LAWRENCE — Storytelling lies at the heart of the humanities and is central to the human experience. Through stories, we reveal who we are and what we value, as individuals and as cultures. Stories connect us to one another and to our pasts. Yet many stories remain ignored or silenced, and they often divide us, in part because there is so little interchange among approaches to storytelling rooted in diverse cultures and histories.
University of Kansas scholars hope to shift that dynamic. The Hall Center for the Humanities, in partnership with KU’s Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, has been awarded a three-year grant of $1,478,000 by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support a collaborative digital storytelling project that will work with community and KU partners to recover marginalized and suppressed histories and share them widely through digital media. “Stories for All” will involve more than 40 partner projects, roughly half of which originate in community initiatives and the other half from within KU. It will address the opportunities, challenges, ethics and politics of storytelling in the digital era. And it will ask how different stories and storytelling strategies can help to connect rather than divide us if we have better ways to share them across existing and perceived boundaries.
“Stories for All” will bring into conversation digital projects that represent a wide range of traditions, histories and motivations. The partners range from small collectives preserving local histories of injustice to institutions known for working at the intersection of the humanities and social change. They use a variety of storytelling strategies, including oral histories, social media posts, online writing contests, videos, blogs, interactive maps, long-form documentaries, online companions, art installations and place-based storytelling. Some of these projects are already in development; others will launch during the grant period.
“The advent of digital technology has enhanced the power of stories to reach broad audiences and to serve exclusion or inclusion, privilege or social justice, while the costs and technical demands involved in digital storytelling have created new inequities and barriers alongside preexisting ones,” said Richard Godbeer, director of the Hall Center. “As racial tensions and the pandemic expose anew the inequities within our society, this is a critical time to invest in new and equitable ways to engage in the art of storytelling.”
The project will center on a multi-year forum that brings together partners to share their diverse storytelling traditions and the ways they have adapted their approaches to storytelling for a digital age. These conversations will take place in locations throughout Lawrence and the region to foster an expansive storytelling community. Forum events will provide opportunities for partners to present their own projects and approaches to storytelling; to discuss the ways in which these different approaches might learn from each other; to address the particular opportunities and challenges posed by digital storytelling; and to consider the broad implications of these conversations for storytelling as a facet of human expression.
“KU scholars associated with the Hall Center and the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities are uniquely positioned to bring together a diverse group of partners and approaches to storytelling with this extraordinary support from the Mellon Foundation,” said Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research. “We feel privileged to provide a platform to elevate a richer array of voices, traditions and cultures, and we look forward to learning from one another and making connections across communities and time.”
The diversity that characterizes the partner projects extends even to technical infrastructure. The “Stories for All” website will serve as a portal linking to externally hosted partners with different storytelling techniques; this will bring partners together in a common space without compromising their autonomy or diversity of approach. The website will make digital storytelling resources available to anyone by providing free access to the partner projects. The website will also be the first stop for storytellers seeking technical assistance.
“Although digital storytelling technologies are often open-source and freely available, the digital literacy required to deploy the platforms recreates — perhaps even widens — the digital divide that open-source software was intended to ameliorate, becoming a new and formidable mechanism of privilege and exclusion,” said Dave Tell, co-director of the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. “By providing consultation and training in frequently used platforms for digital storytelling, we hope to narrow that digital divide.”
“Stories for All” will contribute to a vibrant conversation about the ways in which the art of storytelling can evolve and flourish in a 21st-century digital world. “Our project is designed to create a storytelling forum in which many diverse voices can engage productively with each other,” said Godbeer, “so that we can learn and grow together.”