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We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Ending Human Trafficking in India, One Story at a Time: A Performative Approach to Digital Storytelling

Amy Hill

These are stories of resilience and triumph. We will continue to share them with judiciary, law enforcement, and government officers, to influence policy and increase people’s understanding of the complex issues surrounding human trafficking. Altogether the experience of supporting the creation of these stories has changed me … and has made me realize that even within bureaucratic systems, we have opportunities to feel, share, and evolve. And above all, to change lives and contribute positively towards society.

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Using Storytelling to Challenge Corruption in Ukraine: Youth Speak Out

Amy Hill

When hearing our stories, people can relate to them and get inspired to avoid resorting to this method of solving uncomfortable situations. Eventually, this attitude of openness will begin to push out the problem itself, because corruption can only thrive beyond closed doors under the watch of ignorant citizens.

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Nurstory: Incredible Experiences of Digital Storytelling

Amy Hill

As if by magic, by day three of the workshop, I created a digital story about resilience. Then, at the end of the workshop, a screening of all the group members’ videos occurred. It was breathtaking. What an experience!  I immediately knew I wanted to do it again–someday.

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Amy Hill

Sometimes, when I think about the control that was stolen from my mother at such a young age, I want to hold her and mourn with her. But, that's not a place we can go. Sometimes, when I uncover a new scar or tenderness in my life based on what happened to me, I want to reach out to her. But, that's not a place we can go.

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St. James Parish Rising: Documenting a Legacy of Environmental Racism in Louisiana

Amy Hill

I was born in St. James Parish when Jim Crow still ruled. Racist laws made sure that many black Louisianans were unable to participate in democracy. It has been more than 50 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, but those of us in the 5th district were not informed when in 2014, the northern part of the district was re-zoned for industrial use. While white residents sold their properties and moved away, black residents did not receive buy-out offers. We were left inhaling the toxic air produced by the invading petrochemical plants.

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Sahiyo: Stories Against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Amy Hill

Editor’s Note: In a digital storytelling workshop held in May 2018, StoryCenter and Sahiyo United Against Female Genital Cutting guided a group of women through a story sharing and creation process. Below, these courageous storytellers reflect on the workshop experience. On Friday, October 19, at 6:30 p.m., their stories will be screened at the Rockridge Branch of the Oakland Public Library. Join StoryCenter, Sahiyo, and our partners at Asian Women’s Shelter and the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender Based Violence for this event which will feature a panel discussion about FGM, with experts on gender-based violence.

Leena Khandwala - Shame

Supporters of female genital cutting (FGC) often try to distinguish the type of cutting that is practiced in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community from other types of cutting practiced by different cultures. They claim that the practice in the Bohra community is simply to make a small and benign scrape or nick in the clitoris that causes no harm, and, in fact, may enhance sexual pleasure among women. Through my digital story, I hope to portray the violence and trauma I experienced when I was cut and how it has followed me for the rest of my life.

Participating in this workshop was an important step in my life-long process of coming to terms with my cutting. After finishing law school, I chose to work with women fleeing gender-based harms. One of my first cases involved a woman seeking asylum because she was vehemently opposed to genital cutting and feared that she would be unable to protect her minor daughter from being cut if she had to return to her home country.

It was inspiring at the workshop to see how so many women have channeled their pain and outrage into advocacy for change and are working to ensure that future generations of girls are protected from being cut.

Aisha Yusuf - Awakening

I only recently became more active about advocating against FGC. I chose to tell this specific story for my digital story because this was a moment in which I came to terms with why female genital mutilation was bad in our community.

Sharing the story with the group during the Sahiyo Stories workshop was as much a relief to me as it was informative. Even though I was impacted by FGC, I knew little about it. I did know that the practice of FGC is unnecessary, even though it’s culturally perpetuated. Though many people try to justify it through religion, I learned it’s actually not part of the practice of Islam. The storytelling process allowed me to be comfortable with sharing my story instead of feeling shameful about it. Most people in my culture think that by talking openly about it, I’m talking negatively about this secret of the community, but I believe what I’m doing is bringing awareness to a topic that is harmful and so evil. Since 98% of women in Somalia are cut, I want that statistic to be a thing of the past, no longer true in the 21st century.

Additionally, I am currently offering support to a petition to advocate to ban FGC in Massachusetts, and hopefully all other U.S. states where there isn’t already such a law.  

Maria Akhter - Ripples

I have not undergone khatna (the term used to describe cutting in the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community), and I was the only one in the storytelling group who had not. My digital story touches on how I sometimes feel like an outcast around other Bohra women, regardless of whether or not I know they have undergone khatna. In the Bohra community, so many practices and customs are normalized on a large scale that you are left wondering if you are different for something that has or has not happened to you.

More importantly, in my story, I touched on my mother’s empowering decision not to have me undergo khatna. The decision wasn’t formed alone. My mother, grandmother, aunts, and uncles were all instrumental players in choosing to spare our family’s daughters from a harmful tradition. My video explores the newfound gratitude I began to feel for something I did not know I needed to be grateful for.

By the end of the workshop I realized that khatna, advocacy, traditions, women’s rights, and human rights are not all black and white. Instead, they are layered and multi-dimensional, thus making these matters far more intricate than just taking a stand one way or another. My experience is not black or white either, and the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the most empowering avenue for me to explore that gray area.

Maryah Haidery - A Daughter’s Questions

Since I don’t have a clear memory of my own khatna, I decided to focus my story on the aspect of it which did have a profound effect on me: my relationship with my mother and my struggle to understand her decision. Although I am and always have been opposed to the practice of FGC, I was nevertheless upset by the ways in which the women who practiced it were portrayed as “heartless monsters,” or “unforgiveable child abusers,” by the media and by anti-Muslim bigots who use the issue as an excuse to justify their stance against immigration. In an effort to change this perception, I agreed to sit down with my mother to discuss FGC with a local radio news reporter. I hoped this would encourage people to see her as a person and try to understand her motivations for doing what she did, even if they didn’t agree with it.

At first, I was really nervous about sharing my story with everyone, but all the women in the workshop were incredibly supportive and encouraging. I also felt honored to be able to experience each of their incredible and unique stories. In three short days, we bonded over shared experiences (and incredible food), so even though I only had two sisters when I first arrived at the workshop, by the time I left, I had eleven.

Renee Bergstrom - Finding My Voice

I chose to tell my story of female genital mutilation (FGM) in the workshop because I am aware that being silenced is a universal issue for those who have experienced it. When I read my story the first day at the StoryCenter, I was surprised that my voice cracked with emotion. Our sisterhood developed quickly from the strength of shared history in spite of differing cultures, and I felt so privileged to be included. The world needs to hear all our voices in order for this female injustice to end.

The storytelling process was beautifully orchestrated, and we were guided to compose our messages for the greatest impact. All apprehension regarding telling my story dissipated. Before my story became public knowledge, my advocacy was focused on developing and distributing brochures in collaboration with my Somali friend Filsan Ali. Pregnant infibulated Somali women give this bilingual brochure to their physicians and midwives to plan safe labor and delivery, and prevent unnecessary C-Sections.

In 2016, the time was right to share my story publicly, because so many young women were standing up to their political, cultural, and religious leaders, matriarchs, and patriarchs. Instead of being seen as a Western woman imposing my beliefs on another culture, I am supporting their efforts. Recently, other white Christian women from North America have contacted me with their FGM stories. Thus my current advocacy plans involve listening, but also connecting these women with resources and opportunities to share their stories.

Salma Qamruddin - Unfiltered

Despite entering the workshop with some insecurity, the process of putting my story onto paper, editing the script, and illustrating the words was cathartic. In order to translate my thoughts into a digital story, I had to boil my experience down to its core and dissect why this story matters to me. It was a process that involved deep reflection. As my story started to come alive, my confidence grew with it. One of the most beautiful moments for me was when speaking with Orchid, a Sahiyo Stories facilitator who stated, “Everyone has the best voice for their own story.” Both Orchid and Amy, the two StoryCenter facilitators, had an incredible talent for pulling out the real meaning from a story and empowering us through the process. Even though the subject was heavy, talking through my story with them made my heart feel light.

Though the process of creating digital stories was helpful, the highlight of the Sahiyo Stories workshop was the screening of the completed products. We sat together, laughed together, and cried together as we watched the digital stories for the first time. The room was a stirring pot of emotions. As we watched each person speak their truth, we felt their emotions and their pain. Their words resonated with us, not only because we could all relate to FGC, but because the struggles were tied to themes that all humans experience—isolation, grief, family, tradition, and healing. The power of what we had created was instantly recognizable.

Severina Lemachokoti - Tradition

My advocacy on FGM is primarily focused on community education and the mental health of the survivors. As an activist I believe that FGM will end when our communities in northern Kenya are educated on the negative effects of FGM and find alternative ways of celebrating cultural practices without cutting girls’ genitalia. I am also aware that it is the right of each community to uphold their traditions and beliefs, but culture should not violate the rights of young girls in any way, either.

The mental health of survivors is a critical issue that needs to be looked into and addressed. Most of us are traumatized and still bear the pain of the cut even after so many years, and it is necessary that survivors get healed in order for them to step up and talk about FGM in a way that can save other young girls who are at risk.

My story is not very different from those of other survivors, but at the same time, I believe I am unique, and so my story is unique because of the painful experience and feelings that I had during the cutting. My hope is that my story and the stories of my other sisters will change our communities. I am looking forward to working with various organizations and individuals to see that our girls are free from FGM across the world. I will basically do my activism work until the end of my days, and advocate for supporting the mental health of survivors across the world.

Zehra Patwa - Loyalty

Shame. Deceit. Confusion. On the first day, sitting around a large table in a light-filled room in the StoryCenter space in Berkeley, California, these words were repeated over and over again by each woman sharing her story of being cut as a young girl. And in most cases, the story was disturbingly similar. A young girl is taken to a strange place by a female family member, she is not told what is going to happen to her except some euphemism that means nothing to her, the girl is cut by a stranger, she experiences pain like she’s never experienced before, and she is told never to talk about it again. But the experience stays with her.

Hope. Love. Protection. And then there were stories by women who, as girls, had been spared the cut, and by those who had worked through their trauma, so there were also inspiring words that came out of these stories, which made the whole digital storytelling process a positive and uplifting experience that will stay with me for years to come.

While describing my outline to my fellow workshop participants, I felt unsure that anyone would care about my story, and whether it was a story that was even worth telling.  But when I finished, there was a pause. Then someone said, “That was powerful.” Over the next two days, I refined my story and built my video with much input from Amy, Orchid, and the other participants who I, very quickly, would call friends. Their opinions about word choice, sentence structure, and which images and videos to use made my story come to life in a way that I had not imagined! At the end of the third day, I had a new creation. Yes, it was still a little rough around the edges and needed some minor editing, but it was a revelation to be able to produce a video of my story that resonated with other people, in just three days. I’m proud of what I did, but prouder of the fact that it was a true team effort. After all, it takes a village!

RSVP now for the October 19 Sahiyo Stories screening event in Oakland!

Finding the Extraordinary in the Ordinary: How Storytelling Can Take Back Narratives on American Muslim Life

Amy Hill

The stories shared in the workshop break with dominant stereotypes that cast Muslims in a dark and dangerous light—showing instead the extraordinary successes, in spite of their struggles, of ordinary Muslim New Yorkers who shine in their respective professions.

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Border Youth Tennis Exchange: Stories From Both Sides of the U.S. – Mexico Border

Root Barrett

As menacing as it is for the larger body-politic to malign border communities and mischaracterize them as dangerous and violent, the potential harm is even more insidious when communities that live only miles apart are separated by fear, anxiety, and mistrust. BYTE hopes through the stories to show that a child playing tennis or learning to use digital tools looks very similar, whether in Mexico or in Arizona.

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Courageous Women in Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia Share Stories of Gender-Based Violence

Root Barrett

Editors’s Note: In February, our Silence Speaks initiative traveled to Kenya to work with staff of programs as part of DREAMS Innovation Challenge, a program funded by a grant from the United States Department of State managed by JSI Research & Training Institute, Inc.. In recognition of April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the U.S., we're honored to feature on our blog the written versions of several powerful stories created in Kenya. (Stay tuned for the digital stories, which will be finalized soon!)

Women Should Not Have to Suffer in Silence
By Angeline Masinde, Bar Hostess Empowerment & Support Program (BHESP), Kenya

Angeline works with DREAMS Innovation Challenge grantee BHESP, which gives adolescent girls and young women in Kenya greater control over their HIV prevention approaches, including PrEP, through public awareness campaigns, peer education, and HIV testing and counseling.

Angeline works with DREAMS Innovation Challenge grantee BHESP, which gives adolescent girls and young women in Kenya greater control over their HIV prevention approaches, including PrEP, through public awareness campaigns, peer education, and HIV testing and counseling.

I was brought up in an era when girls were only supposed to listen, not talk. I am also the first born, so my mother expected me to take care of my seven siblings. Woe unto me if any of them made a mistake. I was punished on their behalf.

We all went to primary school in the Nairobi Eastlands. I walked to and from school every day with my girlfriends. Men often harassed us on the way. One day during a music lesson, our teacher told the class to go look for bamboo sticks to make kayambas (a musical instrument). I went in a group of four girls. We asked some men on the street where we could get the sticks, and they said, “Follow us, we can show you where to find bamboo.”

Our little minds didn’t see any danger ahead, as they took us to a deserted place where no one could see us. Then, two more men joined them, and together, they attacked and raped us. We were just 12 years old. The pain ate me inside. Rape was very common in our area. No one got punished, and only girls were blamed for it. The four of us never talked about it to anyone—not even amongst ourselves.

So many years have passed now but, still, every time I hear someone has been raped, I feel that pain again. And I always use my experience to advise young girls who are giving up in life, like some of the girls I work with. We offer them HIV prevention education and PrEP, but for the ones who face violence at the hands of partners, there may be fear to use the pills that keep the virus from being transmitted.

Thankfully, girls today do not have to suffer in silence. Working together, we can empower them and protect their rights.


Choosing to Stand Up
By Geraldine Kauma, Brick by Brick, Uganda

Geraldine works with DREAMS Innovation Challenge grantee Brick by Brick, which teaches girls to construct reusable menstrual pads for personal use and income generation, and enables in-school reproductive health education .

Geraldine works with DREAMS Innovation Challenge grantee Brick by Brick, which teaches girls to construct reusable menstrual pads for personal use and income generation, and enables in-school reproductive health education.

She and I were such close friends, ever since we joined the school. Every day after class, we stayed behind and chatted a little about how the day had gone. She even introduced me to her boyfriend and told me stories about how nice he was, and how intelligent.

After a while, I noticed she wasn’t as bubbly as always. She was avoiding people and staying in her room to sleep, whenever she had free time. Exams were fast approaching, and I decided to go and ask what was bothering her. After I prodded her, she broke down and told me her boyfriend had assaulted her repeatedly. She had been too afraid to say anything because he threatened her life.

When he found out that I knew, he also began threatening me. He said, “You and your friend and all the girls in your class are sluts. If you don’t keep quiet, I will tell everyone how damaged you are, and no one will want you.” He thought we would cower, but I chose to inform the authorities, and he was put in jail. Her family supported her in handling the ordeal.

After that, I knew I would stand up whenever I can, as a female who has been privileged with education and an opportunity to speak up. After university, I started working with youth on HIV prevention. I get to talk with adolescent boys and girls about the importance of health education and equal opportunity. They share many stories. One young girl talked about being overlooked because she is female. Her uncle did not want to pay her school fees. I talked to the counselors who had a session with him. He then began to support her.

Every day I strive to inspire young girls in Uganda to achieve their dreams, because I, too, was once a young girl.


When Silence is not Golden
By Chishimba Kasanga, Lubuto Library Partners, Zambia

Chishimba works with Lubuto Library Partners in Zambia, whose DREAMS Innovation Challenge project uses public libraries in Zambia as a gateway for scholarships, referrals, mentorship, reproductive health programming, and community engagement .

Chishimba works with Lubuto Library Partners in Zambia, whose DREAMS Innovation Challenge project uses public libraries in Zambia as a gateway for scholarships, referrals, mentorship, reproductive health programming, and community engagement.

I was 11 years old—too young to know much about sex, but old enough to have breasts. I was at home with my baby sister and my 23-year-old cousin. My parents were at work. I was alone in my room when my cousin walked in and started fondling my breasts. I was terrified! There he was, someone I trusted and looked up to, shamelessly enjoying himself. He said, “Do not tell anyone.”

When my parents came home that evening, I was afraid of causing conflict. How could I tell them he had touched me in ways I hated? I had no witness except a three-year-old who could barely construct sentences. So I kept quiet.

It happened again the next day, this time lasting longer than before. Still, I remained silent, fearing the consequences of speaking out. I wondered, “Will anyone believe me? What if he comes back again? When will this end?”

Even though I wanted to just forget about it, I couldn’t bear the thought that my cousin might do the same thing to my sisters. I finally found the courage to tell my parents the truth. Much to my relief, they believed me. When confronted, my cousin denied everything, saying, “Why would I touch her? I am old enough to have any lady I want, so why would I wasting my time with a child?” But a year later, he finally admitted it.

Today I am committed to helping fellow survivors and bringing public attention to the realities of sexual abuse. I’m now mentoring adolescent girls and young women, helping them find inner strength to challenge and overcome abuse and discrimination. It is so important for them to feel safe speaking out so justice can be served.


Survivor, Not Victim
By Redempta Mwende, African Centre for Women and Information and Communication Technology, Kenya

Redempta works with the Center’s DREAMS Innovation Challenge grant, which empowers girls and young women in Kenya with skills and opportunities to become financially independent.

Redempta works with the Center’s DREAMS Innovation Challenge grant, which empowers girls and young women in Kenya with skills and opportunities to become financially independent.

While I was drawing the curtains at the office, ready to call it a day, I heard a knock on the door and saw a young girl I knew peeking in. She was usually so full of life, but on this occasion, as she entered, the tears began flowing. I handed her some tissues. Then she told me her story.

She had gone out to a nightclub with friends to celebrate turning 18. When she felt tipsy, she wanted to leave, but her friends wanted to stay. They suggested she catch a lift with an older man they knew. She told me, “I took the risk, and it turned out to be the biggest mistake of my life.”

He invited her to spend the night at his place. Initially she hesitated, but because her parents were very strict, she was afraid to go home drunk. So she accepted. He insisted she should sleep in the bedroom, and he on the couch in the other room. In the middle of the night, suddenly he was next to her, undressing her. She said, “I asked him to stop, but he did not listen. I tried to fight him, but he was too strong. I tried to scream, but he punched me in the stomach.” He tied her hands to the headboard with his belt, and then raped her.

When she finished speaking, I hugged her, and we both wept together. I was the first person she told. She worried that people would not believe her, would blame her for what happened. I was happy to support her healing. It completely changed my attitude towards sexual violence. Today in my work, we talk to women not only about HIV prevention and STI treatment, but also about rape. These are all health issues.

Three months later, this young woman came to me and told me she had tested negative for HIV. She was lucky. She said, “I will not let one event in my life define my future. I am not a victim, I am a survivor.”

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StoryCenter Board Spotlight: Dr. Nikki Yeboah Shares Her Story

Root Barrett

In this world of big data and "hard" science, we lose sight of the power of a story. Stories have the power to move us, persuade us and most importantly, connect us to worlds and people beyond ourselves. As a theatre maker, I've been telling stories on stage for the last eight years, and teaching students to tell their stories for six. I've seen the impact it can have not just on the audience but on the storyteller as well.

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Nurstory: Stories of Nursing Practice for Social Justice

Amy Hill

The storytelling process is not one that I had explored before with this group of colleagues, and we moved through our stories together -- first by sharing them out loud, giving them our voices, and then by creating and crafting the digital stories. Our stories centered on the broad theme of social justice and yet, they were very personal, real, clear, relatable. These were smaller acts of justice given voice by a group of nurses.

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Living Journeys: The Power of Sharing Stories of Cancer Survival

Amy Hill

When a last minute cancellation created an opening, I found my role transformed from organizer to participant, requiring me to become vulnerable, too. I discovered StoryCenter’s process of guiding storytellers to find their “ah-ha” moment, as an art form. Common threads bound each unique story, and the bonds between participants were deepened.

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