“The irony is the more personal your story is, the more universal it is. And, the more you keep that nuance that makes your story personal, the more it will spread,” Nirvan Mullick, the founder of Imagination Foundation noted during a webinar podcast earlier this year.
Mullick spoke from experience. “Caine’s Arcade,” a short documentary film he released in 2009, became an overnight internet grassroots-driven sensation and inspired a movement of youth-driven “cardboard creativity.” This success led Mullick to eventually launch the Imagination Foundation, a nonprofit organization with a mission to “find, foster and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in kids around the world.”
Mullick’s observations became some of the thoughtful insights that emerged from the “Storytelling and Digital Age Civics” Connected Learning TV webinar series, where he and 22 other young (and youngish) media-makers, artists and activists shared their experiences with storytelling as a practice that bridges cultural and civic/political engagement. Streamed live in January, the four-part series was organized by USC’s Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) Project in partnership with Youth Radio, the Media Arts + Practice Division of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Black Youth Project, and the MacArthur Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP).
The focus of the series was directly informed by MAPP’s five in-depth case studies of diverse youth-driven communities which translate mechanisms of participatory culture into civic engagement and political participation. As MAPP researchers learned, these groups often succeed by tapping practices of cultural appropriation, storytelling and remixing, working across organizational contexts, deploying metaphors from popular culture and drawing on sustained engagement with interest-driven and friendship-based networks. Over time, youth involved in these communities mapped innovative and imaginative trajectories that scaffolded existing skills and interests toward a sustained ability to achieve social change.
Building on these findings, the “Storytelling and Digital Age Civics” series drilled deeper to explore civic dimensions of storytelling, defined as a shared activity in which individuals and communities contribute to the telling, retelling, and remixing of narratives through various media channels. Specifically, the series explored the affordances and challenges of digital media for civic action by bringing together artists, media makers and activists to discuss how political narratives are created, produced, spread and live on to be recontextualized through a “digital afterlife.”
As the panelists delved into each stage of the story life-cycle, they highlighted the creative and strategic dimensions of storytelling in civic contexts. For example, Erick Huerta, an immigrant rights advocate and blogger, shared that he looks to popular culture — including movies, music and comics — to create his own stories that complicate and appropriate existing narratives. For instance, to explain his undocumented experiences, Huerta reached to Superman who was “from another planet… and grew up in the United States, just like me.”
Joshua Merchant, a youth poet based in Oakland, saw sharing his story as a responsibility. For him, storytelling “started of as something as just me needing to express myself,” but became a way to reach and “change something” for “someone else from where I’m from or from a similar place.” Cartoonist and journalist Andy Warner shared that, for him, different stories call for different approaches to storytelling. If it is character-driven, the story can revolve around an issue in their world. If it is issue-driven, the narrative arc may need further prompting and development. As he discussed how stories spread once they are shared publicly, Wajahat Ali of Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” noted that “you can’t really control a narrative once it’s out there.”
As the webinars drew to a close, we asked the panelists to reflect on their early civically active days and their own experiences engaging with youth in educational contexts. We asked them to share any advice they would give educators who want to support young people’s creative engagement with civic and political issues. Here are the seven key insights they surfaced:
1. Learn to Listen. Really Listen. The panelists identified listening as the key to understanding what young people care about and how they feel they can make a difference in their neighborhoods and beyond. Joan Donovan, one of the creators of InterOccupy.net, saw social media platforms as an often under-utilized tool in this space. She observed that, “most [people] focus on social media as a way to broadcast our own lives, but these platforms are also a place to receive stories.” Kat Primeau, core member of Laughter for Change, recognized that though it is “great to enter into a community with an outline of what you’d like to accomplish,” it is actually “even more important to remain flexible and really explore the ideas that are exciting and important to the program participants.”
2. Create a Safe Space. Sharing and exploring issues we care about can be an intense and vulnerable process. To make this process possible, it is important that educators work to create and sustain a space where young people feel safe to share their thoughts and experiences. Carol Zou, of Yarnbombing Los Angeles, recalled that when she “taught a youth mural workshop,” many young people were initially initimidated when they were asked to interview community members “for their stories.” To help them deal with this, Zou and her colleages provided the youth with a safe space to “practice and experiment with interview techniques (or any aspect of storytelling).” This helped them feel more confident about engaging with “the larger community around them.” For Jasmeen Patheja, core member of Blank Noise, choosing “appropriate forms of media to enable story building for potential story sharing” was essential to the creation of a safe space. As others noted, so was equipping participants with tools that would help them handle criticism should it come their way.
3. Meet youth “where they are at.” Young people’s concerns and interests are sometimes not heard because their language and mode of engagement do not line up with conventional expectations of what civic engagement looks like. To counter, Lauren Bird of the Harry Potter Alliance, had this advice to share:
“Meet the kids where they’re at. I mean that in terms of interest, in terms of technology, even in terms of messaging. Do your students spend all their time on Facebook? Make them join a Facebook group for the class or about issues related to the project so that when they’re aimlessly scrolling their feed, they can’t help but see things related to class. It might not get them to take action, but it’ll get them thinking. Incorporate the pop culture interests they’re talking about. Be genuine and authentic with all of this. The best way to do that is by giving young people a voice. Act as a facilitator, not lecturer.”
4. Allow civics and politics to surface in unexpected places. Many of the panelists traced their activist roots to activities and interests that may not immediately appear to have civic or political dimensions. To illustrate, Joan Donovan shared a personal trajectory that connected her early involvement with music to her activism around Occupy and highlighted the useful skills she picked up along the way:
“As a teenager, I was heavily involved in the Boston straight edge hardcore scene. I was introduced to anarchist ideals and began thinking more and more about global politics. Unfortunately, there was no support for feminists or women in that environment so I started playing in bands to meet more people. Singing in a band put me in touch with many women who felt the same way. Together, we formed a collective named “Moshtrogen” and we put out a zine that focused on women’s issues. Many late night talks and writing sessions solidified our resolve to change the Boston music scene. We did this by holding benefit concerts that featured female musicians and donating the proceeds to local feminist organizations. Some members of Moshtrogen went on to volunteer at those organizations later. For me, the DIY culture of punk and hardcore taught me how to get organized. After learning the basics of booking an event, publishing a zine, and making music, I extrapolated how to build a community and be politically engaged on my own terms.”
5. Commit to diversity and include a broad range of issues. The panelists recalled that the civics education classes they encountered in school sometimes limited rather than broadened their understanding of what it meant to be civically active. They also sometimes almost inadvertently operationalized a narrow definition of citizen that foreclosed participation for youth from underrepresented and already disenfranchized communities. As she thought back to her younger days, Lauren Bird shared that she “wasn’t terribly civically engaged when I was younger.” Most of her school based civic education stressed keeping up with news and being a responsible citizen, though what that “meant was rarely discussed.” As Bird realized that her views on many issues differed from those of her classmates and teachers, she “quickly learned to stay silent.” Looking back on that period in her life, she wished she had “more grown up examples of diverse and critical thinking.” She wished more of her teachers had talked “about current events or about how to get involved in our communities.”
6. Recognize that resources matter but are not the only support young people need as they develop their civic identity. When we asked the panelists about what was crucial in moving them along their trajectory toward civic action, almost all of them identified a person or persons (a teacher, a parent, a youth mentor). They saw this personal connection as crucial to their civic growth. Media hacker and internet activist Peter Fein attributed his activism to discussing the Constitution with his mom during his teenage years. Erick Huerta was “blessed to be around folks” who encouraged him to be active. Huerta recognized that “monetary support would have helped” but stressed that he was able to “make the best use of what he had.” Carol Zou remembered that “thoughtful teachers and adults” supported her as she pursued her interests. She stressed that “finding a good mentor who will guide you not only in terms of your civic interests, but also in terms of the big picture of one’s life is incredibly important.” In her younger days, she said: “I always pursued my civic interests on the side, in addition to school, work and my other obligations. I think it would be great if we could open up a space of freedom within schools, or within paid occupations, that allow for young people to pursue their civic interests and receive academic and monetary recognition for their work.”
7. Make participation less daunting. Finding and telling compelling stories can be elusive. Producing a polished media product can be intimidating. Getting your stories to spread is challenging. All this is true, but should not stop young people from feeling that they can participate and take action around issues that they care about. Civic engagement is a process and each new iteration of a project brings its own learning opportunities. In that context, reflecting on the process is just as, if not more important than, achieving the goals young people set for themselves. As Peter Fein noted, there is no point in making something just to achieve publicity. Working with youth over time to help them find their voice and a community around issues that matter to them is much more important in the long-term. In Fein’s words, “Don’t worry about the press, just do epic s–t and attention will follow.”