Cups of love and cups of courage: facing up to the everyday realities of violence

Cups of love and cups of courage: facing up to the everyday realities of violence

This blog was originally posted on openDemocracy Transformations

Structural solutions are vital, but real security starts inside each one of us.

“This story is about the pieces of my cup. Growing up in my grandmother’s matchbox house with five other cousins, cups were an important part of my life especially during breakfast. My cup was red and no one could drink out of it in my presence. My fondest memories were shared with Tilly in my grandmother’s garden, sipping away at our make-believe tea from my cup brought to me by my gogo [grandmother] from Uhmlanga [a town in eastern South Africa].

We didn’t play together on this day. Tilly had gone to see her mama. The uncle known to my family and I crept in slowly while I was taking a bath. The cup broke, leaving me with a bitter introduction to womanhood.”

Thuli told this story at a workshop on daily experiences of insecurity that I ran in 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa. Her story describes how violence interrupts the rhythms of daily life—and how it can find you even as a child in the bath.

When we read a story like this, we can feel a small part of the insecurity that Thuli felt. But violence isn’t just a problem for others or ‘over there.’ All of us may know parents in our neighbourhoods who go too far in hitting their children, or watch videos of police beating suspects on our streets, or shudder at the scenes of war and bombings on our screens that involve people we might know.

Increasingly, violence is all around us, whether you come from a matchbox shack in Johannesburg, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, a village in Syria, or sit at a café in Paris. We all face violence in our lives, and increasingly we watch it unfold in other places in full digital detail.

How can such everyday violence be confronted? Mostly, these problems are answered with superficial and top-down responses:  France increases air attacks on IS in response to the Paris bombings. The US builds more “supermax” prisons to hold inmates in almost total isolation, while the overall prison population reaches epic proportions. Rio de Janeiro creates a crack police force to ‘pacify’ its favelas, while police violence continues at record highs.

Even more alarming, those responsible for controlling violence may be those who use it most. Violence often comes from those who should be providing safety and protection: a parent, a police officer, a neighbour or a lover. Despite the improvements that have been made to policing in Brazil, for example, levels of trust in the security forces are extremely low. A recent study found that 80 per cent of Brazilians are afraid of being tortured by their own police force after their arrest.

In South Africa, large sums of money are being poured into upgrading townships while centres that provide direct support to survivors of rape are in danger of closing from lack of funding. Meanwhile, levels of distrust in the police have reached a crisis point, and popular protests have led to an independent commission of inquiry appointed by the Western Cape government to investigate policing in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township.

Real solutions don’t lie through top-down directives or actions that pour yet more violence on the flames. Instead, we need to look at the things that help people to confront everyday violence in their lives, and then support them. In Thuli’s story, her experience of insecurity was deepened through her relationship with her father:

“It was later decided that I move to my mother and my father’s house. It was safer there after all. All that I knew, all that I was, was left behind. Over at the parents’ house they argued. I often saw it. They fought. How he slept at home sometimes.  How I gradually stopped being the centre of his world. How he completely ignored me. The cup was smashed into a million pieces. Pieces of betrayal, love, pain, rejection, pity and lord knows what else.

It was at this point that I realised that I’m a fatherless child. It’s all I’ve ever been, it’s all I’ll ever be. And I hope that you know that I will never, ever unlove you.”

Patterns of violence seem to repeat themselves through generations. Some children are abandoned, mistreated and abused, and some of them take out their anger and frustration in destructive ways as they grow older. Yet even in places where violence is pervasive there are people like Thuli who are willing to confront it.

Thuli now works in community development and violence prevention and is committed to gender justice. She has helped other people from the townshipsto tell their own stories about how violence affects them and how they can respond, using creative approaches to help different groups in the township identify problems and solutions.

What makes her and others like her take action when everything and everyone around them continues to let the violence take over, to become normalized and routine? A community activist in Khayelitsha put it to me like this:

“…we must try to help ourselves…Your child, your children, get raped, it is not somebody else’s child, it is your child. So, you get abused from your husband, so you have to stand up. So we are trying our best to do it.”

Working with people who have made the choice to confront violence in this way, I’m constantly inspired by their courage and commitment. What seems to help them even in the face of overwhelming odds is their inner strength and the support they receive from those around them:

“Why do I do this? To love people, I can’t say, because it is not about the money, honestly, I just take their pain and make it mine, that’s my problem. But this is why my sister says you are going to get sick some day, because you go and take some people’s problem and make [it] yours.”

“I want to change people’s lives. I want make them understand and accept themselves and their lives. To change their way of thinking…like thinking it was accepted for people to be hit – changing this and making them feel comfortable in their homes, and making people feel comfortable as themselves.”

But personal efforts aren’t enough when the causes of violence are structural in nature. Although people use violence for many reasons, most of them boil down to power. In Rio de Janeiro, the military police, the drug traffickers and the militias all have long histories of using violence against each other and against those living in the favelas. Activists have to negotiate with those with guns in order to find the space to do their work.

In South Africa’s townships, some people use violence to get what they want – toilets, jobs, sex, or money. Many don’t believe that society offers them any other option to secure a living. Insecurity in an urban context has many dimensions—the threat of physical violence for sure, but also the violence that breeds in systems that don’t provide enough opportunities for young people to find decent work, for parents to feed their children, or for girls to get to school without having to use sex to hitch a ride.

Ultimately, confronting violence means transforming the systems that encourage it by building economies and social relationships and security systems that include everyone in ways that are just and effective in reducing violence and the conditions in which it festers; systems that don’t provide even more incentives or role models that portray violence as rational and successful.

That doesn’t happen from the outside in or the top down alone. It requires the bravery of people who decide to act differently, who decide to eschew violence and help others to do the same. And then it requires these acts to be scaled up, to inspire others, so that the whole system begins to shift. And that’s why Thuli’s story is so important.

Here’s how it ends:

“I have since collected the different pieces of my cups. The broken pieces. Also along the way, I’ve found other cups. Cups of different forms, ever changing cups. Cups of love, cups of courage, cups of peace.”

When someone decides to break out of a destructive pattern to confront the violence that surrounds them, something important is sparked off: the recognition that love and courage are potentially revolutionary in their effects. That’s the moment when Thuli collected the pieces of her broken cup and put them back together again.

Image credit: Khayelitsha township, KennyOMG/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Can participatory video bring transformative change? Perhaps.  How do you perceive ‘raising citizen voice’?

Can participatory video bring transformative change? Perhaps. How do you perceive ‘raising citizen voice’?

By Tamara Plush

Here in Australia, social and mainstream media is abuzz about a nationwide movement to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and end racial discrimination in Australia’s Constitution ( To better understand the complex history surrounding the issue, I attended a community forum entitled ‘Who’s afraid of the Constitution?’The event offered a lively debate on recognition, an issue I had assumed to be widely supported by Aboriginal and Torres Islander Straight peoples. In the discussion, I heard a strong counter-argument that the movement for Constitutional recognition served as a distraction from the more politically contentious, but potentially more meaningful, actions around treaty and sovereignty. Here, activists stressed the value of giving voice to this full spectrum of political options. Yet they also acknowledged that the Indigenous rights movement currently lacks a representative vision and the resources to sufficiently offer political alternatives. Some panelists argued that this allows the government-funded Recognise movement to present Indigenous voice as unified through a particular agenda.

In response to the debate, I contemplated how participatory video (PV) could be used to advance Indigenous rights; especially in relation to my PhD researchinto PV, raising citizen voice, and using story to meaningfully influence and transform policy. Participatory video is often considered a communication for development process that utilises filmmaking as a means to cultivate and strengthen the knowledge, confidence and social agency of people who are marginalised. Participatory video processes can support people least heard in society to represent themselves privately and publically towards social and political change. Such aspirations are quite common among practitioners who design, implement and facilitate participatory video projects. However, my research has revealed that PV practitioners actually conceptualise the aspiration of ‘raising citizen voice’ differently. To illustrate, I offer three possibilities for how participatory video could be used to advance Indigenous rights through different pathways for voice identified in my research.

Amplified voice 

Amplified voice prioritises the right to speak by promoting participatory video activities that open platforms for marginalised citizens to generate and share their concerns. Here, locally trained Indigenous community members could collect multiple opinions from diverse communities to feed into the discussion. Through this process, a greater number of voices could be represented in the Constitutional debate. Of concern, however, is how to ensure those voices have influence. For example, if multitudes of opinions are captured on video, the collected voices will require editing to distil them into final films representative of the whole, a process that is rarely neutral. The representative voice that emerges, in other words, can be swayed by who is selected to give voice to the issue, who is gathering the voice and their position of power in the community, and who edits and presents the opinions. There is also a concern as to whether decision-makers will be motivated to listen and respond to the diversity of Indigenous concerns—especially those voices challenge powerful government interests.

Engaged voice

Engaged voice promotes the right to participate.Currently in the recognition debate, the most visible arena for participation is through Indigenous-only consultations planned in communities across Australia. Practitioners could use participatory video here to ensure the most marginalised groups in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are part of the debate, such as young Indigenous people or people with disabilities. Of concern, however, is that the government-supported public spaces are inviting comment only on their agenda, as evidenced by the stance that the consultations must focus solely on the Constitutional recognition debate rather than any other pressing issues.

Equitable voice

Equitable voice focuses on the right to influence through enhancing citizens’ agency, relationships and networks as a means to transform the unjust conditions and power asymmetries that drive people’s marginalisation. Here practitioners approach participatory video strategically in support of wider social justice efforts. Thus, rather than start by engaging with PV in invited government spaces, PV might be better suited in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as a means to build local knowledge and agency prior to the consultations. This would help ensure that people from underrepresented groups have the confidence and capacity to speak in public spaces. Alternatively, PV may be more effective in promoting dialogue between diverse Indigenous communities to strengthen or build new social and political networks for greater influence in the long-term. Through these imaginings, I concluded that the equitable voice pathway is the most socially just approach to raising Indigenous voice. Nonetheless, it is also the most difficult to implement considering the complex political terrain at the community level, the powerful governmental agenda at the national level, and the institutional and financial resources required for such an approach.

So what qualities are needed for PV practitioners to approach participatory video practice through the equitable voice pathway? In my research, I found that PV practitioners most closely aligned to equitable voice often rejected the notion that voice amplification or participation in formal decision-making spaces is sufficient for social and/or political change. Rather, the PV practitioners—who tended to label themselves more as ‘social justice activists who use PV’ rather than ‘PV professionals who work on social justice’—primarily promote PV activities that analyse and address power. In this way, their intention is to use PV processes to transform structures that have historically denied or diminish voice. This could be at the household level, in society, or through institutions or government. Practitioners explained that the challenges of using PV to such ends were integral in a much greater struggle to shift inequitable power.

In applying this to the Australian debate, I concluded that efforts to gain more equal and equitable voice for Indigenous peoples require long-term strategies that can be supported by participatory video to raise citizen voice. Taking this approach could increase possibilities for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories being told to be politically meaningful, valued, influential and ultimately transformative.

Tamara will speak about her research at the IVMA conference in Brighton, Sept. 16-18.

Transformative storytelling meets people where they are

Transformative storytelling meets people where they are

By Joanna Wheeler


Over the past decade, I have worked with creative narrative-based processes in what has felt like a dizzying array of contexts, and with many different people.  From community-based activists from townships in Cape Town confronting violence, to peasant associations in remote Northern Mozambique trying to improve governance and conditions in their villages, to municipal employees and citizens in small towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina trying to make their society better….I’ve also run storytelling processes with people from six to seven countries together–Mexico, Russia, Egypt, India, Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, Guyana, the UK–every process of storytelling has been unique.

Sensitive facilitation is crucial fortransformative storytelling

I’m listing these examples because working in these contexts and with people from diverse backgrounds (in terms of their levels of education and literacy, social positioning, perspective on the storytelling process, etc.) has taught me a lot. I have learned, from each place and each person, something new about how storytelling works for different people. Working in such a range of contexts has forced me to give attention to how storytelling needs to start with people where they are – to how it needs to meet them where they are, and invite them in – not force people into a particular modality or mode of expression.

While it is true that every society has its stories and its own traditions of how stories are told and retold, it is also my experience that these ways of storytelling vary tremendously. Along with storytelling traditions, modes and practices, I have learned about the importance of a nuanced and careful awareness of what enables creativity and how much this can vary.

If we consider that transformative storytelling approaches involve multiple dimensions (clarity and purpose in story crafting, visual representation of meaning, depth of expression and emotion, technical capability to knit these elements together, etc.), then we can consider different examples of how creativity enters into each of these elements. (Read this for more about how and why these elements can come together.)

In some places, such as working local NGOs in Lichinga, Mozambique, I learned that as children, people were punished for drawing while at school.  Drawing was considered a waste of time and precious resources, in a context where there is little to no paper, pencils, or chalk.  For those who have grown up with this experience, thinking with visual symbolism is extremely difficult. Most people in this context tend to choose very literal images to represent elements of their stories; they struggle to represent emotions, metaphors, or anything that is not literal.  For this kind of group, then, the storytelling process must offer other modes and techniques to help them connect to and express their stories:  dramas spring to life where drawn images fall flat.

Compare this to working with a group of committed social workers and activists from a local NGO in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  For this group, poetry and metaphor flowed out of every word, sentence and image, often swamping the story, itself.  Initial scripts for their stories were 5 times the length needed, and every word was heartfelt.  For this group, long detailed feedback discussions with peers and structured collective discussion in a story circle helped to find the important and embodied details of the story in between the poetic flourishes and curlicues.

Working with Sonke Gender Justice and community activists from townships in Cape Town on the topic of how they confront violence strained the storytelling process through the sheer weight of emotions and trauma that each person faced.  In a context like South Africa, where experiences of everyday violence are pervasive, persistent, and brutal, the storytelling process required careful facilitation, space and time in order to deal with the emotions that emerged in a productive way.  In a similar way, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, after a history of years of war and autocratic government, one of the hardest steps for storytellers was to accept that being creative was ‘allowed’.

The diversity of these and other experiences with transformative storytelling had made me think about my own education and positioning—about the modes of expression that I find comfortable or disconcerting; and about how best to judge when to use different approaches as a facilitator.  This kind of work asks a lot of everyone involved—from participants to facilitators to audiences.  It is not without risks. The ultimate and relative success of any particular process depends to a large extent to the many, many adaptations and adjustments made to the context and group.  I am trying to be deliberate about ways of storytelling that start where people are. This means that there is no manual. Instead there is the awareness, sensitivity, and experience of the facilitator; the willingness of the storytellers to work together; and, careful attention to the context and what this context means for how people tell their stories.

Stories no longer un-heard and un-told…

Payal Saksena

Digital storytelling (DST) has been used in the past in some streams such as counselling and education as a creative medium for enhancing expression, experimentation, explorations into stories of harm, healing and hope. DST is also an exploration of how digital mediums can be used for empowering people in sharing their personal stories and also how this can be linked to achieving larger social change. Family for Every Child’s focus on children and families propelled us to introduce this tool to our work and build on the strength of our members to engage with children on their experiences within their families in varied socio-cultural-political contexts.

Early this year (2014) we got eight members on board to become involved in, take ownership of and implement a global DST initiative. In our DST work, the process of empowerment and learning will also occur at the organisational level, in providing our members with insights into the role and nature of family in their own context, strengthening their work to support children and families. Working with eight members provides opportunities for exchange of experiences and insights on these issues. We also have the aim of gaining understanding of family in order to feed into our conceptual framework which is the foundation for our work on policy development, also, as an important tool for communication and advocacy on significance of families and lastly promoting effective child participation.

As a first phase of the DST initiative which would end in early 2015, a workshop training DST facilitators was organised in early July for seven members, with the support member organisation Partnership for Every Child (P4ec) in Russia. This took months of planning and coordinating given the challenges to acquire visas, manage long journeys and putting workshop logistics in place. The members involved were: Hope Village Society in Egypt; ChildLink in Guyana; Undugu Society in Kenya; Butterflies in India; JUCONI in Mexico; CINDI in South Africa; P4EvC in Russia. ABTH, our member in Brazil, will have a separate digital story telling training in Portuguese in September 2014 in Brazil. P4ec had already taken part in a DST training in July 2013 with the Participate initiative in Nigeria and have used the technique to explore the perspectives of children in institutional care – the films that P4ec have produced will be shown at an exhibition to coincide with the UN general assembly meetings in Sept, 2014.

The workshop began and we met with the facilitator Joanna Wheeler, who had come from South Africa to help us learn about digital storytelling – the skills and technology involved, and how to apply this to our work on children and strengthening families. The question ‘Tell us a time about when you felt like you were part of a family or not part of a family‘ was used as a prompt for the five day learning process.

The workshop was an intensive, emotional and yet an exciting process. We began by having brainstorming sessions on: What makes a good story; understanding the story arc which focuses on the beginning, the high-point in the story and then moves to the conclusion. We shared our stories in the story circle, a circular seating arrangement and declared safe-space for all participants to share and listen to each other’s personal stories. All stories had to be true and on focus on our feelings rather than stories of what, how, when! This safe space the story circle – we were to realise would be the space where we would share our probably never-heard stories, some of them on abuse, deprived love to some on caring, love and how families bound us together with their presence and scattered us in their absence! The process further deepened to learning about freestyle writing and then onto writing scripts; drawing, painting our images to amplify our stories, and then learning the technology. We learnt all the nuances, the details, the software applications on iPads and web which would help us in creating that beautiful story of how we felt as a part of our families. Each member received two iPads and other tools and material required for facilitating their own local processes within the global initiative.

We made 14 stories, most of which we can share and we all felt we now have the skills to support children and families to make their own stories. Everyone worked incredibly hard (with a number of late nights!) and it was emotionally draining as people were sharing very significant moments in their lives. The facilitation was really important in supporting this: Joanna, as lead-facilitator, knowledgable, encouraging and extremely patient in her approach; and Emily from Family, as process watcher, documenter and timely insights-giver. We ended up with some great three minute films, and a much better understanding of what the process entails, importantly, this included managing risks and ethics while consulting children for this process, which became much clearer.

What happens now? We are taking digital storytelling into the lives of the children and families we work with, engaging them in the process of social change in their own contexts and better understanding children’s experiences inside and outside families. We hope this will lead to greater impact in their lives.  We are aiming for about 40 stories from children for now but hope to aspire for 100s more in the not so far a future so that there are no longer un-heard and un-told stories for the children and families whose voices need to be heard to the most. 

Payal Saksena, Research and Advocacy Officer with Family for Every Child, was a participant in the Digital story telling workshop in June, 2014 and has her own story titled “White Memories”.

On a personal note

On a personal note

One year of work is an incredible opportunity of learning, reflecting and acting.

The transformation someone witness is immense and could be lost if not documented trough an accurate and sometimes pedant process of taking picture, filming, translating and infallibly order footage. All this and much more is the invisible work that remain in the background of the project  Citizen engagement through visual participatory processes.

I do, digital story telling for transformation, since the end of 2008, but it was during this project that had, for the first time, practised participatory video, not only but I have experimented together with Joanna and Tessa hot to move from the individual and personal experience of the DST to the collective one of a participatory video. The challenge was on find the best possible way to help the transition for people individual experience and statement on a personal event to an issue relevant for a community and to sustain the interest and the willingness to negotiate around ideas, planning a storyboard for a film of 9-10 minutes long, filming editing, and distributing it.

The key was in the power analysis, the revers engineering of a digital story. Usually storytellers do not have the practice or the opportunity to come back again in the group, with all or some of their original storytellers companion to reflect upon their own stories. The common moment at the end of the workshop, the final screening, is most of all a celebration for the accomplishment and it also sign, inevitably the end of the journey.

Here, during this journey, trainers and participants met once more for the participatory video workshop and each of them had to go back to his/her own story to look at it and using the power matrix understand which powers among the 4: power within, power over, power to and power with was the most present and why.

They had to search, to dive into their story to understand drivers and breaks and name it, and after that to start constructing a common discourse around these forces that where unique but at the same time part of the others stories too. And the possibility to “face” and catch the hidden common thread was surfaced by the collective reflection don on the filming of each exercise. This continuous looking at yourself and  the others trough role plays, dramas, drawing and interviewing allow each of us to understand and recognize the emerging plot of different potential movies.

The negotiation around the ideas happened in the course of the last day and half of the workshop and brought the participants to define their own affinity and affiliate with one of the three emerging films ideas:

Activism: how, why, how much of it is present in our  society? Our target group are activists, and persons in dilemma on activism, whether to act, or not. We will use parody, interviews, and drama. We plan to focus on three cases, which are fresh and exemplary. The first case is our case with stripping down of election posters placed illegally, where, incredibly, we had to go to court, unlike other much bigger cases which never reached a court. The second case is case of organization from Sarajevo, where one of the members decided to react to discriminatory parts of a blood donor form that forbid lesbian to donate blood, and the third case is case of organization from Banja Luka who got into trouble with the law because of posting a banner and stickers in the town. (Leila Šeper=


We will show three stories of civil initiatives. The first story is optimistic version and will show that cooperation between citizens, or NGOs, and municipality authorities is, in fact, possible.  The second story will show obstacles that groups of citizens of NGOs starting an initiative meet, fight with administrative obstacles or political interests in trying to achieve their ideas. The third story will refer to stereotypes citizens havethat cooperation with municipality is not possible, or brings no results. So an open question on how to make this cooperation happen. (Snežana Misić Mihajlović)


Title of our film is „young, educated, unemployed“. Our target group are young people, authorities, primarily municipal ones, employers, and legislators. We will make movie in municipalities of Doboj and Gračanica. our topic is abuse of human resources, young people with university education, and inefficient use of public resources.  The message we want to give with the film is to amend the law, and to prepare young people to what awaits them, and tell them to stand united and fight for their position. We will combine documentary with interviews. (Elma Mujkić)

Looking backward, I can say that the participatory video workshop follow a precise storyboard even if invisible and subtle and facilitate the emergence of the common thread present in the personal stories, the struggle experimented by all participants with the power matrix would probably gone lost without the incredible help provided by the continuous practise of filming each exercise which was fixing like in a mirror all the commonalities, divergence helping to make possible choice. Like with a Babushka we succeed to reach the core and once identified was easier to build around it the collective ideas.

It remain a matter of fact the we enjoyed, laugh at each other, drank a lot of coffee and count on the trust build trough each workshop and story wispered during the workshop and the breaks.