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Empowering Youth via Digital Stories

November 6, 2015
Photo of author Kari Smalkoski
Kari Smalkoski

My current project, “Digital Storytelling for Youth Empowerment” is a community engaged, collaborative partnership between GWSS, the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center (UROC), Sprockets - the city of St. Paul’s out-of-school time network, and urban public schools. We believe youth are the most important stakeholders and that their first-person narratives must be included in larger conversations around structural inequality, equity, and social justice in schools and communities. This longitudinal work will include formerly incarcerated youth and young adults, many of whom are transitioning out of incarceration. Current conversations around disparity and opportunity often emphasize prevention techniques, reform, grit and resilience, and interventions that are imbued in social and cultural deficits. When discussing the educational achievement gap, for example, the focus is often on what youth lack rather than how the systems they interface with need to change. Youths’ opinions are rarely, if at all, included in addressing these changes, especially by the very institutions that practice this and other gaps. Our work is asset-based and supports youth in being self-empowered social change agents through the documentation of their stories, which must be included in larger discussions around institutional inequality. 


One goal of this project is to rethink “disparity” in schools, families, and communities in the Twin Cities. This begins with an imperative need to understand the experiences of youth. Utilizing core principals of Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) and digital storytelling, youth will produce, direct, and create digital stories in their school classrooms. Mentored by several faculty, advanced doctoral students, and undergraduates, youth will take on roles as researchers, teachers, and leaders. They will learn how to document, map, edit, and disseminate their first-person stories on topics of their choice related to larger themes that will change each term. They will have ongoing opportunities to locate themselves more broadly in time and space through storytelling as a means to critically analyze and narrate past and present structural inequalities, social capital, and cultural resources. They will also be asked to identify and advocate for social change. Throughout this project, they will document their discovery process and have the option of presenting their work to their families and school community. A website will be developed that showcases their completed projects.

YPAR and digital storytelling have long been a method and tool used to do socially conscious, youth empowerment work. Our project is unique because it involves faculty and students from different departments and academic units as well as public schools and government organizations. Cross-collegiate work is the exception, not the norm, and collaborating with individuals and organizations from outside of the university as genuine thought partners is even more rare. As a collaborative, we are committed in disseminating this work in stages and making certain that youth and young adults’ stories, as well as their recommendations for institutional and social change, are included in local and national conversations.