Participatory storytelling: an introduction

Photo by ProExposure. All rights reserved

“Stories are universal – they help us to understand ourselves, our culture, and our environments.” – Amy Hill, Center for Digital Storytelling.

This universal aspect of stories is what makes them so powerful. It is also what makes them a helpful tool in international development. Stories can help people connect within and across cultures. They can also provide a greater understanding of what our partners experience.

In December, I participated in the Center for Digital Storytelling’s webinar on using Digital Storytelling in Health and Human Rights. This post includes highlights from that webinar on participatory storytelling, as well as some of my own insights.

What is Participatory Storytelling/Media?

According to Amy Hill, Participatory Media has diverse definitions. It is a catch-all phrase that encompasses a variety of approaches that engage people in creating and analyzing audio and visual media.

Usually it is democratic. In this context, instead of hiring trained professionals to “collect” stories with passive subjects, it allows people to tell their own stories. The facilitators still play a role in producing the material, but it is usually with a light touch. It does not necessarily undermine the honesty of first person stories.

It is collaborative. Hill stated that witnessing and affirming the stories told in a group can be healing and transformative. Collaboration provides insight and helps shift narratives away from generalizations. This results in rich, nuanced stories.

The idea is basically to let people produce their own stories using whatever medium they prefer. This can include photos accompanied by audio, video, etc. Then, people can share these stories in their own communities.

Why Stories?

Not only are stories universal, but they are personal. People often connect better to other people than to abstract ideas or numbers and figures. Stories can create an emotional connection that improves our understanding of situations and events, encourages reflection, and allows people to discuss normally taboo subjects.

Why First Person Stories?

As we’ve already discussed on this blog, third person storytelling or reporting runs several risks. It can create passive victims or  exploit people (through poverty porn or other methods). Sometimes it perpetuates harmful generalizations.

First person storytelling lets people who are deeply familiar with the issues speak for themselves. This incites narratives with nuance and makes the storyteller the protagonist, not a victim.

In other words, when people tell their own stories new and/or important perspectives emerge. These are all good things. As practitioners, we should strive to include these perspectives when we share development stories.

Why can stories make a difference in development work?

You can find some of the theoretical bases for participatory storytelling here: human rights work, popular education and social work.

One striking theory stems from a culture-centered approach related to public health work. This approach indicates that you cannot assume that people will change their behavior just because they have more information. Instead, communities and individuals make decisions through a more complex interaction of factors. These include an individual’s ability to make decisions and external structures (like class and cultural context) that might limit this agency.

For example, people might receive information that a certain vaccine will improve health. But that doesn’t mean they will get the vaccine. There might be a multitude of barriers. There might be social stigmas. People might not have access to a clinic. Others might not be able to escape their work or family responsibilities to get to the clinic. The list goes on.

Participatory practices, however, can help construct meaningful narratives of and for social change:

What ethical considerations should we keep in mind?

Ethics are so important. The Center for Digital Storytelling recommends the following:

  • Protect and enhance the storyteller well being. The physical, emotional, and social well being of the storyteller should always be at the center of the project.
  • Consent is a process, not a one-time event. Explain to people that they own their stories. They’re essentially just ‘renting’ the story out. Keep asking for permission, and keep checking. Sometimes people change their minds. Sometimes their situation changes, and using their story may put them in danger.
  • Have clarity about ownership and production. Storytellers have the right to represent themselves how they choose. This includes using whichever language they’re most comfortable in. They should also be given the option of receiving credit by name.
  • Ensure local relevance and practice ethical story distribution. These stories should serve the communities. It’s not that distant donors can never use these stories (with the appropriate permissions). But the stories should be of and for the community members first.

Conclusions and Takeaways

For my master’s dissertation, I focused on restorative justice processes in Rwanda and Guatemala. One of the major theories underpinning restorative justice, is the importance of survivors of trauma regaining their sense of agency. One way they can do this is by sharing their stories. This forms an important step in helping individuals and communities heal.

Storytelling can also help us understand other aspects of development, including economic development. For example, consumption-based poverty measures are helpful. Yet they often miss how poverty is actually much more fluid and variable. Listening to people’s stories provides greater insight into how and why this happens.

Participatory storytelling is not a silver bullet in solving development challenges. However, it can still be a powerful tool. At the very least, it has the potential to boost individuals’ confidence and strengthen communities as they enhance their ability to share their stories.



Ideas to contribute to the discussion? Please comment below

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s