Juvenile Justice Youth in "3D" (Interview and Webinar)

juvenile-drug-courts_Bradley-Finegoodjuvenile-drug-courts_Anna-Lookingbill-and-Angela-ZahasLast fall, youth in the Juvenile Recovery Court in Clark County, WA, got a chance to tell their stories on film. Six participants received training in "digital storytelling" and, with the help of court staff, and a prevention specialist, they turned their 250-word personal stories into powerful video presentations. Their efforts were given great coverage in the Dec. 27, 2010 issue of The Columbian. 
Below is a joint interview with the three people who made this amazing project happen for these youth: Bradley Finegood, LMHC (at left, above), who coordinates Clark County's Superior Court therapeutic specialty courts; Angela Zahas, a county prevention specialist (far right, above); and Anna Lookingbill, the Juvenile Recovery Court's resource coordinator (see middle, above). 
Q: What is digital storytelling? How is it different from making a video?
Anna:  There's two layers to digital storytelling. The first is the technical component, such as learning the software. (We used low-cost or free software, such as a free audio program called Audacity, and Microsoft's photo editing program.)
But there's also a pretty significant component around, "What's the story you want to tell?" How do you tell it in a way that has emotional impact on people? 
So when you teach it, it’s a layered thing – there's a technical piece, plus storytelling.
Brad: It was a small initial investment that will continue to pay dividends. Once Angela was trained on digital storytelling, it could be replicated. We could train others at a low cost – outside of human capital – for what could be an extremely powerful project. There's no fees we have to pay, no manuals we have to buy – so it just made a lot of sense. It's a long-term buy-in to people’s recovery.
On a side note, the kids who went through this started out extremely closed, but they opened up, smiled, they shared – so that’s something priceless when you talk about youth from the juvenile justice side of it. 

Q: How did you learn to do digital storytelling?
Angela: Lots of organizations help people with digital storytelling; I attended a workshop given by the Center for Digital Storytelling. And they have a rigorous framework for how to set up a digital storytelling workshop, how to design it and explain different elements …
One thing we learned to focus on with the youth was on the seven steps of storytelling – emotional content, pacing, etc. By introducing those at the start, participants get a sense about what things to think about as they create the story – so they’re comfortable when you ask questions like, "What is the emotion of this story, in one word?"
Anna: Try that with a 17-year-old boy!
Angela: And the answer might be, "It’s about love, it’s about pride, it’s about moving on …" This is not how young people are used to thinking -- never mind if they're in drug court or not.
Anna:  It's not a 15-minute autobiography, though: we limited them to 250-word stories. They would talk about it with words, but the images are far more important – it’s a short film, narrated with their voice, with images overlaid on what they’re saying.
Brad: When I speak to civic groups about what we're doing, It's a powerful thing for them to hear a story of what a youth is going through. Recently, I was screening a youth's video, and the audio worked but not the video. It was interesting to see people’s reactions to just hearing the voice and then hear the same story a second time through with the pictures – it brought a whole new level of gravity to the story -- made it real and whole.
Angela: I describe it to people this way: "It makes our kids 3-D."
Anna: We had to help kids understand, this is not a music video, it’s not made-up, it’s based your own experience.
We didn't tell them, "You need to talk about your recovery." Some of them did, but we let them talk about what felt pressing to them at that time. Even if the story doesn’t directly talk about treatment recovery or juvenile justice, we helped them play connect-the-dots back to these other things going on with them.
They all talked with pretty significant things – it wasn't a huge reach for them to connect. They knew from the beginning that we were making things for public use. So if they weren’t comfortable talking about something – either they wouldn't, or we’d find ways to help them find ways around it.
Angela: There's lots of evidence that telling stories – making sense of life’s puzzle pieces by talking about something that’s happened and sharing those pieces and making sense of them –it's not just warm and fuzzy and fun – it has a deep value.
It’s important for any participant to share his or her story multiple times. Something happens when the storyteller gets to watch the audience experience his or her story – in sharing it multiple times, the person comes understand about what that experience was like and what the story was.
Brad: And these are juvenile justice kids, who are fairly disenfranchised, and shunned by the system. This gave them a voice. They realized, "I have a voice, and a strong one, and if I make it heard in the right way …" And it gave them confidence.
Anna: I’d never seen one of the kids walk so tall – I thought he grew a foot. What it was, he was proud. We don’t usually get to see that side of them.
Our local paper, The Columbian, took an interest. They came last day of workshop, brought a camera, and someone to write the story, and take photos of it. 
Brad: We knew they were coming out, but didn’t realize the article would be front-and-center. It was done well, with sensitivity. Later, one of the kids said to me, “Normally I’m not on the front page." It was nice positive reinforcement for a positive thing they did, instead of negative reinforcement
Angela: We’re making a big deal – burning copies of their stories, we're having a public screening on April 20th [an underground holiday celebrated by illicit users of marijuana] somewhere local, where family, juvenile court participants can come. We want to celebrate positive things youth can do even when they've walked hard roads and made poor choices … make this a source of pride, not shame – 4/20 seems like a great day to celebrate what they’re capable of.
Anna: It also opens up an opportunity for them to be in leadership roles in the future with this project. Though not appropriate for every participant, but for those who are strong on the tech side, or who have natural skills with writing/story development and really like it. It's very powerful when young people who are not seen as leaders get leadership opportunities.
Q: How did you structure the training?
Anna: Angela and I worked on the curriculum to tailor it for a high-risk youth audience. We had eight youth sign up, and six youth went through the training.
We did it in three days, six hours a day over a holiday break. Most folks do this in a 40-hour week, but because we’re walking that line to give kids enough time to do it well and thoroughly, but not wanting to spook them so they weren’t overwhelmed, we cut it down. 
Q: It was just the three of you?
Anna: We had a lot of collaboration from the county level to make sure we had the right tech, and people from the juvenile recovery court worked with youth to get them signed up, etc. (It as incredibly difficult to get forms back!) And a lot of different people let us make presentations to their groups. They helped with transportation – people were really supportive.
Q: Will you do this again?
Brad: We want to make this available for kids in juvenile drug court program on an ongoing basis – with the positive feedback from the newspaper, we've had other youth who want to do it. It remains to be seen how we’ll facilitate it going forward, but it's our goal so make it available to all youth (and even beyond youth, to adults).

Archived Webinar On this Topic

YOUth have stories! The Role of Digital Storytelling in Making Change
Anna Lookingbill, Angela Zahas and Brad Finegood
May 3, 2011 12:30pm PT, 3:30pm ET (Archived)

What is "digital storytelling"?

How can we use it to transform lives of at-risk youth?

Digital storytelling is more than putting a bunch of teens in a room and turning them loose on computers. It is a facilitated process that offers powerful engagement and empowerment. Comparatively cheap, digital storytelling is a process designed to help individuals answer the question “What story do YOU need to tell?”

In an hour-long webinar targeted to social service providers, a team from Clark County, Washington shares its success in using digital storytelling with youth from Juvenile Recovery Court and STASHA Peer Education. The team will cover:

  • Preparation for Digital Storytelling — what it is, where to train, and an overview of technical and therapeutic elements
  • Production of Digital Storytelling — Clark County’s implementation with 2 different groups of youth
  • Completion of Digital Storytelling — How digital stories impact youth artists and the community

Clark County shared youth stories in the webinar (not included in recording, for privacy purposes). Youth artists joined to discuss their experiences.
Watch the webinar now. »


Updated: February 08 2018