Spaces of the Hilltop: A Case Study of Community / Academic Interaction

Aaron Knochel and Dickie Selfe

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Article Index


...Dickie's Story...

...A Theoretical Interlude: Banks, Cushman, Grabill & OSU Scholars...

...Continuing Dickie's Hilltop Story...

...The Dilemma of Community Literacy Work...

...A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour...

...Theorizing the Local: Escobar...

...Another Approach by a Hilltop Team Member...

...The Hilltop Project Today: An Emergent Partnership...

...Broad Parameters for Community/Academic Interaction...

...A Video Interlude...



This case study documents an ongoing digital storytelling project located in the Hilltop community of Columbus, Ohio. Inevitably, in projects like this, a productive tension develops between academic institutions and local communities. We describe an approach or heuristic that attempts to address that tension over time. Our goal is to better understand ethical and effective practices of engaging community members in digital storytelling. In order to do this we attend to two sources: first and foremost the community members themselves and, secondly, a series of social theorists who helped us develop a theoretical framework from which to act. The work is ongoing, so we will also be looking forward to interacting with Kairos readers after publication. Here's how the project began.

In the spring of 2009, a state library technology grant (~ $20,000) allowed our project team to begin a digital community storytelling project in an under-resourced part of town called the Hilltop. How we ended up in this community is part of Dickie's Story, but the primary goals stated in the grant were the following:

The grant allowed us to:

A sampling of stories provides some sense of the library's place in the community and the range of storytellers we encountered in this first round of collecting:


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
Hilltop Builders by Linda Phillips

I'm a Hilltop girl, Linda Phillips. The great granddaughter of four generations of builders of houses on the Hilltop.

  • Archiving the family history for relatives and others in the Hilltop
  • Providing a small piece of history for the local historical society and academics
'Just Say No' Drug March by Danny Wade

In...'88, '89 it was a big drug problem in the it was really, really bad. So I just wanted to say, I was the first person in the Hilltop to do a drug march against the drug problem around here.

Changing Lives by Anonymous/ audio only

[About the Hilltop Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Libraries] I feel we had an impact on the community here. You consider the socio-economic make up of the Hilltop, where it is basically blue-collar or no-collar, and we are lifting peoples' standards of life.

  • Making a case for the library's importance to upper administrators and state budget planners
  • Announcing valuable services to the Hilltop community and others


Dickie's Story

I have been inspired for years by colleagues who committed themselves to community literacy projects (Banks, 2011; Cushman, 1998; Grabill, 2007) and the essay will return to their influences directly. The final exigency, however, for my recent interest in community media development began with mounting frustrations as I interacted with local public schools. For about a decade I had worked with inspiring teachers and administrators on Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum workshops and projects (Devoss, Cushman, & Selfe, 2002). But I often saw special teachers doing exceptional work in spite of their districts' policies and the increasing pressure to teach to the test (aka, No Child Left Behind policies). The following anecdote epitomizes the struggles the teachers and I were having.

I had just returned from a media workshop/meeting with one of the more energized teachers I had come across in the past five years. She had in mind a wonderful project that combined her English curriculum with extensive student writing in service to audio performance. The plan ended with her students recording their work and sharing it with each other, parents, and the school. Her goal was to generate a steady stream of podcasts that could be distributed on the school district's very protected CMS (class management system). We took into account the school's limited media budget (shareware software, very low-cost audio recording equipment). Students would leave the class at the end of the year with an audio collection of their work and the work of their friends. I got a call from her a week later. The school had turned down the project because they would not install free software on the few old PCs she had in her class and had told her that it was against policy to do the project on her personal laptop, which she was willing to share with her classes.

Eventually we managed to convince the school of the value of the project, but it was an uphill battle, and after a decade of struggle with many school districts, I wanted to work with institutions who were delighted to share equipment and to create and share media projects. In a remarkable moment, I finally realized that I was thinking about and describing local libraries and librarians.

As you will see, the Hilltop project may now be circling back to include collaborations with young people and public schools, but our initial and current focus is on community members in the Hilltop.

In the small state library grant mentioned earlier, I wrote justifications for a digital storytelling project. It seemed exciting to me: bring in some Mac laptops, cameras, and voice recorders and have self-selected library patrons, young and old, come in for free weekly media classes in which they would develop community stories. What I was missing was a "place/space" (Michel de Certeau [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour]) and the participants to go with it. I began cold-calling leaders in the Columbus Metropolitan Library (CML) system looking for a place to land. They were and should have been skeptical; I was a newcomer in town. But eventually the upper administration of the CML found one library manager willing to trust a new face and a new project: Joe Yersavich, the manager of the Hilltop Branch of the CML. In one, short meeting he gave me a title, "What is your Hilltop?," and a goal, "collect stories that speak to the Hilltop's rich history and points of community pride."

I may often put my technological cart before the project horse, but I do listen carefully. Having the title and direction of the project come from a "local" was the beginning of the many lessons I would learn in the Hilltop; the beginning of a process that modified the project to more accurately reflect the needs of local citizens. On the other hand, I have been doing technology work and media workshops for over 20 years, so I'm a little stubborn about how to set them up, what I want out of workshops, and how they are best implemented. In my mind, our goals were clear and elaborated in the state library grant. All we needed to do was recruit participants.


A Theoretical Interlude: Banks, Cushman, Grabill & OSU Scholars

As we all know, narratives (Dickie's Story of the Hilltop included) are part fact and fiction, moments remembered and forgotten. Often what we have forgotten or elided can tell us a great deal about the meaning of the narrative. For that reason, we disrupt the story as Dickie makes this claim: "In a remarkable moment, I finally realized that I was thinking about and describing local libraries and librarians." Revelations are one of those moments of masking in this case.

The most immediate stated reason for Dickie's interest in a community media project was his frustrations with K-12 technology work. We are sure that is partly true, but one has to wonder about the revelatory moment. Instead, after some discussion, the Hilltop team (Dickie, OSU graduate and undergraduate students, and Hilltop librarians) realized that we are surrounded by excellent models and theoretical approaches to community literacy work and that they were also responsible for Dickie's inspirational moment. In this section, we briefly review the work of colleagues who have shaped and will shape the Hilltop project as we go forward: Ellen Cushman's (1998) work in the inner city community of Quarryville, Adam Banks's (2011) commitment to community work in the African American area of Syracuse, NY and Jeffrey Grabill's (2007) approach to activism and technological infrastructures. Finally, at Ohio State University, close colleagues are engaged in model projects as well. Cynthia Selfe, Louie Ulman, and Beverly Moss, all from OSU's English Department, have inspired us during our short tenure here in the Hilltop area of Columbus, Ohio.

First we thank Ellen Cushman (1998) for encouraging all academics, when dealing with communities, to look beyond theoretical labels like "false consciousness" that have been used by critical theorists to offer blanket explanations for the continued existence of under-resourced communities. We should not see local members as unwitting victims. She would have us, instead, see the complex literate praxis of inner city residents and "honor the ways in which they daily, linguistically challenge [the] prevailing belief systems" (p. xix). "If the subaltern cannot speak, it is only because the [academic] cannot listen and hear" (p. 22). She suggests that we take on an "activist methodology" that will allow "researchers and participants [to] empower each other when they: (1) enable each other to achieve goals, (2) facilitate each other's actions, and (3) lend to each other their respective social statuses" (p. 23).

While the Hilltop team doesn't have the linguistic interests or capabilities of Ellen Cushman—she looked, over a long period of time, into the effective and often collaborative literate performances of community members—we can at least take advantage of her suggestions for developing reciprocal relations:

"I wanted to insure that (1) community members and myself would dialogically arrange mutually beneficial relationships; (2) the goals and analysis of this research would center around social issues salient to their daily struggles; and (3) we would author(ize) together the final written representations [in our case the media representations] of their lives" (26).

No doubt the reader will see how we struggled with this challenging set of goals. As many of us do, we brought our school-centered approaches and logics to the task to setting up a community media program and found them wanting. Luckily, as a team we were fairly balanced. Whatever success we have so far achieved is a result of Dickie's tenacity and other team members' thoughtful approach to community involvement. This speaks well of those team members, of course, but also well of their disciplinary training, as they worked on their graduate degrees in the Art Education department at OSU. Another English studies colleague, Adam Banks, motivates and shapes our work in similar ways.

A personal aside by Dickie Selfe

I remember sitting in a restaurant in downtown Columbus chatting with Adam Banks after his presentation at the Digital Media and Composition workshop that Cindy Selfe and Scott DeWitt run every year at OSU. Adam mentioned this presentation in his new book, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. He was talking through some of the detailed logistics of a free, community class that he had taught and was regularly teaching in a bar/restaurant in Syracuse, NY. At that moment, the idea of a community media class began to take hold. I was convinced of its value for the community but was also convinced that whatever I learned from the experience could then be applied to the academic media work that was springing up in all disciplines K-college. I was convinced that the university could and should learn from the communities surrounding it.

We are certainly a bit humbled by the extent and depth of the "class" work that Banks (2011) developed with community members in Syracuse. Again his goals for the community media work far surpass those of the Hilltop project, but they are worth mentioning here: "to encourage participants to see themselves as griots, to value oral tradition and print and digital literacies, and to develop writing and rhetorical practices that link the three toward the goals of building community and deep democracy through critical literacy" (p. 83). The Digital Griots account of his community activist approach suggests that the Hilltop project still has many roads to explore:

  1. in the kind of community activism, if any, we are supporting
  2. in the way we recruit participants (p. 63),
  3. in choosing a "free space" (p. 60) for collecting digital stories that fits the needs of the community (p. 62),
  4. and "to build community itself [through community media] by bringing people together in spaces that focus on sharing their gifts and visions and commitments" (p. 67). From Banks we learn that it is a mistake to look for a community already in place, ripe for investigation.

In other ways our efforts are more like Banks' work. First, we are both delighted by the way our respective communities have "pushed us beyond anything [we] imagined we would do or be able to do" (p. 65). How that happens in the Hilltop project will become more obvious as the story unfolds. Second, Banks and our team are both struggling to implement and see enacted a critical, sustainable, technologically gifted community. As the Hilltop project continues, however, we will endeavor to learn from Banks' "detailed curriculum based on the digital griot" and apply it when possible to our community media work. That curriculum attempts to develop:

  1. an understanding of "writing as a multimodal, rhetorically based set of skills and abilities"
  2. "a critical awareness of digital writing technologies" themselves
  3. an attitude that suggests that technology issues are "subjects for humanistic inquiry"
  4. the understanding of "black rhetorical and storytelling traditions [and other storytelling traditions as well] as presenting a deep democratic alternative historiography"
  5. writers who will become community activists and
  6. a "community by using writing, sharing, and [the] dissemination of stories" (p. 78-79).

If our project doesn't reflect Banks' goals entirely, but those goals are worth holding up as we move forward. "It means working to increase meaningful, transformative access to digital technologies for people on their own terms" (p. 165).

Our efforts are fixed on media development, and because of that we find that Jeffrey Grabill (2007) has authored the most useful work on community media programs to date. For years, Grabill has presented his work at national conferences. Dickie notes, "I remember hearing Jeff talk about his projects and remember chatting with him about the compelling nature and difficulties of maintaining community contacts and literacy projects." Grabill's motivations for taking on these types of projects are outlined early in his 2007 book, Writing Community Change: Designing Technologies for Citizen Action. "In a knowledge society, the work of citizenship is knowledge work. Yet unlike the knowledge work in schools or corporate workplaces, the work of citizens is not well supported" (p. 2), and, we would add, not well understood. Later he also asserts that the fields in higher education "concerned with writing [rhetoric, composition, literacy studies, computers and writing, technical and professional communication] have incomplete maps of what people actually do with writing and technologies in their day-to-day lives" (p. 2-3). Their maps are incomplete because those disciplines focus too often on in-school, a-rhetorical assignments and programs that don't reach beyond their own institutional or disciplinary walls. Or they focus on knowledge work conducted in established organizational or corporate settings. One important assumption we are making in this article about the Hilltop project is that if we did know more about citizen knowledge work, we could then be able to better incorporate that understanding into our classes and programs in ways that Grabill outlines in his final chapter.

The other half of Grabill's intellectual project, and one of the reasons it speaks so directly to ours, is his effort to pay close attention to the "tools and resources for invention" (p. 5), that is, the technologies and processes that he has developed with and for community members. As Grabill, Selfe, and others have said over the years, the mundane aspects of those technologies and processes influence the work that is possible and the effectiveness of that work (Devoss, Cushman, & Grabill, 2005; Grabill, 2007; Selfe, 2005).

Grabill challenges our project in several ways. He suggests that effective community media projects (projects that generate progressive change) are not about technology access and support alone, though both are important. Instead they are also about the type of invention made possible, the levels of collaboration (online and face-to-face) they allow, and the planning behind the community informatics that will allow for the delivery or presentation of the community work being produced. As Grabill (2007) argues, "the critical issue with respect to the social impact of information technologies is the extent to which nonexpert, nontraditional users of technologies, especially those typically marginalized, can become productive with advanced information technologies in a way that expands local capacity to achieve citizen objectives" (p. 12). Later he suggests, "Community informatics at its best has a design imperative to make new infrastructures with communities" (p. 12).

Another useful aspect of Grabill's approach is how he values traditional as well as new information technologies. Just as Cushman and Banks found in their work, Grabill recognizes that print production and oral traditions (governmental forms, posters, family gatherings, community meetings, etc.) play an important part in community knowledge work. In his Harbor case study on risk communication, his team searched for a solution to the expert-dominated community meetings that were generating mistrust and frustration (Blythe, Grabill, & Riley, 2008). They decided to give out expert reports early so that community members could study them, develop their own expertise, craft questions, and recommend solutions. They then limited the minutes that official experts had to present these reports during the meeting. The community forum then became a legitimate opportunity for citizens to question, comment, and suggest solutions of their own. It was the changed meeting structure (a type of infrastructure as Grabill defines it) that allowed for the greatest improvement not simply changes in information technology infrastructure, though that was also important in the process. Grabill wants us to focus on the "creation of new infrastructures to support invention in communities" (p. 90). Just to be clear, Grabill's concept of infrastructure includes access to recognizable stand alone technologies, events and other face-to-face encounters, as well as the interactive systems that are becoming ubiquitous in our culture.

Grabill suggests we ask of our community media projects these questions: "If we think in terms of infrastructure, we might ask: does an infrastructure reward small steps, changes in course, and the interactions of real people and communities? Does a given infrastructure, in other words, support [community] invention" (p. 94)?

Through the eyes of these three scholars, the bar is set quite high. Do we trust and value in the complex literacy practices of our community members? Are we in it for the long haul and setting up ethical, reciprocal relationships with community members? Are we building a community through writing and media work and not relying on some nostalgic expectation of a ready-made community conveniently provided as an object of study? Are the infrastructures we build sustainable and supportive of community invention, production, and dissemination? The Hilltop project, at this point in time, is both succeeding and failing in all of these areas.

In addition to disciplinary examples of community literacy projects that Banks, Cushman, and Grabill offer, teachers and scholars are likely to find local community efforts that provide both context and inspiration. At Ohio State University, many scholars are working in (and some with) central Ohio communities. In the 2010-2011 school year Dickie was asked to sit on the College of Arts and Sciences Civic Engagement Committee and was, as a result, introduced to an impressive array of outward looking projects (often "under the radar" in their departments and at the university). We found important programs generated by many different academic units: languages, geography, history, art, English, biology, and many others. These projects typically operate quietly around us, and each provides a unique set of lessons. The Hilltop project has been inspired by three specific community projects run by colleagues at OSU—Cindy Selfe, Louie Ulman, and Beverly Moss, all in the English department—have most directly influenced this project.

Cindy Selfe and Louie Ulman have been developing and running the Digital Archive of Literacy Narrative (DALN) project for several years. If you have not visited and sampled some of the over 2,000 literacy stories archived there, please do. You will discover a site rich in research and pedagogical potential. They have also developed special collections, of which the Black Columbus Project (BCP), is one. In the BCP they have connected the DALN with a required second-level writing course at OSU and have added a service-learning component that provides students and community members with an opportunity (with permissions of course) to publish their literacy stories on the DALN. Each year a class of graduate students, undergraduates, and community members form teams, recruit storytellers, and collect literacy narratives from a predominantly African American population. For the last three years, Cindy Selfe and Louie Ulman have worked hard to build relationships with a range of community groups:

  1. African American and African Studies Community Extension Center
  2. Mt. Vernon Area District Improvement Association
  3. Isabelle Ridgway Adult Day Care Center
  4. MLK Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library
  5. Columbus Urban League
  6. Summit's Trace Healthcare Center
  7. Columbus Public School District Adult Basic Literacy Education (ABLE)/General Educational Development (GED) Programs

It is an impressive effort. The characteristics of the project that make it successful in our eyes are these:

  1. The DALN is increasingly diverse because people facilitating contributions make a special effort to collect from populations in addition to white middle-class professionals.
  2. It's taught one quarter per year over multiple years but requires almost year-round attention and planning. The relationships developed with these groups are ongoing and not something that occurs only during the collection phase of the classes.
  3. It culminates each term in a social event that brings students, contributors, community members and their families into contact around literacy stories and food.
  4. The work is published, made as accessible as possible, and is as permanent as digital work can be made.
  5. Each story does as much work for the storyteller as it does for the Black Columbus Project or the DALN. For those individuals, it documents the literacy stories of families, social & religious groups, places, and events, and occupations.

At the Center for the Study and Teaching of Writing (CSTW), Dickie directs a research grant program that was lucky enough to sponsor both the DALN project above and Beverly Moss' project called African-American Women, Literacy and Community Service. Over many years, Moss has interviewed, interacted with, and studied a woman's social/service group in Columbus. Using ethnographic and case-study methodologies, Moss' example encourages all literacy scholars to expand their sites of study to areas outside the classroom. Her own brief description of the project will suffice here:

To understand the complexities of the literacies that contemporary African American women use and how they use them, we must expand the spaces and sites in which we examine these practices. This research project turns our gaze to how at least one group of African American women use literacy in the extracurriculum, by focusing on how these women use literacy for civic engagement and action. Thus, this study presents an important gendered and racialized site and space from which to interrogate these literacy practices (Moss, 2010).

Both the Black Columbus literacy project and Moss' study have encouraged us to diversify the sites of inquiry in our own work. They have illustrated (as do all these projects) the need for a long-term, unhurried commitment to community literacy projects (digital or not) and the importance of developing relationships with the many groups extant. As Banks recommends, we are not looking for fully formed communities to work with, but hoping to join in the constant making and remaking of communities that are always in formation. The trick seems to be to wed our own academic interests to those that are of utmost importance to the contacts in our communities.

In what follows, we hope you'll see our struggle to enact the challenging goals and recommendations set by our colleagues close by and remote.


Continuing Dickie's Hilltop story

[or back to the first part of Dickie's Story]

So after finding a space, title, and focus and installing the technology, we needed to attract participants. I created a poster announcing the "What is your Hilltop?" class which was to meet for nine weeks on Fridays from 4-5:30, the only time available on the schedule of the Hilltop's community meeting room. The grant schedule required that I hold the class in the spring of 2009, so I took that time gladly. Joe Yersavich was nice enough to email and talk to patrons who might be interested. Our recruiting had begun.

I never go into a project or a class without a detailed plan and a plan B. It was a free community class but I had a syllabus, a genre of work I wanted to encourage, and some specific prompts to get participants started and thinking. I planned time for them to showcase their ideas and learn from each other. I tested all the equipment before starting and recruited a number of support people (about one for each four participants) to help with technology issues as they came up. These are what Michel de Certeau would call strategic actions. [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour] In essence I was creating a process and a place (a class in the library) that should work anywhere. In response to my actions, however, the tactical (de Certeau, 1988) responses from the community began rolling in.

Joe Yersavich was very well-connected in the community, but he did not live in the area. He wasn't a real local. He did contact one person who was, Cynthia. A local historian, she recruited almost all of the other participants in the class and arm-wrestled them into coming at that very inconvenient time on Friday evening. Neither the flier I constructed nor the emails sent to library patrons weeks ahead of time were effective. However, mainly because of Cynthia, an amazing group of people attended: local historians, artists, family history buffs, and remarkable storytellers. Apparently, and it should not be a surprise, no matter how well-intentioned and tempting a project might sound to academic outsiders like me, a local contact person trusted in the community is key to attendance and participation.

I also failed early on to take Bruno Latour's advice [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour]. In a nutshell, he advises us to listen to the technologies themselves. In this case, I failed to attend to the warnings being broadcast by the library technologies. All of their installed desktops were PCs and any librarian there could have told me that patrons worked almost exclusively there and at home on Windows PCs. The ease-of-use and ease-of-learning that I had imagined when I ordered the Mac laptops turned into a substantial hurdle for many participants. Besides the frustration of learning a new interface and new software, it also meant that they couldn't do their work anywhere but at the library. This was particularly problematic in light of what I learned next.

Most of the people attending were very interested in telling stories and not overly concerned about becoming media producers. My time spent preparing for the technological portion of the community class—arranging for equipment, recruiting and paying support people, working with a Hilltop library, Tim Stith, who had the technological skills (including with Macintosh laptops) and had been assigned to the class—wasn't entirely wasted but the people themselves were focused on local histories and storytelling. The digital part of digital storytelling was not the "draw" that I had anticipated.

Neither, as we came to find out, was the genre of the "digital story." A quick look at the Center for Digital Storytelling site will illustrate the components of that genre: short personal stories (3-5 minutes), images of the places, people and events combined with a voice-over relating the details of a powerful personal experience. Their suggested workshop structure is designed to generate important and very compact narratives that are easy to view in one quick sitting. I had just participated in one of these workshops put on by the library at Ohio State University and had produced a personal piece about my 94-year-old great aunt. I believed in the genre and enjoyed the process. Imagine my surprise when I learned that most of the Hilltop participants, at least initially, cared very little for short, dramatic, personal stories. As one participant said to me privately, (paraphrasing) "I have a room full of articles and images and 35 years of experience working at one of the largest mental institutions in the country. I was hoping to use this class to start writing a book!" The ideas and concepts of the participants were not necessarily narrative in nature, may not have been personal, depended on many other people, and often had no ready-made images that illustrated their story or concept. I had assumed that everyone would have stories of their own to tell but many told stories of others and of previous generations. I pushed them toward our goal of illustrating points of community pride, but also ended up documenting troubled moments around drugs and racism. None of the class goals or the characteristics of a traditional digital storytelling genre fit the group neatly. Most of the academic and local community projects mentioned earlier [A Theoretical Interlude: Banks, Cushman, Grabill & OSU Scholars] should have taught me to expect such mid-course adjustments and project modifications, but I was still challenged by the mid-course corrections necessary.

Surprisingly most participants, though not all, kept coming. They became excited about doing portions of their larger projects and learned new technologies with support people standing at their shoulders helping them each step of the way. I finally realized that storytelling was their first priority and that technology was a very distant second or perhaps third priority. Companionship and camaraderie may have been second in importance to this group, as they mixed it up with other "Hilltoppers" (a reference to locals) and the young support people I had recruited from the university. As a result of their priorities, I dreamt up the Hilltop Storytelling Day. On that day, there would be no media work expected of the storytellers. Some fast talking with library patrons who streamed in and out of the place, helped us collect twelve more narratives. They came in, told one or more stories, sometimes to an unexpected audience of previous or waiting storytellers. I wasn't smart enough to capture the conversations between stories, which were often as or more interesting and revealing as the recorded stories themselves. But with some quick editing on our part, all twelve were ready to go online the next week.


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
Coming to Columbus by Janine Bourdo

We had moved quite a lot...I think we ate at Howard Johnsons. I was sitting on a stool saying, "Man, Columbus Ohio. I wish I could be in Wyoming." I wanted to be a cowgirl because I was like 7 years old.

  • Documenting family history and the dreams of a young girl.
Teaching at the Buckeye Youth Center by Janine Bourdo

[Claustrophobic in Wyoming] My friend from Columbus came to get me in a U-haul truck. We drove back to Ohio and when I crossed that border,..."Oh my god, I am never leaving Ohio again." It was just sooo good to be home (1977).

  • Documenting a personal history with Ohio and the Hilltop and the reality of a young woman in the 1970s.
My Time in the Hilltop by Daniel Stanley

I still hold the records for most tackles and stuff like that. Just regular football records, nothing amazing. Well the numbers are amazing... [laughs]. But then that all went down hill when I got into a couple of wrecks.

  • Documenting the good times in high school and foreshadowing the hard times ahead.

Within a week of finishing the free "class," the Hilltop storytellers' work was permanently archived in the OSU Library's Knowledge Bank. But that portal is more like a tomb than the lively interactive social media sites most people are used to these days. It is intended to be a tomb, a permanent resting place. The stories are captured, saved, and streamed for as long as the OSU Library exists. De Certeau would call this a "place." It is important in a number of ways but not at all malleable or nimble [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour]. Before finishing the class, I got word from mothers, fathers, daughters and sons that they wanted to show their stories to families and friends. Few had home access to the internet and most had very little skill viewing online videos or audio. They needed DVD copies, and they wanted an event to celebrate their commitment and work. A last-minute show-and-tell session developed into a larger than expected community gathering with food, parents, and friends. Attendees included a 92 year-old mother dressed to the nines and families with all the kids. After showing each piece, an unexpected set of side stories broke out in the room: a natural process of cultural retelling occurred, and, once again, I was unprepared to capture it.

At the end of the free "class," literally nothing looked like the grant had envisioned. At every step of the process, I was challenged to learn about the participants, to adjust my expectations, to see the space that was creating itself as we went along. Digital media writing, as Adam Banks would suggest, was building a community, not just documenting one that was already in place. The Hilltop project was a better experience because of this spontaneity. The participants, all over 50 years old, had taken the class out of my hands and had used it to get their own work done. That work consisted of creating alternative histories, documenting hard times and changing attitudes, recording family histories, showing appreciation for opportunities and providing a vision for the future. Yes, a few even fit into the digital story telling genre.


The Dilemma of Community Literacy Work

A reader of Dickie's Story might ask, "Why should the team be so concerned about adapting to community interests and needs? Isn't providing resources and expertise enough?"

It is not.

Regardless of our best intentions, academics interested in community literacy projects (digital or not) should recognize the colonial gesture that accompanies their efforts.

In the spring of '09, the grant focused on two goals:

From the community perspective, however, another way to read the two grant objectives above might be the following:

But should this colonial gesture derail our community engagement efforts? It should not. Our team's approach now is to strategically intervene (since we are, by nature, hopelessly strategic), then watch for the tactical reaction from community members, and re-align the project and objectives as we go (Notions of "strategy" and "tactics" were discussed at some length in the de Certeau theory section [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour]). We adopted this approach because teaching in a public arena was teaching us new lessons. That is, this type of teaching is not only about the teacher, the institution and its curricular goals. It is about the community participants themselves and the work they hope to accomplish. That is as it should be. Perhaps there is a lesson here for our on-campus teaching as well.

Luckily, after Dickie left town for the summer of 2009, some funding in the original grant allowed him to hire a graduate student in Art Education with a history of facilitating community projects. The summer interventions helped us learn even more about the community. But more on that experience later [Link to Another Approach by a Hilltop Team Member]. At this point in the project, we began presenting to colleagues on campus and at conferences. These facilitated our search for theoretical frameworks that might be useful in explaining the twists and turns our Hilltop storytelling project was taking.


A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour

In addition to the useful work of English studies scholars working on community literacy projects [Link to the A Theoretical Interlude: Banks, Cushman, Grabill & OSU Scholars section for more], we also needed productive ways to talk about the places and spaces of our interaction with community members and the stories they told. We needed this additional framework because our initial orientations were, not surprisingly, as teachers. As teachers, we brought to the table expertise, processes, content, resources, and techniques to share. Each week we would arrive early and set up a portable class in the library's community room and run through the syllabus activities. We had developed specific (in this case grant-driven) outcomes just as we had in the hundreds of classes that had shaped us and that we had shaped in the past. We needed to break out of the "teacherly" mindset, and so found it useful to develop a theoretical framework that we could return to as we planned our next moves and as we learned from the community participants. We hope that those lessons, in the end, will be of benefit to teachers and programs experimenting with digital storytelling in classes and in the community.

Human relationships in places and spaces.

Michel de Certeau's (1988) Practice of Everyday Life, much like Michel Foucault's work on power relations, is imagining a world of interplay and micropolitics that fluctuates between the influences of planned, "strategic" action and the "microbe-like operations," of "a multitude of 'tactics' articulated in the details of everyday life" (p. xiv). The "strategic" and "tactical" operate in all settings that we experience. These terms, as they refer to human action, do not represent evil and good or stultifying or productive respectively. They are both necessary and interdependent. It is true that de Certeau himself dwells on the influence and value of the tactical because from his perspective it was the least well understood dimension of "everyday life." But it is also clear in his work that one can't just throw in with one camp or the other. As it is with Foucault's descriptions of oppression and freedom (see Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, 1979), these concepts are in constant tension. Their value as part of a theoretical heuristic then is to awaken us to the dual nature of our everyday actions and help us give those actions direction.

If you have not already, consider reading Dickie's Story which details his initial experiences working on the Hilltop project. It is an illustration of why the following theoretical frameworks can be useful in community projects. Selfe's experiences are summarized here in outline form using de Certeau's concepts: strategic interventions and tactical actions.

The Hilltop digital storytelling project, as an outreach and engagement effort, is full of strategic interventions and tactical actions. Here are a few that seemed prominent in the first free community class held in the Spring of 2009. First, let's consider a few strategies:

There were other strategic interventions but we have here enough to understand that all participants in a project like this use it to get what they need and what they think their constituents need. That approach is a natural and important part of any project that hopes to be self-sustaining. But it was the tactical actions and reactions of community members in response to the strategic interventions that helped move the project along. We are suggesting in this article that it is the willingness to be strategic and an attentiveness to tactical reactions that will make community media projects productive for both groups.

Each bullet below lists a sample "tactical" action and is followed in blue by the result (=>) of that action:


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
The Ballfield and Renting Radios by Earl "Whimpy" Potts

I lived on Wheatland Ave....Whenever Jesse Owens would come down the street, he would gather up the kids and say, "Let's go over to the ball field."

  • Documenting local legends and what racial discrimination was like for his mother and the community.
Greenlawn Cemetery by Janine Bourdo

Greenlawn was a little scary. It was very, very quiet there, and if you walked far enough there was a pond, and I remember that they had a sign that said, "Don't abuse the ducks!" And I was always worried about duck abusers being in the cemetery.

  • Describing personal involvement in an important landmark in the Hilltop.
Kingdom of God Revival by Angelina

What we are doing. We are doing a community outreach, and it's called a backyard revival.

  • Documenting an informal spiritual community open to all but primarily for those with past drug problems.
Memories of Summers and Christmas on the Hilltop by Brandy Biegler

I work here at the Hilltop library. I'm the coordinator of the Homework Help Center.

  • Documenting memories that make the Hilltop their home.

Discussions of these theoretical concepts (i.e., strategic and tactical), which can be related to on-the-ground activities, help the project team articulate what we are doing, what we are learning, and where this project might take us next.

According to de Certeau (1988) we are all poachers in our daily travels through life. In "Reading as Poaching" he writes, "readers are travellers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves" (p. 174). Poaching is a tactical approach to using that which we encounter for our own ends, whether it is an encounter with a book, a storytelling event, a building, a street intersection, or a technology. Certainly the Hilltop citizens were poaching as they experienced our storytelling class.

Let us poach two other terms from de Certeau: "places" and "spaces." We found his distinction between place and space quite useful. "The law of the 'proper' rules in the place: the elements taken into consideration are beside one another, each situated in it's own 'proper' and distinct location, a location it defines.... [Place] implies an indication of stability" (p. 117). Place doesn't have to be geographical. Most of our strategic interventions in the Hilltop project have been attempts to build places: a class, a permanent archive, this article as a story of our research, or a collection of technologies in a library. All are designed, intentional places by de Certeau's definition.

But what of space? "... practiced place [author's emphasis]... A space exists when one takes into consideration vectors of direction, velocities, and time variables [for instance, as humans move through or make use of a place] .... Space is like the word when it is spoken, that is, when it is caught in the ambiguity of an actualization.... Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by walkers" (p. 117). The tactical actions of Hilltop community members in response to the places we built and in an effort to carry out their own life projects, define the ephemeral and contextualized spaces that they value. De Certeau's distinction between "place" (named, measured, gridded, entombed) and "spaces" (experiential, changing, ephemeral) also help us, in this case, understand the complex workings of community identity, something of no small consequence or value, we thought, to people who are living in under-valued, under-resourced parts of the city. In de Certeau's world view "place" is unavoidable. One must name oneself and stake out ground from which to speak back to more globalized institutions like business initiatives and planning commissions linked to cities, counties, states, and our national government. Places then quickly become named, measured, and gridded. We entomb ourselves in layers or frameworks of place. "Space," as de Certeau describes it, is an anecdote to our entombment. Entities circulate through places, and are both disciplined by them even as they constantly redefine the potential, for that moment, in that space. Space, for de Certeau, "is situated as the act of a present, and modified by the transformations caused by successive contexts" (p. 117).

In our project, the following might be considered a "Place:"

"Space is," on the other hand,

The spaces we inhabit and help create continuously are generated by the unending, microbe-like tactical interventions by hosts of actors and actants (Latour, 2005) into the places around them. Place/space distinctions require those of us working on the Hilltop project to ask ourselves what we are trying to create at any one moment in time. Or more specifically, how stakeholders are responding to the places we are establishing. How should those places change and for whom? Again, we find this a useful theoretical formulation: if we create a built place through which actors move and interact, we are obliged to attend carefully to the actualized space that comes into existence as a result.

Some twenty years before de Certeau's work, Michel Foucault (1986) made similar distinctions between places and spaces in his oft quoted "Of Other Spaces." Coming out of an epoch of history, he suggests that "the present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed" (p. 22).

In that piece, Foucault would rather not talk about places, weighted down with historical remnants and expectations, but external spaces. As we did with de Certeau's work, let us poach an observation that seems quite useful to our theoretical framework.

Foucault claims that we create spaces of two types: utopias and heterotopias. In "On Other Spaces," he doesn't dwell on utopias because they are "sites with no real place" (p. 24). Heterotopias, on the other hand, are ubiquitous and act as "a sort of simultaneously mythic and real contestation of the space in which we live" (p. 24). Foucault suggests that in our culture we create heterotopic spaces around those things about which we are uncertain. He suggests that changes in the locations of cemeteries over the centuries is an example of this uncertainty. In the Hilltop project, we highlight the importance of the stories that bubble up out of a community because we mistrust the official histories around us. Voices that have been silenced or undervalued and must be made public. We are, therefore in the process of creating a heterotopic space, based on a real place, for alternative voices and local histories. In the process of creating such heterotopic spaces, we attempt to take full advantage of all available forms of reality. The digital and physical mix to form new possibilities (i.e., community meetings around digital stories that themselves create new storytelling opportunities), and to understand those well, we need to pay close attention, at least briefly to our human relationship to technology, another component of our theoretical framework.

Though de Certeau seems to understand all too well how physical place helps determine space, we see his work as informing a much more specific, yet ubiquitous concern with communication technologies and the digital. We will start with a quote from one of the prominent scholars of the Digital Humanities movement.

An approach to media and technology: Davidson's comment on HASTAC

"The existence of new media neither necessitates nor precludes social activism" (author's italics). Cathy Davidson's blog entry spends most of its space critiquing another scholar, Malcolm Gladwell, who was lamenting the negative effects of social media on what he considers real social activism. As interesting as that debate is, our attention here is drawn to the language of the debate. Davidson takes Gladwell, we think rightly, to task for assuming that social movements are diminished by new communication systems like Twitter. Activists from each era, she suggests, have taken full advantage of all available means of persuasion including whatever media is available. The explosion of socially mediated protests in Northern Africa and the Middle East provide abundant support for Davidson's claim. But she then follows with this comment:

"It is important to remember that tweeting and other social media do not have intention, are not in themselves motivators, but their use in social actions can have serious consequences."

We have to disagree, at least with the first two comments in this quote. Though we are not trying to suggest that social media interfaces have individual consciousness, certainly their designers were conscious of the intended effectiveness of the systems that they built—as in Facebook and Twitter. All technologies influence our practices and to some extent have built-in intentions. They also encourage certain kinds of motivated actions and discourage others. Jeffrey Grabill (2007) suggests, more specifically, that the information infrastructure that supports the work of citizenship "is both fragile and poorly designed to support knowledge work in communities" (p. 59) [A Theoretical Interlude: Banks, Cushman, Grabill & OSU Scholars]. To deny intention and motivation in technologies and systems is to ignore their intentional design and ultimately to obscure how we might go about improving them for community knowledge work.

For a more nuanced understanding of the relationship of technology and human action, we turn to two scholars, Bruno Latour and Arturo Escobar. They help us address the danger we see in Davidson's second statement: that danger being that even brilliant scholars can lead us down blind alleys by underestimating the reciprocal influences of human action and communication systems, systems that are embedded in all of our project environments.

The fact is that Bruno Latour and other actor-network theorists have illustrated over and over that in order to understand social action, we have to involve technologies and other components of our physical environment in our planning efforts as active participants. Though technologies are not the only, or perhaps even the most critical components of our social actions, they do have intentional consequences and generate interesting and important spheres of motivation. Our range of choices for communication and action, as a project team, are multiple. It will make a difference if we decide to interact via texting, newsletters, tweets, emails, Facebook, posters, blog posts, Google docs, post cards, or static web pages. With each choice we broadcast our intentions and motivate or de-motivate constituencies. Those systems, as odd as it may seem, must enter our project with the status of agents of change. Otherwise it is all too easy to gloss or ignore their influences.

Bruno Latour is dedicated to exploring the human relationship to technology. In some pieces he catalogues the proliferation of "hybrids" or "monsters" and their importance (c.f., We Have Never Been Modern) and provides us with some language for describing today's interesting human/technological collectives. He also offers many examples of why the conceptual separation between humans and technologies is debilitating and unproductive. In his work, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, he suggests that our constitutive blindness to the entire range of non-human actants inhabiting a debate such as global weather change or biodiversity has led us to adopt impotent processes for dealing with environmental issues. Because of this type of selective blindness, we attempt to draw a bright white line between our understandings of "Nature" (matters of scientific fact) and our human epistemologies or ways of understanding and explaining the world. According to Latour (2005), in our current state of mind, a few special actors—only scientists and policy specialists in most cases—have access to nature and matters of fact, while the rest of us are relegated to the chattering mass of actors who are outside the real debate. His objective in that volume is to create a "political ecology" (p. 246) that will include in its deliberations both human and non-human agents of change and thereby create a process by which we can hope for a "progressive composition of the common world" (p. 18), a world where scientists, citizens, and actants (non-human actors) all have access to a serious and recursive decision-making apparatus.

The most spectacular of his suggestions is that we invite into our deliberations the discourse of technological artifacts. We can recommend the final chapters of Artemis and those in Politics of Nature for those who want to see his vision of how this might happen in the world of large-scale technological projects and eco-politics. For our purposes, Latour's definition of a political ecology can be adopted by literacy workers. In our planning and descriptions later in this article, we will do our best to not make odd distinctions between the human and non-human when talking about technology-rich projects like digital storytelling. Quite often in the speech acts of technology specialists and curriculum designers, technologies are only tools, infrastructures, interfaces, software, hardware, and netware existing apart from the real rhetorical work that we are undertaking. We would suggest that this not the case and that distinctions of this sort (see Selfe, Sustainable Computer Environments, 2005), have led us to enact pedagogies and technology initiatives that are unsustainable. Because we know that multiple and changing literacies are a constant in our worlds, we cannot afford 1) to ignore what the influences of the systems we use or 2) to underestimate the complexity of their context of use. As Latour often asks, how willing are we to allow the broadest collective of non-humans to talk to us, to enter into our planning processes?

In Dickie's Story, he suggests that ignoring the "voice" of laptop operating systems in the Hilltop library placed substantial constraints on participants. The same sort of unintended consequences occurred when we chose to collaborate with OSU's Knowledge Bank on our community storytelling portal. But before we move the story forward, we need to develop a more robust theory of the local by borrowing (poaching) from the work of Arturo Escobar.


Theorizing the Local: Escobar

In 2008 Escobar published Territories of Difference : Place, Movements, Life, Redes [Networks] to represent his work on a massive, long-term ethnographic project focused on the embattled indigenous activist in a large geographical region of the Pacific Columbia. His 435 page book accounts for geological and biological formations; daily practices of the local black, indigenous, and mestizo groups; capital accumulation; processes of incorporation of the region into the state; the cultural-political practices of social movements, and the discourse and practices of technoscience. From such an ambitious effort, our goal is to extract useful theoretical formations for a much more modest project. Where others often see hegemonic forces that sever place from more globalized space (Giddens, 1990) and diminish the importance of the local, Escobar recognizes realistic moments of change based on grassroots social movements. His goal is to make obvious "subaltern strategies of localization by communities and social movements" (p. 32). Our goal, then, is to bring the notion of "subaltern strategies of localization" into conversation with experimental curriculum development around community-based digital storytelling projects.

How are our projects similar? What is the connective tissue between the two?

Escobar's Project

"It is, above all, about place-based and regional expressions or articulations of difference in contexts of globalization" (p. 1). He has been working since the 1990s with "black and indigenous activists of the Columbia Pacific" who are trying to produce and protect their own knowledges in the face of very strong economic, cultural, and ecological challenges (p. 3). It's about "the geopolitics of knowledge: Whose knowledge counts?" (p. 4).

He places a great deal of importance on the discovering of local "difference" to counter act the "nightmarish arrangements of the present" (p. 14). Escobar suggests, "local histories have remained largely invisible in Eurocentric theory precisely because they have been actively produced as nonexistent —as noncredible alternatives to what exists." He calls instead for, citing Santos (2004), a "sociology of absences that brings local histories into visibility, and a sociology of emergences that enables the enlargement of the range of knowledges that could be considered credible alternatives" (p. 23). Escobar provides us with useful language and justifications for locating our work on digital literacies outside the university. Our experience so far is that Hilltop residents are more than capable of creating alternative knowledges and histories because of the difference of their local experiences.

"Multiplying the landscape of knowledge production is a way of unsettling the megastructure of the academy as the knowledge space par excellence; the knowledge landscape itself appears flatter" and full of "other academies, activist knowledges, activist research, border thinking, and so forth" (p. 306). Escobar's work is a remarkably useful antidote to the typical on-campus discussions that we tend to have around Outreach and Engagement projects. Readers will probably need only go to a couple meetings of this type to hear dialogue that emphasizes the necessity of sharing our university expertise and resources with those beyond the "megastructure of the academy." Of course this concern over unidirectional community projects and research is not new. As far back as Patti Lather's germinal work, "Research as Praxis," issues of fairness and reciprocality have been in play. Escobar's work allows us to take up many of the same issues as we engage in current post-colonial engagement projects.

Escobar also addresses the decades-long concerns about globalization and its domination of the local. Global capital in the form of large corporations and government entities who have proposed casinos and sprinkled the Hilltop with large box stores (many now abandoned) are significant influences. But attending to globalizing influences exclusively is ineffective and dangerous, leading to a diminished sense of the local.


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
Wide Vistas by Laverne Guyton

The Hilltop drew me here in 2001. Yes, drew me. I had recently sold my house on the south side of Columbus. And through the twisting of life and people, found myself with no place to live. Well people this in not the way I roll..

  • Relating an unusually positive attitude and approach to the Hilltop's abundant and abandoned giant parking lots and box stories.

As Escobar suggests, "Local is associated with [space], labor, tradition, and hence with what will eventually give way to more powerful forces," that is, globalization (p. 30). Our sense of place and space, using de Certeau's language [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour], are marginalized with profound consequences for our understanding of local concerns or what Escobar calls "life projects" (p. 148). It is time to "reverse this asymmetry by focusing anew on the continued vitality of place (what we are calling "space") in the creation of culture, nature, and economy," and to "take into account [space]-based (although not [space]-bound) models of culture, identity, nature, and economy" (p. 30). This approach to our "modest efforts" in the Hilltop come into play most explicitly in the third phase of the project [The Hilltop Project Today].

Escobar maintains that social movements and other, more modest efforts are "decentralized, dispersed, and transnationalized ensembles of processes that operate at many levels and through multiple sites. No current image captures this state of affairs at present more auspiciously than that of the network ... fueled by digital information and communication technologies (ICTs)." But he asks, "How does one reconcile being-in-place and being-in-networks?" (p. 11).

Escobar attempts this reconciliation in his final chapter where he outlines the activists' "meshworks" that he has observed over the years. One can hear the influence of Bruno Latour's Actor-Network Theory as he includes a number of agents (what Latour would call actants), including many non-human representatives in his descriptions.

"What circulates in the meshwork are activists, cultural models, information, frameworks, email messages, communiques, declarations, agreements, concrete actions and mobilizations, and feelings and expressions of outrage and solidarity" (p. 269). There is little wonder why he looks to theories of complexity and networks to make sense of these meshworks. Escobar's approach is to recommend a social theory that has a chance of describing complexity and fluidity, a new way of "thinking about organization of the living, including networks and social movements" (p. 273).

It may not be abundantly clear why Escobar attends to the digital networks used by those with whom he collaborates or why we find his work appealing. In our case, all engagement efforts emanating from the university are complex in many of these ways and inevitably involve a constellation of communicative technologies. We can also see three motivations for Escobar's attention to networks and network theories. First, on a very practical level, he observed that internet-wide communication systems were remarkably useful to indigenous activists over the years, that is, local people took advantage of international networks of indigenous activists. Second, he realized that network theory seemed to better describe the complexity of lived experiences he observed. Third, he seems intent on influencing those who are engaged in technology studies. His work suggest that since the 1950s "there has been a tendency to reduce information to its technical aspects, overlooking the fact that it always involves practices, bodies and interfaces, particular construction of the real, and, in general, 'a set of relays between the technical and social'" (p. 293).

Escobar thinks of social movements (large and small) as self-organizing systems and recognizes that this approach may seem counter intuitive because those movements often come out of the cultural exigencies of the time. But, as he says, "self-organization here does not mean an automatic process that happens by itself, ... on the contrary, it often entails aspects that are both dependent and independent of context and environment, self-organized and other-organized, with both linear causality and nonlinear explanations, in which agents and structures are inseparable" (p. 260). In this way he echoes de Certeau's approach to place and space. The structured ideologies of place (defined, gridded and entombed) interact constantly with space (ephemeral, time dependent, full of agents interacting) [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour]. Just as it is with space and place, self-organized and other-organized systems have always worked in tandem. That process has simply become more obvious today and perhaps operates at a different pace in this digital age than it has in the past.

Escobar has—with his move from descriptions of community activism and activists to networks (or meshworks) of interacting agents—defined for us the parameters for his politics of space. He sees an "emergent form of politics, a novel political imaginary in that it asserts a logic of difference and possibility that builds on the multiplicity of actions at the level of everyday life" (p. 67). This emergent form of politics is "a lucid response to the type of 'politics of empire' that is common on the Left and that requires that empire to be confronted at the same level of totality" (p. 67). Instead he suggests that "humbler" mobilizations account for the vast majority of the movements today and that they form a network of their own. Naive as it seems, we hope that our Hilltop work will help us join or form a network of these humbler mobilizations as it feeds off the many digital storytelling, story mapping, urban folklore studies, grassroots history projects that are cropping up around our city, state, and country.

Quoting an indigenous activist Escobar ends the book with this: "Failing to assume today our responsibility to our past and to our future will only make more difficult and painful the path ahead for our communities and renacientes [resurgent, as in those who revive the community, bring it back to life]. With their legacy of Life and Happiness, Hope, and Freedom, our elders also left una senda [a path], for us to tread; in this sense, what we need to do today does not constitute an entirely new path" (p. 312).

We poach again. The previous quote is an useful reminder of one of the Hilltop residents' primary goals. The adult participants or elders have been motivated by the need to interact with local youth and to pass on stories and local alternative histories to other generations. While newness seems to be the watch word for our culture, these people want to leave una senda, a path that is not entirely new, one based on past experiences.

In Dickie's initial class, a group of community members, already seniors themselves, often chose to tell stories about their elders or their interactions with those elders: lessons learned from generations past. In the middle-school, after-school project [Another Approach by a Hilltop Team Member] we are about to describe, all the adults who were consulted wanted students to focus first on interviews with elders and local historians before telling their own stories. Several of those stories are linked to in this article:


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
1913 Flood Part I by Cindy Anderson

The 1913 flood was important. People moved up here (Hilltop) to get away from the low lands and the possibility of having to live through another flood.

  • Documenting an important moment in the Hilltop's early history, one that helped determine it's relationship to the City of Columbus.
1913 Flood Part II by Cindy Anderson

It took almost a year before the connected the bridges. There were, I forget, five or six bridges downtown. They had condemned this one. It was the only one that made it through the flood.

  • Documenting important events that shaped the relationship between Columbus and the Hilltop.
Segregation by Clenzo Fox

[Hilltop leaders] were so concerned about the community, that they would not the establishment of anything on a segregated basis.

  • Documenting the efforts of a black community out of the segregation era.
The Brakes by Maurice Bell

The moral of the story is this. Now that I work at the Center [J. Ashburn Jr. Youth Center], there are some kids going the wrong way. So I do everything I know to stop them from going the wrong way. I try everything I know [though some go wrong anyway.]

  • A heart-breaking story that illustrates the struggles in the Hilltop today.

The adult class and the middle-school, after-school project seemed to have to do with establishing a connection between generations through new media production. Intergenerational connections, often undermined by our focus in this country on youth and change, might just be the conceptual key to taking our understanding of space and media to a more global audience. For example, it might be of use in enticing a large granting agency to fund local, digital community centers based loosely on a Hilltop model dedicated to intergenerational projects.

Our broader lesson—that we seem to learn over and over—is how to "affirm the life projects of those on the ground" (Escobar, 2008) while carrying forward our own well-intentioned activities. The dilemma for most of us is how to envision a strategic academic process with enough flexibility to allow a local community the tactical space [To read more about de Certeau's notions of tactics, strategies, space and place [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour] that will, in turn, generate new and space-based knowledges useful to all concerned.


Another Approach by a Hilltop Team Member

The summer after Dickie's spring, adult class on the Hilltop, he left town but was able to hire a graduate student (we will call her Mary) who was adept at convincing community elders to enter into a partnership in order to share their stories of the Hilltop. Her story provided the current Hilltop team members with una senda, a path, [Link to the Theorizing the Local section for more on Arturo Escobar's theoretical approach to community activism]. As we mentioned earlier, The Center for the Study of Teaching and Writing (Directed by Dickie Selfe) fostered this community-academic partnership that began as a straightforward community-institution interaction based on the resource-rich university providing technological access and learning support to an economically challenged neighboring community. It soon evolved into an opportunity for all participants to learn and grow, individually, through addressing community issues.

History of the Hilltop

The Hilltop is a neighborhood named for its special positioning, sitting on a hill overlooking Columbus. Always choosing self-sufficiency as its community identity, rather than becoming a suburb absorbed by the city, the Hilltop distinguished itself through the 1913 Flood, when Columbus-area residents fled to these higher grounds.

The Hilltop established itself as a strong, thriving neighborhood, serving as home to Camp Chase—the internment camp for Confederate soldiers, now demarcated by the remaining burial markers. The State Psychiatric Hospital, built in the Hilltop in 1870, was noted for its enormous size, unique architecture, and complete self-sufficiency. Within the United States, it was the largest building under one roof until the Pentagon was built.

Industrial factories sustained the strong, working-class identity; many entrepreneurial businesses thrived throughout the years. In addition, Hilltop members have made their mark throughout history. Jesse Owens lived on Oakley Avenue when he competed in the 1936 Olympics [Owens at '36 Olympics, "Hitler didn't snub me—it was FDR who snubbed me. The president didn't even send me a telegram" (Schaap, 2007)].

Famed jazz singer Nancy Wilson went to elementary school in the neighborhood, and Michael Redd grew up playing basketball at the neighborhood youth center before he went on to NBA fame.

But more importantly, Elders speak of the strength of the community: "It was a community. Everyone was responsible for raising one another's children," notes community historian Reita Smith in one of our videos.


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
The Importance of Local History by Reita Smith

It was a community within a community on one street. It was a village. And so often we forget that our communities were really villages that raised its children.

  • Documenting that in difficult times, the work of the local community is essential to raising its young people.

This vital sense of community and identity seems fractured when one spends time on the Hilltop today. A large number of school-aged children walk the streets midday. "Yes, there is a truancy problem in the neighborhood," said the library's manager. "Many simply come to the library to use the computers." While some of the streets have well-maintained homes, many are dilapidated, boarded up and covered with graffiti. "The Hilltop was such a thriving neighborhood until crack came to it in the 80s," notes community elder Keith Neal, Executive Director of the J. Ashburn, Jr. Youth Center.

In this stage of the project, elders yearned to share their experiences of the Hilltop's rich legacy and sense of community in counterpoint to a struggling neighborhood, challenged by a shifting economy that no longer relied on industrial giants, the influx of crack and gangs, and the subsequent violence born of unending pain and struggle. But while these elders sought to share their stories and the history of the Hilltop, their feedback also reflected their challenges with technology and their reluctance to enter the digital age. Mary began videotaping their stories as a bridge to involving neighborhood youth in doing the same. In collaboration with the Keith Neal, of the J. Ashburn, Jr. Youth Center, she created an after-school digital storytelling program for middle school youth. Meeting weekly with young people from the Youth Center after school at the Hilltop library, the elders who collaborated on the project were each in their own way setting the stage for young people to engage with them around the production of community stories.

Again, the community celebrated this and other student accomplishments at a "family night" at the J. Ashburn, Jr. Youth Center. About 50 residents participated: parents, young people, grandparents, elders, Youth Center workers, and our Hilltop team.


The Hilltop Project Today: An Emergent Partnership

The third phase of the Hilltop project commences with some new contributors and reflexive parameters in moving forward. The lessons of balancing the institutional concerns of a digital literacy project with the local concern and emphasis on storytelling and intergenerational connections have pointed towards an emergent methodology of community involvement. Fragile partnerships with the J Ashburn Jr. Youth Center continue to grow. Attention to the priorities of community elders while putting in action institutional resources from OSU continue to build situational collaborations. Envisioning the Hilltop through the eyes of the community members and as a neighborhood within the Columbus metropolitan area requires an emergent design that pays careful attention to community suggestions combined with the force of strategic planning.

Aaron Knochel joined the project, another OSU Art Education Ph.D. student. He helped edit some of the 30 hours of interviews collected previously into shorter, coherent stand-alone stories that will be archived on our community portal. As they start streaming through OSU's servers, he will be using them to generate community interest in local storytelling more broadly by collaborating with a local alternative online news service Columbus Underground. Knochel has been writing short summaries of the stories and posting them on the Hilltop portion of that site, which allows for comments and discussion. We are trying to generate a 2.0 buzz about the project. The editor of Columbus Underground has committed to developing a front-page story about the Hilltop project that we hope will catch the attention of online residents in the area and help generate a storytelling culture entirely outside of our control.

Following earlier patterns, we are planning a storytellers' event that will feature some of the pieces that focus primarily on place-based memories, or as de Certeau would have it, spaced-based storytelling: stories that try to capture a moment of life in a particular location on the Hilltop [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour]. We will invite those who have already contributed and their friends to answer questions like the following:

In addition, we have plans to meet in the places themselves and to record stories in situ with local storytellers and audiences. Another addition to the project is Johnathon Rush, a graduate student in Geography, who is fascinated by the potential of mapping community resources and will help us coordinate this space-based approach by spacializing or mapping the collection. By utilizing online mapping resources and GPS technologies combined with the collecting of digital storytelling events, the resulting multimedia mapping will provide digital breadcrumbs for the place-to-space encoding that is at the core of the project. As a residue of the tactical action of community members and institutional collaborators, these multimedia maps will also provide a ready-made community advocacy tool that brings to the forefront the substance and import of the Hilltop community to the wider Columbus area. We are letting the place/space itself speak to us, and to Columbus at large, through those living in the area.

The youth-elder connection that began in the spring of 2010 is still a priority. We are making connections with local schools to see if the curriculum has room for place-based digital storytelling. If so, that curriculum might give elders and youth a regular venue for interacting around stories of lives lived and lives being lived. In this effort we realize that there is a deep-seated hunger for sharing stories and histories. The odd sense of distance between generations seems to be growing in the minds of Hilltop community members of all ages. A desire to connect one with the other seems to be almost universal, though very difficult to manage. Perhaps the digital, which is often blamed for the generational disconnect, can play a role in reducing that distance. At the same time we will try to keep in mind lessons already learned: that only a few of Hilltop constituents match our interest in the technologies of digital media production.

Yet another branch of storytelling has also reappeared and seems increasingly important to the community. Those who have contributed stories, many of whom are themselves approaching retirement age, tell us of friends and community seniors whose lives are rich and need to be represented in our collection. Before they are beyond reach, these community elders have agreed to interview their older friends in homes and spaces of their choosing with our technical help.

We hope to follow the threads of community life wherever they will take us. Perhaps the success of the project will be measured in the few bits of local wisdom that we collect that otherwise would have been lost.

Each of these efforts is an attempt, paraphrasing Escobar, to multiply the landscape of knowledge production in order to unsettle the megastructure of the academy. While we recognize that powerful globalized economic and political forces are acting on the life projects in the Hilltop, we hope with our modest project to illustrate the vigor of the local through storytelling will in some small way help reverse the global/local asymmetry "by focusing anew on the continued vitality of [space] in the creation of culture, nature, and economy" (Escobar, 2008, p. 30).


Broad Parameters for Community/Academic Interaction

Our theoretical considerations have also left us with frameworks that will be useful as this project moves forward and for other projects as well.

We can use de Certeau's framing of the always present and productive tension between strategic interventions and tactical actions as we try to understand the complexity of our roles in community settings. For instance, we realize that community members and our project team members act both strategically and tactically as each group tries to do good work and get what they and their constituents need out of our interactions. Indeed this is the only process likely to lead to a sustainable collective of, in this case, storytellers and academics [A Theoretical Interlude: de Certeau, Foucault, & Latour].

As Escobar (2008) suggests [Theorizing the Local: Escobar], constant attention and analysis of the roles played by actors and actants (Latour, 2005) in our little drama will help us understand both the colonial gestures we make as we enter and explore the Hilltop and the decolonial moments we help create in attending as carefully as possible to the path forward for the community, a path outlined by both seniors and the area youth with whom we interact.

The fascinating complexity of the practices generated by our very modest attempts to work alongside of a community reminds us of Escobar's goal: to create an "emergent form of politics, a novel political imaginary in that it asserts a logic of difference and possibility that builds on the multiplicity of actions at the level of everyday life" (p. 67). It is this focus on bottom-up politics of constant community identity formation with which we hope to align our efforts. We do this while recognizing the substantial and often monstrous top-down forces against which this community contends.

More specifically, we hope to keep close the goals of Cushman and Banks—to value the historical and current literacy practices of community members—and to continue to answer Jeff Grabill's formative questions [A Theoretical Interlude: Banks, Cushman, Grabill & OSU Scholars]: "If we think in terms of infrastructure, we might ask: does an infrastructure reward small steps, changes in course, and the interactions of real people and communities? Does a given infrastructure, in other words, support [community] invention" (p. 94)?

As the Hilltop team imagines infrastructures (some digital and some not), we seem to be taking small, reversible steps that involve real people in the community. We also hope that the type of community invention will lead to productive changes that are obvious to Hilltop team and community members.


A Video Interlude


Quote or paraphrase

The work of the storyteller
Growing up on the Hilltop by Ray Pendall

[At 5 years old] they shipped me off to my grandmother's house in Waverly, Ohio ,and there was a one-room school house about 150 yards from where they lived. It was a township school and at that time every township was responsible for a K-8 schools.

  • Documenting a devotion to education after the Depression.
Recollections of Mound St. Area by Nancy L. Cornell

I have an older brother. We lived in the neighborhood as children with the combination of a lot of boys. I was the only girl for many, many years. And so, I was the tag-along. But it was beautiful, very beautiful.

  • Archiving family histories and why there is such a commitment to the Hilltop.
Hilltop Bean Dinner by Pam Weaver

Some people say the Hilltop is feisty, too many bosses and not enough workers. That is why I chose the Bean Dinner, because it represents unity.

  • Documenting the best of a local community spirit.
  • Keeping civil war history alive.
Kiwanis National Anthem

Listen, appreciate, and smile.

  • Documenting community organizations
Apprentice by Pam Weaver

[Where have you been happiest?] I like it here. I like the Hilltop. I'm happy here. It reminds me of a suburb of London.

  • Illustrating the diverse backgrounds of Hilltop residents.
The Rev Part I by Maurice Bell

I was just another kid with no place to go. We heard that you could use the gym. So a bunch of kids went up on Wednesdays when they had bible study. My life started, uh, I started hanging with the wrong crowd.

  • Documenting the importance of "The Rev," churches, and youth centers to youth who have lost their way.
The Rev Part II by Maurice Bell

That Sunday the Rev [Reverend J. Ashburn Jr.] asked me to stand up. He knew I needed some money and a job. The Rev introduced me as a friend... "If anyone in the congregation has some work, this man will do it for next to nothing... He instilled in me for the first time in my life at 21 a work ethic."

  • Documenting how "The Rev" helped shape lives.
Why I Love the Hilltop by Laverne Guyton

I come into the world struggling to breathe. So let's talk about the Hilltop... It's been hard for a lot of people here on the Hilltop. I have found my niche. This place just called to me. God wanted me to have this beautiful home.

  • Illustrating how faith and a government policy helped benefit a Hilltop resident.



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