SEIU and the Center for Digital Storytelling

I’m headed home now from a storytelling workshop I lead at the SEIU offices in Chicago. (I was working for the Center for Digital Storytelling) Like the other workshops I’ve taught, this one was a lot of fun. It was a little different, though, in that we only focused on the writing and recording of stories, instead of including visuals and a soundtrack as well.

The participants in this workshop were all members of the union who had, or recently had, jobs as service workers. The reason they were selected from among the millions of SEIU members is that they volunteered a ton of their time to the union’s campaign efforts supporting Barack Obama. It was truly inspiring. At the story circle in the morning, I’ve never heard such intensely passionate people with such rich stories to tell. One of the members had lost her house. Another’s was in foreclosure. They all had stories about how the economy had impacted them or the people they encountered over the telephone or door-to-door canvassing. Here’s a peek: Working mothers. Recently laid off. Suspension of health care benefits. White. African American. Working class. One woman had even worked as a janitor in the same building for 24 years. It was so nice to hear folks with such great attitudes about writing and such passion about involvement in something bigger than themselves.

I think what was most fascinating to me about the workshop was the intensity of the writing component. Our task was to teach the six participants a bit about how stories are structured, how point of view frames a story, the power of detailed scenes, and pacing. They needed to write a 300-600 word narrative about how working on the Obama campaign had changed them. Then we needed to make good-quality audio recordings of their readings. Here’s a quick schedule for the day.

9:00 – Participant and facilitator introductions
9:30 – Story circle (participants share their ideas)
10:30 – Discussion of storytelling elements, example texts
11:15 – Writing time
12:00 – Lunch
1:00 – Writing time
4:00 – Recording time
6:00 – Day ends

Forty-five minutes to get them thinking about storytelling, another forty five minutes to get them considering different strategies of storytelling. And only about three hours to write. That’s pretty intense for a group of people who admittedly rarely, if ever, do this sort of expressive/essayistic sort of work. So we have to find a balance between pushing them to keep producing text we can work together on, while at the same time making sure the stories they tell are their own. Several of the writers struggled to with some larger textual issues like how to stay focused on a particular point long enough to convey it effectively. Others offered primarily platitudes and slogans to make their own points. But each of them trusted us to help them with their stories. We talked to them about structure, strategies for opening, concrete detail, and working toward a sense of closure for their texts.

I think they produced some powerful texts, and I really look forward to seeing how SEIU uses them to inspire other members toward further political action.

The food and travel associated with this gig was also really fascinating. If you’re curious, you can check out my reflections on that in a few days on my personal blog here.