By Deblekha Guin, Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton
WHAT is Community Digital Storytelling?
Participatory media, video ethnography, community-based production, place-based storytelling, community-located filmmaking
These are but a few of the many phrases that have been used over the years to describe the sector/movement/field that we’ll be calling Community Digital Storytelling (CDS) in this series of blog posts.
Community Digital Storytelling doesn’t have a straightforward lineage that can be traced back to a singular ‘forefather’ at a specific time or location, but has emerged through multiple circles in multiple locations over time. More grassroots than ‘top-down’, the approaches that have come to be associated with CDS tend to be grounded in specific communities, grown in informal cohorts in response to unique community needs or concerns, supported by a host of creative rebels, and forged through the zig zag pattern of trial and error.
Given its fiercely local and rhizomatic development, it’s not surprising that CDS thwarts a crystal-clear definition or prescribed set of practices, and instead boasts a wide variety of context-specific and culturally distinct models, methods and outcomes.That said, there are some commonly held practices, principles and approaches that have emerged in and through these homegrown contexts that loosely define this field. Among them:
1. Self Representation: Getting the chance to tell your own story in your own way is the cornerstone of CDS. And while the concept of ‘self representation’ largely ‘speaks for itself’, the need to proclaim its value is indicative of the dominance of its opposite. Namely, the legacy of extracted, distorted and appropriated stories, and the structural inequities that have historically limited access to the tools of representation. It could even be said that this sector was born precisely to challenge uneven conditions of cultural production, and create opportunities for those without access to ‘take back their stories’. And this helps to explain why the people at the centre of Community Digital Storytelling and its ‘by and for’ ethos tend to be members of communities that have been historically marginalized—whether through geography, class, or other identity-based social determinants (from ethnicity and ability, to gender and sexuality).
2. Process-oriented and People-focused: Though ‘process’ and ‘product’ aren’t necessarily at odds, it’s safe to say that CDS workshops put more stock in the process than the outcomes. In most CDS workshops it’s a top priority to put in safeguards to ensure that the storytelling process is as safe and supportive as it can be, and that time is carved out to ‘process’ what gets surfaced over the course of telling a story (more about this in a future post that focuses on the Healing Power of CDS). Another way of framing this is that CDS involves a values-based approach that shifts the primary emphasis away from ‘artistic excellence’ or ‘profit’ towards meaning-making and community relevance.
3. Informal Learning Environments: One of the most important elements of CDS (that is implied throughout most of the interviews, but rarely explicitly stated) is that almost all CDS workshops take place in informal community settings. This has a big impact on:
- WHO participates. Many people drawn to CDS have had traumatic experiences in school settings, so being outside of these institutional spaces significantly reduces barriers to participating,
- HOW projects roll out. Unlike the ‘sage on the stage’ approach to teaching that can prevail in schools, the CDS approach tends to promote ‘guide on the side’ support which is participant-centred, flexible, responsive, collaborative, and project-based, and
- WHAT types of stories are told. CDS generally focuses on stories that emerge from the authentic expertise of lived experience, rather than expertise based on previous accomplishments which tends to be the norm more with institutionalized learning.
4. Transformation and Change-focus: Though CDS doesn’t promote prescribed themes or storylines, by virtue of happening outside of dominant institutions, involving and centring people who live outside of the dominant culture, and focusing on underrepresented realities, most of the stories that emerge through CDS call (whether implicitly or explicitly) for some sort of change–whether that be transformation at a personal, community and/or broader social level.
WHEN and HOW did Community Digital Storytelling begin in this region?
With this wide establishing frame loosely set, we’ll zoom in to the rise of community-based digital storytelling HERE– in the westernmost province of Canada that–in the true spirit of settler colonialism– has come to be known as British Columbia.
This is a story, as summarized by the reflections of many leading digital storytelling practitioners in this region, but not the story, and most definitely not THE WHOLE story.
Stating this upfront isn’t just about making a standard disclaimer about the potential biases, errors or omissions in this iteration of the story. As implied in the preamble, challenging the “Singular Narrative” approach to story, celebrating the multiplicity of perspectives (particularly those that have tended to be omitted from the official annals of capital H-History), and acknowledging the value and impacts of ‘small stories’ are all core principles and practices at the heart of the emergence of community digital storytelling. With that in mind, we hope you will read this as a living and evolving compilation of stories and perspectives on critical moments, key players and principles at play in CDS. And we also hope you will consider doing an interview, adding to this story, or challenging parts of it by reaching out to us.
The Digital Storytelling workshops that originated with the Center for Digital Storytelling (now Storycenter.org) in California in the 1970s played a key role in drawing wider attention to and legitimizing the “power of story”, building the momentum of the digital storytelling movement, and establishing key methods in digital storytelling practices that have been adopted, adapted, and echoed in many different communities and contexts.
On the Canadian scene, one of the key precursors to this movement was the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change participatory film and video initiative that aimed to illuminate the social concerns of various communities within Canada. Beginning in 1967 and continuing until 1980, Challenge for Change led to the creation of over 200 films and videos, and the establishment of The Indian Film Crew (1968), that marked the beginning of Indigenous films being made by Indigenous people at the NFB.
Many of these initiatives and those that would follow were significantly influenced by changes in technology. As equipment shrank in size and became more portable, production costs were reduced, and it became more possible to shoot in remote locations, and give cameras to non-professionals to tell their own stories. In short, to make media ‘with people’ rather than ‘about people.’
“Digital storytelling emerged after it became possible. Before then, you needed a $60,000 camera and film stock that was going to cost you thousands of dollars [to buy] and process. When everyone working on the film was paid industry rates or slightly lower than industry rates, you would end up with big budgets and you could never do something–even a five minute film—for less than $30,000.”Svend-Erik Eriksen, Former NFB Producer
As much as the costs and ‘heavy lifting’ were radically reduced through technical innovation at this time, the resources required to undertake and promote this sort of work were still well beyond the reach of many smaller grassroots approaches. With that in mind, we’d like to shift our focus to some of the lesser known histories. In the early 70’s several feminist media collectives were founded in Vancouver, among them: Women in Focus, Reel Feelings, and the Vancouver Women and Film group named after the Goddess ISIS. It was during this creatively fertile time that Moira (Mo) Simpson had her first experience with video-making:
“When I was young and living for awhile in the Balmoral Hotel in the DTES, a social worker started giving video cameras to youth on welfare so we could tell our stories.”Mo Simpson
Shortly thereafter Mo joined a group called Metro Media that, along with the National Film Board’s Challenge for Change program, worked with Bridgeview community members.
“It became known as Bridgeview after they built the Patullo Bridge in the 30s. A railroad bridge had been there before and so it was always a poor area. There were a lot of scrap metal yards and used car lots and pretty dicey hotels. Before Surrey became a city, no one ever looked after the ditches that were the sewers. It smelled when you went down there and it’s all really low land.”Svend-Erik Eriksen
In a project initiated by Douglas College, Bridgeview residents learned how to use Portapak video cameras to describe what a dilapidated mess Bridgeview was and they showed their videos at council meetings. It was called ‘participatory community involvement’ and it was Mo’s first experience with community storytelling.
“Liz Walker and I would drive out to Surrey from Vancouver and give portapack workshops at a time when we were still learning the technology ourselves. We visited Bridgeview and became familiar with the neighbourhood. Our connection to the project and working with Metro Media (which was linked to Challenge for Change) informed my entire life. I’m still helping people develop the skills to tell their own stories.”Mo Simpson
“At Metro Media we would put our Portapak in a little red wagon that said Metro Media and we’d produce videos with different community groups in the area.”Mo Simpson
Those early grassroots initiatives engaged people who would go on to become key practitioners in the field.
“Dorothy Henaut came from Montreal to Metro Media and she was wearing a long hippie dress and she had this effervescent, wonderful personality that was so engaging. We all thought she was beyond cool. She was a big part of Challenge for Change.”Mo Simpson
“Henaut said with conviction that people should participate in shaping their own lives, which meant … learning and using the tools of modern communication necessary to gain and exercise that participation. So that was their mandate.”Mo Simpson
“Alanis Obomsawin also made a film with Challenge for Change. She was featured in one of Kathleen Shannon’s working mothers films. That was the beginning of her career as a documentary filmmaker. Now she’s in her eighties and has done so many films. She is one of the most acclaimed Indigenous directors in the world.”Mo Simpson
Almost two decades later, a similar approach to community digital storytelling practice began to re-emerge in artist-run media centres (like VIVO and Western Front), non-profits (like Access to Media Education Society), and collaborations between governmental agencies (like the NFB) and academic institutions (video ethnography/ participatory action research) and smaller communities/non-profits.
“Access to Media (AMES) began in the late 1990’s– mostly spearheaded by a group of creative 20-somethings who were living on Galiano Island and were involved in starting the Gulf Islands Film and Television School –GIFTS. We wanted to bring the short-format, immersive, and mentor-guided media-making programs for youth that GIFTS had developed to communities who were invisible or grossly misrepresented in the mainstream media—and who couldn’t afford the film camp fees…we were all committed to the idea of giving folks who had been pushed to the margins the tools to ‘take back the media’, tell their own stories and create ‘counter narratives’.Deblekha Guin, AMES
In that first year (1997) we hosted 5 fully subsidized one-week intensives for a total of 84 street-involved, LGBTQ, Indigenous, of-colour, and HIV+ youth from throughout BC. It was unbelievable to witness the transformative impact that creating a safe, supportive and creatively inspiring space had on the staff and participants alike.”
Lorna Boschman taught workshops and was a collective member at Video In (now VIVO Media Arts Centre) for over a decade. She was influenced by visual artists like Persimmon Blackbridge and Elizabeth Shefrin, who worked with Self Advocates (a person living with disabilities who can advocate on their behalf) in the From the Inside/OUT! show, exhibited at the Roundhouse Community Centre in 1999.
That exhibit and the Golden Sheaf (Yorkton Short Film Festival) award-winning video grew out of an oral history project among Self Advocates; the older generation who had been institutionalized wanted to let younger people know what it had been like when they were not integrated within the larger community. Persimmon and Elizabeth travelled to BC communities that hosted former institutions (Woodlands, Tranquille, Riverview), met with Self Advocates who grew up in institutions, and collaborated on large-scale collages and installations for the Roundhouse exhibit.
Workshops in media production and editing were held at artist-run-centres like Video In, where artists and individuals working with organizations learned to create a video. Facilities for production and editing were available, as well as staff who were able to give feedback on the production as part of the centre’s services.
“And as soon as I started using digital equipment, in particular editing, it was like, wow, it’s amazing what you can do.”Aerlyn Weissman
While this is not the same as the “story circles” within digital storytelling workshops, VIVO/Video In staff members are media artists who mentor novice video artists. Their approach was more DIY than digital storytelling. During the 1990s, Video In provided additional support by offering free custom workshops for folks who identified as queer, people of colour, deaf or hard of hearing, and/or Indigenous.
A decade later (early 2000s), rapid changes in ‘desktop editing,’ advances in digital cameras, and decreases in the costs brought the proliferation of community media collectives and initiatives—with a particular focus on Indigenous and other marginalized communities. Chris Bose got started with filmmaking and that led to leading community digital storytelling workshops.
“And then I came up with an idea. I wanted to tell a story about Indigenous people and what we’re going through and figured out how to make a movie. And I ended up making a movie called Adventures in Wonderland. And that movie changed my life. It got me right into digital storytelling and eventually in time it did lead to community arts projects. But that was sort of the start. Cause then I started getting into film festivals and then I started traveling and then I started meeting people, meeting other filmmakers and storytellers. That was way back in 2005.”Chris Bose
Aerlyn Weissman had been on a CTV crew that covered Israel’s October war in 1983. She was inspired by a Peace it Together screening:
“I was just knocked out. I mean, I was interested in issues around the Israeli Palestinian situation in Israel and surrounding the refugee camps and so forth. And there was something impressive about this program on reconciliation. During the October war I saw some pretty heavy duty stuff and I also came away with a very strong opinion that the youth of both those communities deserved way better than a war every 15 years, which was what was going on, even way before 1948.”Aerlyn Weissman
Some of these were collaborations between academic and cultural institutions like the NFB (that provided stability and stature), and smaller nonprofits in attempts to forge hybrid models that combined the best of both worlds.
Among them Tales from Bridgeview and Seniors Stories, and a collaboration between the National Film Board (NFB), Burnaby Association for Community Inclusion (BACI) and Philia that embodied the principle of creative self-advocacy; turning ‘clients’ with developmental disabilities into Directors.
In 2005, the NFB started various digital storytelling initiatives consisting of co-creation with mentorship, based loosely on the Centre for Digital Storytelling model out of San Francisco CA. An early digital storytelling project was with seniors. Don White was facilitator for the project, developing the creative approach. He directed each senior’s recording of a story. Lisa g Nielsen and Elisa Chee mentored during this project and worked with people in their 80s and 90s to find the most important parts of their oral story, add photographs, and co-create a strong ending for each piece. Sometimes the seniors included photos dating back to when they were the same age as their young collaborators. When the films were completed, they were screened at the Roundhouse Community Centre. Family members gain new insights into the lives their relatives had lived.
“And with that workshop, we were so lucky. There were 5 of the mentors and I think just 10 participants and we actually spent an entire hour or an hour and a half working beside each participant and having some time.Elisa Chee
I think because they were seniors, they didn’t necessarily want to do much of the filmmaking themselves. So you actually had time outside of the workshop to kind of finish up work that we discussed with the participants at the time. So that was an interesting process and it was different from the other workshops that I’ve done since. Mainly because I’m working with youth who are interested in filmmaking themselves so passing on the skills became part of that process.”
Also in 2005, director Nettie Wild worked with the NFB and partnered with a Surrey, BC school to create Tales from Bridgeview consecutively over 3 years. Lisa g. Nielsen and Sebnem Ozpeta, among others, worked as mentors on this program. In 2006, the films were completed and presented to packed crowds at the Bridgeview Community Centre.
Our World was another NFB program that began in 2006. Harkening back to the early days of Challenge for Change, this program (produced by Svend-Erik Eriksen in consultation with Banchi Hanuse) began with research in many communities in British Columbia, learning about their resources, how well a workshop would be received, and who to connect with. Hanuse put together a comprehensive document. She was working with a school teacher in Bella Coola, where Hanuse was from, and this is where the first Our World workshop took place.
Though Our World Language brings in mentors and tech from outside of the communities that they are working with, they return to communities repeatedly, which has resulted in the deepening of partnerships with local organizations and practitioners. They do work with local mentors if they are available.
“My approach as a filmmaker is that when I work with people, even doing a simple task or anything like I think the most important thing is to be when you’re one-on-one. And then even in the sound recording, because people were sharing their very intimate stories and trust is one of the major things. It doesn’t matter from age 7 to 70 when you’re processing. Tools can be learned and it’s great to pass your information and technical skills to the young people.”Sebnem Ozpeta
Patrick Shannon leads InnoNative, a multimedia creative studio based on Haida Gwaii that brings traditional Indigenous storytelling and values into contemporary mediums. In addition to facilitating his own workshops and productions, Patrick has co-facilitated workshops with Lisa g. Nielsen from Our World.
“How did I get started in digital storytelling? So I come from a Northern remote indigenous community that never had access to technology that would allow for storytelling to happen. A pencil and paper was probably your best opportunity to be able to tell any sort of story.Patrick Shannon, InnoNative
And when I moved to Vancouver as a 15 year old, back in the mid-2000s I learned about the film industry for the first time. And I started with photography at this point. It was still a film. Digital had not taken over yet and so when I started, I was working in the film industry, learning all the different kinds of roles, how storytelling works at that big scale.”
Along similar lines, Jai Djwa has spent the better part of the last 20 years helping other people with their stories, and using video as a tool towards activism.
“Most of my professional work has been around social change: working on campaigns, whether in the environment or with foster care and adoptive kids, and trying to find ways to move people to action. The idea of being able to tell stories has been really important.”Jai Djwa
One program that Jai Djwa worked on, funded by Industry Canada, not only provided the community with cameras, computers, and software; They also operated a 1-800 helpline for technical assistance. The work of the First Nations Education Steering Committee (FNESC) was another organization that helped build capacity through its work in 120 First Nations schools on reserves across British Columbia. FN School/Net was active from 2000-2006, and then transformed into a minor program when it was absorbed into Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC). Some of the students received additional training at Gulf Islands Film and Television School (GIFTS) on Galiano Island.
“The interesting part about digital storytelling in relation to that experience with FNESC was the fact that working with young people in the schools, teaching about iMovie, cameras, and software packages, was extremely exciting. It gave them the opportunity to tell their own stories. As we know, there is such a negative portrayal of Indigenous people in the media that for these young folks in school, this was a chance to redefine what the presentation was for themselves.”Jai Djwa
Similarly, the Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective recognized the need for people to know their history, and where they came from. From 2008 to 2015, the collective hosted a Pan-African Slam every year. The Hogan’s Alley poetry festival started in 2011.
“Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective got started when I had a series of informal brainstorming sessions with a lot of my friends. I would run into my friends at various events, cultural programs, like Black History month shows, or film festivals. And sometimes our conversations would be about programming for Black people.Black Dot Roots and Culture Collective
But sometimes we would be talking about representation and how we could be participating in an event that was showcasing some aspect of our culture, but was not acknowledging the originators of that culture. And this was probably between 2000, I would say between 2004 and 2008 because I was actively writing and performing in poetry slams.”
Beyond the “giving voice to the voiceless” Paradigm
“The importance of storytelling is to bring realization to people and to validate their life experiences.”Svend-Erik Eriksen
At this point it’s worth circling back to one of the most prominent narratives associated with this field: ‘giving voice to the voiceless’.
This narrative embodies the best and most problematic aspects of this field. Helping to validate and draw attention to previously invisibilized stories “of harm, healing and hope” are worthwhile and important aspects of redressing inequities in the storytelling realm.
But the concept of “giving voice”—a practice that until recently has widely been regarded as empowering and noble—reveals this sector’s shadow side: a set of assumptions about who has ‘helpful’ agency, and who is insidiously (whether intentionally or not) robbed of agency through the assumption that they were previously ‘voiceless’. The unacknowledged privilege and conceits of assuming that “voice” is something that a select few have the power to give is part of the reckoning work that this sector needs to continue undertaking.
This reckoning needs to begin with a recognition that the voices, and stories of the people who are ostensibly being ‘served’ by CDS have always been there (even if buried), but that deep and active listening within dominant culture has not. For settlers, or those ‘offering support work’ from outside of the communities being engaged, this means working to change the distribution systems and structures that result in the amplification of some stories and perspectives, and the stifling of others.
It also means shifting the direction of the critical gaze, and mustering the courage and ethical fortitude to critically reflect on the attitudes and assumptions behind the CDS practices we employ. Are they, for example, rooted in classical ‘Charity Models’ that subtly maintain power differentials, and create a false binary between those who ‘give’, and those who ‘get’?
Sometimes the demands to propagate false binaries are driven by external forces and norms. When writing grants to support CDS initiatives, for instance, there is often tacit pressure to make exaggerated claims about how particular programs are ‘saving’ the vulnerable populations being engaged.
Related to this, the charity sector often measures the value of programs in terms of ‘how far ‘they’ve’ (read: the ‘disadvantaged’) come, and what specific perils were avoided as a result of their participation in a given program. Among the risks we’re often expected to take credit for people averting are: suicide, criminal activity, dropping out of school, substance abuse, the perpetuation of intergenerational trauma, and so on. Sometimes organizations knowingly play (but don’t believe in) the ‘emphasize the barriers and sad stories / de-emphasize the capacity and resilience’ game just to get the funds (a problematic strategy that can be effective in the short term), and sometimes they actually believe the hype.
This is not to say that supportive programs don’t contribute to the opening of ‘positive’ (if/as determined by the participants themselves) pathways forward. They often can and do, but don’t always. More importantly, the potential for positive impact doesn’t justify the fact that organizations that overstate the case– overdetermining the powerlessness of the participants pre-program, and overemphasizing the impact that a given program might have had—are often financially rewarded and showcased by funders.
At the publicity stage, there’s a similar tendency to overrepresent specific ‘vulnerable populations’ in promotional material, and frame them as unequivocally vulnerable. These dynamics (that ultimately undermine the power-shifting/sharing work that is ostensibly being done) point to the need for continual push back, personal, and funder education.
On an individual level (for folks leading programs who aren’t from the communities being engaged), deconstructing the ‘charity mind-set’ also means honestly reflecting upon what the ostensible ‘givers’ might be getting out of the process–instead of only taking stock of the myriad ways people being ‘served’ by particular programs are benefiting (clearly it’s hard to even talk about these dynamics without reproducing dualisms).
It’s worth considering questions like:
- Are there elements of performative allyship in play?
- Is the program design and roll out being driven by needs expressed by participants, or by a desire to establish cultural capital, enhance street cred, or promote a particular self / organizational image?
- Are there other gravitational pulls towards particular communities or stories at work?
- Is there a potency or resonance in the stories of others that might speak to missing pieces or parts of our own stories that need mending or tending to? [note: it’s not wrong if there is, but it can become ‘sticky’ when the fulfillment of unacknowledged needs are unconsciously sought under the guise of ‘helping the needy’]
Whether at a systemic, interpersonal or internal level, the call to candidly and meticulously check our privilege and our motives echoes the wisdom within Lily Watson’s much quoted and revealing declaration:
“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”Lily Watson
On a positive note, the perils of the non-profit industrial complex are becoming more widely understood, and the classical Charity approach is increasingly coming under fire, and (thankfully and necessarily) beginning to wane. We are already seeing examples, like some of those noted above, where more paternalistic approaches are being eclipsed by practices that are more deeply rooted in principles in solidarity, reciprocity and mutual aid. And the hope is that we’ll see more examples of deeply decolonized approaches to Community Digital Storytelling in the future manifestations of this field.
Our first finding is that community digital storytelling is a diverse field with many local origins. Storytellers represent themselves with the support of mentors in process-oriented and participant-focused workshops. We work together in informal learning environments, with a focus on change, transforming stories that hold us back into ones that help us to move forward with a clearer individual and community awareness.
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.