Stories with Impact: The Potential of Storytelling to Contribute to Cultural Research and Social Inclusion

Donna Hancox


Our capacity to tell stories is a skill that can be considered both natural and learned. Storytelling and oral history are parts of all human societies, and we seek to understand ourselves and each other through our stories. Our individual and collective memories collide in our stories, and reconcile to construct what Kansteiner calls our "collectively shared representations of the past" (182). It is our personal narratives that are the building blocks to public understanding, and as Harter, Japp and Beck maintain in Narratives, Health and Healing, "narrative is a fundamental human way of giving meaning to experience" (3). Adding to this idea of narrative as way of illuminating meaning, Goodall posits narrative as also being a way of knowing and as a research methodology, stating "narrative provides us with a range of forms and styles for discovering meaning and communicating it to readers through stories. It is an epistemology" (13). This re-imaging and re-purposing of narrative and storytelling has the capacity to significantly influence and shift the ways in which cultural and social research is carried out. This emerging approach can also influence the ways we understand the experiences of marginalised groups, and consequently how we respond to issues around social inclusion through policy and community based solutions. For researchers personal stories and narratives have the capacity to illuminate the nuances of broad issues; this potential also means that seemingly intractable social problems are given a human face with which to engage. It is in this way that personal narratives energise public narratives and shape our ways of thinking and collective understandings (Harter et al. 4).

This paper investigates a digital storytelling project conducted in late 2009 with a group of Forgotten Australians in the months leading up to the public apology in the Australian Parliament, and how the personal stories of the participants brought to life previous research about the marginalisation of individuals who had experienced out-of-home care as children. This paper also explores how the endemic, institutionalised abuse of a group of people was translated to the broader community and galvanised support through the impact of their personal stories.

Digital Storytelling

As a dynamic practice storytelling, in all its forms, must be nurtured and developed if it is to contribute to the lives of individuals and communities. The number of storytelling, and in particular digital storytelling, initiatives and projects in Australia has increased rapidly since the early 2000s, and are utilised by various public and community organisations for a variety of reasons. Digital technology has had a profound impact on the ability for "ordinary" people to tell their stories, and research has identified the potential of digital storytelling in these contexts to assist in the representation of multiple voices and viewpoints in society through inclusive processes of co-creation (cf. see Burgess; Hartley, Uses and "TV"; Klaebe and Burgess). The storytelling project that forms the basis for this paper used some traditional written storytelling practices but was mainly concerned with digital storytelling.

Digital stories are generally a two to four minute multi-media story that uses photographs, film and drawings to convey a personal story which the author narrates in their own voice over the series of images. Much has been, and continues to be written, about digital storytelling as a site of participatory culture and as a means of improving digital literacy in pockets of the community traditionally absent in the realm of digital citizenship (cf. Hartley, Uses; Hartley and McWilliam; Burgess; Meadows; Lundby). As Hartley points out digital storytelling has become such a compelling medium in which to record stories in communities because it "fills a gap between everyday cultural practice and professional media" (Uses 122). As a means of creating narratives digital storytelling has proven to be a significant mode, due in part to its ability to reach a large number of people relatively easily.

The rise of digital storytelling partially mirrors the broad shift towards more participatory online culture that privileges user generated content and ordinary voices over official content. The origins of digital storytelling lie in a response to the absence of "ordinary" voices in mainstream media and policy making and grew with the increasing affordability of digital technology. The potential for social inclusion and participation along with the promise of self-representation is implicit in the discourse surrounding digital storytelling. "The ability to express oneself in digital media and in the case of digital storytelling using digital video editing, has become a central literary for full participation in society" (Lambert 85). Social Inclusion in an Australian context is defined by the Australian Government as all Australians feeling valued and having "the opportunity to participate fully in the life of our society. Achieving this vision means that all Australians will have the resources, opportunities and capability to" learn, work, engage in the community and have a voice (Social Inclusion Unit). The aims articulated by Lambert in the previous paragraph and the philosophy of social inclusion and the belief that individual stories have the capacity to impact on national agendas and policy lay at the heart of the digital storytelling project outlined later in this paper.

The Forgotten Australians

As cohort the Forgotten Australians are defined as individuals who were removed from their families, or were orphaned or child immigrants from the United Kingdom. These children were placed in institutions where they suffered abuse or neglect between 1930 and 1970, and it is estimated that up approximately 500,000 children were placed in out of home care during this time. In November 2009 the Australian Parliament delivered a bi-partisan apology to the Forgotten Australians for the pain and suffering they experienced in church and state run institutions. The stories of the Forgotten Australians were beginning to make their way into the consciousness of the Australian public in the lead up to the apology through documentaries on the national broadcasting service and stories in the mainstream media. Like most large groups the demographic of the Forgotten Australians is diverse, within those who identify as part of this group are successful and well-known Australians, along with ordinary Australians many of whom have struggled significantly as a direct result of their childhood experiences. Those involved in this project were considered to be individuals who were quite profoundly marginalised in mainstream society. A number lived with mental illness, the majority lacked stable housing and all had been severely emotionally, physically and sexually abused during their time in State or Church run institutions as children.

The apology to the Forgotten Australians was preceded many years of advocacy and activism by community groups and individuals. They utilised personal stories, the digitisation of records and as the apology drew closer a number of digital storytelling projects to bring the personal narratives into the public arena in the hope of affecting change. Stories from these projects were broadcast across a variety of platforms such as YouTube, the websites for the major advocacy groups and community organisations and more recently the National Library Australia website. The stories differed from site to site and served different functions depending on the place from which they were disseminated. Hildebrand identifies the role of YouTube as a site for the intersection of personal experience, popular culture and historical narratives, and, as such, a vehicle for cultural memory "allow[ing] users to seek out the media texts that have shaped them and that would otherwise be forgotten in 'objective' histories" (54). YouTube videos relevant to the Forgotten Australians ranged from locally made stories and documentation, news items and presentations recorded by major organisations, but uploaded by individuals, and also those posted by these institutions themselves. A notable feature of all of these contributions is their role in the representation of witnesses' stories.

In the case of reports on Forgotten Australians from major news organisations the commentary they attracted was largely from those who identified as fellow forgotten Australians attesting to—and corroborating—the interviewees' stories. Whether they were posted by survivors themselves or by mainstream media or other institutions, they exhibited a unity around a particular will to memory: setting the record straight through testimony. Here, the clips and posts were characterised by the provision of information as evidence for the assertion of cultural trauma as a shared experience and focus of identification (Adkins et al. 15).

Storytelling functions as one of our most powerful forms for experiencing, expressing, and enacting sorrow and is pivotal in the process of sense making, allowing individuals to cope with chaotic, equivocal, and confusing conditions of everyday life, including illness and suffering. (152)

Advocacy and community groups such as CLAN were focused on creating a sense of community amongst survivors with no story or artefact too small or insignificant to be included, which differed slightly from the agenda of the National Library of Australia—the institution of public memory that has been most closely involved in recording and disseminating the stories of the Forgotten Australians. The Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants Oral History Project conducted by the National Library Australia was one of the recommendations of the two Senate Community Affairs References Committee reports following the Senate Inquiries and receives funding from the Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. According to the National Library Australia website,

this oral history project will run for three years and aims to document a rounded history of the experiences of the children in institutional care and the lifelong impact of these experiences on their lives and their families. This project will also interview a selection of advocates, and allied professionals including welfare officers, employees of institutions and administrators. (Project Team)

In many important ways the purposes served in this project were those of the governments—previous and present, which was to capture and keep the stories, memories, documents and artefacts, and to share the officially selected stories with the rest of the nation, and those stories would support and affirm the government's roadmap for moving on from the apology.

These digital storytelling projects, to varying degrees and levels of impact, served to provide the public with the personal narratives behind the issue being presented in the media and by advocacy groups as a large scale issue concerning hundreds of thousands of victims. Although the sheer size of the numbers of children affected was confronting, it was the personal stories that created a momentum towards the public apology. The findings of both Senate Inquiries recommended a formal apology; however this did not occur until the individual experiences of the Forgotten Australians were translated and represented in narratives and, through this, the construction of a sense of cultural memory resulting in formal recognition. Many Australians were sceptical about the importance of a public apology to the Forgotten Australians, as they had been of the apology to the Stolen Generation in 2008. To be a genuine act of reconciliation an apology requires the act of listening as much as speaking, fittingly Prime Minister Rudd quoted predominantly from personal oral history testimonies that had been collected over the years and that were of public record, but had not been digitally accessible to all, as many stories now are in the Bringing Them Home report.

The Case Study

In August 2009 I was funded by the Australasian Centre for Interactive Design (ACID) to conduct a series of digital storytelling and writing workshops in conjunction with Micah Projects, a community building and social justice organisation based in Brisbane. Micah delivers services for people experiencing homelessness, runs programmes for young mothers and is responsible for the Historical Abuse Network which is a network servicing the Forgotten Australians. After some discussion with the CEO of Micah it was decided that the clients involved with the Historical Abuse Network would benefit most from this project.

Many of the participants had been involved in the 2003 senate inquiry into the treatment of children in institutional care. In the intervening years they had told the story of their abuse many times in official contexts and provided statements of harm for the inquiry. However, for this project we wanted to encourage the participants to create stories that allowed them some agency in their own lives rather, to re-claim some of their story from the official framework of abuse, and to use digital storytelling as a tool for this. The participants were between 45 and 65 in age, and were divided equally between women and men.

There were a number of complexities inherent in this project, some of which were specific to this particular cohort and some specific to all marginalised individuals and groups. The most significant problem arose out the expectation that the "authors" will bring with them photographs and keepsakes from their lives to use in the stories. Many of the participants did not have photographs of their childhoods or of their families; some did not know how old they were (in many institutions all birthdays were celebrated on a single day, and consequently most lost track of their age and birth date) or had not had contact with their biological family for decades and as a result had few keepsakes. These hallmarks of legitimate biography were absent from their pasts and their presents. The combination of these factors meant that for many the ability to create a coherent narrative about their life or to feel ownership over their life had been seriously compromised. However, it became apparent that by using sounds and images in the digital story the technology was able to create a materiality out of memory for the participants.

As it became clearer that the foundation of the stories was memory rather than a narrative arc, the more it became imperative to embrace the fragmentation, inconsistency and incoherence of the memories, and to incorporate these aspects into the digital stories. Instead of being easy to follow or emotionally satisfying narratives, some of the stories had much more in common with what is referred to in psychology and health frameworks as "chaos narratives". A chaos narrative has a sense of disconnected events characterised by a lack of closure and the presence of day-to-day uncertainty (Harter 4). Often such stories seem too incoherent to be told and too painful to be heard by others, as was certainly the case with some of the stories created for this project.


The Finding a Voice digital storytelling project led by Professor Jo Tacchi aligns with the aims of this project in its social innovation, and the role of storytelling and voice as having the genuine potential to impact on the understanding of poverty and disadvantage. Tacchi states that it "is an approach that allows those who are living in conditions that might constitute 'poverty' to tell those who are not what this experience is like, in their own words. Such an approach might challenge our 'expert' conceptions of poverty itself" (170), and confront mainstream or approved versions of social issues. Carabas posits that the agency embedded in the narrative act reforms or reframes the meanings of events through counter narratives and the act of telling transformed personal and social suffering. Those who had been objects of other's reports started to tell their own stories and rewrite official history in the first person singular (154). For the Forgotten Australians, those involved in this project and in similar ones the opportunity to tell their stories in their own words allowed them to push past the detached, impersonal representation of their experiences. Instead they could re-position the debate to being about individuals and the effect of government policy on their lives, and in doing so agitate for a formal apology. Storytelling and narrative as a research methodology, and as a way of knowing, is continuing to be refined by social and cultural researchers and by community organisations. Despite the emerging and nebulous nature of this field one thing is clear: our human desire to tell stories has the ability to be harnessed to build narratives which create understanding and insight and consequently demand that as communities and nations we respond to injustice and disadvantage accordingly.


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Storytelling; narrative; social inclusion

Copyright (c) 2011 Donna Hancox

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