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Our Valuable Voices: Community Digital Storytelling for Good Programming and Policy Engagement

This publication highlights the experience and lessons learned from a Community Digital Storytelling activity within the Integrated Community-based Adaptation in the Mekong (ICAM) Project.
Our Valuable Voices: Community Digital Storytelling for Good Programming and Policy Engagement

This publication highlights the experience and lessons learned from a Community Digital Storytelling activity by CARE International through its Integrated Community-based Adaptation in the Mekong (ICAM) Project, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. It explores ways Community Digital Storytelling can be used to strengthen people’s capacity and resolve as equal participants in decision-making spaces.

The publication is available in English (download from right-hand column) and Vietnamese (see below).

Community Digital Storytelling (CDST) is a participatory development process where community members develop and share photo-video stories as a means to raise awareness, stimulate dialog and influence policy.

CARE believes that a vibrant, diverse society becomes stronger when everyone, in particular women, can equally contribute their voice to decisions that impact them. While CDST worked well in a climate change context, it can be adapted and used in other contexts to raise community voice for social change and justice.

The three stages of CDST

CDST works through three stages that should be adapted to the local country, culture and context: Preparing the Story, Developing the Story and Sharing the Story. For example, in some contexts, permissions may be required from government partners to ensure public screenings and/or wider distribution of the final photo- videos. If so, this process should be included during the planning phase and prior to the implementation of the CDST activity.

1. Preparing the Story

Facilitation Training: The first step in the CDST approach is often to train an individual or a facilitation team to conduct Community Digital Storytelling with community members. People who work closely with communities often make up the facilitation team: NGO staff, partners and community leaders. In some cases, CARE has trained local journalists to build on their storytelling skills. The training includes technical learning and guidance on facilitating collective storytelling processes; which is a unique skill that needs time and practice. Facilitators also need sufficient time to understand and internalise CDST’s foundational values. An individual, experienced CDST facilitator can also directly conduct the storytelling process.

Activity Introduction: The facilitation team introduces the storytelling activity to the community group, working with them to identify the participant storytellers. The trained CDST facilitation team uses mind mapping to generate story priorities. It then equips the participants with storytelling and camera skills so they can visualise their stories on a particular issue. Because CDST is promoted as an embedded activity, this phase assumes that the community group is already engaged in the issue through other participatory activities and that it is beneficial for them to engage further on the topic through collective storytelling.

2. Developing the Story

Story Visualisation: Community members take photos of their lives to visually explain the story they want to tell. The CDST facilitation team prints the photos. The community group reflects on and discusses their photos to develop their story. This is done through multiple sessions so that people have time to personally and collectively reflect on the topic, take additional photos and determine what images best represent their story publically. Discussions about who the photo-video is for and why they are making it should occur throughout this stage to ensure everyone agrees on its purpose and that the messaging fits this greater conversation.

Story Creation: Community members create their community story. They build a storyboard using the final photos they want to use. Referencing the photos, they collectively develop a script outline – or a more detailed script if possible – to determine what will be said when the photos are edited into the photo- video. They decide who will work with the facilitation team to record the narration and do so in their local language. The community members perform their own music to use or work with the facilitators to find locally appropriate music and obtain copyright permission for its use.

Story Production: The trained CDST facilitators – and/or local community members – undertake the technical production of the CDST photo-videos, guided by the community photo-based storyboard and narration. This includes editing the photos, narration and music into a final photo-video and adding subtitles as needed. If community members are interested in engaging in the technical production, sufficient time must be part of the timeline to learn both the technical aspects of CDST photo-video production and how to edit a good story.

In many cases, CDST photo-videos are not expected to be of the same quality as professional photography or video productions. This is because there is more value placed on the message development and in the participants taking the photos themselves to build their confidence than on the aesthetics of the final production. If a higher-quality production is important for the participants and they have the time available to build such skills, additional training would be required. As well, equipment should be provided if they will produce stories on an on-going basis.

3. Sharing the Story

Story Review and Video Approval (Community Sharing): Community members review the produced video for approval. If needed, changes are made for another round of reviews. Once approved, copies are provided in appropriate formats for the community members and dissemination. A strategy is finalised for screening the photo-videos as appropriate for the context and in line with community agreements (from local to national to international screenings).

Public Story Discussion for Response (Public Sharing): The photo-videos are used to create discussion spaces for policy engagement between community members and those who can best respond to concerns raised in the stories. This might include one-on-one meetings or larger photo-video screenings and dialogue sessions with the local community; media; local or national organisations and policymakers; and/or other key decision-makers at national, regional and global levels. Community members should be involved in determining who will see the photo-videos and be part of the resulting discussions where possible as this can deepen their confidence and capacity for engaging with and influencing decisions that affect them.

Benefits of Community Digital Storytelling

  • Storytelling can provide valuable and often new insight into how vulnerable people live. This supports better development programming and policy.

  • Valuable grassroots knowledge emerges through storytelling processes. What is learned helps development programming and policy be more responsive to local realities, priorities and solutions.

  • CDST can also support and accelerate efforts within wider participatory activities that aim to empower community members. For example, women traditionally may not speak up during community meetings; but their concerns may be valued when shown as a photo-video.

  • The photo-videos’ visual and oral nature is a powerful medium for involving community members, especially those who do not read or write. It allows them to share reflections and learnings in their own voice and language.

  • Stronger relationships are often formed between the people making the photo-videos and those who watch and discuss the stories with them.

The Impact of CDST on the Cham Fisherwomen and Men

For the Cham participants, the storytelling process generated positive change even though the photo- videos were not publically shared. Through discussions resulting from the CDST activity, the Women’s Union learned more about and recognised the vulnerable situation of landless and land-poor fisherwomen and fishermen within the wider Cham community. This increased its support of the vulnerable population. For example, the Women’s Union collaborated with the private sector to locate housing for Cham people living on boats. As well, the CARE climate change project team was able to more appropriately respond to the Cham fisherwomen and men’s concerns by providing better-tailored livelihood support as well as flood emergency supplies. A number of the CDST participants are now members of the local search and rescue team. As well, Cham fisherwomen participated in training targeted at women on first aid, family and health care during floods, and house strengthening.

“After working with the Cham people living on boats, I have a better understanding of what they need to adapt. When I participate in community climate change planning meetings, I push to make their needs a priority.”

(Ms. Trần Phan Thái Giang, M&E Senior Officer and CDST Facilitator, CARE Vietnam)

The issues brought up by the Cham in their photo-videos are also constantly being discussed at planning meetings with CARE project partners. One of the reasons is that the process increased relations and understanding for CARE staff and government partners who participated in the facilitation training. They said they are now more attentive in making sure that Cham fisherwomen and men’s concerns are part of community-wide climate change plans. As well, they work harder to minimise the difficulties Cham fisherwomen and men face in participating in planning meetings. Prior to the activity, facilitators had assumed that many Cham people could comprehend, but not speak, Vietnamese. The CDST activity raised awareness of the value for Vietnamese-Arabic translation at information-sharing and decision-making meetings.

The community members also shared the printed photos from their stories at the local mosque. This helped to raise their profile and status in the wider Cham community and created new platforms for them to reach out and share their experiences and concerns.

Lessons learned

The storytelling project with the Cham fisherwomen and men was the first time CARE Vietnam had used Community Digital Storytelling. The CARE staff and government partner facilitators learned many lessons that can help make the community storytelling processes stronger. Below, such learnings have been adapted into six questions that practitioners can ask when implementing CDST to ensure the activity is consistent with its values.

1. Does everyone understand CDST as a COMMUNITY-DRIVEN Process?

2. Is the project designed to be FLEXIBLE and EMBEDDED?

3. Is the CDST activity RESPECTFUL within the local context and culture?

4. Are we prioritising DIALOGUE & LISTENING for better programming and policy?

5. Are we ensuring INFORMED CONSENT and copyright permissions?


Following each question in the report are insights into good practice and recommendations for the future. Access the document to read these insights.

CDST – English version

CDST – Vietnamese version

CDST – Technical Guidelines

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