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Healing In and For Communities Through Community Digital Storytelling

Doing this work in community (when safer spaces are created and held) tends to accelerate the process of individual healing, but it also activates the process of community healing—and can help ‘bring back the spirit’ of an entire people, culture or community. This is especially the case when working with communities whose stories have been suppressed, distorted, or appropriated throughout history. Unearthing and showcasing stories that feature underrepresented experiences that members of marginal communities can relate to is a powerful means of generating cultural pride and revitalization.

“I really look at digital storytelling as a way to empower our people because we have so many stories, and so much to share that’s often ignored and overlooked.”
Chris Bose

“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.”
Louis Riel

“In the first talking circle of the first program we ever ran in 1997, Renae Morrisseau gifted AMES with a feather that Barb Cranmer had given her a decade before. This generous gift had a profound impact on AMES. A gift that truly kept giving, it became both a touchstone, and a portal that facilitated individual and collective sharing and healing, and it also reminded the hundreds of people who would hold that feather in years to come that they were part of larger circles, and a larger movement to heal.”
Deblekha Guin, AMES


Defining community

As central as it may be to the practices of Community Digital Storytelling, the concept of ‘Community’ remains challenging to pin down. A community can be delineated based on culture, geography, neighbourhood, faith, ideological affinity, persuasion, chosen or inherited identities. But a ‘Community-based’ approach to telling stories is as much about WHO is involved, as it is HOW the process unfolds.

“This is about more than just me.”

“This work invites people to be their creative selves, and come into their power. When we do this work together, personal liberation and empowerment become part of a bigger movement.”
Sara Kendell, AMES

CDS practices tend to value both ‘process’ and ‘relationship-building’. As such, time and space tends to be built into the workshop design to allow stories within and between the participants to gradually unfold, and for the people participating to make connections, and hold each other to account, with enough room to both ‘call each other in’ and ‘call each other out’.

Whatever it means to particular facilitators, mentors or participants, it seems that the word ‘community’ resonates most strongly for folks who–for whatever reason— felt they were not part of a community for many years of their/ our lives. Community suggests taking part in something bigger than yourself.

“Marginalization can make you feel like you’re alone, so it was cool to be in a program where you weren’t alone–where you could be yourself, and part of a community…”
James Diamond, Filmmaker /Artist, AMES Participant

“And maybe in Canada, a big experience is when we discuss something like othering. Othering is pushing away or categorizing people. In the workshop, we bring people together so they are not the other anymore. You can come, any age, any race, any form. We are here to make something.”
Sebnem Ozpeta

The digital storytelling workshop environment is about creating spaces of deep belonging; spaces where people who have been othered can feel that they—and all of the disparate aspects of their identities—can be included, seen and respected. Othering is a process—both interpersonal and systemic—whereby people are treated and categorized as ‘outsiders’, or systemically relegated to the fringes of dominant culture.

Outline. One person’s real coming out conversation. Created during AMES workshop.

“When I first got involved with AMES I was a little kid from suburbia, so I didn’t have a lot of people of colour around me. These programs helped politicize me, and introduce me to a whole new community of like-minded people and mentors who were using film and video to talk about important issues. It helped me find my career path.”
Jason DaSilva, Award-winning filmmaker

“I feel like a kind of ‘birds of a feather’ thing, just being able to express yourself around more deeply held feelings of marginalization. I think that requires a very different kind of space. You have lots of trauma and confusion in every community, but there are different aspects to it that I think are more deeply held by people of colour.”
Jai Djwa

In this way, digital storytelling workshops work against othering in that everyone who attends becomes part of the group. Sometimes carving out spaces that accommodate radical acceptance, and deep connection—especially for communities that still carry the wounds of marginalization–demands that we gather separately—in communities of self-identification—whether that is about race, sexuality, gender, or belief. There are many healing benefits to doing so, not the least of which is the opportunity it gives people to feel less defended, and to be able to relax into spaces where people ‘get you’ (or at least parts of you) without necessarily having to explain. 

 “From the first Indigenous film program that we held in 1997, it was clearthat the appetite for story in this community was powerful—and that the process was filling a deep need. That program made us realize the potential of Community Digital Storytelling to both build and heal community. Community-created stories became a way OUT of negative stories, and a way INto deeper truths and future possibilities.

Similarly, the “Queer Views” program that we offered in that same year saw the gathering of queer youth from all over the province. For some of the kids who lived rurally, this was the very first time that they had ever been in a room full of queer youth; the first time they got to speak about their experiences of queerness freely, and without fear. That alone—even before the formal storytelling work had begun—was profoundly affirming.”
Deblekha Guin, AMES

I Am Here is a powerful, poetic and haunting exploration of First Nations cultural genocide that features statistics and a spoken word performance. © Access to Media Education Society
Created by: Ivo Haggerty, Spencer Christie, Lilavati Levine. Actored by: Ivo Haggerty, Rosemary Georgeson, Mary Wilson, Jackie Pollard, Aaron MacDevitt, Bianca Charleson, Janine Georgeson, Arthur Georgeson, Austin Georgeson, Hayley Georgeson, Ryan Georgeson, and Lilavati Levine.

Ensuring that the majority of staff and mentors are from whatever community is being engaged is an important way to model ‘by and for’ community-based leadership, and also helps to accelerate and deepen the development of group cohesion and trust. The ability of mentors to relate to the stories and back-stories being shared also helps build group safety, as stories can then emerge without people feeling judged or shamed. 

“I hope I can be a resource and role model for other Indigenous folk. I think it helps ‘cause when there’s no one else that kind of looks like you or has that same kind of background or upbringing doing this kind of work, you don’t really feel like you have potential in it. It always feels like, ‘Oh, that’s what other people do. It’s not what we can do.’

There’s been this massive Renaissance when it comes to Indigenous filmmakers.”
Patrick Shannon, InnoNative

Community digital storytelling workshops are but one way to develop and share a community’s stories. Jai Djwa worked with producer Nicola Harwood and the High Muck a Muck Collective to create an interactive online piece called High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, an Interactive Poem.

High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, an Interactive Poem. Map detail.
High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, an Interactive Poem. Installation view. This collaboratively created website explores historical and contemporary tensions surrounding Chinese immigration to British Columbia, Canada. Artists’ bios.

“It was an interesting collaboration. There was a community storytelling project that interviewed Chinese Canadians and their stories of coming to and being in British Columbia. The point was to share the experiences for education and insight for new generations. High Muck a Muck acknowledged the different aspects of being here…. the stories were not just from different Chinese Canadian elders, but also intergenerational stories. We looked at different generations of Chinese immigration and expressed some of the tensions that exist between these “different but the same” immigrant groups. This was one of the most interesting parts of the project to me. The complexity this evoked about immigration stories.
Since the project began in Nelson, we had the gallery launch there at Oxygen. It was a really big event where all of the people who had participated, most of them came to hear this and that was really interesting ‘cause you had a lot of folks that really, this was their first time in a gallery and that kind of experience of being there and hearing their words come out of a speaker. The whole context was really powerful.”
Jai Djwa

INTER-community building/ Intersectional approaches

Though there is no doubt that there is a lot of value in gathering in ‘affinity groups’, ‘caucuses’ and communities of self-identification, this approach can also lead to people getting or feeling stuck in identity silos—especially when people live with multiple forms of marginalization.

In an attempt to take a more intersectional approach to creating in and across communities, AMES ran a program that engaged folks from both BIPOC and the LGBTQ communities. There were some queer folks of colour who participated, but the majority of the participants identified as either / or.  

“That program resulted in some of the most incredible and unlikely conversations I’d ever witnessed between young, rural Indigenous boys who had never knowingly met a queer person before, and a bunch of mostly queer educated white women from East Van. I’m not going to lie, it was pretty awkward at times– some of the questions the boys asked might have been dismissed as homophobic in another setting, and some of the queer women got an eye-opening schooling on what it’s like to live rurally, Indigenous and poor.

But at the end of the day, it created a chance for folks to realize that they ALL held aspects of both privilege and marginality. It also created space for really honest questions, dialogue, and down to earth recognition of the common ground between different forms of marginalization. Some of those intra-community conversations are reflected in the videos themselves, which in turn became a great springboard into having conversations about intersectionality in the school-based workshop settings that the digital stories were often viewed in.”
Deblekha Guin, AMES

Words Matter-ChARTing Change. AMES.
Director/Editor: Sepideh Yadegar
Actors: Nova Weipert, Ayaan Ismail, Kimbo Bince Villagante, Emily Bilton, 
Writer: Tanvi Bhatia
Music: Kimmortal + Ostwelve
Additional Sound + Camera: Sebnem Ozpeta + Jennifer Li

As a young sound recordist working with the Canadian CTV Network, Aerlyn Weissman covered the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war. When she returned to Toronto, she attended a screening of films created through a community digital storytelling program called Peace it Together. Youth from Palestine, Israel and Canada worked together to make short films reflecting their experiences.

“I was about 23 during the October war. And I just thought, the young people here deserve something better. And I was really interested in how that could happen, but of course I was working full time. So when I saw something in the paper about these screenings, I went to see them and I was just knocked out by some of the pieces that were shown.

There was one piece with two young guys, one of them Palestinian, one of them an Israeli guy, who in the course of doing the program had just clicked. They were best buds and they were making a real commitment to each other to stay in touch when they got back. And I remember the Israeli kid saying, ‘I’m going to treat people differently and I would never harm my brother who’s coming through a checkpoint. Yeah, I’ve got a gun and so forth,’ but he said, ‘I just have a completely different feeling about this.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s what we need.’ And as I say I’m Jewish, so it seemed like a responsibility that I could take on and I should take on.”
Aerlyn Weissman

Artist run centres as key hubs for community-building, collaboration and creative cross pollination across difference

“Having this kind of environment [at the artist-run-media-centre Video In Studios, now VIVO] that was laid back and rich in history and experimentation, I got exposed to different ways people were using video to share their either lived experience or whatever creative expression they had that was alternative to ‘the norm’.

It was a community. When you were there, these people became your friends and video just became this kind of reason that brought you all together… and the kind of people that were drawn to that environment were often people who were marginalized and wanted to use video as a way of sharing their stories.”

Sustainability, Continuity and Local Capacity-building

“I’ve seen people thrive in highly supported CDS environments, really begin to see and believe in their creative potential, and then have all these new story ideas surface after the project is over. But by then the community has dispersed, and they no longer have access to the gear. That can be brutal. The last thing you want is to give people a taste for something that ultimately leaves them feeling more thirsty than before they began.”
Deblekha Guin, AMES

Unikkausikkat – MyStory. Created by Errayou Anagaq
An Elder shares her traumatic childhood stories about a revered pastor of her community.
trigger warning
Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik. (2020)

Before you even begin a project, it’s important to ask ‘how can we sustainably support people in making the next piece that they want to make?’ 
“So Indigenous folk are very clever. But so is everyone else around the world. And some people call these creative constraints like, ‘Hey, I want to do something but I don’t have access to much.’ You take whatever little thing you have and it pushes you to be more clever in how you go about doing it.

I see that same thing with cell phones. I don’t have a big fancy cinema rig, but I do have a phone. I don’t have a big powerful computer, but I do have iMovie on my phone and you can produce some amazing things if you’re driven for it. And I think the biggest thing is you need that little bit of inspiration to show that you can accomplish something and you don’t need much to do it.”
Patrick Shannon, InnoNative

Many communities do not have access to high-end equipment after the workshop, so it makes more sense to show what’s possible with basic equipment. Youth are already shooting and editing with their cell phones. In many communities, a lighting kit is not available so it makes more sense to teach shooting techniques that use natural or available light.

“People will be locally-empowered: they’ve got their cell phones, their apps, and boom!”

In the name of sustainability, it’s also important—when funding allows–to work with individuals or communities repeatedly, and to build the capacity of local residents (if it’s not already present), especially when working with rural and remote communities. If ongoing local training and succession is treated as a priority, then a dependency on mentors and gear from outside of the community isn’t created.

“A couple of years ago, we did a project here in town, Four Directions Indigenous School. We had a couple of iPads, three or four iPads and they were new. But the iMovie that some of the kids had on their phone was better and they just needed to find apps to download to do the green screen effects. Once they learned how to do green screen, they were having a blast. You can go to the dollar store and get a big green piece of construction paper for a dollar and you get three or four of those and boom, you got like a four by four, four by six wall green screen that you can act in front of.”
Chris Bose

Our fourth finding is that, while people from outside of remote communities can play a key role in lighting a spark, tending to the creative fire in the long term requires investment in local resources and training. Funding is urgently needed to support vibrant and resilient communities and to build capacity in rural areas, in part through the community digital storytelling process.

By Deblekha Guin, Lorna Boschman and Venay Felton

This article was originally published on Digital Stories Canada at on June 25, 2020. Republished here with permission.

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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