Story-driven Education Reform — That Doesn’t Burden the Storyteller, Part Two

As I recently wrote, I’ve spent the last two years leading a body of work here at Bellwether that focuses on the experiences of young people most affected by education fragmentation. These students are served by multiple public systems, change schools frequently, and may not have a single consistent adult to help them navigate a complex web of services and programs. 

Our team has interviewed dozens of people directly impacted by these systems. While existing story collection efforts often require struggling people to be vulnerable in front of powerful strangers — which can sometimes cause unintended harm — we were committed to doing things differently. 

Check out this behind-the-scenes footage to hear more from me on our approach: 

Here are six key strategies we used to collect digital story materials while minimizing the burden on the storytellers:

We went to the places where people already were.

In each jurisdiction, we reached out to juvenile justice facilities, dropout recovery programs, and social service agencies, and to homeless youth coordinators and other adults, to find students for whom systems aren’t working. It’s easy to find kids who have beat the odds, but for these materials, we wanted to hear from the rest of them.

We made very clear to all potential participants what we would be asking of them.

We made sure that interviewees understood what would be on video and who might see it. We answered their questions about why we wanted to talk to them, and then we let them decide whether they wanted to participate. We also gave them the chance to think ahead of time about whether they wanted to be on video, just record audio that we later pair with images or animations, or even just share a story in writing to remain anonymous.

We recorded people in the places that were comfortable and easy for them — even when it was hard for us.

We got permission to bring cameras into juvenile justice facilities, used an empty classroom at an early childhood center, met families in parks and at their homes, and even rented a room in the motel where a family was living. We did this because we know that it is hard enough to share your story on camera with strangers, so the least we could do was streamline the logistics that involves.

As we conducted interviews, we talked to people about how they could control the experience.

We let participants know that they could stop the interview at any time with no consequence. We told them that they could decide which stories to tell and how much to share — and that if they had second thoughts about something they shared, we wouldn’t use that part.

We paid people for their time and expertise.

If we normally pay consultants for their knowledge, then we need to do the same for these experts. After careful consideration, we ended up paying most people with gift cards ranging from $20 to $100, depending on the length and depth of the interview. It was important to us that we timed those payments thoughtfully and delivered them immediately after the interview concluded. We didn’t want people to interpret the payment as a gift for which they should be grateful, or to create a sense of obligation to participate in something they wouldn’t otherwise do because they needed the money.

As we edited the footage, we asked ourselves how it would feel to be that person watching this or sharing it with friends.

How would it feel to go on a date or interview for a job with someone who’d seen this footage? We didn’t just try to create tools to build empathy — we also made sure to include empathy as part of our process. We thought about how people would feel after watching a video or hearing a story — and we also thought deeply about how it would feel to participate in the process.

You may have already seen some of these stories in our recent posts, and you’ll see more of them in our work going forward. If you are interested in our other empathy-building work, check out our online game, Rigged, which puts you in the shoes of a student trying to graduate from high school. This game was also created using real stories from actual students. You can find a number of strategies for including people in your policy work in our Design Methods for Education toolkit.

Bellwether Education Partners is currently accepting letters of interest from state and local leaders interested in partnering with us to improve coherence and coordination across agencies and departments to better serve young people who experience disruptions to their education pathways. 

Read more of our blogging on ending fragmentation here