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This case study explores how providing access to digital tools, training and creating an online space for sharing stories enabled citizens in an Appalachian community to work together to (re)claim and (re)discover the power of their voices. Hollow is an interactive documentary and community participatory project that examines the future of rural America through the voices of those living in McDowell County, West Virginia. The project combines video portraits, data visualizations, photography, community-generated content and grassroots mapping in online experience. Since launching on June 20, 2013, Hollow has brought national and international attention to a region of America that is underrepresented and misrepresented by the national media. Locally, the community has been provided tools to so they can continue to tell their ongoing story.
Being provided storytelling tools is particularly relevant in places like McDowell, a former coal-mining region that has seen the exodus of around 80,000 residents since 1950. Over the past few decades, the county has seen unemployment, poverty, prescription pill drug abuse, illiteracy, and teen pregnancy rise. McDowell is often in the headlines for negative reasons because of these occurrences. Journalists have been coming to the region to portray residents as poster-children for the War on Poverty for 50 years. These articles turn complex problems into shocking headlines but offer few solutions.
In an effort to provide a more multifaceted view of McDowell, Hollow took form as a participatory project. During the summer of 2012, the Hollow team interviewed 75 residents and trained 25 individuals. Individuals, ranging in age 12 to 67, were taught basic video production skills. Community leaders and residents attended monthly meetings to guide the narrative design of the project and review content. The team also gathered traditional interviews, held participatory balloon mapping exercises, and collected facts and figures for data visualizations.
As residents participated with Hollow, they began to develop their own means of telling stories; actions that led them to defy stereotypes and communicate the issues they were facing in multidimensional ways. Young participants reflected more on the present and future, while many of the older participants created content that treasured the past. In effect, they worked to create new images of self that led them to develop more acute senses of agency. This idea is supported by the work of Clemencia Rodriquez who found that, “As citizens actively participate in actions that reshape their own identities and their social environments they produce power” (p. 19).
> > “The residents engaged in processes described thoroughly in research examining social action theory; as they used the tools to co-opt the media that took their voices away.”
Examples of this work can be seen in the residents’ raw footage. This ability to look at their own community in light of its strengths and issues occurred throughout Hollow’sproduction process. As residents saw their homes through the lens of a camera, they begin to “re-see” their environment.
The decision to make Hollow an online, interactive documentary was fueled by the idea that non-linear and exploratory narratives may actually encourage participation among users locally and globally. It has been argued that the step from consumption to action is much smaller in a self-guided and user-generated experience than the consumption of a lean-back, linear film. By inviting users to actively explore McDowell at their own pace, we hope to encourage and cultivate a more personal experience for a global audience. This has been seen through Linda McKinney — the owner of the food bank — who has received visitors, donations, and calls after people discover her story on the website. On the local side, the residents have a real-time sense of people who visit the site through their blogging tool. This could be seen as a motivator for many locally.
Despite the efforts of the team to assist residents in bettering their community, they have been unable to overcome deep-seeded issues regarding local infrastructure, motivations, and politics to sustain active participation. In McDowell there are limited organizations to support the continued growth of digital literacy skills. The problem becomes compounded when access to computer labs, mobile networks and high speed Internet is limited. Additionally, the large, consolidated schools have not supported programming aimed to overcome such obstacles. Such apathy and lack of initiative2 was not expected given high levels of involvement exhibited by youth participants during the summer of 2012. Other active storytellers have become disheartened at the lack of tangible change to come about in the community, often blaming embedded systems of institutional and political bureaucracy as stalling their efforts.
The team has reflected on this drop-off of participation; the lack of incentive and collaboration is disheartening. We are dedicated to seeing residents follow through and have begun work to identify the issues surrounding this phenomenon. We have pondered the cultural climate created amidst a community focused on survival. Perhaps digital literacy skills are not considered important when people are focused on putting food on the table.
Regardless, this cycle of youth exodus and brain drain is not specific to McDowell. The challenge for the Hollow team is to work to create and maintain infrastructure that supports all residents in developing agency.3 Although it is too early to fully gauge successes and failure, we continue to work on strategies to support the community.
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