At the 2018 Inaugural Bridge Builders National Youth Action Summit, held in Memphis, Tenn., and attended by youth activists from across the country, we heard so many powerful stories of youth-led social change spanning many issues and regions. Knowing how much there is to learn from the experiences of others, we knew these stories needed to be documented and shared with an even broader audience.
The goal of the Youth Action Storytelling Project is to serve as resource to strengthen the work of youth organizers and organizations through the sharing of personal experiences.
Realizing that we were taking on quite an ambitious venture, we called upon our community partners for help. First, we met with Elizabeth Thomas, Ph.D., a community psychologist and professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, for support in our planning and research process.
To better understand how the Youth Action Storytelling Project could truly be of service to the field, we reviewed the existing research on youth organizing and youth-led social change. We found two reports most compelling, “Transforming Young People and Communities: New Findings on the Impacts of Youth Organizing” (Shaw, Buford, Braxton, 2018) and “A New Role for Connecticut Youth,” (McCargar, 2013), which have served as grounding documents in this project. These reports (based on national research) identify consistent themes from which we developed many of our interview questions. We hope that our work is a continuation of and compliment to the research that others have done.
With limited time and funding, we chose to focus on organizations in several cities somewhat similar to Memphis, such as Baltimore, Charlotte, and Milwaukee—mid-sized cities with racially and socioeconomically diverse populations. We also chose Nashville for its proximity to Memphis, and we selected Boston because of the many connections we made during the Youth Action Summit.
Special thanks to the organizations who provided storytellers:
Urban Underground in Milwaukee
Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) in Charlotte
Youth As Resources and The Baltimore Algebra Project in Baltimore
The Oasis Center (specifically the Mayor’s Youth Council, the Youth Action Council, and Students of Stonewall) in Nashville
Youth on Board/Boston Student Advisory Council, Greenroots, and I Have a Future in the Boston area
Initially we collected basic information from organization websites and created a specific questionnaire for each group to help us better understand their history, context, and current organizational structures. We asked each organization to choose their best storytellers for us to interview. We requested that storytellers have close personal knowledge and experience in the field of youth organizing as well as natural storytelling abilities.
Each group determined who and how they would engage in the project. In some cases, a committee of youth selected the storytellers, and in other cases, group leaders recommended storytellers. All participants were provided written and verbal information informing them of the purpose and scope of the project as well as the risks and benefits of participation.
In the end, the pool of interviewees were majority youth—a mixture of high school age youth currently in the program—and older alumni, and a few adult allies.
Crafting the Interview Protocol
While trying to nail down partnerships with organizations, we also began the process of defining our interviewing methods. We knew that we wanted the conversation to follow the subject’s organizing journey and that our questions would serve as a general guide.
Once we had a very rough list of of questions, we met with oral historian and filmmaker Joann Self Selvidge and Dr. Evelyn Perry, a professor of sociology at Rhodes College, to get advice on how to conduct interviews and make sure that we were going in the right direction.
After lots of revisions, we landed on an interview protocol that tracked themes we wished to explore but was open enough to allow the storytellers to shape the flow of the conversation.
Before each visit, we conducted pre-interviews by phone to build rapport and clarify the purpose of the project.
At the interview, we collected each interviewee’s signed media release and informed consent documents, ensuring that they understood what the project entails including the potential risks and benefits. We did our best to ease nerves before we dug into meaty questions, and we found a flow that allowed folks to open up on camera. After each interview, we reflected, briefly discussing what we could have done better and noticing the prominent themes that came up.
Audio files of all of the interviews are located in the “Archive” tab of this website.
Distilling the Research
Thirty or so interviews later, we identified and labeled major themes, categories and key phrases and began re-reading all of the interview transcripts. We analyzed the interviews that contained the most information first, then reviewed the others for supporting details and surprises.
Once we read through the interview transcripts, we selected the clips for editing that spoke to themes, then outlined and wrote blog posts to tie the clips together thematically. The final product is what you see in the “Stories” tab of this website.
Who Are We in This Work?
We are researchers, curators, interviewers, writers and editors in this work. And we are in the stories as well.
As individuals deeply involved in youth-led social change work at BRIDGES in Memphis, we have continuously drawn from our own experiences, successes, and failures. It is worth mentioning that our proximity to themes, challenges and emotions shared by all the storytellers have shaped our perspectives and choices every step of this journey.
We have been influenced by history and the unique context of living in Memphis, TN. 2018 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in our hometown. This MLK50 year has caused us to reflect (even more than usual) on the stories of our past and the struggles for justice of today.
-Becca & Dana
Shaw, S., Buford, W., & Braxton, E. (2018) Transforming Young People and Communities: New Findings on the Impacts of Youth Organizing. Retrieved from https://fcyo.org/resources/transforming-young-people-and-communities-new-findings-on-the-impacts-of-youth-organizing
McCargar, L. (2013) A New Role for Connecticut Youth: Leaders of Social Change. Retrieved from http://www.perrinfamilyfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/PFF_A-New-Role-for-CT-Youth.pdf