Defining Digital Storytelling

s the Llano Grande Center has worked with people and communities over the past few years in developing this skill, we have come to understand and define a digital story as a self-generated, short-length digital production that tells a story of personal or community relevance by combining visual and audio elements, such as video, photographs, documents, music and narration.

Overview of our experience: theory plus practice

     The Llano Grande Center employs a constructivist approach to digital storytelling—that is, we build our community change efforts on experiences and stories that people have lived. Everyone has a story; what we try to do is identify that story, cultivate it, and use it for meaningful personal and/or community change.

“A theory of learning based on the notion that by examining our own experiences and stories, we construct an understanding of ourselves, and of the world in which we live.”

Constructivism: Building on Experiences

     The Llano Grande Center’s approach to digital storytelling encourages us to look deeply within our bank of experiences in order to make sense of ourselves, our communities, and the world around us. We begin by reflecting upon the critical moments in our lives, the important people who have nurtured us, the ideas that have inspired us, and the formative experiences we have had. Then, we shape those moments, memories, and ideas into an organized story.
     Through this method, we search for meaning: about ourselves and about those around us. Through this search, we also construct meaning, and that process transforms us. The purpose of digital storytelling is to find the meaning, the purpose, and the identity that is distinctly our own. We start with what we know, with who we are, and with what we believe. Our story becomes a representation of ourselves, of our transformation, and through it all we learn important skills: (1) the cultural skills of how to understand ourselves and the world around us, (2) the technical skills of how to produce a digital story, and (3) the political skills of how to use story for community change initiatives.

A few years ago, Myrta walked into her freshman English class in a rural South Texas high school. On the first day of class the teacher asked every student, “What’s your story?” Most students found it a challenging question. Myrta was especially perplexed. As a migrant farmworker she would not readily share her story—as if there were some sort of shame attached to her experience. But the teacher was relentless, and before long, Myrta found the courage to tell her story, later narrating her own digital story.

Click here to see Myrta’s script


"Digital storytelling affords us the opportunity to add an aesthetic quality to stories that already hold deep and important meaning to every one of us."

Storytelling: Conveying what’s important

     Since 2001 the Llano Grande Center has employed digital storytelling for community change initiatives, as well as to help students gain admission into college. In many cases, students’ digital stories become their personal statements for college admission. In other cases, youth and adults have produced digital stories to build public support for various causes such as to renovate a town park, to pass a bond election to build new schools, or to train teachers on how to be more responsive to student and community needs.

Constructivism: an emerging theory

     Constructivism grounds our digital storytelling development, and at the same time, is an outcome of the process. As we build digital stories we also witness the emergence of a new theory for community change, which is rooted in the following elements:

  • respect for the narrative form;
  • building trust with others as a result of sharing stories;
  • formation of deep relationships ; and
  • cultivating a renewed understanding of story as a personal asset for the self and for community change.

     If we accept that everyone has a story—and we do—then we understand that everyone has assets. Respect, trust, relationships, and story are among our most deeply cherished assets, and digital storytelling honors, cultivates, and celebrates each of those assets.

    These assets coupled with digital storytelling are catalysts for personal and community change. To begin, it is necessary to understand ourselves and open ourselves to change. Once we do so, we can approach community change efforts from a position of greater strength. Our digital storytelling experience teaches us that social change is as much about personal transformation as it is about community transformation.


The cycle of digital storytelling

     Creating a digital story is a process of understanding the self through story. Because our stories are influenced by our surroundings, digital storytelling often includes many components including family, work, and community. Although these components may seem separate from personal identity, digital storytelling helps us understand the interconnections between them.
     By creating a digital story, we begin to understand ourselves in a circle of interconnections. This process is best illustrated by the “cycle of digital storytelling”: our personal story becomes what inspires our organizational work; our work becomes what leads community change; and community change creates a new context for personal development.

     Digital storytelling is useful for people dedicated to social justice. As we understand how our personal story interacts with the organization or community we are trying to impact, we realize that our story is an integral part of our community and our organization. Thus, we view our story as a powerful tool to enact organizational and community change processes.

     Next, you can preview a collection of digital stories Now Showing in this toolkit to review different story types and their use in community change initiatives.