Appalshop Calling: From Video to Digital Storytelling

A Presentation Prepared for Making Media Work for Social Change
Nairobi, Kenya, September 11, 2006
Sponsored by the Ford Foundation Office for Eastern Africa 

Mimi Pickering/Appalshop, Whitesburg, KY USA

I am a documentary filmmaker and community media activist. I will talk about some of my experiences producing and distributing media for social change with partners in rural communities in America.

I work primarily with an organization called Appalshop, which began in 1969 as a U.S. Government “War on Poverty” experiment in community-based filmmaking. At that time, few individuals could afford the costly equipment, film stock and training necessary to produce media. The War on Poverty brought many television reporters and filmmakers into the Appalachian coalfields to report on rural, mostly white poverty, but until Appalshop began, there were few opportunities for local people to use media to tell their own, often very different, stories.

Appalshop’s evolution was part of an international movement beginning in the 1960s to democratize culture by increasing the number and diversity of voices in local, national and global dialogues. My work and that of Appalshop is grounded in the idea that local people are best able to tell their own stories, frame the discourse about issues that matter to their community, and move forward local solutions to local problems. As noted Latin American educator Paulo Freire wrote, “Speaking their own words, naming the world…(are) steps towards transforming that world.”

In the United States the media has great power to influence public perceptions and public policy by which stories it chooses to depict and how it tells those stories. Even though there are increasing numbers of media outlets, the problem that we continue to face is that many communities still have little voice in the media, and thus the public debate. They and their interests are therefore misrepresented, marginalized, or simply invisible.

Documentary Filmmaking at Appalshop

At Appalshop, we initially began to tell some of the stories of our region through production and distribution of 16mm documentary films. These productions often started with a request from a community group or citizens organization to document a meeting or cover a particular problem. One such example is the film The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man , which examines the collapse of a coal waste dam and ensuing flood that killed125 people in West Virginia in 1972. The coal company that owned the dam called the disaster “an act of God” and took no responsibility for what had occurred. Fearing a whitewash by government and company officials, local union leaders, religious people, environmentalists and other concerned citizens organized citizen hearings to learn from local people what had happened and to develop a citizens report and recommendations for action. Members of the group asked me to document these hearings and then encouraged me to produce an investigative documentary that would get the story of what happened and why to large numbers of people.

Once the film was completed, we worked with activists throughout the Appalachian region to screen and discuss the documentary in community settings and also distributed it to hundreds of colleges and universities. We also worked to get this film shown to decision makers. One example was a screening arranged by one of our regional partners for the investment committee of a major life insurance company that was considering divesting its stock in the coal company because of their failure to take responsibility. Committee members were moved by the film, asked lots of questions, and my understanding is that the company did sell its stock holdings.

Media productions like this can have a long life and a ripple effect in which the impact moves out in ever larger circles. Twenty-five years after the disaster I received a letter from the staff and faculty of the University of Hawaii Law School. They told me how they studied the disaster from a legal perspective in first year law class: “Almost everyday we mention Buffalo Creek and its legal and non-legal ramifications. We have had many discussions about the people in the communities that were so adversely affected. We wanted to thank you for bringing their personal stories to the screen and therefore helping us in many ways to understand the whole story. As law students we can’t change what happened there over 25 years ago, but we can evaluate our goals as future attorneys. Your work helped remind us that the people we represent and their stories should never be forgotten in our quest to litigate.”

They also asked me to pass on a letter they had written to the people of Buffalo Creek. In it they wrote: “Last week we watched the two documentaries that were produced about your story. We were intensely moved by what we saw. A piece to the complex puzzle, the personal stories behind the litigation came to life. We were amazed by the courage we saw exemplified in the people interviewed. In Hawai’i, our communities and land are an integral part of who we are. So, we were particularly saddened to see your communities first uprooted, then destroyed by Pittston’s negligence. We want to thank all of you for fighting for your rights and for maintaining your dignity as best you could in the face of such adversity. Hopefully, our collective society has learned a few things from the tragedy. We certainly have. It is our duty now, entrusted with this knowledge, to never allow this to happen again.”

In 2005, the Librarian of Congress selected The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man for the prestigious National Film Registry, describing the film as a “powerful documentary” that “represents the finest in regional filmmaking, providing important understanding of the environmental and cultural history of the Appalachian region.”

(Extensive background information on the region, the disaster and the film is available at )

Reframing the Debate through Community Directed Media

As video and other technologies became more reliable and allowed for more immediacy, Appalshop producers, beginning in the early 1980s, developed various models for creating and using media to support the work of local, regional, and national groups seeking progressive social change. These include editing short segments of works-in-progress for partner groups’ specific events or audiences and for immediate organizing and advocacy use, providing partner organizations with copies of completed video/radio productions, and working with them to develop distribution strategies. Through regional and national broadcast on public television and radio, and distribution to colleges and university classrooms, these media productions also educate a broad public about particular issues and concerns of grassroots communities.

A recent model for bringing media to bear on policy change that I have been part of developing is the Kentucky Economic Justice Alliance. KEJA is a collaboration between researchers and policy advocates, a statewide grassroots citizen lobbying group, and Appalshop. KEJA works to change state policy around issues of fair taxation, living wages, welfare reform, and economic development by bringing the voices of grassroots stakeholders into the public debate.

Scholar James Jennings describes the problem that KEJA addresses: “The exclusion of poor people from official policy discussion — their political demobilization — may be an important factor in the failure of conventional policies to arrest persistent poverty. This depoliticization encourages a conception of the poor as targets for services and treatment, not as equal citizens, as civic partners in setting or acting on the public agenda. It has permitted public discourse to turn away from structural causes and to focus on the vague symbolism of ‘dependency, ‘ ‘irresponsibility, ‘ and ‘welfare reform.”

My role in the KEJA initiative is to work with the partners and citizen leaders to develop grassroots communication strategies and media clips that refocuses the way policymakers understand and act on economic justice issues. An example of this work is our effort around welfare reform legislation. Alliance partners organized a series of public forums around Kentucky that provided an opportunity for welfare recipients to speak out about the importance of public assistance in their efforts to support their families and improve their education. I filmed the forums and edited a short video featuring a number of powerful and eloquent statements from women in both urban and rural parts of the state. We then sent this video to reporters who would be covering this issue in the state legislature and hand delivered a copy to each legislator. We also played the tape on a continuous loop in the state capitol while the legislature was in session. Legislators and the news media, who rarely engage in policy discussions with poor people, heard the stories and recommendations of those most affected by their policies.

CMI Digital Storytelling Workshops

Today, many rural communities in the U.S. are in the midst of demographic shifts, economic reorganization, political realignment, and an accelerated technological revolution. Once again, communities facing these realities are marginalized and invisible if they are without a voice that is heard. Although the means of producing and distributing media has become increasingly accessible, many individuals and organizations in these poor areas lack confidence, media literacy, technical skills, and resources to take advantage of increasing opportunities to enter the public debate.

As part of Appalshop’s Community Media Initiative, my colleagues and I have developed Digital Storytelling Workshops, a training program based on 35 years of community media practice, to introduce change agents in other marginalized communities to the aesthetic and technical tools needed to tell their own stories in an increasingly important digital world.

CMI Digital Storytelling Workshops have been carried out with a variety of small community development organizations in the Mid-South Delta, one of the poorest regions in the U.S. and an area that continues to suffer from the legacy of slavery. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation has made a major commitment to support a range of empowerment and community development strategies in this region, and enlisted Appalshop to help grantees develop approaches to documenting their work and telling their stories.

In the workshops, Appalshop trainers typically spend a week with each group introducing digital video, audio and photo techniques, and in the process, producing a short community video.

In Pine Bluff, Arkansas, members of ACORN and the Jefferson County Jobs Initiative interviewed residents and city workers to make a video about JCJI’s efforts to establish a livable wage. At the workshop’s concluding screening, one older gentleman viewed the tape appreciatively, stating: “That program speaks to everyone. It’s not over their heads. It speaks to Pine Bluff people directly, from people like them, about the way it is here. It is going to really help us.” The group went on the use their tape in a door-to-door campaign to mobilize city residents to support the living wage ordinance.

At a workshop with the YouthBuild program in Hollandale, Mississippi, young adults who had dropped out of high school and often been in trouble with the police, produced a video on their hopes for the future which they titled Struggling to Strive to Keep the Delta Alive.

One student commented on the workshop process: “Doing this was important to me. It let me express myself and tell about what I have been through. People think that we are over here for the check, but this video shows I am here because I want to be somebody in the community.” Arthur Campbell, age 23, described the video’s impact: “I think our video program will stop some kids from dropping out and inspire a lot of people to do better. I know I want my kids to see it so they know that I had the courage to go back to school to get my GED and try to have a future.”

In Tallulah, Louisiana, a coalition of education and community development groups has been pressuring the state to shut down a prison in the center of town and turn it into a facility that would provide much needed education and training opportunities for community residents. At a recent workshop hosted by the Northeast Louisiana Delta Community Development Corporation, area youth built on an earlier visual arts workshop with YA-YA from New Orleans to create a short video incorporating their painted and spoken hopes for their future and that of their community.

In addition to the specific training, the CMI Digital Storytelling Workshops are perhaps most successful at providing a glimpse into the power of local stories told by local people as a cultural and community development tool, and at whetting an appetite and desire to do more. Participants learn that current communication technologies are not beyond their reach, that in many cases there are digital resources they can access locally, and that they can make use of digital technology to widely disseminate their often powerful and important stories.

For many, the Digital Storytelling Workshops provide a rare opportunity for hands-on experience in the process of creation and self-expression, experiences that build individual and community esteem. Many participants gain a better sense of their own leadership potential. Staff, board members, community folks, and youth come to understand that they have something of value to say about themselves and their community, that they have a right to be heard, and that their voices can make a difference.