On New Year’s Eve 2012 Aline Gubrium (public health) and Elizabeth (Betsy) Krause (anthropology) had a fantastic reason to celebrate. That’s when they learned their “Hear Our Stories” grant proposal to the Ford Foundation’s Sexuality Research Initiative was funded with $500,000 over two years, starting immediately. “This project was a perfect match to the kind of work Betsy and I have been doing for years,” says Gubrium. “The Ford Foundation is very progressive and we’re thrilled that they are helping us move forward to produce alternative understandings on youth sexuality, and ultimately to shift public conversations and produce more sensitive programs and policies directed at youth.”
Focusing on diasporic youth, this digital storytelling project will use new media to reveal how young parenting Latinas, in particular, experience and negotiate sexual health disparities. Noting that material conditions and cultural worlds have placed these young women in tenuous positions, both socially constructed and experientially embodied, Gubrium and Krause are quick to point out that existing programs and policies focused on this group fail to use relevant local knowledge and rarely involve them in messaging efforts.
“We aim to transform assumptions about young parenting Latinas through the use of a participatory visual method, digital storytelling, to recalibrate the conversation on young motherhood and sexuality, health, and rights across generations by putting a human face on policy,” says Gubrium. “Our grounding in social science theories and methods related to voice and embodied in subjectivity allows us to center on structural violence as it is experienced by young parenting Latinas and constrains their individual agency,” says Krause.
The “Hear Our Stories” project brings together a team of social science researchers, young parenting women, sexual and reproductive justice advocates, and strategic communications experts to create synergies for community mobilization, leadership, and policy development. Four doctoral students will be fully funded as Ford Youth Sexuality Fellows for three academic semesters and two summer terms. Four master’s level students will be hired as interns to assist with digital storytelling workshops.
“Our digital storytelling workshops will train new scholars in cutting-edge sensory ethnographic methods that are translatable to public health research and practice,” says Gubrium. “We’ll also work with a group of young parenting Latinas to develop their capacity as sexual and reproductive rights researchers and advocates as they engage in project-sponsored trainings, workshops, meetings, and conferences,” says Krause.
Project participants will be recruited from the Community Adolescent Resources and Education (Care) Center in Holyoke, an alternative education program for pregnant and parenting teens. Many Care Center students have faced challenging personal histories: intimate partner and gang violence, homelessness, and food insecurity are common experiences.
Repurposed into strategic communications materials, the digital stories will also trigger multi-level conversations on sexuality, health, rights and justice issues. Through data collection, Gubrium and Krause will achieve their longer-term goals of:
- Building national sexuality research capacity by producing a cohort of researchers trained to conduct high-quality participatory action research and to translate research findings to multiple stakeholders
- Producing novel understanding and representations of young parenting women
- Disseminating findings to transform public conversations and policies related to sexual health and reproductive rights.
“We are enthusiastic about working closely with a communications partner identified by the Ford Foundation to strengthen the team’s strategic communication capacity,” says Krause.
Digital storytelling provides a new modality for “sensing” sexuality research, enabling the research team to conceptualize sexuality not just cognitively but through the many sensory channels of experience. It provides a source of information not readily offered or fully articulated by parents, schools, peers, and the media. “This new approach reveals unspoken insights, and as sense-making intimate objects, digital stories will serve as transformative artifacts of understanding, pushing the production of social science knowledge—and just what constitutes this knowledge—in new directions to inform the field,” says Gubrium.
“Hear Our Stories” is innovative in its use of participatory digital media making as a mechanism for partnering directly with diasporic youth. When shared with members of a larger community, digital stories serve a generative role by transmitting relevant knowledge and creating new discourses to influence policymaking. Some stories may be significant in their resonance with everyday life concerns, others because they are not ordinary. Stories may recast issues in a new light, challenging “common sense” assumptions and thereby helping audiences to reframe issues in productive ways. “Our approach will help to upend the dominative narratives that have come to direct public debate on youth sexuality and young parenting women,” says Krause.
Gubrium and Krause have established collaborative relationships with partners based on their promise to forge a new vision of youth sexuality and rights on national, state and local levels. “The Care Center, which was honored with the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award and was recently featured in the New York Times, will be our primary partner,” says Gubrium. The Center for Digital Storytelling will provide the team top training and serve as a Fellow internship site. The Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy, the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy, and the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health will also be internship sites for the Fellows and develop and distribute bilingual strategic communications materials, a vital and unique component of this project. The Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program and the Center for Public Policy and Administration at UMass will support Fellow research projects, and provide essential training in advocacy and policymaking that reaches family planning, the public health sector, and sexual and reproductive justice circles.