“When audience members witness this process of a storyteller making her or himself vulnerable, they, too, have the chance to connect with themselves and with each other in a transparent and beautiful way. For me, this is a very important intersection of ancient knowledge and modern storytelling approaches. I am convinced that healing and change are rooted in these processes.” -Amy Hill
Arts & Healing Network is delighted to present one of the 2014 AHN Awards to Amy Hill, storyteller, documentary filmmaker, public health consultant and co-founder of Silence Speaks. In 1999, after ten years working in community-based public health projects, Amy co-founded Silence Speaks, an international participatory media initiative offering a safe, supportive environment for telling and sharing stories that all too often remain unspoken. Silence Speaks surfaces personal narratives of struggle, courage and transformation and works to ensure that these stories play an instrumental role in promoting gender equality and human rights. Since 2005, Amy has continued to lead Silence Speaks and other global health and human rights-related projects as a staff member at the Center for Digital Storytelling. Amy has overseen the use of storytelling all over the world in places like Nepal, Ethiopia, Uganda, Brazil and more.
To learn more about Amy Hill, please visit the Silence Speaks web site where you can also watch some of the digital stories that have been recorded from around the world.
Below is an interview with Amy Hill by Arts & Healing Network Director Mary Daniel Hobson from June 2014:
Mary Daniel Hobson: Could you share a little bit about your background and what led you to found Silence Speaks?
Amy Hill: I came to the world of digital storytelling in 2000, when I had reached a point of frustration with what I saw as some of the limitations of the media approaches that were being used to address violence against women.
At that time, I had been working in public health, largely focused on women’s health issues, for about twelve years. Back in the 1990s, the use of digital/multimedia tools and videos in this arena centered largely on didactic curricular materials, poorly produced health education films or slick and expensive PR campaigns that did not seem to me to speak to the actual experiences of those affected by violence. I had always had an interest in the ways that art -- particularly art that either overtly or more subtly critiques cultural attitudes and socio-political structures that oppress women -- can facilitate critical thinking and social change. When I found out about digital storytelling, I thought it would be a fantastic way to incorporate art, in the form of visual media and storytelling, into community education and public awareness campaigns directed at preventing violence against women. As I came to understand the therapeutic potential of digital storytelling through the process of working with some of the most difficult and painful stories from my own life, I saw clearly that the method could also offer a potentially transformative experience for survivors and witnesses of violence and trauma.
Mary Daniel: Why do you believe storytelling can be such a powerful catalyst for healing and positive change - both for the storyteller and for the audience?
Amy: Through my own life experiences and practice in storytelling, I’ve realized that the act of making oneself vulnerable with a group of supportive witnesses can bring us into contact with our deeper nature -- which is defined by many wisdom traditions as a grounded and awake place of open-heartedness that exists prior to and independent of some kind of identify structure that we see as having been shaped by ALL the various stories we typically tell and believe about ourselves. When audience members witness this process of a storyteller making her or himself vulnerable, they, too, have the chance to connect with themselves and with each other, in a transparent and beautiful way. For me, this is a very important intersection of ancient knowledge and modern storytelling approaches. I am convinced that healing and change are rooted in these processes rather than in the details of any particular narrative. This is not to say that the contents of Silence Speaks stories are irrelevant -- in fact, the contents of stories are vital to the transmission of information. The contents also invite viewers to reflect on their own lives and cultivate empathy for those who have shared stories. I believe these aspects of story sharing and story watching are key to promoting dignity and action for justice.
Mary Daniel: Can you share an example of one person who has been healed or transformed by sharing his or her story?
Amy: I think the best example I can offer is that of my friend Elizabeth Ross. She wrote a piece about her experience in a Silence Speaks workshop for our Center for Digital Storytelling blog, last year. In the spirit of supporting people in sharing their stories in their own way, I would invite readers to have a look at her reflections (by clicking here).
Silence Speaks uses "digital storytelling" as one of its primary approaches. Can you talk about what the process is like in creating a "digital story" vs. a traditional oral or written story?
People use the term “digital storytelling” to describe a variety of different media-making processes. The “home” of Silence Speaks is the San Francisco Bay Area-based nonprofit Center for Digital Storytelling. As far as we at the Center know, our founders (Joe Lambert and Dana Atchley) coined the terms “digital storytelling” and “digital story” more than 15 years ago, when they developed a unique workshop environment that enables small groups of people to come together and share, craft and record first-person narratives; gather still photos and video clips; and learn via hands-on computer tutorials how to use digital editing software to combine these elements into short digital videos known as “digital stories.” Our core values as an organization reflect a commitment to personal voice, group process and participatory production methods. In this sense we do not claim to tell other people’s stories; rather people in our workshops are supported in telling their own stories, in ways that make sense to them. The approach has more in common with community-based oral history, popular education, and some forms of participatory video than it does with traditional journalism or documentary filmmaking techniques, which generally situate “expert” storytellers in positions of authority and rely on these experts to capture and edit stories on behalf of and about “subjects.” In our method of digital storytelling, the “subject” is in fact the primary author/producer of the story.
How are these stories shared? What has been the impact of that sharing?
Silence Speaks stories are shared in a number of ways, depending on the goals of a particular collaboration. Stories might be shared in community screenings, to galvanize people to action about particular issues; as part of trainings, to educate service providers or members of local publics; online, as part of communications efforts to shift social norms; and for institutional or public policymakers, with the aim of impacting policy decisions. There are some nice examples in the case study section of our web site.
We take special care, in working with our partners on story distribution, to contextualize individual narratives against a backdrop of larger social, political and economic structures. We have seen that with skillful presentation, first-person voices can illustrate the systemic causes of oppression, gender-based violence and human rights violations in ways that demand accountability and prompt change at community, institutional and government levels. We focus on projects that bridge community and public media arenas and position storytellers as leaders in speaking out about issues that affect them.
Because digital storytelling is a relatively new methodology, there hasn’t been a great deal of research on what happens when people watch stories. I also just want to say that from our perspective at the Center for Digital Storytelling, an over-emphasis on what is typically called “evidence based research” can be misdirected, when it comes to the use of narrative and arts-based approaches to social change. The term “evidence based” is rooted in the idea of quantitative methods and randomized controlled trials, which are based on generalizations rather than on specificity and local context. This idea of “evidence based” does not typically take into consideration the political, historical, or cultural dimensions of the world and people’s lives. And yet our experience working in community-based public health suggests that it’s essential to consider these dimensions, in any efforts designed to improve people’s health and well-being.
I do need to underscore that while published research may be limited, a huge wealth of anecdotal evidence and community based evaluation data from our numerous U.S. based and international partners shows that digital stories are incredibly powerful as tools in various training, organizing, and advocacy efforts.
As a final note -- when it comes to story distribution -- I would just caution readers to think carefully about who benefits from the proliferation of narratives of suffering and sorrow, online. Is it the storytellers themselves? Or is it journalists and media outlets, always on the lookout for a story that sells…NGOs and government agencies with particular funding/programmatic agendas, who may view such tragedies as instruments for fundraising...or distant viewers sitting alone at their computers, who may simply come away from watching the stories with a sense of helplessness, or fatigue or relief and appreciation for their own relative safety?
Of course Silence Speaks is enmeshed in this dynamic, since our continued work is in some respects supported by the outreach and publicity that sharing stories on the internet can bring about. But when it comes to project development, I prefer to focus not on strategies for internet distribution and instead on mechanisms for sharing stories with local audiences, where they have the potential to really make a difference.
I am so impressed by how thoughtful Silence Speaks is about the ethics and methods of the storytelling process as outlined on your web site. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of "cultural humility," and respect for the person sharing their story.
In more than ten years of developing this work, I have learned volumes about what it can mean to bring a very sensitive, usually “private” story into public spheres and how to best ensure that the workshop experience and subsequent experiences of sharing stories with broader audiences is a positive one, for the storyteller. For me, one bottom line is building trusting relationships with workshop participants before, during, and after they create their stories. When they know their personal experiences are being respected, honored and valued as tools for change, locally and/or globally, they are much more likely to feel comfortable sharing their stories.
All of this is ongoing; my commitment to ethical practice will continue to evolve. In the context of international health and human rights work, the chances for misunderstanding exploitation of stories and images are heightened. I am constantly pushing colleagues in these fields to really examine their approaches to “collecting” testimonies, stories, etc., and to evaluate whether their actions are truly benefiting those who so generously share their stories.
I am also so inspired by the global scope of Silence Speaks. How did you connect with people around the globe and offer your workshops in such diverse places as Nepal, Ethiopia, etc.
While our initial Silence Speaks work focused on gender-based violence in the United States, I fairly quickly grew disillusioned by the country’s overwhelming emphasis on either therapy-based or criminal justice based approaches to the problem. I felt much more aligned and drawn to a human rights analysis, which focuses as much on promoting rights as it does on personal growth or healing. So I made a conscious decision, some years ago, to dedicate my efforts primarily to figuring out, through on-the-ground practice in storytelling and participatory media, how personal narratives — in multimedia format — can support human rights promotion. From there, it was a matter of building relationships and networks and trusting that the power of the stories would speak for themselves. For the most part, this has proved true — one project has led to the next, as different organizations have encountered the material and reached out to collaborate, and as I have researched groups and issues and in turn focused on how to bring our methods to bear on their efforts.
What excites you most about your work with Silence Speaks? What are your dreams for Silence Speaks moving forward?
I get most excited when I am able to see and feel a spark of connection, in an interaction with a storyteller, during our narrative processes and discussion AND when I see and hear viewers talk about how moved they are by watching stories … especially when they say they want to do something to create change.
My goal moving forward is to really continue to push/evolve the discussion around ethical approaches to storytelling, in the context of the sensitive issues that Silence Speaks typically addresses (check out our ethics statement here). The tone of this conversation differs depending on whether it’s related to work in the U.S. or overseas. But either way, I am concerned by the ways in which personal stories are increasingly commodified/exploited. The age of YouTube and easy uploading of video has led to amazing strides in information sharing. It has also unfortunately led to an explosion of previously marginalized voices and images, online. The need to carefully navigate this tension has been a central aspect of the development of Silence Speaks over the years. The idea of resolving it is ongoing, a work in progress -- we’ve learned both from mistakes and successes about how best to prioritize a storyteller’s sense of ownership of her/his creation, wherever it is (or isn’t) shown. We weave informed consent throughout a project, so that people can make conscious decisions about whether or not they are ready and interested in sharing their stories and so that, if they do decide to participate in a workshop, they can be assured of lots of discussion about what it means to share this name, that image, those experiences. These measures are intended not only to keep people safe (ie, from retribution, from stigma in their communities, etc.), but also to ensure that they have a meaningful experience as they go through the process of creating a story.
What advice do you have for someone else who would like use storytelling to help heal themselves or others?
For those interested in storytelling for healing, I highly highly highly recommend a book called Writing as a Way of Healing: How Telling Our Stories Transforms Our Lives by Louise Desalvo. Also, I would caution people to make sure they aren’t too invested in the solidity of their narratives. Be willing to let a narrative evolve and change, just as we all evolve and change over time, and know that it doesn’t define “you” -- it’s just something that happened to you. For those interested in using storytelling to help heal others, I would say focus always as much on your own journey as you do on the journeys of other people, for the two will always be intertwined in interesting and rewarding ways -- if you’re willing to see these connections.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Just that we’re getting ready to release an exciting compilation story DVD called “The Right to Her Story.” It features eight powerful stories by women from countries around the world who have courageously spoken out on behalf of their rights and those of their peers, as well as a discussion guide for use by human rights educators and activists! Please contact me at email@example.com, if you’d like to hear more about this resource.
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