Storyology: Digital Storytelling by Immigrants and Refugees in Charlotte, North Carolina

Using technology to tell our stories, discover our collective power, and digitally document our journeys

All of the short films are now available on youtube here

Whose stories are represented in films today? And who is telling those stories? Storytelling is possibly the world’s oldest art form, and today’s primary modern storytelling medium is film and video, yet the stories presented in most TV shows and movies are rarely the accounts of everyday people who happen to be immigrants, and the powerful stories they have to share.  The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)’s NC Immigrant Rights Program has as one of its main goals to lift up the voices of immigrants to the broader public. Through Storyology: Digital Storytelling by Immigrants and Refugees, AFSC empowered immigrants and refugees by imparting new digital literacy skills, lifted up immigrant stories to share with and educate the public, and also built a community of many cultures within the class.  At the end of the class, each student produced a truly impressive work of art, in the form of a 2-4 minute digital story, with the student narrating her/his journey, with background music, and images chosen (and sometimes photographed) by the students themselves.  

After months of preparation, in October 2010 the American Friends Service Committee Area Office of the Carolinas brought together a very diverse group of immigrant students, partner-volunteers, resource people and other helpers to produce a class on digital storytelling in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The class, designed by AFSC-NC staff and an AFSC Youth Arts Fellow, occurred over two weekends and one additional evening at the Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The class included writing and audio and video editing workshops, and also emphasized community building features like sharing of cultural objects and immigration journey maps.

We began with cultural sharing and an examination of the U.S.’s immigration policies through history. We mapped our own migration stories and shared those with the group, before diving head-first into story and writing workshops. Volunteer instructors were generous with their time and expertise. After just one day, students had a draft of their stories. We held a photography workshop with donated cameras, learned storyboarding, and practiced searching the internet for images and sounds that are licensed for re-use.  After recording the story narrative, the students focused more fully on editing their (now) audio/visual stories on the computer during the second weeked. We held trainings on how to use Audacity audio editing software, and Windows Movie Maker software. We intentionally chose software that is accessible to most anyone with a computer: Windows Movie Maker is available free on every PC and Audacity is a

free internet download. The students added subtitles to their movies to aid American audiences. After just a day and a half of editing, the students presented their films to a gathering of families, friends and supporters and received a certificate for their participation.  See the attached class schedule for more details.

Our seven students came from Bhutan, Haiti, Kenya, Mexico, and Vietnam. Student ages ranged from 16 to around 40. We recruited students through every means we could find: ESL classes at local colleges and universities, international fairs, churches with large immigrant populations, the Muslim American Society, members of AFSC’s Immigrant Solidarity Committee, community centers serving immigrants of diverse backgrounds, and personal connections.   Our ideal applicant to the class had basic computer skills, was proficient in English, could commit 33 hours of class plus outside practice time, was reliable, had an interesting story to tell, and hadn’t had access to a program like this in the past.  The significant time commitment required for the class was an obstacle for many potential students who were interested in the class, but as we heard from class evaluations, most students did not feel like they had enough time in the class, so reducing the time commitment for future classes is not feasible.

The class met for two full weekends (Friday evenings, all day Saturday and Sunday afternoons) and one evening in between. We structured the class so that every student was paired with a partner volunteer who had attended a volunteer training focused on class expectations, Windows Movie Maker and Audacity.  Partner volunteers, who were primarily women and people of color, were identified through the Immigrant Solidarity Committee, the Public Library, Central Piedmont Community college, and personal networking. The level of commitment from both the students and partner volunteers was outstanding, and the few participants that had to miss a class were able to work with the class coordinators outside class to catch up.   Every day during the class, we prioritized coming together as a group to check in and share with each other so that we could continually build on our group process.

Kali Ferguson (AFSC Youth Arts Fellow) and Lori Fernald Khamala (AFSC NC Immigrant Rights Program Director) developed the original program and curriculum for the class, but our ideas were based on the good work of many other organizations. AFSC had previously partnered with FaithAction International House in Greensboro, which took the lead on two “movie-making” classes for immigrants and refugees. Lori was heavily involved in both classes, and Kali was a key volunteer in the second class. This project inspired Lori and Kali to create their own class with immigrants and refugees in the Charlotte area.  Lori and Kali also drew heavily on the model developed by the Center for Digital Storytelling when creating Storyology.  In addition, we utilized activities from the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights’ BRIDGE curriculum.

Class evaluations were excellent. Favorite parts of the class included editing, listening to other people’s stories, learning about other cultures, working with partner volunteers, sharing cultural objects, the camaraderie of the group, developing the stories, meeting and learning about all the participants and the creativity of the students. The main criticism of the class was that there was not enough time for editing, and in one case that the class ended at all! When we asked for suggestions, one student responded that the most important thing is to continue this process, and another replied, “It’s amazing; keep rocking!”

Next steps include a large public screening in Charlotte, seeking additional venues for sharing the stories (we have already had many requests!), exploring options for future classes with childcare, and possibly developing a manual for how to hold similar classes.  We are grateful to all the donors and volunteers who made this transformative class a reality, and most of all to the students, for sharing their amazing stories and themselves