Editor’s Note: Evelyn Thorne worked with StoryCenter as an intern from May through August of 2013. She then returned to her graduate work at the University of Oregon. Here we share her thoughts on her research regarding creative expression.
Your Voice is Your Creativity: Building Safe Spaces for Creative Expression
By Evelyn Thorne
When I was seven years old, I was learning to draw by copying masterpieces. I had such confidence that I truly believed my drawings were superior. I look back on those drawings today and think “What naiveté”… and then I think, “How can I get that back?” How can I reclaim that belief in my ability to be stronger than my fear of how I might appear through others’ eyes?
Fast forward many years, and I’m sitting at my friend’s marathon poetry open mic, listening for five hours straight and never once participating. The entire time, an internal debate about whether I could or couldn’t write poetry ran through my head. I went home that night so frustrated that I chose to settle the argument by writing my first poem. The poem started like this: “You, yes You. Sitting there, just sitting there. I used to be you.” And from that moment on, the debate was over: I would not sit on the sidelines anymore; I would actively participate and learn to express my creativity. This was the start of my journey to what I call “reclaiming creative confidence.”
This journey to creative confidence is never easy, especially if you’re an adult with little artistic training or access to arts education. As international education advisor Ken Robinson says: “Most children think they’re highly creative; most adults think they’re not. This is a bigger issue than it may seem” (Robinson, 2011). The issue is rooted in an education system and capitalist society that tells children or young adults not to study art because it won’t allow them to make money, thus ignoring the intrinsic value of creativity. With this knowledge in mind, I set out to pursue a graduate degree in Arts Administration, as a way of exploring inclusive arts education practices.
During my first graduate course in Community Cultural Development, I realized storytelling could be a gateway to arts engagement. As I studied how to build ethical cultural organizations, I saw how storytelling can be an access point. Storytelling connects people through empathy and understanding, builds more culturally conscientious and inclusive environments, and facilitates creativity through personal expression. I started searching for organizations that were putting this idea to practice, which led me to an internship with the Center for Digital Storytelling (StoryCenter).
As I helped participants in a Standard Workshop in Digital Storytelling produce their stories, I noticed the range of artistic backgrounds in the class – from the artist who was determined to reimagine the digital storytelling format, to the professor who was struggling to express herself in non-academic language. Yet they were all working together. This was an epiphany for me: here were adults with very different relationships to creativity, feeling safe enough to learn alongside each other. This workshop was the inclusive arts education environment that I was looking for!
But why? Why does storytelling encourage collaborative learning? I embarked on an extensive research project to explore how digital storytelling practices facilitate safe space for creative expression.
My master’s research project, entitled Digital Storytelling: A Safe Space for Creative Expression, details the process, facilitation, and ethics of those StoryCenter methods that contribute to the establishment of safe space for creative expression. By conducting an extensive literature review and interviews with digital storytelling facilitators and participants, I was able to confirm that digital storytelling does in fact provide a unique safe space for adults with different creative confidence levels. This concept is perhaps best demonstrated by a digital storytelling participant I interviewed, who said, “We were all totally different, coming from totally different areas, taking the workshop for completely different reasons, and yet we were all able to still really feel safe to write a story about something that mattered.”
To explain the nuances of why digital storytelling can create a special safe space, I compiled the results of my research into a best practices framework.
My “Safe Space for Creative Expression” framework follows the model of StoryCenter’s Digital Storyteller’s Bill of Rights by presenting twelve best practices or promises that a practitioner commits to, in order to facilitate safe space for creative expression. The design of the framework is significant. Ethics, facilitation, and process are at the center, to show how they build on each other. The topics most mentioned during the interviews are placed on the four corners, as foundational practices. While all the practices are integral to establishing a safe space, what stands out for me is agency. Agency is the feeling of being in control of your actions or having authority over your decisions. Digital storytelling heightens agency, because it enables people to tell their stories in their own words.
I remember StoryCenter founder Joe Lambert stating that if a workshop participant tells him, “I couldn’t have done it without you,” he feels like he let that person down. This is because true creative confidence comes when people gain agency over their creative decisions and feel like they are expressing an authentic voice.
Always remember that in expressing your voice, you are expressing your creativity – as StoryCenter facilitator Andrea Spagat said when I interviewed her for my research, “Your voice is your creativity.” All it takes to be creative is finding new ways to tell your story. Now let’s work together to build spaces where every voice feels safe to speak out.
Robinson, K. Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. Oxford: Capstone, 2011
You can read Evelyn Thorne’s full research project at the University of Oregon Scholar’s Bank, or you can attend the 6th International Digital Storytelling Conference, where she will present the best practices framework in more detail! Feel free to email Evelyn at firstname.lastname@example.org for questions and comments.