Tell the women they should never feel scared: Domestic violence and digital storytelling
By Jen Gilomen, Lead Developer of Strategic Initiatives, Bay Area Video Coalition
“I am telling a story that had a great impact on
my family. Something we never thought could happen to us.”
— Abriendolas Cajas (Opening Boxes) participant
In 2008, BAVC participated in a partnership of organizations that came together to use digital storytelling to reduce incidences of domestic violence in the Fruitvale district of Oakland. Through a partnership that began with La Clínica de la Raza’s participation in BAVC and ZeroDivide’s Digital Storytelling Institute (2005-2007), BAVC, La Clínica, and ZeroDivide saw an opportunity to use media technologies for something really great (and also kinda mushy): healing.
As Oakland reels from recent incidences of police brutality, followed by violent community responses, it is no news that Oakland can be a violent place. But what is less apparent, and rarely discussed, is the violence that happens behind closed doors. Domestic violence is particularly of concern within the Latin American immigrant population – a group that comprises over 45% of the Fruitvale District, and the area’s most rapidly growing population.
There are many factors that contribute to this, with the huge obstacles and stresses of immigration, poverty, language barriers, fear of involvement of authorities, cultural frameworks and traditional gender roles, and substance abuse compounding the challenges. It is these challenges that culturally sensitive, bilingual programming seeks to address through systemic change and community collaboration. This is what brought a media arts center like BAVC and the largest health provider in Fruitvale together, and how the Abriendo las Cajas (Opening Boxes) digital storytelling initiative was born.
Digital storytelling can be defined many ways, but generally, it is a facilitated process of sharing personal narratives for individual empowerment and social change using simple media technologies. It combines concepts of media production with those of art therapy and group facilitation, and the results can be powerful for participants and audiences alike. It is pretty special to witness. It starts with the sharing of personal narrative, facilitated dialogues about violence, and participants finding commonalities of experience. Program participants tend to bond, share, cry, recover, and support each other: this is not your typical video production workshop (though storytellers of all kinds can take a cue from the impact of this emotional arc in subject matter). Then, slowly, they begin to construct their personal narratives.
The process of expressing this narrative -- of talking it through in a safe space with your peers, then owning the narrative from your own perspective -- is empowering. Along the way, participants receive coaching, media training, and skills. Some participants in Abriendo las Cajas, for example, had never touched a computer before beginning the workshop. It is a lot to accomplish, and the results from this program are a testament to the difficult task of co-facilitation executed by BAVC media instructor Rosario Sotelo and La Clínica’s health facilitator Juan Cuba, as well as the groundwork laid by our organizations’ spirit of collaboration around shared goals and admiration for each others’ leadership and experience in our respective domains.
Digital storytelling about a subject like personal experiences with violence takes great bravery. And certainly, though not solely, on the part of the participants who share their stories in the hopes that things might be easier for their peers; so others will know they’re not alone in their experiences. (One participant, Veronica, said that through her story she wanted to “tell the women they should never feel scared.”) But it also takes bravery on the part of the organizations and foundations (in this case, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s New Routes to Immigrant Health program) that see value in providing safe spaces for people to speak freely about domestic violence, immigration, and other “dangerous” subjects. In a way, we all know we’re onto something, yet the field is still emerging and therefore somewhat experimental. It deserves greater resources, evaluation, and study, and is beginning to grow as a field and practice with greater utility and professionalism, particularly in the medical sciences. Columbia University, for example, announced that it is offering a new Master of Science in Narrative Medicine program in 2009. And those in the field recognize that there’s a complex Venn diagram here at the intersection of media, technology, medicine, art, therapy, and research: “Combining a narrative approach with digital technologies opens up ways of working and thinking that transcend professional, disciplinary, and methodological boundaries.” (Given, John. “Narrating the Digital Turn,” Qualitative Sociology Review, Volume II Issue 1, 2006.)
Simultaneously, technologies used for simple digital storytelling are changing, as they are wont to do. The digital storytelling movement, rooted in the oral history tradition and art therapy methods, was largely enabled by consumer-grade digital technologies that emerged in the past five to ten years, such as free and open source video editing software, digital cameras, computers with built-in voice recording microphones, and the Flip video camera (which was just released in HD). But there’s another evolving technology underfoot that has the capacity to dramatically influence participatory storytelling: the games for health movement, which will be particularly influential for the next generation, glued to their Wiis, game consoles and massive multiplayer games. It is a fascinating and “game-changing” space, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has also made investments in this area through a related initiative, Health Games Research.
It is time to rethink what “video games” can be. Those of us who wasted away a few too many hours making Super Mario bang coins out of bricks with his head may have a hard time grasping this, but follow me one tiny hop away from digital storytelling: if it is empowering and transformative to tell your story, what if you became an actor inside your story and could rewrite it on the fly? What happens in the brain at the molecular and chemical level when a child with cancer “battles” cancer cells through a video game, and why do kids who have played the game show quantifiable reductions in cancer cells in their bodies? (See Hope Lab's Re-Mission). Beyond the direct physiological implications for rehabilitation, exercise, self-monitoring, and assessment (such as a modified Guitar Hero game for amputees, designed to increase agility and motion) -- what is happening up there in our brains, the place where our stories and memories are connected to our chemistry and physical beings? And how can this be harnessed for positive health and social outcomes? I, for one, cannot wait to see what comes out of this field. And as BAVC lit up our 10-Gigabit fiber optic Internet connection last week, we’re poised to support advanced development, collaboration, research, and evaluation at the very center of that Venn diagram.
Digital stories tend to feel raw. They often include narration written and recorded by the creator, so you get to hear the individual’s voice describing personal, and often emotional, stories of transformation. “Distribution” is a whole different game, with the goal of direct connections between the storytellers and their audiences. And this, the act of communicating, listening, and questioning, may not produce blockbuster festival or YouTube hits, but that’s beside the point. What is therapy, after all, but a willing ear, someone listening to you and asking questions about the narrative you tell? And how does that story change in the telling?
Digital storytelling organizations and resources
Stories for Change network of practitioners
Center for Digital Storytelling and Silence Speaks
Health and gaming
Games for Health
Public Health Games
Articles and academic research
The Elements of Digital Storytelling
Narrative therapy on Wikipedia
Storied navigation : toward media collection-based storytelling
Everyday storytelling : supporting the mediated expression of online personal testimony
Applications of Narrative Theory and Therapy to the Practice of Family Medicine [PDF]
Tags: abriendo las cajas, adults, art therapy, BAVC, domestic violence, fruitvale, games, group, Health, la clinica, language, narrative therapy, Oakland, peers, prevention, spanish, storytelling, youth
Topics: Building Community, Community Health, Community Media, Ending Domestic Violence, Ending Sexism, Ethnic Media, Family, Health Care, Health Care Access, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), Immigrant Integration, Leadership, Media production, Mental health, Non-profit, Organization, Storytelling, Technology, Training, Web 2.0, Work, Youth
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This report (PDF 3.8MB) offers guidance for community organizations and those who fund social change in how best to harness the power of local media-making for community health improvement. Spanish-language version is now available. Una versión en español de este informe esta en la web.