Digital Storytellers

The rural, rocky landscape of Big Mountain, Arizona, is the site of a land battle between the Peabody Coal Mine Company and the Hopi and Dineh nations. In the midst of this struggle, 12-year-old Walees Crittedern, who is Dineh, has seen her brother arrested for trespassing on expropriated tribal lands and her home demolished as part of a forced relocation scheme by the mining company. And for a long time, no one heard her story.

But six months ago, Walees and 19 other youth from 20 different organizations nationwide were given a digital camera, a computer, and a chance to record their experiences. In late August, they gathered in Oakland, California, for a three-day workshop, where they learned how to turn their footage into documentaries. On the following Saturday, 300 activists from around the country gathered to watch these digital stories.

The Digital Storytelling Youth Conference was co-sponsored by Third World Majority (TWM), a collective made up of women of color who provide training in new media and access to equipment.

“TWM started its work as a response to the exclusion of people of color in mainstream media and technological fields,” said director Thenmozhi Soundararajan. The collective's goal is to get people to create their own digital stories from the found material in their lives—art, oral history, creative writing, photographs, music, news clippings—using digital video, the Web, graphic design, sound engineering, and animation. “People learn to communicate their own truths in their own voices,” said Soundararajan. “This isn't just about telling stories. It's about reclaiming histories.”

Communities of color, and poor or indigenous communities historically have had little control over how technology is used. Recording devices in these communities are more likely to be used for policing, war, colonial ethnography, and jails, than for telling the stories of the people, Soundararajan said. “It's no accident that the most common image young people have of themselves is through surveillance cameras and unhealthy MTV images.”

To involve people who have a legacy of trauma with technology, TWM developed mobile training programs. They travel throughout the country armed with nine Macintosh laptops, cameras, recorders and other equipment providing digital storytelling training in homes, barns, churches, and community centers. “In all of this work, we are conscious of how our presence as young women of color, teaching and producing media and technology, models a positive vision for the communities we want,” said Theeba Soundararajan, director of Web and Graphic Agitation for TWM.

For the youth at the Digital Storytelling conference, like most, this was their first time working on video production. But the workshop turned out to be more than technology training. The group shared their movies, laughing, crying, and embracing over issues such as immigrant rights, failing schools, homophobia, and street life. Young activists working on gentrification connected with activists working on police accountability, homelessness, and the criminalization of youth.

Once back in their own communities, many participants use their digital stories for teaching and outreach. Underground Railroad, a youth group that organizes hip-hop events in the Bay Area, will screen their digital story in community centers to educate the public on how music can effect social change. Walees Crittedern is using her film and skills as part of Indigenous Action Media's campaign to gain community support in the struggle against Peabody.

“This is the kind of response we're trying for,” said Thenmozhi. “When people reclaim their stories and reconnect to what is important to them in their communities, that's where the real empowerment begins.”

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