The Echo of the Beginning: Birth Stories from Redcliff, WI

Last summer, we worked together with the RedCliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa as their maternal home visiting program gathered local stories about birth and parenthood.  Local public health leader Isaiah Brokenleg joined Jen Nowicki Clark as a co-facilitator.  We held a three-day workshop in the health clinic, helping out with the kids so their parents could focus on their writing for a bit, and the participants created 10 different stories about their experience with birth, from the perspectives of moms, dads, elders- surrounded by family and friends or all alone, exploring the conditions of feeling supported in their decisions and emotions.  These are important topics that touch many people’s lives but, as the maternal health program noticed, we need new ways to start talking about them.  So why not start with our stories?  After the stories were created, we held a public screening event at the local casino. We created a discussion guide and customized it for those particular stories and produced and packaged 100 DVDs to be distributed and used throughout the community as a way to engage new parents, and anyone who is able to support new parents (which, really, is everyone.)   You can see the stories here:

Engaging Neighborhoods Through Maps and Stories

A team consisting of staff from Creative Narrations and Community Commons spent two intensive days at the Palm Healthcare Foundation for training and planning next steps for the Healthier Together initiative. We launched the Healthier Together website a year ago with the intent of creating a mapping tool designed to track community's progress towards improving health through qualitative and quantitative data.  

Ditching the Agendas

Our team had spent a few weeks planning for this workshop. We had powerpoints, facilitator agendas, strategy exercises, and tutorials galore. We knew that there would be a mix of brand-new staff who had never used the website before as well as a few who had gone through introductory trainings with us over the past year. 

Through the first morning, it became glaringly clear that we had glossed over a critical step. Our focus for the two days had been the technology, the ins and outs of using the mapping software. Making a map, however, is like telling a story.  You can have all the bells and whistles, but the special effects don't matter if you don't have a message.

Our map-makers hadn't considered what story they wanted to tell.

We regrouped over lunch, and made a decision on the fly to introduce workshop participants to The Right Question Project. Both Morgan and I have worked closely with this group in the past. We're big fans of their Question Formulation Technique that allows people to take a step back and figure out what questions they want to tackle before engaging in action. 

The workshop participants divided up by geographic community, a few from each one. They began by generating questions around what they wanted to learn about improving health in their communities. They learned how to change close-ended questions to open-ended, and decided on priority questions.

From questions to data

Once the communities had decided on their questions, we asked each group to come up with what kinds of data could help them answer the question. We asked them to think broadly and then categorize their responses into two areas:

- data that already existed.

- data they would need to collect. 

This was a crash course, and an area we hadn't even anticipated tackling. Ideally, the group could have spent all day doing the above two activities. But for this time, we crammed it into about an hour and a half before turning to the mapping website. By this point, each community had an idea of what kind of questions they were looking to answer, and what kind of data could give them a clearer picture of their community.

At that point, we turned the show over to Erin Barbaro, mapmaker extraordinaire, who took us through an overview of the Community Commons platform. Community Commons is the mapping tool that operates on the backend of the Healthier Together site. Participants had the chance to play with thousands of data-sets and try their hand at uploading their own data-sets in the forms of Excel spreadsheets. 

Adding the story layer

On Friday we turned from maps to stories. We presented a few different samples of how groups have used stories as a form of data - and had a chance to tell our own stories.  Our next task was to look at how to take "non-traditional forms of data", i.e. videos, images, quotes, etc. and add them to the story layer.

I have a little theory about technology. I find that things generally go wrong when we're tired. I mean, our computers somehow sense that we are maxed out and should really get off of them, so they stop working. I'm not sure if that was why our server seemed to stall out, but the upshot is we had to close down the laptops, put off the story layer, and talk strategy. I'm sure those quotes will get onto the map at a later date, but in the meantime, we had a very constructive discussion on next steps for the site and how to improve the process for users.

Improving Usability

A tool is only as effective if its usable. As Healthier Together has gotten off the ground in the past year, we've found that the true potential of the website has been untapped. Everyone was very enthusiastic about the value of spending two days together, face to face, to really talk through what is working, get a bit of inspiration and context from other parts of the country and to increase engagement. On our end, we plan to highlight useful datasets and streamline the mapmaking process. On the users' end they are going to look at increasing accountability and making sure that capturing data is built into their strategic plans. 

This trip marked our fourth visit to Palm, and we have yet to visit the beach. Other than that, it was a productive and energizing trip and we intend to rectify the beach issue next time!

Storytelling for College and Career Readiness

Back with Jen in our US home base, Tucson AZ, Creative Narrations is continuing our work with old friends- including the Arizona Department of Education through their annual Adult Education Digital Storytelling Institute.   The topic this year has been specifically geared toward college and career readiness.   Why?  Well, we know that digital storytelling is an interesting way for students to engage with class content.  We hear many examples of how students love using and creating multimedia stories- it improves class retention and students gain valuable technical skills.  But what about those "soft skills" that are getting so much attention these days in higher education?  Things like critical thinking and problem solving, creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration.  These are all skills needed to succeed in work and academic life and are completely integrated in the process of creating and co-creating multimedia stories.  We're very proud of this continued and deepening work.  We love showing up and having former students show up to volunteer as coaches and co-trainers- To us, this is what sustainability looks like.  To give you an idea of who the students are and how important adult education is in the community, take a look at Linda's story created at Pima College Adult Education, which also was the winner of the AALL (AZ Association for Lifelong Learning) Literacy Week Digital Storytelling contest!  

On Innovation and Narration

A few months ago I decided to officially give myself a mini-sabbatical to dedicate time to the ongoing refugee crisis facing Europe. While the crisis is far from over, I wanted to stop and reflect on what I have learned as I move back into my “normal” life. Or, as I’ve started to say, the “new normal”. 

Over the past three months I’ve focused on three main areas of crisis relief—local organizing here in France, connecting people back in the U.S., and the development of online tools to support volunteers like myself.  All three have had their particular challenges, the least of which being the difficulty of working intensely with complete strangers, many of whom I still haven’t met face to face! Through it all the common thread I’ve seen is a dire need for leadership. But more on that later.  For now, here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been doing….

Grassroots Organizing: I’ve been working locally with a grassroots organization we started here in Southwest France, Languedoc Refugee Solidarity. Over the past few months, we have accomplished an incredible amount to support local Syrian families and to increase awareness and opportunities to act within the region. You can read more of our accomplishments on our website. For a long time we thought our experience was unique — the refugees we were working with had not followed the typical trajectory for seeking asylum in France. Then I   received an email from a volunteer in Toulouse reflecting exactly our experience. In fact, I had to double check the email to make sure I hadn’t written it! This week I saw a similar thread on Facebook about a group of refugees further north. Situations that would typically be considered outliers are now the norm in an overwhelmed system. In order to share our experiences, we’ve begun to document our process in partnership with other groups throughout France to create a collaborative resource for local efforts.

Americans for Refugees in Crisis: Like many of you, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with Facebook. However, there is no doubt in my mind that Facebook has been perhaps one of the greatest assets to crisis relief. In September, I joined group after group— Support for Refugees in France, Love Across Borders, European Refugee Action Network. I found nothing, however, focusing on Americans.  Along with a few others, we figured the least we could do is start a network of Americans interested in crisis relief. This group has grown steadily to about 800 members at the time of writing this post and we have now formed a non-profit status allowing Americans to give directly to grassroots crisis relief and received a tax deduction. We raised almost 15,000 dollars within the six weeks of fundraising, and I have been thrilled to see the success of the efforts driven by celebrities like Elizabeth Gilbert and Brene Brown . We will be launching a website early this year and have a super team on board creating content, blogging from the field, and connecting U.S. volunteers with donors and organizations all over Europe and the Middle East. I am confident in our team and will continue to be involved moving forward, albeit from the sidelines. 

Online Tools: From the time I got my first smartphone until about, say, September of 2015 — each time I thought “there must be an app for that” sure enough, there was. Until now. While many of you have probably read about the plentitude of apps available to refugees along their journeys there is remarkably little for those of us involved in solidarity efforts.  Way back in September I had an idea for an app to make it easy for groups like ours to list immediate needs.  I spent a month trying to determine whether or not it existed already—turns out there is a fabulous team in Germany working on something similar so I joined them as a beta tester.  

While decentralization fosters innovation - it also fosters duplication of efforts. Over and over again, I am seeing the same questions asked, the same ideas expressed, the same need for a “home base” for people who want to either offer support or receive aid. So I have  turned my technology efforts to a more immediate problem— a central repository of information and refugee related initiatives. 

From the time I launched my first crowdfunder, I was overwhelmed by how many people started donating to our effort in France. Friends of friends of friends were donating just because they knew someone who knew me. People want that sense of legitimacy, of connection. I am hoping to develop a database of efforts that leverages social networks, so that we can all feel more immediately connected to a specific initiative. I am thrilled to have connected to Prosper: Community, a global community of digital workers immediately focusing on developing a central database called Refugee Projects.  Over the next few months, I will be working closely with the team at Prosper and will be applying my technology and organizing skills in a more concrete way to the development of online tools while drawing on my volunteer work in the field.  

The Need for Innovation in the Refugee Crisis

We are all very used to getting involved, to giving, to someone else telling us how we can help. I have repeatedly made the mistake of thinking that someone else must be taking care of the problems I’m seeing - surely people in Paris can find their own coats for homeless refugees in freezing temperatures — surely someone is making sure that these kids get registered for school in Béziers — surely there is an easy way for people in the U.S. to donate financially to the refugee crisis— surely there is a central database of refugee related initiatives. And yet, from the minute to the macro the answer each time has been “no” or “maybe, but we can’t find it.”   So I have learned to stop assuming that a solution exists. I have learned to figure out how to find other people who want to develop a solution. And I have learned to act, without making sure it’s perfect. Perfect - that can come later. Nobody will mind a typo or two. 

It’s a new year. Like the Afghans on the streets of La Republique, this refugee crisis doesn’t sleep.* This new year does bring the opportunity for innovation. It’s time to operate outside of the norms. To take problems into our own hands and to collaboratively develop solutions. To draw on our reserves, on one another, and whatever we hold sacred.  We are bearing witness to the unacceptable, the intolerable, and so we must not tolerate it - we must not tolerate toddlers washing up on the shores of the Greek isles, or teenagers dying while attempting the treacherous journey from Calais to the UK. We can’t stop today’s headlines, but we can take action against tomorrow’s. Only through innovation can we dictate a new narration of this story. 


* Hundreds of asylum seekers remain homeless on the streets of Paris despite having submitted their asylum applications. I can’t even include a recent English language link to reference this situation as there is NO coverage. It’s abominable.


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