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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


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Reflexive Engagement with Participatory Curation: Vignette 2

So what was curated in this phase of the Digital Storytelling Project?

Ultimately, it was completed digital stories. This involved making space and time for figuring out how the youth storytellers felt about the finished products and where they, collectively, thought these stories should go to make meaning with others. It was a complicated process marked by moments of tension. It involved critically reflecting on who needs to see these stories, where, and to what end. Once these decisions were made, we disseminated the stories on YouTube, in emails, and—most significantly—at the Peace in the Park event.

Who was the curator? 

The youth performed the role of the curators as they were the ones who decided where, how, and when to circulate the stories. While we, technically, posted the videos on YouTube and sent emails to administrators, we did so at their requests. Moreover, the youth storytellers—with the support of the youth coordinators—managed the showing of the digital stories at Peace in the Park. Their efforts can be understood as a relational practice of mediation between their artistic assemblages and the local community members to ensure meaningful encounters and to explore possibilities for radical intervention.

Yet, as we have shown, the youth storytellers’ curatorial process was not simple or straightforward. They initially assumed we would just arrange the public screening that they would show up to and they ultimately showcased the videos at an event the youth coordinators had on the agenda all along. This is an important reminder of the limitation of participatory values in the absence of corresponding structures and processes that transform or facilitate their realization. Thus, although we did the “right things” to elicit and anchor youth voices, it is crucial to refrain from equating our processes with claims about “giving voice to” marginalized youth. Given that this sort of ambiguity around perceived power/ownership of creative work is the norm rather than exception in university-community collaborations, it underscores the need to exercise both active affirmation of the youth participants’ decision-making power (hence our pattern of reminding the youth storytellers they get to run the show) but also restraint on the part of university-affiliated researchers. In this case, for instance, we were particular about taking our cue from the youth coordinators. This stance and our subsequent role in the process of screening the videos at the Peace in the Park event illustrates our argument that curation is a critical intermediary rhetorical action in-and-of-itself when working alongside marginalized youth in a participatory action project.

What was our role? 

We were intentional about assuming a supporting role (Grabil, 2010). Importantly, we respected the integrity of the YRO program, recognizing their prerogative to make decisions about whether and how to disseminate the digital stories at the Peace in the Park event. We scaffolded the process based on the expressed needs of the youth coordinators and we helped to create promotional and research materials to use at the event. As Grabil (2010) writes about community-based research, “Rhetoric is always material, and it is most powerful when it makes things that enable others to perform persuasively” (p. 201).

Vignette 2 problematizes the traditional role of the curator as manipulator of arts with the goal of canonizing artists’ productions in ways that establish hierarchical knowledge structures (Linden & Campbell, 2016). In bringing out the many layers of curation, we not only decenter the primacy of university-affiliated researchers as curators, but also trouble the easy rhetoric of “community” as exercising curatorial voice. Rather, we focus on curation as the messy, complex space that we traverse and the processes that we navigate as we (in this case, university-based researchers, youth coordinators, and youth storytellers) as we build critical artistic and performative assemblages. As this section demonstrates, it may be more productive to think of participatory processes as the creation of “openings” or interstitial spaces within existing social relations and spaces that allow for exchange and collaboration (Cahill, 2007).

To what end in terms of social change?

The youth storytellers used the digital stories and audience surveys to promote critical consciousness about their collective concerns, to highlight struggles in the community, to inspire hope, and to facilitate moments of public learning. In the case of the Dress-coded video in particular, these curated encounters helped to conceptualize a critical issue (dress code policy and enforcement as a form of gendered discrimination) that needed to be brought onto the public agenda. Framed in a way that centered excluded perspectives (the young women whose bodies were sites of enforcement) allowed audience members to understand how the documented stories actually affect day-to-day practice. Overall, the dissemination process helped engage a broader public in its production of contextually relevant knowledge. Notably, for the youth coordinators, the overall impact of the Digital Storytelling Project could not be disentangled from the specific outcomes of the exhibitionary encounter. As one of the youth coordinators reflected on what he understood as the more “intangible take away” for youth:

“. . . that we can use our voice to raise concerns about a certain issue. We can inform people about something that we see that we think needs more attention. I think it's empowering. Both, in like, you learn specific skills that will support you in future things, even if it's not in making another digital story. It'll help you in school or moving forward.”

Even as we recognize the possibilities inherent in these exhibitionary encounters, we have to be cautious about the kinds of claims we make. The connection between research and social change is complex and nebulous. The encounters tend to elicit cognitive-affective responses, which although important, are far from adequate in responding to the related violence of patriarchy, sexism, racism, and economic inequalities. In fact, Fine and Barreras (2001) argue that social change is a “long haul” process that demands the engagement of multiple stakeholders, discourses, and levels of analysis. Thus, the key intervention in our digital storytelling project was the promotion of public learning about issues that matter to youth and relatedly creating awareness about the potential and possibilities of youth civic engagement.