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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318


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The Youth Digital Storytelling Project: Moving from Products to Process

The Digital Storytelling Project brought together a group of 15 ethnoculturally diverse youth2 (aged 13-18 years old) to collaboratively produce two digital stories highlighting urgent issues impacting their communities. The participating youth were co-curators; they worked together to decide when and how the stories would be showcased—or not—in ways that would be meaningful for themselves, as an afterschool group, and for the urban residents who viewed their stories. Henceforth we refer to the participating youth as storytellers in order to emphasize their centrality as knowledge generators. Thus, the emphasis was not just on creating digital stories but developing interesting venues and mechanisms for youth to be seen and heard (Gubrium & Harper, 2016).

We position these products of our digital storytelling project as only a beginning. We place them here as a way to move beyond it, or rather, before it, to a series of moments rarely theorized or critiqued, to the moments of what we are calling participatory curation that led to these collaborative digital stories. We invite you to view these stories now, showcased—at the request of the youth involved—on YouTube. [Read More: How did youth-storytellers feel about the final digital stories?]

Video 1: Build Your Utopia - - Digital Storytelling, Lowell


Video 2: Dress-Coded - Digital Storytelling, Lowell - Critique of Dress Code Policy in High School

Overview of the digital storytelling project

The digital storytelling project was carried out in collaboration with Youth Reaching Out (YRO), a youth civic and community engagement afterschool program that focuses on violence prevention through strategic activities and meaningful dialogue. The YRO coordinators (henceforth referred to as youth coordinators) invited us to facilitate the digital storytelling project with deliverables that would be showcased at Peace in the Park1, an annual youth-driven event organized by Youth Reaching Out (YRO). Thus, we initiated the digital storytelling project in response to our community partners’ expressed needs for a concrete spring project that was centered on community and civic engagement, and which was primarily youth-driven. [Read more]

Digital storytelling involves the use of multimedia technologies (e.g., text, graphics, photographs, video, music, audio narration) to create and share first-person accounts on a specific topic. As a group process, “digital storytelling allows for the coconstruction of knowledge and a shift from textual to multisensory ways of knowing” (Barcelos & Gubrium, 2018, p. 906). As such, digital storytelling has been used effectively as a vehicle for expression of marginalized voices (Lambert, 2013; Sawhney, 2009) and was particularly suited to our context.

While this synergy allowed us to integrate the digital storytelling project quite seamlessly with the YRO program, it also meant that we had to be responsive to their time constraints—typically meeting once a week for 90 minutes over a span of 10 weeks, following which the youth had to focus on planning the Peace in the Park event. We had to contend with the vagaries of the winter weather and associated school closures typical of the Northeast; for example, scheduling additional meeting times to make up for weather-related cancellations. Throughout the project, we were deliberate in navigating the tensions between these practical constraints, the need to be responsive to our community partners (e.g., having something to “show”), and the ethical imperative to center youth perspectives/desires in participatory action research. 

Across many sessions, our role was primarily that of facilitators, working alongside the youth storytellers via complicated power dynamics to help produce more complex understanding of their lives and the ways they chose to represent themselves and their experiences. As part of a rigorous PAR design, we engaged in iterative cycles of research, action, reflection, and evaluation that centered youth experiences3. We gathered different kinds of data: 1) researcher-produced or -elicited data such as observations, fieldnotes, freewriting, anonymous feedback, surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews; 2) participant productions such as posters, flyers, storyboards, and digital stories; and 3) audience response data that involved documentation of audience interaction with the digital stories (e.g., via audience feedback forms and informal exchange). Taken together, the visual and textual materials generated served a three-fold purpose (Appadurai, 2006; Banks, 2007):

  • as a prompt for eliciting discussion/responses
  • as documentation of process
  • as evidence of events and conditions.

Drawing on this multimodal documentation, we are able to critically reflect on our roles and highlight the manifold ethical considerations when curating creative-rhetorical work with community participants in an attempt to produce local, socio-political change. In Vignette 1 and Vignette 2, we offer a relational and reflexive analysis of collaborative, creative knowledge production, naming and unpacking the messy and complex spaces wherein meaningful encounters and theoretical richness emerge (Katz, 2001; Torre & Ayala, 2009).


[1] The event was initiated as a youth-led response to violence in the local community. This annual event is held at the beginning of the summer holidays as a way to create awareness about safe usage of public space. Supported by the YRO program coordinators, Peace in the Park is entirely youth-driven from its conceptualization, to presenting the proposal at city hall to running the event on the day. (Eric Johnson & Andre Chandonnet, in personal communication)

[2] We recognize that the category of youth is only partly determined by chronological age; it is in fact a historically and socially constructed category that constitute a lens through which symbolic dimensions of power, personhood, and agency are refracted (Daiute & Fine, 2003; Durham, 2000). We draw our understanding of youth from critical youth studies that recommend a broad age range spectrum—from as young as seven years through young adults attending college (e.g., Daiute & Fine, 2003; Ginright & Cammarota, 2006).

[3]This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.