The internet of memory: “To hell with facts! We need stories!” 

Storytelling is ancient. We all learn through stories whether at the feet of our elders, in story circles at school, through reading, listening or writing. There is something which ignites us when someone says “let me tell you a story”. Digital storytelling connects the telling of stories to digital media for the recording, production and dissemination of the stories. More importantly, digital storytelling puts the power of the technology in the hands of the storytellers and creates a space for people to listen to each other, foregrounding the voices and experiences of the storytellers. Isn’t that at the core of our work as APC – to put the power of technology into the hands of people? Part of the strength of APC is that “we work with grassroots groups who use the technology to develop their communities and further their rights...”

Putting technology in the hands of the storytellers

Let’s start with evaluative feedback from workshop participants to show the elements of the digital storytelling methodology.

I had a chance to be taught how to use the computer. I had to tell my story in a movie style (cool!)

I knew that I was abused, but I never took is seriously until you told me to write my story. I was a bit confused, but you made me write it, and I find myself beginning to put everything together and I made a beautiful story.

The combination of storytelling and learning new technology skills in a supportive and safe space, translates into a powerful way to feel comfortable with technology and see the way in which it can be a platform for activism. Ownership over the stories and being able to experiment and apply the technology towards something tangible, creative and transformative, encourages further curiosity around digital media.

Where this journey began

So how did all this magic being? In 2007 APC member Women’sNet, based in Johannesburg, South Africa had a thriving computer lab and training hub for women activists. Amy Hill from the San Francisco based organisation Story Centre was looking for a space to use to train activists in the digital storytelling methodology. A trade was soon arranged – the use of the training lab in exchange for 2 staff members of Women’sNet to participate in and learn the digital storytelling methodology. A few months later, Women’sNet ran 2 digital storytelling workshops, one with survivors of domestic violence and another with lesbian activists. This culminated in “I have Listened, I have Heard – Digital stories for Transformation” - a workbook for human rights, women’s rights and gender education training which included those digital stories women had given consent to be used.

Initially the impetus for digital storytelling was three-fold. One to enable activists to tell their own stories in their own words. So often stories, particularly of women are mediated by others, intermediaries asking the questions, interpreting and reinventing women’s own experiences. The methdology of digital storytelling explicitly asks for the “I” in the story – no-one can tell the story of another. Secondly, to encourage women to use technology as transformatory means, to question the design and application of technology and re-invent and appropriate technology in their lives and activism. Thirdly, as a creative way of developing original content to turn around the massive amount of information on the internet which does not mirror or reflect the lives of women, particularly in the global south and told in their own languages.

2007 in the world
  • 27 December 2007 Benazir Bhutto assassinated in Rawalpindi, Pakistan

  • J.K. Rowling finishes the 7th and last Harry Potter novel

  • Live Eath Concerts are held throughout 9 major cities around the world to raise environmental awareness

  • On June 29, 2007, the first iPhone was released.

Spreading the methodology through Member Exchange and Travel Fund

And so an APC and partners journey with storytelling had begun. APC staff participated in the Women’sNet workshop and began offering training to and with APC members and partners. APC’s Member Exchange and Travel Fund (METF) which supports member-driven skills sharing, internships, and planning for collaboration among APC members saw APC members taking up the digital storytelling methodology. In September of 2008, a Women’sNet staff member traveled to Serajavo to run a training of trainers workshop with One World Partnership (formerly OWPSEE) supported by the METF. This saw the methodology being used extensively by OWP with APC partners, as a tool for storytelling for transformation and with the Institude of Development Studies. The IDS partnership interestingly combined digital storytelling and participatory video as methods for activists to create their own stories. Again the METF was instrumental in furthering the methodology as in 2010 Women’sNet traveled to Yaounde to work with Protege QV learn the methodology.

Stories travel

Digital stories made by the women of the Fancy Stitch project in Ingwavuma, a rural town in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa were screened at the XVII International Aids conference in Mexico. “The birds the women sew into dark fabric to represent HIV, will accompany their voices explaining how HIV has changed their lives.”2 Digital stories made by transgender sex workers weaving personal narratives into the call for decriminalisation of sex work, travel and translate into other places finding resonance and landing in the hearts and activism of others. The stories mirror and stitch together the politics, the legislative struggles and the personal and lived realities of people which makes them powerful ‘statements’.

Digital storytelling is used for a variety of purposes. APC has employed the methodology for movement building, to develop content for advocacy, for evaluation purposes, as project-specific ‘evidence’. Critically, digital storytelling records the herstory of our activism and ‘translates’ across time, space and geography. But always for activists to listen, deeply to each other, to bear witness and to bring a more profound understanding to why we work so hard to transform unjust systems. It gives a brief pause in the business of work to tell one story of why we do what we do. It’s in those moments that we can re-ignite the flame, re-member that the personal is political and listen to the stories of others and to what motiviates and inspires us all to be activists.

Each workshop ends with a celebration and screening of the digital stories. After the screening we gather in a circle, each with a stone and we read words by Alice Walker:

It has become a common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame. This is the tragedy of our world. For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile. Sometimes our stones are, to us, misshapen, odd. Their color seems off. Their singing comical and strange. Presenting them, we perceive our own imperfect nakedness. But also, paradoxically, the wholeness, the rightness, of it. In the collective vulnerability of presence, we learn not to be afraid. …even the smallest stone glistens with tears, yes, but also from the light of being seen, and loved for simply being there." (Alice Walker, Everything We Love Can Be Saved, Introduction, p. xxlll – xxv.) 

Chronology of APC and digital storytelling
  • 2007 – Women’sNet workshops “I have listened I have heard” creating digital stories with survivors of domestic violence and South African lesbians

  • 2007 - Women’s Electronic Network Training Africa, Durban, South Africa - Digital stories as a means of combating domestic, sexual and other forms of violence faced by African women.

  • 2008 – Working with Fancy Stitch creating digital stories in Ingwavuma, KwaZulu-Natal with women on the impact of HIV/AIDS

  • 2008 – digital stories made by participants at APC WRP’s first Feminist Tech Exchange hosted prior to the AWID Forum. The digital stories were screening at the AWID event to 2000 women.

  • 2010, a digital storytelling workshop on was co-facilited in Islamabad, Pakistan - Digital stories help women Take Back the Tech! to end violence against women.

  • 2010 Foundation for Media Alternatives and Take Back the Tech Philippines developed digital stories as part of APC’s MDG3: Take Back the Tech! campaign.

  • 2012, Afghani women activists in Kabul made digital stories to raise awareness about women’s rights and promote gender equality

  • In 2014 APC in partnership with Point of View hosted a digital stortyelling workshop in Mumbai, India

  • 2014 APC in partnership with Sonke Gender Jusice and Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task force trained 10 transgender sex workers to develop stories on decriminalisation of sex work.

  • 2014 digital storytelling with sexual rights activists on the female condom.

  • 2017 through the Erotics South Asia project 34 digital stories in 4 languages were made in July in Colombo, Sri Lanka and Kathmandu Nepal.

  • For more information on the methodology and examples of digital stories, visit stories.apc.org

Blogs on digital storytelling

Image source: Women and Media Collective.

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