By Erin Gray
“Reclaiming our voices through digital storytelling is not just about telling our stories, but about reclaiming our dignity, our commmunities, and our histories.” -Third World Majority
Feminists have been central to debates on web culture and its relationship to the contemporary experience of the everyday. From Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” to subRosa’s cyber-interventions into the messy terrain of biotechnologies, women have inserted themselves into the digital network in order to incite change and critique communications technologies from within.
Participants in Toronto’s Digital Storytelling Program are treading a similar path; rooted in the Women’s Program at the Central Neighbourhood House (CNH)–a social agency in the city’s east end–women use digital communications technologies in order to reclaim storytelling as a method of community-building, expressive therapy and collective pedagogy.
Co-facilitated by the manager of the Women’s Program, Jennifer LaFontaine, and Artist-in-Residence Camille Turner, the program seeks to integrate immigrant women into the centre’s supportive, healing environment. As social media practitioners, LaFontaine and Turner teach participants to navigate the basics of new media. Using digital photography, video, sound, web design and text, the women at CNH investigate the network of family, history, memory and trauma that encompasses so many of their lives.
The project began in 2003 when LaFontaine and Turner taught a series of multimedia seminars to low-income and immigrant women. The workshops culminated in a multi-layered storytelling series at InterAccess MediaArts Centre.
“A small group of women attended a support group at CNH, and decided that they wanted to use photography to share their experiences with violence and as a way to make their voices heard. From this beginning, it has always been the intention to use media as a way to tell stories of women, whose experiences and lives are often misrepresented in mainstream media. We wanted to share stories that are often untold, on issues such as poverty and violence against women. And we were clear that using photography was a unique way to raise awareness about the issues, get people talking, and that media could be a tool for social change.”
Inspired by the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California, LaFontaine and Turner decided to engage women at CNH to tell their stories digital-style. “Digital stories,” LaFontaine explains, “are 2-5 minute videos that include images, video, music and, most importantly, your own voice telling your own story. We felt that this model, with its focus on personal life stories and learning new media skills, was a great fit for our program.”
With an emphasis on the communal aspects of narrative, The Digital Storytelling Program doesn’t restrict practice to “artists.” The creation of autobiography in a collective, cooperative environment–as participatory community-building rather than identitarian self-promotion–reinforces a sense of belonging and solidarity that many of the participants lack elsewhere in their lives.
“There are so many stories out there that are deliberately silenced, and that slowly, over time, are erased. Each time we hear about an experience that is not represented in the mainstream, we rebuild lost stories. And valuing stories values communities, and creates a new way of thinking about whose story deserves to be told,” says LaFontaine.
While reinforcing a sense of belonging, digital storytelling practices also allow participants to gain a distinct sense of autonomy as they learn new critical and creative skills.
“To be producers of media is significant,” LaFontaine says. “We need to believe that we have the right to produce media, that we understand how it works, and why it works. That we are not passive consumers of whatever comes our way.”
As a feminist cooperative that celebrates women as media makers, the program emphasizes interpersonal contact beyond the virtual sphere of the interweb. LaFontaine notes that the combination of virtual media and hands-on workshopping helps promote storytelling as a way to heal and build community; women gather in person to tell stories, create media, share, heal and laugh.
The Digital Storytelling Project follows in the footsteps of feminist art that harnesses communications technologies in order to enact a public cry capable of both damning critique and empowering reconstruction.
But, as LaFontaine notes, most digital arts programs in Toronto are geared towards youth.
“There are very few programs that support adult women, particularly women who have had less access to technology to be active producers of media. Our programs provide a safe space for women to learn how to use computers in creative and innovative ways. Not only do they gain technical skills, but they do so in an environment that values their experiences, encourages them to share and to listen and believes that their stories are worth telling.”
The Digital Storytelling Program is one of many services provided by the Central Neighbourhood House. Established in 1911 and located at 349 Ontario St., CNH also provides daycare services and programming for migrants, youth, families, street survivors, the elderly and the ill.
For more on the Story Project, check out thestoryproject.ca