jagoda and Evan Wisdom-Dawson) with backgrounds in literary criticism and media studies. In many ways, this section is intended for readers who are working outside of humanistic fields who might be interested in a perspective that exceeds the social-scientific and public-health approach that is central elsewhere in this chapter.
When approaching digital stories, scholars in fields such as literary studies or film theory do not merely search for meaning in content, but frequently analyze narrative form. For literary critic Caroline Levine, “form” is a more general “arrangement of elements — an ordering, patterning, or shaping” (3). Such arrangements help us understand aesthetic works, whether they are the textual arrangements that make up short stories or the edited image sequences that compose feature-length films. At the same time, the abstract concept of a “form” can also point to political structures, ranging from power hierarchies to distributed networks of power.
Work in cultural studies also teaches us that the concept of form can also give us analytical access to sites such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. Thus, a close reading of a digital story can help call attention to intersections between stylistic and sociopolitical dimensions of a work. Even as form is one common analytic in the humanities, “aesthetics” offer another important perspective on digital storytelling work, enabling characterizations of style, immediacy, de-familiarization, and other qualities in a narrative work.
As this overview suggests, narrative is not the only quality that a literary critic analyzes, but it can be a generative element, one that makes visible complexity of an unfolding situation. As Levine observes, “Narratives are valuable heuristic forms, then, because they can set in motion multiple social forms and track them as they cooperate, come into conflict, and overlap, without positing an ultimate cause” (19). On the one hand, fields such as narrative medicine grasp the importance of narrative in opening up complexities that might otherwise remain invisible in clinical situations. On the other, literary criticism sometimes intersects with medicine or public health through a lens such as science studies.
Even so, bidirectional intersections between theory and practice are less common. Our work at the Transmedia Story Lab has opened opportunities for bridging this gap. Even as the core of this chapter concerns the process and outcomes of creating digital stories with youth, there is also value to using close reading techniques to more fully unfold the meaning of the final digital stories that youth have created.
Alongside the overview of story circles, digital storytelling, and the South Side Stories program, this section highlights three digital stories created by youth, none of which are on the extreme end of stories that raise ethical problems for the storyteller. Each autobiographical narrative focuses on a different topic: (1) relationships, (2) intersections of race and sexuality, and (3) bullying. Though seemingly disparate, each of these topics relates to broader concerns about youth health and well-being. While we do not conduct the type of close reading that is common in literary criticism, we hope to highlight some of the notable narrative themes and aesthetic techniques that make up each digital story to propose a different approach to paying attention to the details of these pieces.
To be clear, these stories are deeply personal. We do not presume, through the analytical glosses conducted here, to offer a comprehensive summary or assessment of the lived experiences of these youth, nor to do justice to the multifaceted and complex narratives featured in their videos. Even so, in the cases that follow, we embed and analyze three sample digital stories and invite readers to watch the videos and engage with the aesthetics and narratives in their own ways. If nothing else, this section seeks to emphasize the importance of reception and listening even among audiences who did not participate in the original workshops.
Alexia’s digital story, “Rumors,” explores the complexities of young adult relationships in a fraught high school environment. Alexia’s autobiographical narrative of the dissolution of her first love expands into the broader context of her damaged social status, as rumors proliferate through a network of friends and peers. The story stages the visceral pain of heartbreak alongside the social ramifications of having sex as a teenage girl.
Alexia’s video is composed of a series of still photographs. The piece engages the viewer through the juxtaposition of images that begin to fade in and out of each other, evoking the lingering anguish of their subject. The majority of these photos feature the profile of a young teenage girl (the narrator and subject of the story, Alexia herself). As her gaze lowers steadily, from photograph to photograph, the sequence captures affects of uncertainty, doubt, pain, and despair. Gradually, the color drains out of photos, increasing the contrast levels. Though the images that make up “Rumors” are themselves static, the digital frame slowly pans across and subtly zooms into them, generating a sense of movement that expresses and heightens the story’s dramatic content.
“Rumors” explores the complexities of young adult relationships in a fraught high school environment.
The video culminates in a tight tableau of mirrored profiles: the faces stark and close, recalling a black and white Rorschach pattern. Alexia’s story ends on a note of hope — a belief in the possibility of a prince charming — but the formal properties of the video retain and reiterate the harsh reality and psychological implications of coming of age experience. “Rumors” foregrounds the photographic potential to capture subconscious or nonconscious affects and to convey experience beyond language. Videos such as this one offer a powerful reminder for sexual health educators and policymakers that, for young adults in love, sex cannot be reduced to a protocol of safe practices based on rational choices, but instead must be considered as meaningful lived experience with high stakes and emotional impact.
“Black Rainbows” maps geographies of the self in a movement across Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods that engages and problematizes the intersectional limitations of queer Black identity. The digital story stages Aaron’s red line commute from Garfield station on the South Side to Belmont station in the north — from a home of racial and cultural belonging to a community of gay acceptance and celebration. As Aaron emphasizes, in his experience, these zones are mutually exclusive in their respective affordances and limitations.
Throughout the video, Aaron’s poetic voiceover riffs on the comparative phrase “like me” to contrast physical resemblance and sexual orientation — the people who look like him and the people who love like him. The rhythmic cadence of Aaron’s narrative heightens the impact of words, at times jarring in the gentleness with which they deliver this difficult reflection. A dynamic shot that looks out of the train window takes the viewer along for the ride both figuratively and emotionally, as the sequence’s sepia tint captures a sense of nostalgia. The commute highlights the drastic shift from blackness to whiteness, from the South to the North Side of Chicago. He expresses the tension between these two poles of the infrastructure (the train in the south is “so slow sometimes, a bit late” then “faster now” in the north), public safety (the train is “maybe dangerous” for Aaron), and population distribution (he feels himself “growing outnumbered”).
“Black Rainbows” maps geographies of the self in a movement across Chicago’s segregated neighborhoods that engages and problematizes the intersectional limitations of queer black identity.
“Black Rainbows” plays with the material and figurative dimensions of light. For instance, Aaron’s rhetorical use of refraction as a process of Black exclusion offers a potent example of how aesthetics can capture and transform sociopolitical elements. Reflection and refraction recall the power of visual media to harness and transform light as a means of mediation. Overlaying the video’s culminating question, “Why isn’t black a color on the rainbow?” the image of the rainbow flag shifting from full color to grayscale symbolically performs the reverse refraction that Aaron’s story wants to enact. The video expresses the ongoing challenges that people of color and sexual minorities face across marginalized states, and exemplifies the ways in which digital stories can reflect on the ordinary valences of extraordinary inequalities.
“Waiting for the Bell” addresses bullying and social insecurity in high school. Ava’s digital story demonstrates her move from feelings of uncertainty and vulnerability in the classroom to confidence through the adoption of extracurricular activities that enable greater creativity. The video opens with the second person point of view: “You walk through those heavy brown doors.” This technique of direct address implicates the viewer in the experience by generating a heightened immediacy. Cutting from a black screen to a skewed closeup of a clock, the introductory sequence works to defamiliarize the supposedly welcoming spaces of the school and the classroom. The state of constant anxiety with which Ava navigates this familiar setting is palpable to the viewer and recasts the scholastic space in a hostile light. Her video evokes the desire to forget and the struggle to cope through a day that seems never-ending: atypical camera angles clash with both the lilting musical soundtrack and Ava’s measured voiceover to convey the violence of bullying that culminates in the moment “when they laugh.”
The poetic language that comprises Ava’s narrative accompanies a series of still photographs that appear in various compilations to accentuate her emotional experience. One notable composition features three adjacent images of Ava’s face, with the middle figure completely cast in shadow. The video’s earlier images exhibit an abstracted and washed-out aesthetic, fading in and out of one another. The image of the clock recurs throughout the video to evoke the dual torment of time — the painful intensity or sweet release of an instant versus the seemingly interminable wait for things to change.
“Waiting for the Bell” addresses bullying and social insecurity in high school.
The second half of the narrative develops into the space of the dance studio. Ava’s vocal track shifts into a modified and slightly ethereal register to repeat the lines, “the doors were lighter and the room was brighter, and my voice triumphed and my presence was honored and my hands were held and my feet moved freely to the beat.” This passage echoes like a mantra or the through-line of a manifesto, emblematic of Ava’s release and self-realization. Clear lines and crisp color define the photographs in the latter half of the video to reflect Ava’s triumph.
Whether to convey the gravity of issues surrounding bullying and intimidation or to highlight the importance of creative programs and extracurricular activities in youth development, “Waiting for the Bell” serves as an example of how formal qualities in digital storytelling can enhance the effectiveness of communicating lived experience.
As this chapter seeks to demonstrate, story circles and digital storytelling are methodologies that can create transformative learning experiences for young people. At the same time, these methods present complex ethical issues that have to be addressed, especially when working with youth whose stories may present unique challenges and vulnerabilities. As the first formal digital storytelling project that we undertook, South Side Stories not only allowed us to experiment with story circles and digital storytelling, but also to obtain qualitative insights on the extent to which these methods are successful in creating the types of spaces, relationships, and products that can yield individual and collective insights on young people’s health and well-being. Because digital stories are created in a supportive environment, they can capture the perspectives and voices of young people who are often the subject of, but not members of, policy conversations. Furthermore, the works of digital art that resulted from South Side Stories can be shared with others, as we do in this chapter, potentially affecting the very topics these narratives address. By sharing research findings in community and policy settings, we intend to illuminate the contextual factors that underlie sexual and reproductive health disparities and work towards the development of public perspectives and policies that support youth agency and champion the sexual and reproductive health rights of youth.
South Side Stories has led us to think, across several other projects, about the generalizability or at least the possible scope of story circle and digital storytelling methods. To offer one example, building on South Side Stories, the Transmedia Storytelling Lab began a new digital storytelling initiative, entitled Kissa Kahani, that began in 2016. This project engaged young people in Uttar Pradesh, India, in order to explore the role of gender in the lives of youth between the ages of 15 and 24 by amplifying their voices and perspectives. The team, which included members of the Transmedia Story Lab and collaborators from India, used both story circles and digital storytelling, along with methods such as body mapping and serious gameplay. These methods sought to help young people address emergent issues about health and gender. As with South Side Stories, story circles serve as the foundation for the more technically involved work of digital storytelling production. The process yielded 28 digital stories (see one sample story below) created by youth from low-income neighborhoods of Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh.
Given space limits, we will not turn in detail to this other project, which would necessitate a chapter of its own. Many of the methods and ethical considerations used in South Side Stories carried over to this project. We also write about the details of this project, its methods, and results in past publications (Ci3; Hebert et al.). Even so, in order to offer an illustration of how this method operated in the very different cultural context of Uttar Pradesh, we end by offering one example of a finished digital story from this later project: Akansha’s story that is entitled “The Scientist.”
Akansha discusses her desire to become a scientist and the gender bias she faced in school in a digital story created at the Ci3 Kissa Kahani program in (2016).
Though we cannot expand on the particulars of either the Kissa Kahani story circle method or resulting digital stories in the present chapter, this next phase of our work took these storytelling methods into a different national context has introduced a number of new challenges. In particular, while India is a vast country with a variety of social and cultural practices, our collaborators who were native to Uttar Pradesh constantly called our attention to the ways that social norms in India tend to be more conservative than they might be in Chicago and the United States. For instance, given pronounced patriarchy, fewer than 33% of women in this region are allowed to go to markets, health facilities, or even outside of their villages by themselves. Moreover, 21% of girls in Uttar Pradesh are married by the age of 18 (Ci3). Furthermore, in many parts of India, adolescence is not recognized as a distinct life phase with its own set of needs and challenges. For these reasons, simply “applying” our methods from one cultural context to another would not work, requiring us to engage in deep listening in interactions with partners and youth in the Indian context.
Despite key differences across contexts, we have found that narrative-based methodologies can establish safe spaces for young people to share their personal experiences in contexts as different as the South Side of Chicago and Lucknow. As the storytelling methods described in this chapter continue to develop, considerable work remains to be done to evaluate their potential success and necessary variations across cultural and national contexts. Even so, we hope this overview and case helps researchers and practitioners, in different U.S. and international contexts, across pedagogical, therapeutic, and research space, to adapt these methods to different groups and individuals.