Blog Post

Storytellers Front and Center: A HASTAC Blog Interview with 'Silence Speaks' Amy Hill

Storytellers Front and Center: A HASTAC Blog Interview with 'Silence Speaks' Amy Hill

"All too often, media enthusiasts are inclined to focus in on the excitement of production and content rather than on the impact of and benefit to participating in media creation on those who are sharing stories." -- Amy Hill

 To continue in last years Queer and Feminist New Media Spaces fun, I had conducted a series of blog interviews with artists, activists, and scholars engaging with new media and its myriad of intersections.  This blog interview features feminist storyteller, documentary filmmaker, and public health consultant Amy Hill!  Hill is Director of Programs with Berkeley based Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS).   As Hill states, the founders (Joe Lambert and Dana Atchley) coined the expression digital storytelling more than 15 years ago.  From a background in theatre, Lambert and Atchley developed a unique workshop environment that enables small groups of people to write, craft, and record written first-person narratives and learn how to use digital editing software to create personal digital stories. (For more information on digital storytelling, please visit last years fabulous HASTAC scholars Digital Storytelling forum!)

More uniquely, as part of CDS, feminist storyteller Amy Hill co-founded Silence Speaks, "an international digital storytelling initiative offering a safe, supportive environment for telling and sharing stories that all too often remain unspoken." Specifically:  "Silence Speaks has been committed to fostering individual and collective healing and justice by nurturing the production of personal media narratives and bringing these narratives into carefully considered public spaces."

In addition to conducting digital storytelling projects all around the world, Hill has led innovative, healing, and empowering workshops addressing issues of gender, feminism, and HIV/AIDS in South Africa.  In collaboration with Sonke Gender Justice Network the digital stories produced include powerful, personal, and transformative themes of living with HIV/AIDS, dismantling gender based violence and human rights.  The digital storytelling workshops provide space for people to claim, create and share their powerful stories through the digital form. 

Please visit:Gender Justice Stories

As Silence Speaks work illuminates, digital storytelling can be an innovative means of empowering participants and providing vital educational curricula around HIV/AIDS and other vital issues.  Hill shares:

"The storytellers have offered glimpses of their lives, with the hope that their stories will have a lasting and meaningful impact on communities, organizations, and policymakers one that leads to action and change.  Sonke's vision for these stories is to make local voices and images the centerpiece of local and national efforts to promote new forms of masculinity, gender equality, and reduce stigma around HIV/AIDS (Hill). 

                                                                    *     *      * 

On a personal and political note, I am really thrilled about this blog interview, as Amy really shaped, inspired and supported the work I do with incarcerated women and HIV/AIDS prevention education in the San Francisco jails.  I had the privilege of meeting Amy two years ago, when attempting to implement "From the Center" a new media initative from the SF Dept of Public Health Forensic AIDS Project (FAP) I worked with my amazing mentors, FAP director Kate Monico Klein and FAP HIV Prevention Services Coordinator and Lead facilitator Isela Gonzlez for the past five years.  Previously, as a research assistant on their previous collaboration with SF State and Professor Jessica Fields, and currently as lead project coordinator and New Media consultant for From the Center. Through working and learning from Kate and Isela, I have experienced the many ways FAP is paving new paths in public health through collaborative, participatory, feminist based work.  With support for my emerging interests in filmmaking and HIV/AIDS prevention education, we wondered what it may mean if incarcerated women could create their own digital representations as educators, storytellers, and advocates for their lives.

Collaboration, Inspiration, and Participation

Long narrative shortvarious friends, colleagues, and professors pointed me to CDS and Silence Speaks amazing work in South Africa.  From our initial contact two years ago, Amy had provided tremendous support to the long and challenging process of implementing a program centered on digital storytelling, firstly by her commitement to working with us as the digital storytelling facilitator. With Silence Speaks commitment to feminist pedagogies there was no one more apt and inspiring for the project.  However, the implementation process proved challenging, and it was not until 2 years later and just three very busy months ago! we acquired funding and was able to implement the pilot program! (A future HASTAC blog post is forthcoming on FTC!) At the time Amy was out on maternity leave, however we were able to work with the equally as amazing and feminist CDS Silence Speaks storyteller and facilitator, Andrea Spagat!! When thinking about this interview and process of implementation, and the workshop itself, I feel blessed and so inspired of the powerful feminist work happening around digital education.

Im thrilled to finally provide this blog interview with Amy Hill which demonstrate the amazing feminist based work that is happening around the world with digital media education.  Some of the interview is excerpted in a forthcoming article FAP wrote on implementing FTC in the U.S. context and a previous blog interview with Amy's permission.  Here, Amy shares her perspectives on the local and transnational, HIV/AIDS, gender, and South Africa and poltical consideration of new media. Moreover, Amy's vital work illuminates the nessecity of digital storytelling be accessible for all people to claim, create, and share for personal and social transformation.

*     *     *    

1)  What does the CDS program you founded, Silence Speaks focus on and support? 

 Silence Speaks is our program that focuses on gender, health, and human rights. Originally conceived as a U.S.-based initiative bridging the Centers work to domestic violence and sexual assault prevention, Silence Speaks has expanded to address a range of issues globally. The program supports the telling and witnessing of stories that all too often remain unspoken -- of surviving and thriving in the wake of violence and abuse, armed conflict, or displacement, and of challenging stigma or marginalization related to health and sexuality.

2) How might digital storytelling and HIV prevention / education differ in S. African versus U.S. context?

Depending on who is creating stories and what the intention / agenda is, for sharing them, the stakes may be somewhat higher, in South Africa. This is because people living with HIV and AIDS there do not have as extensive legal protection as their counterparts in the U.S., in terms of anti-discrimination laws, AND, more importantly, because of the magnitude of issues of stigma and isolation and secrecy, in South Africa. While these issues certainly are relevant for women in jails and prisons in the U.S., and for people living with HIV and AIDS in general in this country, the scale of the epidemic in South Africa dwarfs the scope of the problem here, which means that the problem is much more in the public eye, there, and that people infected /affected face much greater public scrutiny than is the case in the U.S.

But regardless of context, in either location the consideration of ethical issues related to the sharing of personal narratives/images in public spheres must be emphasized. All too often, media enthusiasts are inclined to focus in on the excitement of production and content rather than on the impact of and benefit to participating in media creation on those who are sharing stories. Our work at Silence Speaks always places storytellers front and center, prioritizing the need to ensure a meaningful process over organizational/advocate agendas for developing "useful" content. This doesn't mean that a meaningful process can't yield useful content; it just means honoring women's experiences emphasizing the learning, leadership skills, technology / production skills, etc., that they can gain through making digital stories in addition to emphasizing the potential use of stories as educational tools.

3) What are the changes/transformations in individual lives, organizations, and communities you have seen through your work in S.Africa, HIV/AIDS and digital storytelling? 

In our five years of working with the Sonke Gender Justice Network, we've seen numerous transformation at each of these levels. However, funders are generally reluctant to provide resources for evaluating the impact of media projects, so we have been unable to do any formal documentation of change.

We hope that assessment of the impact of digital stories will be possible through future research projects that will explore the impact of Sonke's work more broadly. In the meantime, a small-scale case study has been developed of the specific digital storytelling efforts carried out with young people in rural Eastern Cape; see this article online:

4) What are some future actions  that are taken after the stories are completed?

Sonke staff and partners are sharing stories:

 - in local community settings, as part of Community Action Team trainings to galvanize people to take action against HIV stigma and gender-based violence; 

- at NGO trainings, to educate service providers about the impact of violence and HIV and AIDS on people's lives and build their skills for intervening appropriately;

- as part of policy convenings, to provide context for discussions of institutional and public policy change needs related to how gender-based violence and HIV are addressed within health, criminal justice, and government sectors; and

- on local and national radio, to raise broad public awareness about what every-day men and women are doing to challenge violence and play a role in reducing the spread and impact of HIV.

5) How can the process of creating your own digital story be transformative on the personal and social level? Could you share some quotes from digital storytelling participants on the process?

Quotes from basic plus/delta evaluation conversations with workshop participants held after each of the eight sessions we've done with Sonke include: 


"I am 52 years old, and since this workshop I have not had a platform for relating what has happened in my life. I am so happy about getting that platform. I think they must share this story in front of people. I feel that I was able to tell people, 'this is what happened to me.' " 


"I was feeling bad about what people were thinking about me, but now after telling the story I feel great, ready to share anything with someone I trust."


"(By watching my story), I hope people will learn not to judge others. They must know how to live life positively. They also must not isolate people infected with HIV/AIDS. I need viewers to respect other peoples rights and use condoms when they have sex."

 6 What is the process of sharing digital stories? 

The extent to which Silence Speaks stories actually become public depends entirely on the goals and objectives of our partner organizations. In some cases, storytellers have complete control over whether or not, where, and how their stories will be shared outside of the context of a workshop. In others, storytellers come into the process with the understanding that what they produce is intended for viewing by a range of different audiences ie, local community members, service providers, practitioners in a particular field, policymakers, the general public, etc. Our commitment is to above all prioritize storyteller safety and understanding, through transparent informed consent processes. There must always be an out, and storytellers must be provided with multiple opportunities to determine what they do or do not feel comfortable revealing in words or showing in images, in their stories.

So I am not comfortable speaking on behalf of Silence Speaks storytellers or generalizing about what its like for them to speak publicly, because the definition of public varies widely from project to project. I can say that in ten years of developing this work, I have learned volumes about what it can mean to bring a very sensitive, usually private story into public spheres and how to best ensure that the workshop experience and subsequent experiences of sharing stories with broader audiences is a positive one, for the storyteller. For me, one bottom line is building trusting relationships with workshop participants before, during, and after they create their stories. When they know their personal experiences are being respected, honored, and valued as tools for change, locally and/or globally, they are much more likely to feel comfortable sharing their stories.

All of this is ongoing; my commitment to ethical practice will continue to evolve. I do know that in the context of international health and human rights work, the chances for misunderstanding exploitation of stories and images are heightened. I am constantly pushing colleagues in these fields to really examine their approaches to collecting testimonies, stories, etc., and to evaluate whether their actions are truly benefitting those who so generously share their stories.

7)  Your recent Silence Speaks stories compilation focuses on international women's human rights issues, many which are health related.  What do you think are the biggest obstacles that prevent women from receiving the health care/assistance they need?

Before I became involved with digital storytelling, I worked in public health/womens health for nearly 15 years. So I have naturally gravitated towards media work that is health-related. Over the past six years, Ive done Silence Speaks projects in South Africa, Uganda, Brazil, Republic of Congo, Guatemala addressing HIV stigma, gender-based violence, the impact of war on women, sexual and reproductive health and rights, obstetric fistula, and more. All of these efforts have required that I research local contexts/national contexts of these issues, in a given location. I am quite convinced that the two biggest obstacles, for women, to achieving optimum health and wellness, are gender bias/oppression at all levels of society, from family to community to government; and poverty and structural inequality, which constrains access to the most basic forms of health care for both women and men.


For more information on Amy Hill, Silence Speaks, and the Center for Digital Storytelling, please visit:


Photo Credit: By Margaret Rhee


Images of "From the Center" a digital storytelling project held in the SF
jail on feminist based and participatory HIV/AIDS education. In
collaboration with Forensic AIDS Project, Center for Digital Storytelling,
and participants of "From the Center: A STI/HIV Prevention New Media
Workshop by and for African American Women." San Francisco Jail, Dec, 2010

No comments