Creating and Holding Safe Spaces for Stories to Emerge

By Deblekha Guin, Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton


“It blows my mind what people will share and blows my mind how honest and brave people are to tell their stories.”

Lisa g. Nielsen, Our World

Brave stories require safe and supportive spaces for them to emerge into.

In one on one, or smaller story-settings, creating a comfortable and safe space is primarily about the emotional qualities that a mentor or facilitator brings to the table (sincerity, curiosity, patience and openness, to name a few), whereas in larger workshops this might take the form of icebreakers, ‘community guidelines’, or community-circles.

In either case, creating and maintaining open, honest, and supportive spaces is foundational. The quality of the ‘container’ that’s created has a big impact on the kinds of stories that can unfold within it, and the quality of the experience for both the storytellers and story listeners. 

Key practices in Creating and Holding Safe, Supportive and Open Spaces

“We do a lot of fun ice-breaking and community building activities at the beginning of programs that help to settle nervous tension and bring everyone’s voice into the room.”

Deblekha Guin, AMES

Some of the methods outlined below (most of which were gifted to AMES by power co-facilitators Rup Singh Sidhu and Sara Kendall in 2009, and have since become standard practices) are particularly important and effective when working with young people. They tend to initially heighten and then dissolve self-consciousness—bonding the group, learning everyone’s names, and creating supple openings for creative risk taking. AMES shares their method of opening a safe space:

Every AMES workshop begins with: 

TERRITORY ACKNOWLEDGMENTS – We encourage facilitators to make the acknowledgments heart-felt and personal; to do them in way that meaningfully reflects the importance of naming the traditional territories upon which the workshop is taking place, and situating this practice as part of ongoing work to unsettle deeply internalized colonial relationships to the land and each other.

FACILITATOR INTROS: Facilitators introduce themselves in really personal ways. They don’t just talk about what they DO, but who they ARE. We encourage them to talk about their identities (pronouns, ancestry, sexuality—whatever they want to share) in ways that model both vulnerability and strength, and reveal some of their personal connections to particular workshop themes and/or mediums.

This might mean sharing stories about how they came to Community Digital Storytelling work, their personal investment in creative or social change work, or barriers they overcame to feel comfortable sharing their own stories. This signals a shift away from institutional learning (where teachers rarely reveal their true selves or struggles), and gives participants a chance to get to know the people they are working with, which in turn helps to  build trust and connectedness. Key goals and objectives of each workshop are also woven in here.

ENERGIZERS & ICEBREAKERS: AMES has a series  of ‘go to’ activities that ‘break the ice’ and energize the group. Invariably this involves kinaesthetic ‘Name Games’, Milling exercises (that allow for some low threshold pair/share ‘getting to know your work’), and silly games that help groups feel at home being goofy together.
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COMMUNITY AGREEMENTS: Community Agreements or Group Guidelines are co-created with the group early on in the process to help create a trusting and safe container that will better hold courageous conversations and brave stories. It looks differently in different settings, but it typically begins with questions to the group like:

What helps you to feel comfortable/safe sharing in group settings?
What are some essential ingredients in working well together?

This could begin as a whole group brainstorm, a solo activity (people writing their comments on sticky notes) or as a ‘pair/share’ activity. Regardless of how it  begins, the collectively agreed upon guidelines would ideally be posted somewhere prominent throughout the workshop.

This is the group’s first collaboration. It helps set the tone for working together respectfully and effectively, and it also gives folks a chance to reflect upon their needs, share values, assert boundaries, and develop agency.

Collaboratively developed Community Agreements are helpful to refer back to if/when conflicts or problems arise during the inevitable ups and downs of Community Digital Storytelling. Facilitators or mentors make suggestions to the group like: ‘We all agreed to try to be accountable for the impacts of our actions—however unintentional, and also assume positive intent.’ 

In addition to these ‘openers,’ different activities can be woven into the early days of a program that explicitly encourage participants to take stock of the messages they’ve inherited. “AM/FM”, for instance, is an interactive exercise where participants think about the messages that they’ve received [through ‘real life radio’] that are “Against Me” and “For Me”. Refining self-awareness and ‘noticing’ tools are key life skills in any context, but activities like this are particularly helpful in Community Digital Storytelling workshops as participants begin to sift through internalized stories and ideas, and begin to consciously choose which ones still ‘hold true’, and which ones they want to try to let go of. 

And last but not least, ‘Community’ Story or Talking Circles play a central role for many Community Digital Storytelling projects, and have been identified as being one of the most crucial aspects of community building. They create safe and supportive spaces to process what invariably surfaces through the storytelling process (whether done individually or collaboratively). 

“One of the most transformative aspects of our programs are the daily community or Talking Circles. In the circle, the person speaking–or holding the feather– has the FULL attention of everyone in the room. This simple practice of speaking truth and bearing witness is so validating, and powerful–for everyone–but particularly for people who haven’t been or felt heard for most of their lives. I’ve witnessed people move through a lot of tough stuff in the circle—become confident enough to speak their truths, and make space within themselves for expansive possibilities.”

Deblekha Guin

In smaller Community Digital Storytelling initiatives, it is primarily up to the mentor to open up spaces for connection, and bring forth the deep, active and attuned listening that circles facilitate in larger group settings. 

“Sometimes young people can shut down easily. And that’s when you really need to observe their behavior, see how they present themselves, their body language, listen to what they say about their families… All of that helps you find a way to connect.”

Anonymous

Roles, Responsibilities and Qualities of Mentors

Effective Community Digital Storytelling mentors aren’t necessarily stellar filmmakers or technical superstars. Knowing their way around production gear and editing software is important, but that’s just the beginning. Mentorship is so much more!! 

Considerations for choosing the right mentor for a specific program might include questions like: 

  • What are their Community affiliations (are they part of the community that’s being engaged?)
  • How flexible are they? 
  • How are their on-the-ground creative problem-solving and communication skills?
  • If it’s a program that centres on youth, are they young? Do they have ‘youth appeal’, charisma (quiet or loud), a sense of humour or playfulness (to offset the earnest commitment / heaviness of the issues) 
  • Do they have a high tolerance for creative chaos? 
  • Do they have the social/emotional capacity to model and hold space for the frustrations of creative collaboration, or the emotions that can get triggered through the digital storytelling process?
  • Do they have the maturity to know when to step in and when to step back? The ability to know when to push (without being pushy), and when to let go/let be. 

These sorts of considerations are indicative of the many hats mentors wear, and different roles they play. Among them:  

Setting realistic goals and expectations

A lot of mentors begin the workshop with an introduction to storytelling in general.  Since people are used to seeing professionally shot and edited films, they might have expectations for their own digital stories that aren’t realistic when working with  novices within a tight timeline and drawing on limited resources. At the outset, it’s important to set realistic expectations about production values, and the length and complexity of the stories they can tell within the timeframe and budget restraints. 

Showing work made by other youth/novices under similar conditions is a great way to give a sense of what’s doable. Doing so is also a great opportunity to introduce key elements of digital storytelling, talk about different genres, and discuss filmic approaches and strategies. 

“When we are creating something new, we feel like it has to be ‘the best’. At the same time, we have to remember that there will be other opportunities for expression.  This may be your first film, but you don’t need to treat it like it will be your last.”

Anonymous

As people begin to develop their stories, mentors often need to encourage participants to strike an appropriate balance between attachment and non-attachment; to remind participants of the importance of their stories and the process, but to also caution against getting bogged down by grandiose or perfectionist expectations.

“As a filmmaker it’s what you’re programmed to think, ‘My work will change the world,’ especially if you are progressive. But then, it doesn’t really change as quickly as you’d hoped. As a result of that, you have to tap your ego down a little bit. I’m as important as I can be, but not really that important.”

Anonymous

Opening Pathways to Critical Thinking 

Sometimes Community Digital Storytelling participants come up with story ideas that unintentionally reflect racist, sexist or homophobic ideas and assumptions that have been internalized. It’s important not to judge or shame participants for the internalization of these limiting scripts, but rather to encourage them to see them within a wider frame of long-standing and overarching systems. 

Skilled mentors use these moments as opportunities to make observations, ask questions, and encourage critical self-reflection (Do you think that’s always true? Where do you think that assumption might have come from? Is there a way to tell your story without leaning on that stereotype?). Creating pathways for critical thinking–about our own stories or those in the dominant culture–is an essential aspect of making alternative media or counter stories that hold narratives with more liberating potential.  

Realizing which stories matter in the grand scheme is a huge part of the healing that can happen in and through Community Digital Storytelling. When everyone in the workshop space collectively acknowledges the extent to which we’ve inherited scripts that might limit our sense of our own potential, the process of unlearning that way of thinking begins. Community Digital Storytelling creates empowering opportunities for media literacy and choicefullness; for folks to get to pick which stories they want to bring into their futures, and which ones they want to leave behind.

The editing process also heightens awareness that ‘every cut happens for a reason.’  This impacts how people edit their own stories and increases appreciation of the amount of labour involved, but it also affects how they’ll watch stories made by others. Again and again, mentors hear participants remarking that they’ll ‘never look at TV/ads/movies the same way again.’ Helping people see differently—noticing how filmic elements are used to make, and sometimes manipulate, meaning—is one of the most enduring gifts of CDS.  

Expanding audio, visual and genre literacy

Lots of folks might initially default to a ‘say dog/see dog’ or literal approach to telling stories digitally. Skilled mentors expand the visual storytelling language of emerging storytellers, and urge them to show, not tell. This might involve less reliance on dialogue to move their story forward, and the incorporation of visual metaphor, music or soundscapes to increase its emotional impact. If participants are keen on a particular genre (horror, romance, comedy etc.), the mentor helps them work out how to include genre-specific tropes and elements in their story. 

By Brandon Brown. Elder Ts’inni Steven Brown works with filmmaker Brandon Brown
This stop-motion animation deals with the loss of culture and the resurgence of it through future generations. It explores the power of Haida art and the importance of sustaining it. 
Haida Gwaii – 2009 – 3:37

Demystifying the process

“We ALL have stories and that’s the most important ingredient everyone brings. Reminding folks of this helps them to say to themselves, ‘Oh, I could actually maybe do that’.”

Deblekha Guin

The proliferation of DIY tutorials on YouTube means that it might not be as critical to this generation of youth as it was for previous ones, but one of the main roles of the mentor is to demystify the production process, make it accessible, and remind folks that they already have the most essential ingredient of Community Digital Storytelling. They have stories. 

Teaching Tech

Mentors are responsible for knowing how to use the gear, ensuring that it’s in working order, and teaching participants how to use it in ways that keep them engaged. That generally means learning by doing. Too much theory without hands-on practice on the equipment can be boring and increase participant disengagement. 

At AMES, we’ve found that tech workshops (covering camera, lighting and sound) are most successful when they are anchored in a mini movie-making activity built around a simple concept or action that’s edited ‘in camera’. Doing it this way, for instance, gives folks a chance to learn specific principles and techniques about camera settings, angles, audio levels, white balance, rule of thirds, for example, while testing out different production team roles (director, camera operator, sound person). This approach also gives participants an appreciation of the many variables that will be in play on ‘shoot day’, and how long each camera set up takes BEFORE they finalize their scripts, or are working on something they really care about.  

Reviewing the in-camera edit together is key to deepening the learning. There will inevitably be moments in this practice workshop where the sound is crappy. This is a chance to mention the value of recording good sound, and to share tips for doing so that are grounded by example (and not just a bunch of ‘should’ info coming at them all at once). 

As more youth use their own cell phones as video cameras and edit suites, production dynamics have shifted. Cell phones have their own inherent challenges, with limited lenses, memory storage, and audio recording capacity. When video and audio are recorded on separate devices, the task of syncing them often falls to the mentors. 

Time-keeping 

When myopic focus takes hold, it’s the mentor’s job to keep storytellers in the zone, while also helping them to keep on track and time. Being and staying connected with the storyteller helps mentors to appropriately guide the process and determine when time needs to slow down and be expansive, and when it needs to speed up (towards the end of shoot day, or as final deadlines approach). 

The inner process of story development usually needs and takes time. Some people may come to a program/workshop with a clear story they are burning to tell, but this is rarely the case. One of the challenges for mentors is to keep things moving forward while respecting the different paces people work at—whether that be about how long it takes to drop into their stories, become confident using the gear, or find their directorial voice. 

Similarly, in the midst of a shoot, participants may realize that their dialogue sounds wrong, that there’s noise in a location, or the interview questions don’t work. The mentor needs to help the storyteller or production crew determine whether there’s time for retakes and redos, or if folks need to just move on, noting the lesson learned for future projects. 

Whatever tempo folks work at, it is the responsibility of the mentor to remain calm, offer guidance and the technical, temporal and emotional support to ensure that folks can and will complete their projects–because completion* is a crucial part of the creative empowerment of Community Digital Storytelling.

* In rare cases, a storyteller might decide not to complete their project, and this must be respected—especially if it’s about their own safety or need to set personal boundaries.

Guide, but get out of the way

“When we go into communities, we always say transparently, you are the director. We are not the director. You have all the creative control and directorial writing control.”

Lisa g. Nielsen

Most mentors are artists in their own right, and may have great ideas to offer about how to make a story more visually engaging or poetic. These offers are great, as long as they are simply offers. Having contagious creative enthusiasm is an asset to Community Digital Storytelling, but only as long as it is expressed in the service of the vision of the participant. One of the greatest challenges for facilitators and mentors can be to check our own egos, and to assess when it’s appropriate to step in, and when to hold back. 

Mentors are constantly learning when to intervene and what our place is in the process. Allowing participants the freedom to make mistakes is an important part of the mentor’s job. Learners will not always trust our judgement. As a mentor, it is important not to judge them for following their own learning process.

Sometimes mentors become so involved with the project that we cannot stop working on the story until it becomes all that we think it could be. Digital stories with a deeper or universal message are especially exciting for mentors, as promoting social equality is what prompts many of us to do this work. 

On the other hand, it is important to step back and not take on the digital story. It takes time for mentors to learn that this is someone else’s story—we need to keep remembering that we’re the ‘guide from the side’, and not the ‘sage on the stage’. Instead of telling a participant how to make the production, we try to ask more questions so the storyteller will develop their own strategies.

“I think just being able to adapt to the needs of the workshop participants is huge. And that’s just something that I naturally got better at doing, was just spending time with people, treating them as equals and recognizing them as equals as opposed to I am the expert. A more humble attitude as opposed to ‘you’re the expert’ is a really important thing to make sure you can have a good workshop. ‘Cause even if what you’re saying is not super helpful, just being able to share that experience and learn together is very powerful and people can get a lot out of that.”

Patrick Shannon, InnoNative

The ability to identify and assess when it’s best to step in, and when to step back doesn’t only apply to mentor behaviour, but impacts how mentors navigate collaborations between divergent personality types when working in groups. One group might have two ‘take charge’ types, for instance, and two people who might prefer to follow. A balance needs to be struck between working with and building on natural strengths and inclinations, and encouraging folks to switch it up, move out of their comfort zones and learn something new. Solid mentors help folks overcome challenges–from creative blocks and fear of technology to having the confidence to direct—while also meeting people where they’re at. 

Guiding collective and strategic decision-making in storytelling AND Sharing

Mentors guide youth in making decisions that will support the work in finding an audience. This long-range view advances the activity from telling to sharing the story. When working in production teams, not only does this mean thinking strategically about the audience approach and impact, but it can also guide group discussions that enable empowered group-based decision making.

“One of the groups [during First Perspectives in 1997] wanted to do a video about the subject of tearing down the Residential School in Alert Bay. The production team couldn’t come to consensus about whether or not tearing it down was a good idea. Guided by the wisdom of their mentor T’uy’t’tanat-Cease Wyss, they came up with the idea of making their video about a community in the midst of debating the advantages and disadvantages of getting rid of the residential school. The final piece ingeniously reflected different perspectives on the value of remembering, and trying to forget, and how to heal from traumatic history.”

Deblekha Guin

Consideration of the different factors related to the sharing of the digital stories shouldn’t eclipse the digital storytelling process itself, but it can be worthwhile to prompt the storytellers to think about WHO might watch their stories and WHERE they might watch it. Prompts include questions like: How do you think your grandmother will react when she watches this? Do you think other people will be able to relate to this? What do you hope that others might walk away from your piece feeling, or thinking about? Would you feel differently about watching this with your family, or a group of strangers?

“That same program also yielded Many Deals from Many Bucks, a hilarious portrayal of a culturally appropriating huckster. The subject was serious, but the group felt the message would land more effectively (and they would have more fun making it) if they took a more satirical approach.”

Deblekha Guin
“Many Deals From Many Bucks”—A satire about cultural appropriation created during an AMES workshop held at the Gulf Islands Film and Television School on Galiano Island.  Director, Elisha Sidlar. Mentor, Renae Morriseau. (1997).

When the making process is anchored by the sharing process, it’s helpful to think about audience-related questions that might impact the shape or tone a story takes. These kinds of questions and considerations are particularly important when a storyteller has expressed a desire to share their story to help others (They might say things like: ‘I want to make the kind of film that would have helped me when I was that age’, ‘I want other folks to see that they are not alone’ or ‘I want people who have it easy to get to see what life is like for people who don’t have it so easy’). 

It’s also helpful to get a sense from folks about how widely they’d like their stories to go. If they want their stories to travel far and wide, then it’s wise to at least touch upon different distribution/dissemination options, and what support might be offered in helping them share their work  (i.e. submitting to film festivals, sharing them on FaceBook or on an organizational website, and creating a screening event for friends and family). 

Related to this, a word on music and distribution. Storytellers often have ideas about popular pieces of music they feel fit really well with the theme or emotional flavour of the stories they are telling. Mentors need to break the bad news: using copyrighted music and images is illegal, and doing so will severely limit the possibility of publicly sharing their stories (on YouTube, Facebook, and in festivals). But mentors can also save the day with some good news: There are lots of websites that feature copyright free music, pictures and archival footage for films. Guiding them in this direction invariably also leads to learning about how to attribute Creative Commons licenses in their credits. 

Flexibility=Accessibility 

More has and will be said about the importance of Community Digital Storytelling happening in informal learning environments, and using flexible and participant-centred pedagogies, but it bears saying again. What makes Community Digital Storytelling so unique is the way it centres the specific needs of the storyteller. Given that, where possible, all timelines and plans need to bend to the storyteller. 

In early iterations of the workshops with Our World Language (affiliated with the NFB at this time), incorporating the First Language of the community was a mandatory part of each workshop. Powerful films were created within this structure and in this case partnering with XaadKihlgaa Hi Suu.u Society (Speak Haida Society) in Old Massett and having precious time with Elders.

As the workshops continued and friendships with communities grew, Our World responded to the requests and the workshops transformed. Local artists became part of the mentor team and participants could explore their own feelings, talents and other film genres. In 2019, one collaborative youth team wrote, acted and edited a suspense /horror film that touched on issues of drinking, the stress of achievement and pitfalls of social media.

Jacey, Kaleigh, Niccola, Patrick and Taang Guunaay get ready for the first scene of the day
Created by Isaac Bowey, Kaleigh Goetzinger, TaangGunaay Grinder, Forest Michealoff, Jacey Pollard & Olivia Wilson
Five friends have an intense camping trip..
Queen Charlotte/Skidegate, Haida Gwaii, BC – 2019 – 10:06
*warning: mature language & content

Sometimes programs run by government agencies have rules related to involving people under a certain age or having a certain level of sobriety. Digital storytelling workshops can be more flexible when run independently. If the digital storytelling workshop is too strictly regulated, it can impede participation and creativity, or force storytellers to move forward before they are ready. 

This points to the complex considerations in play regarding how workshops get funded, what restrictions or outcome demands come with funding, and what support can be offered to participants. Making programs truly accessible is expensive (e.g. having ASL interpreters or language interpreters available, only using facilities with gender neutral bathrooms and wheelchair ramps, providing food and bus tickets, making the programs longer, or having more specialized supports to accommodate different learning needs). 

Luckily for the mentors, this tricky business is usually the purview of the Workshop Coordinator or Facilitator. 

Behind the Scenes Roles: Facilitators, Coordinators and Disseminators

This series of posts  focus primarily on what takes place within the actual Community Digital Storytelling workshops, but there’s a lot of work that happens both before and after the workshop itself. What this looks like and the titles given to the people doing this work vary (depending upon the organization and model being used) but here are some of the main before and after tasks:

Pre-programming / workshop development logistics:

This phase can include: 

  • Fundraising 
  • Budgeting, bookkeeping, financial management 
  • Developing appropriate partnerships
  • Confirming venues + dates
  • Securing staff 
  • Developing curriculum 
  • Recruiting participants through publicity and promotion
  • Arranging food and catering 
  • Identifying and meeting different accessibility needs 

Among the standard ‘after the workshop’ activities are: 

  • Sharing the work on websites and on FaceBook 
  • Entering work into festivals 
  • Checking in with participants after the workshop (potentially organizing reunions, or initiating a dedicated group page)
  • Coordinating community and public screenings (and associated publicity) 
  • Creating discussion guides and workshop activities to go with each of the pieces 
  • Doing follow-up and final reporting to funders (financial and otherwise).

The Exhilarating and Exhausting Call to Mentorship

“I never intend to make friends, but it just happens. You just love these people, especially after the intense workshops. You see the worst of them and they’ve seen the worst of you.”

Elisa Chee

While some workshops allow for a ratio of one mentor per participant, different models and funding challenges can mean one facilitator has to mentor a whole group. This is great when the group is working well together, but it can be challenging when group dynamics are not constructive and don’t allow for individual attention. 

Whatever the ratio, mentors work long hours, and the calling can be as emotionally draining as it is rewarding. Even when a mentor is exhausted, and edits are suddenly lost, or gear begins to crash, it’s up to the mentor to figure out a way to make it work (without taking over). 

Burnout among mentors is real. The highly empathetic personalities of most mentors make the rewarding role of establishing trust and building a rapport with the participants relatively natural. But the process can also take its toll–especially when the level of attachment to the participants is high, and the stories that are shared are as heavy as they often are. 

In addition to the intense emotional labour, mentors tend to work tirelessly to support participants in overcoming emotional and structural barriers as they try to make their digital stories—from making ‘wake up’ calls, and morning pick-ups, to heart-to-heart talks and buying extra snacks.

It’s hard to know how to best balance empathetic listening, and supportive action with sound emotional boundaries. In immersion-style models, or when mentors travel to a remote location, having boundaries or practicing self-care can be particularly challenging. There is often little time to be away from the group to recharge and relax. 

Part of the burn out is gendered –as a ‘caring’ profession, the field of CDS tends to be dominated by women. But it’s also structural. Sometimes there just isn’t enough money to provide the support that’s required to run workshops well without demanding too much from the mentors and participants.

It’s sometimes necessary to give the funders some pushback and say, ‘Look, you’ve got to value—and by value, I mean provide funding for– relationship-building; the ‘extra distance’ mentors go, and all of the wraparound stuff that is necessary to do this work ethically, safely and holistically.’ 

Arising out of our discussion of the role of mentors, our second finding is that it is necessary to educate funding bodies so that they recognize the unpaid labour of creating and supporting the environments that make community storytelling possible through increased and sustained financial support.


AMES is a bi-regional organization. The birthplace of AMES is the unsurrendered territory of the Penelakut people, and other Hul’quim speaking Nations who hold rights and responsibilities in and around the place that’s come to be known as Galiano Island. Most of our collaborators and participants hail from xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) territories, and the majority of outreach activities take place on these territories too.

We gratefully acknowledge that we live and work on the unceded, traditional territories of the Coast Salish peoples sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) nations.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

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