Digital Storytelling for Social Change


Roberto Morales’ digital story “Dónde estas…” shows the deep impact of a miscarriage on young parents.

Continuing my exploration of digital storytelling, the medium’s cost-effective production and strong potential for engaging audiences makes it an ideal tool for non-profit groups. Digital storytelling for social change focuses on raising the voices of subordinate groups who are directly affected by social issues but seldom heard in public deliberation. The two to four-minute video format – composed of primarily voice over and still images – serves as a feasible platform for subordinate groups to speak beyond their immediate communities and to contribute to broader public debates by challenging commonsense understandings.

As an example, Roberto Morales’ (2013) digital story “Dónde estas…” is a deeply personal account of young parents dealing with a miscarriage. Beyond this, it is also a commentary on sex education restrictions and medical negligence in Guatemala. The digital storytelling format seeks to connect a personal event with a broader truth, moral or movement to promote change. Using Morales’ digital story as an example, the remainder of this post looks at the process, criteria and potential work of digital storytelling for social change.

Process Priorities
“Dónde estas…” was created in a workshop sponsored by health advocacy organizations including the Public Health Institute and Silence Speaks. This workshop is a critical piece of the digital storytelling process to ensure authenticity and storyteller ownership. Workshop facilitators are tasked with helping the subordinate group connect their experiences and tacit knowledge to a larger social issue. They must push storytellers to include details like motivation and reasoning, especially when tackling sensitive topics to avoid reducing character complexity and perpetuating stereotypes.  While this is a co-collaborative process, facilitators must be aware of their critiques and contributions to avoid overpowering the story.

The workshop also serves as a therapeutic space for the storyteller; an opportunity to form a stronger understanding of who they are and how they have been influenced by social dynamics. The facilitator must foster a safe and comfortable space in which members of a subordinate group can explore the meaningful moments in their personal narrative alone as well as together. The storyteller must also have the flexibility to participate under the terms most comfortable for them, in regard to time, location and level of collaboration.

Story Criteria
Ideally, the workshop process would produce a digital story like Morales’ personal narrative. As Joe Lambert details in Digital Storytelling, Morales owns the insight and emotions of the story by tapping into the universal feelings of excitement and fear associated with young love and having a child. Throughout the story he nods to cultural understandings informing upon their reasoning and actions to contrast with his new formed opinions on sex education and healthcare.

To add an additional layer of meaning, Morales incorporated simple but striking imagery. For example, he contrasted a blooming flower with rocks to convey Nely’s conflicted views on sexuality and sin. He also avoided reductive story formats like the victim narrative (see Lorraine Higgins and Lisa Brush). The victim narrative traditionally absolves ownership and simplifies character action, which damages storyteller credibility. In contrast, Morales took accountability by noting his following of problematic societal beliefs in sex and healthcare, and proceeded to voice his desire for reform.

Work of the Story
Morales’ story supports public deliberation by challenging commonsense understandings and demanding change. He addressed rival perspectives by connecting his experience to master narratives, social shared understandings, in efforts to reveal oppressive cultural norms and institutions within familiar rhetoric. Examples of master narratives include the core Guatemalan belief that the primary role of a woman is to procreate. This bleeds into beliefs that only prostitutes use contraceptives and that pregnant women should be removed from the classroom. These master narratives have strong implications on female identity and play heavily into how the couple is treated by the town’s people and hospital personnel.

Morales refutes commonsense understandings by revealing how poor sex education landed them in their initial predicament and how relying on a trusted institution, the hospital, continues to prevent the couple from assuming mother and father roles. He also negates a local perception of miscarriage as a form of illegal abortion by showing his and Nely’s affection and heartbreak for their lost daughter. This love is shown with Nely’s insistence on clothing the baby and Morales’ observation of shared facial features.

Most importantly, he presented himself as someone with mainstream goals — engaging in a serious romantic relationship, following society’s rules and anxiously awaiting his chance to be a father. By speaking in familiar rhetoric and establishing mainstream goals, Morales is determined to be a credible voice in the public debate. He embraces this role by using the digital storytelling platform to promote improvements in sex education and healthcare in Guatemala.

To sum all this up short and sweet, digital storytelling has the power to rally together the oppressed, or subordinate group, as well as shift the perspective of the oppressor, including policy makers and broader public, to support social change. Do you have any questions or other examples of digital storytelling for social change? Please share your thoughts below.


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