CSCW EP 31: Joe Lambert - Making Good Stories That Help Us
A Digital Story by “K”
Right after that I was brought to this country. And the only thing I could bring with me where my love of books, learning and knowledge
In high school, I used to dream up. I would explore outer space when I was suddenly drowned by their words, criminal illegal. And I thought, how could a human be prohibited by law? I was so confused. My first reaction was laughter. The laughter turned to tears and rage. I made up my mind, I was going to fight to go to college and continue my education.
I shared my story and quickly found that there were many like me. I began to speak out. At first, it felt good. I felt like I could bring about change. But one day I heard a voice on the radio, and I realized it was me, but it wasn't me. It wasn't my story. It was a story of a perfect poster child. They twisted my devotion to education into a sick plea to my oppressors.
It was slowly killing me, having a face of the people that were denying me, the basic things, a human needs to be a human. To beg them for scraps from their fruitful plate. The very same plate they had filled by raping, enslaving, and killing my ancestors and my brothers and sisters around the world. I came to see that this was not just about me, not just about going to college, but about fighting the injustice experienced by all immigrants and all people suffering
Even today, as I am denied the things a human needs to be a human. I lie in bed with a new book. I glance over at the shelf and see the books I read as a child and think of what I will write in my own.[:
This conversation with Center director, Joe Lambert, explores the story of the Story Center, its history, its practice and its influence. Joe describes himself as a “small businessman, that has kept a little business going for a long time.” He's also unabashed and adding, “and we want to be revolutionaries” with the impetus once again, in Joe's words, “making good stories that help us.”
This is Change the Story Change the World, my name is Bill Cleveland.
Part One. Escuchador (listener)
So, uh, what's your street name for what you do?[:
[00:01:32] BC: OK,[:
So, I, didn’t think I was ever going to be a very successful, creative artist. I at some point I realized as an organizer and then as a manager of nonprofits and stuff, that I was pretty good at just working through negotiating the stress of people who are trying to get things done.
And, and I'm like a lot of adult children of alcoholics, in my family, I was that person too. I was the diplomat. And so, listening, you know, Guillermo Gomez Pena he used word “cultural diplomat.” We're cultural diplomats. But I think it's still “listening. “I'm going to accept my street name is, el Hefe del escuchando,how would you say that? Escuchar is the verb. So, it'd be escuchador. Sounds kind of cool.[:
[00:02:55] JL: Escuchador. El hefe escuchador[:
[00:04:02] JL: Yeah. Again, I still like the narrative of, “I’m my father's son.” He used to create newsletters for the company gate, where he handed out the flyers to the people going into the factory and they didn't read like, you know, “Buy union!”, they read like:
Here's your story? What's going on? Why your story matters? And why getting mistreated by your boss is not. You probably could have better than that. You probably have more rights.”
And so, I, I still prefer to think all I'm doing is carrying out my father's work in a new century. And that work was to get people, to see the dignity in their own lives. And you can do that by any number of processes, but one of them is to stop and consider what's happening in your life, and the story that matters.
Traveling through the arts you know, when I was in school, I was trained to be a playwright. And even, maybe even a dramaturg is fair because theater at UC Berkeley was pretty shitty. I mean, the dramatic arts department was not a great one for actually creating dramatic artists. But it was a great school for theory. There were many people who wrote amazing material about the analysis of theater is that as a cultural experience and throughout the ages.
You know, dramaturgy was a hard job to get, and I remember when I came up, I was like, who do I want to be? Like, I want to be like Oskar Eustis. Cause he was the dramaturg for the Eureka theater. But I, you know, I knew pretty quick that I didn't want to be that guy. Cause I couldn't have fun organizing the integration of political activism and cultural events, right. To do, that. I had to still be an organizer, which is who I was I mean, that was my first career[:
[00:05:54] JL: And I mean, honestly, if you. think about, I moved out here in 1976 to California dropped into the revolutionary left. Got involved in the International Hotel into something called the Tenants Action Group in San Francisco and TAG was in the active fight on behalf of all the communities fighting against redevelopment.he old, pre-party left of the:
But with that bug, I was like, Ooh, I want to do cultural work. I was running the Harris county tenants Alliance. The first rent. Tenant friendly organization in Texas. When I came back to Cal, I did theater and I did research on the people's theater movement of the 60’s and 70’s, seventies. And, as part of that interviewed everybody for a research paper on Bay Area, political theater, I'm three months from getting out of school. I call Susan Hoffman, who's running the People's Theater Coalition, and Susan said, “Well, what’s up/”
And I said, well, I'm looking for some summer work, and she says, “No kidding. The guy who works for us has been having some health problems and he said he wants to take a couple of months off in July. So, will you come in and cover for him?”
“So, what is he doing?” “Well, he used to be the theater manager.” “Well, I can do that. So sure.” Warren Johnston became one of the first people to die of AIDS in San Francisco. And then, at the Memorial and Susan leans over to me and says, “I’m pregnant. Uh, you're going to have to take over.”
And, and I'm sort of left holding the key, but there's no money. I mean, there's no money. And there's not a cashflow because people you know, between Reagan and Deukmejian we were screwed. You know, I'm as holding the key going, “Well, I guess it's good. I got a key to a theater in san Francisco. That's not a bad thing to have.” But then I had to kind of dig my way out of trouble.
Part Two, A Futurist Organizer
BC: So, Joe did manage to dig himself out of trouble and eventually moved on to a producing theater with three of the Bay Area's most talented theater artists at a place called. Life on the Water. I asked him how that creative opportunity melded with his zeal for organizing?[:
[00:09:43] BC: Yeah, but the other thing that you've done, it seems to me, in addition to listening, which is by its nature, a passive act is that you have connected a few dots, I believe.[:
I think I used to describe it, Bill, that I understood the information revolution was a kind of iron horse coming through the communities of the world. In America in particular, but it was, it was like an iron horse. And I used to say, you can stand outside of it and shoot arrows and go, “I hate you.” Or I can jump on the goddamn thing and try to redirect it, do something with the technology as it came along. And I was always like, “Let's jump on it. Let's make the best of it. Yeah. There'll be a bunch of bullshit that will come. But let's try to make it work for the communities that, you know, are still under attack.” And how do we do that?
And I thought digital storytelling is about right, because it's a mixture of this communal anger narratives. I mean, social justice narrative and, and the very personal anger or I, you know, that sounds like it's like, it's all kvetching, but yeah, in a way we need to process, our oppressions. And I know we had a tool for processing oppression. That was pretty cool.[:
[00:12:17] JL: Yeah. And ironically, what it brings up for me is enormous inadequacies I see that I never became a programmer. Because in my mind, really under the hood is you've programmed. You make the tool that then becomes the thing and then you teach more people to program. So, I'm really proud of the Incredible programs that are out there that are teaching people to code, not just kids, but adults.
I felt like once I had digital media, not only video, but photography and audio and et cetera. Once I had my hands on that I, I got that's the rest of my life. That’s a lot of stuff. That's a lot of creative things that don't require programming, so to speak, that you can do.
But, uh, I, I think really. That the heroes of this are the people that are getting people access to the way it really works under the hood, to the computer science part of this. Because in the end, even the tools I use are, are made limited by the imagination of the programming caste. And they often enormously underestimate the capacity of, uh, normal people to work in more complex ways of expression. Meaning with the long way of saying that a lot of consumer software is too stupid. And, uh, and the professional software is not designed for elegance. It's designed like a computer game. It's purposely complex. WeVideo which the tool we use now is, I think that's, kind of what we needed. You know, we needed something that was, complex, but also kind of elegantly put together, accessible across platforms,[:
And I wouldn't have ventured down that road, without your invitation to come and do that. And you're doing that for a lot of people around the world who probably didn't see themselves as, number one, having an important story to tell, and number two, being able to tell it so beautifully and elegantly as they do. Anybody goes on your website, they're going to find dozens and dozens of examples of just extraordinary stories, which is to me, that's a pretty major deal.[:
And I would be overstated to say it's an ideal tool for processing trauma in a communal context. But it's certainly a very good tool for processing trauma and the majority of our work has grown in the direction of those people that do that work. Mainly, they're trauma processing professionals in community settings. They Use digital storytelling because they found it, as effective as “XYZ” or more effective than “XYZ” as interventions. So, we want this tool. To me, that's the part where when you walk into our, , environment, unless you kind of already knew that already, we still get plenty of people. It's like, well, I just want to take a digital video class. And then at the end of it, there. Oh, my God, that was the most intense, wonderful, beautiful, fantastic experience I've ever had. Best workshop, not just best workshop, like best three days of my life kind of thing. And then they get addicted and then they're like, what's the next workshop?
Rocio Vellescas: I would have nightmares of my mom's dad. I can still see the house where it happened. I can still smell the rain, heart racing. I can never go back to the house, but I can do this. I dance to forget.
At rehab, every night after dinner, I would go back into my room and lock the door and close my eyes. Lights everywhere me on the dance floor, and two speakers behind me. I danced to recover
Some people dance in partners, but not me. I always danced alone. I danced to forgive.
I heard a new beat, and I found a partner and I forgive myself. My love is my music. My daughter is my dance. Dance is my life.[:
[00:17:28] JL: So that's why we're in business because people get excited. But, you know, once you can do Child' Soldiers from the Congo in a workshop, or you know, just the list of, of hurt humans that I've worked with, my other eight program staff, all work with, you know, people come in and we treat them like they're survivors. It's like, we're all fucking survivors. This experience called life and it hurt us. It wounded us. And, yes, we can hold your story. Yes, you could talk about anything horrific or complicated or just joyous. Yeah, you can talk about it and people go, “Wow, that's really good. How did you figure out how to do that?”[:
[00:18:43] JL: I mean, another thing you know about being a poor theater person is you make-do with what you got and you make beauty out of basics of things. So, the other thing that I think we figured out is these are very sophisticated tools that can do very sophisticated things. What if they did something relatively simple and elegant? I mean, from a design standpoint, simplified and elegant? Would it work? Well, Yeah!
And, I think as a result, the ability to get an artifact that you feel sort of impressed; “I did that!” in relatively short amounts of time, kind of dealt with another dynamic I think I had with creative process, like to get something on stage or to make a film, film or to yeah, here's like way too much work. It took too long. My attention span and my patience was not great enough to want to wait for the big show. When I could give this little experience that gave you a taste of what it's like the composer song to make it to sculpted nice piece.
It gives you a taste of something and it's the algorithm of the amount of energy needed. I mean, bravery is lots of it, but the amount of energy, actually time to get something on the other side that looked pretty cool was, was extremely good. And, and I thought, “Well, that's it.” Because in some ways the scalability of any process is. that that algorithm is like, time. and focus, and output. Lots of people start things that they never finished in every kind of community arts practice. But you get something done in this that's evidence of your intent. It may not be perfect. But I still say they have a little bit more straightened back. They say, “look at what I did. Look at what I did. But it's me.” It's, “I see myself in that piece.” and that's tricky, right?[:
mean, I don't trust the digital universe because it's so easily manipulated. Yeah. The digital stories that I've heard from your website are often as close as I can think of that the digital comes to sitting across the table with the person holding their hands. And to me that's breaking a barrier. Because, you know, when you're watching James Bond or whatever, I think most people have a part of their brain that says, This is cool, but It's the least authentic thing I've ever seen in my life.” Right? But actually having a feeling of the first voice, this smells and tastes and sounds real, right? That's important.
Part Three: First Voice, First.
BC: So, Joe, this impulse, this understanding that the power stories told by people who lived them, has actually been emerging for a while, right?[:
SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "GHETTO LIFE 101")
Lealan Jones: Good morning. Day one. Walking to school. Leaving out the door.
(Door opens. Music fades up.)
LJ: This is my dog, Ferocious. You know why he got that name if you hear him bark.
LJ: I see the ghetto every day walking to school.
Some guys on the corner burning a fire. Be here summertime, wintertime, spring, fall -- every day. With they drink in they hands. Probably some White Port, Willie P, Jack Daniels, E&J.
I live here. This is home.
(Speaking to friends) What's up, Emmie? What's up, Doodoo?
LJThis is my walk everyday, so I'm taking you on a little journey through my life. Yes, my life. Yeah.Jones in an excerpt from the:
That was Dave.Isay the founder of StoryCorps talking about his work giving voice to the story of a man named Maurice become. Who was sent to death row at Angola prison in 1958. For defending himself while being gunned down by members of the Klu Klux Klan. Pick him was eventually released after serving 37 years in solitary confinement.[:
You know, I remember we did the play about the building of the Golden Gate Bridge, you know. And, we make the play, and it was like, yeah, you kind of got it. And Anna Deavere Smith, man, she's good. But it's still better when they say it. And, and we like documentary film because you wait until they say it.
You can own your own total validation. That what makes you unique and special in the world --- makes you unique and special in the world, and don't feel ashamed of that. Enjoy the quirk of it, that quivering your voice and the timidness here, and the intimacy of saying it just like that. And I think we just try to keep that as best we can, knowing that in fact, for a lot of people, any process of self-aware creativity makes them so nervous[:
[00:24:18] JL: …and, uptight. You know what they say in the story circle is like, God, I should have recorded it because it was so beautiful when you just said it. And then you write this thing. But you won't write like you talk cause your third-grade teacher beat it. out of you. You know, but the good news is Story Corp, and the early Moth was truly inspired by the off the cuff.[:
[00:24:43] JL: Well, and yeah, it's the way you say it when you said it the first time. And if you can get that down, it's really good. And, and I, I, I don't like the word authenticity because now we can recreate it. You know, all of this can be schtick, you know, it's schtick, but there is something about feeling as if there's less mediation. It's exactly what you said. There's just less distance between that author and my ears...[:
[00:25:10] JL: eyes. And I like that. and even if it's rough around the edges, I still almost like the roughness. I used to joke. I love rehearsals more than I like shows because it was just more interesting.[:
[00:26:03] JL: There was a great writer we talked about. It's like, you're standing in the field and, and suddenly hear the train and it's, you know, the muse is coming. And it's like, you're running back from the end of the house to get to the writing, get to the typewriter or the pen or whatever, before it gets away. I think it's a wonderful skill. Those people that can ride that train, you know, can see it come and get on it, be what you need to do and jump off at the next place. And now you've got that in your back pocket, travel with that.
Part Four: Unpacking the Impossible[:
[00:26:52] JL: Well, I was thinking about our work in South Africa in relationship to, the. Sub-Saharan issue of AIDS. And, and in particular, this relationship between domestic violence or gender-based violence and the spread of sexually transmitted disease like AIDS. HIV AIDS, um, but, I want to change. stories.
I'm going to tell this story that I wrote about in my in textbook, the Digital Storytelling, now subtitled Story Work for Urgent Times. , it's in the chapter where we talk about our work of how we hold space, The Story Circle.. And you know, this was a project then I got to do some of this mainly led by Andrea on our side. But the, San Francisco Department of Public Health had a federal funded program that they called the Children's System of Care, which was an inner agency you know, schools, public safety social services, and public health integrated ways of helping people affected by public health issues.
And, and a subsection of this thing was called No More Funerals, and it was about the impact of violence in the Hunters Point community in San Francisco. For people that don't know that's historically African American community. There were shipyards back in World War Two a lot of people were working in that area. And Bayview- Hunters Point became one of three African American communities of size in San Francisco.
And, we had this one workshop where, the kids were all gathered in this, office. And I remember it was about seven, eight kids they were like 14 to 17 and the first one told a story that I thought was about the most heartbreaking story I had ever heard. Uh, and because I do this work a lot, I had an odd feeling about that, which was, “Oh, it's going to be so, hard for the other people in the room because it's going to set this sort of, you know, well, that was a really dramatic, intense story I'm not going to have one like that.”
Instead, it went around the circle. I don't, I’m getting emotional talking about it, and it was as if, you know, “You think, you think that's bad, let me share mine.” And it was just, and these were all babies, and the, the horror that they had experienced, that they were sharing --- probably just a snapshot of the horror. It was, you know, it was like one after another, it was breaking my heart, breaking my heart, breaking the heart.
You know, the last one was this young woman. Um, I think I can tell this much right. Um, she was from the inner city. She had a very special trip that she was given to go with her sister up to, uh, God, I think if I remember this correctly, both of her parents had died in violence. Both her, her and her sister, through the foster youth program or something like that, we're given, uh, a trip to go up to the gold country to, to have a weekend at camp. The camp is a wonderful place and they're enjoying herself. And at some point, they're both in the pool, her sister starts screaming that her head is bursting, you know?
And, um, and they come together. And her sister doesn't die in her arms, but she has a cerebral embolism. Then they're both airlifted out of there to a hospital and their sister dies that day. But it was the combination of like, your life has been fucked every single way, and then God is going to come take your baby sister away, as well. And I remember, you know, it's like, there was no air in the room amongst the adults in the room. There was no air. We, we were no longer capable of talking or thinking. And I remember one of the, this wonderful woman Velma, she was the caretaker, and she was like, “Well, here's what we're all going to do for self-care. After the workshop, and we're going to make sure that we do something nice for ourselves.”
And then, you know, the workshop went on and stories were made and I'm on a lot of the stories that were made in that context were never public. They were part of a kind of, we built an internal video vault for them to be used by the community and San Francisco Public Health. But I remembered it stayed with me that, Story circles, they're about protectiveness and readiness to tell stories. And usually, you're sorta discouraging people from fully going there because, the re-traumatization that goes on when a series of intense stories are told one after another.
But the flip side of that is that these moments of listening when they're conceived well, and there's a sense of protectiveness they can be Circles of, of absolute bravery of a heroism in which you unpack the, the impossible in order to hold it and to, to make something sensible about the insensible. And, and, I never will forget the lesson of that because I always am quite worried about people being retraumatized, triggered effect, everything, every psychological professional said. “Be very, very, very careful when you have people share stories.”
I'm going to say, "Yeah but, "Yeah, but it's also true that those moments can be liberatory. And it's safe to say we got through that one okay. And, and those kids made it through, and we did have some psychological services before and after. They had support. Um, I think it's helped, you know, I think they went through the experience with some, um, Impact. I, it gives you a sense of where we've been.[:
[00:33:08] JL: …digital stories that were part of the provision of support services to the communities affected by varying kinds of violence. Mainly this was either street-level or, family violence. Telling stories about, getting through being a survivor of that. So, there would be stories about confrontations with police and family members being killed. There would be stories about domestic violence. There'd be stories just about, you know, getting through life, coming up from that particular socioeconomic, cultural context. And so, they’d be shown between the professionals and community members as part of their service provision. Anyway, you know, sometimes the counseling services, sometimes it's other kinds of, support services to help kids stay in school or to help kids, you know, get out of juvie.[:
[00:34:14] JL: Yeah. Well, all of our work, if you look at the history. Um, moving towards student centered learning and client centered health provision, and tell the story the way you tell it, as your story and culture. It's like first, first voice. We all have the same ideas that we who are on the outside, well-trained in some professional capacity, can't really know what it's like to be that person. So, they need to talk to each other. And we need to get out of the way. And we need to develop peer mechanisms of support and solidarity, so that increasing numbers of people that run those programs, aren't some person from some completely different life experience, but are people that came through similar life experience.
The good news is all around the world that was happening a lot more. You know, we're privileged-in, for sure, outsiders. I was always the only white person involved. But it was really about; “Let's hear it through their words.” And a lot of the helping professions were doing these peer-driven, things like restorative justice. Implicit in restorative justice is peer driven self-awareness because it doesn't work for the outsider to say, well, you know, you should think this….. “Screw you!”[:
[00:36:20] JL: I mean, admittedly, I want to say I've been lucky to work with like-minded people. And I know what you're saying is true. And so, when I say it's, it's a trend. It's to these other things that if were you to go into a conference on education, or a conference on social service, or even participatory research in the academic world --- they're all saying the same thing: The first voice matters if this is for them, what do they get out of it?[:
[00:36:49] JL: And where do they have power in that, in the thing. And then you're Right, you know, some people don't want people liberated. They want them stuck exactly in their oppression for the rest of time. And those people are out there and we're still resisting[:
[00:37:07] JL: so we persist right.[:
[00:37:12] JL: There's that, but, you know, yeah. It's a dynamic, so we'll figure it out.
Here's another story I did executive training. This was when Dana was my compatriot, Dana, who was very corporate-friendly, and he dragged me along to some of these corporate gigs. And it led to corporate executive training. I went to some retreat to be an educator with them, a couple of other well-known corporate leader guys. And one of these guys had these calling cards, which was a way to get to your essential self. A guy named Richard Lieder. And we did it, I did it with everybody else because it was a bunch of vice presidents, and I, was like, “Ah, I'm in.” And it came down to like, you choose words, choose words and mine got down to “enabling justice”, you know?
And I know that you know, I have a deep burn inside of me about what feels like it's holding back, uh, a road to justice for individuals or communities. It's a deep, the, the angry burn and in the culture we're in. Um, we, uh, we are still in a whole bunch of trouble about people that want to remove the justice of lots of people. I mean, we know all this.[:
[00:38:40] JL: And yet, I feel like the work I'm doing is to create the conditions in which the dignity and agency of an individual is seen as having enough value to go out in the world and change it. Because I think an un-signifiable life is a life that can be, destroyed either by the person themselves or by other people.
Part Five: What's Next?[:
We're in the middle of a long-term project to, number one, deal with what we're dealing with and, number two, maybe use this moment to leverage a future that's incrementally better than the past, we just went through. What have you learned as a teacher, as an educator, as a facilitator, as a maker, that you think people who are interested in healing our communities could think about and make use.[:
But we live in a very complex world that will decide to kowtow to great power and say, we should trust those guys in the order (only guys) before I or we're going to reinvent the world to, (in obviously my humble opinion) to prevent global extinction. I mean, it's like barbarism and the extinction, or a sustainable future in which maybe democracy plays an important role. I won't say the leading role, but it plays a role. Let's say that story matters to get people to move toward decency and away from thugishness. Story matters, and it's a battle. It's a battle of ideas. So, I want to say the pandemic is the pandemic because in the battle of ideas, the stories of compassionate wearing of masks got muddled[:
[00:41:34] JL: That was bad storytelling. And frankly, when we have that, when we're slow, we on the cultural resistance, we're also responsible. Our forms of resistance have to be up to date in a public health sense. I'd like to think Story Center, with some project like the Nurse Story Project. Cause this would be the final thought I have on this is the world we're in. Won't be saved by those of us who protect ourselves inside our comfortable shelters.
The world won't be saved by those of us who protect ourselves inside our comfortable shelters. It's going to take us being brave enough to be on the front line. And when we hear the stories of frontline work, we have to see ourselves in those stories. We can't say, “Those people, Oh, aren't they wonderful? The Filipino nurse, isn't she great?” We have to say, “That could be my daughter and that could be my son.” That's I have to also be willing to be on the frontline. And I think stories of braveness, and the ordinariness of heroic behavior, we need those stories in front of us in order that we can also be on the front line.
A big part of Story Center's work is we want to be revolutionaries. We know we don't want to just make it comfortable for everybody to tell a story. We want uncomfortable stories to force themselves into our mind so that we have to deal with it. So, there's gotta be a bit of that willingness to learn from this period as opposed to, “Gosh, I'm glad I didn't have to be there. Yeah.”[:
It's interesting. I was talking to a young guy and I conversation the other day and, and he's organizing, and I asked him “What, what's the role the communities, stories, play, and the organizing?” And he thought long and hard, and he finally said, “The things I'm trying to get across, I can't do it. I have to get them to do it.” And that's exactly the story you told about your dad, which is, “Why would I listen to some outsider, who thinks he knows better than I do? my neighbors know, and I trust them.”[:
And I had friends in those worlds, New Zealand, Scandinavia, other places as well, they paid for artists. They really thought cultural work was the right mechanism. But we figured out how to do it anyway. And we found a model that kept us going. And if nothing else, I'm just proud of the fact that these values could make it through this, technology driven, worldview that has gobbled up the world off this coast of ours, right? It's gobbled up the world and we're the humanist inside of it, fighting! Nah, it's going to be humanistic. This isn't so somebody can sell you something you don't want. This is also a tool for the oldest process and human culture, making good stories that help us.
Yeah, well making good stories that help us. I think that's a good point to close on.[:
[00:46:19] BC: Adios.[:
[00:46:21] BC: Bye-bye.
Bye-bye. To All of our listeners. We'd like to thank all of you out there for tuning in, as you can. Probably tell change the story change the world is. A labor of love. And knowing that there are folks out there, like you, traveling along with us, makes all the difference. So, for myself, Judy Munsen, our music Maestro, our scribe, Andre Nnebe and U235, our mystery mentor, we'd like to express our deep appreciation. And remind you that you can express yours by subscribing to this podcast, sharing it with your friends and enemies. So, for right now, this is Bill Cleveland for Change the Story / Change the World, signing off till next time. Stay well, help folks, and make something useful. Adios.