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Virginia Tech teaches high school students to become digital storytellers


Group shot with high school students and other personnel involved in grant project. Josh Farris, Eastern Montgomery High School, is at center. Others, from left to right, are Thenmozhi Soundararajan, affiliate with California-based Center for Digital Storytelling; Amy Hess, Pulaski High School; Jake Sparrow, Blacksburg High School; Charlie Humphries, Blacksburg High School; Virginia Tech’s Holly Lesko; Victoria Wade, Narrows High School; Jordan Bragg, Narrows High School; Tiffany Conner, Eastern Montgomery High School; Bethany Sparks, co-trainer, University of Southern California; and Virginia Tech students Analise Adams, Ryan Brock, and Brett Montague.

BLACKSBURG, Va., June 29, 2012 – Domestic violence. Meth and marijuana use. Racism. Broken families. These are some of the problems Eastern Montgomery High School student Josh Farris documented in videotaped interviews.

He was one of seven students trained and equipped to tell and gather digital stories in their communities through a $172,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). Virginia Tech's Institute for Policy and Governance partnered with the New River Valley Planning District Commission in applying for the grant, which included training the students in the art of digital storytelling.

The youth community health narrative effort is part of Healthy NRV (New River Valley), which focuses on understanding and communicating information about health. Factors can include environment, the economy, education, and personal relationships. "The high school students provide local context by assessing through their lenses – both perspective and actual image and video capture – the needs and opportunities in their communities," said Holly Lesko of the Institute for Policy and Governance.

Like his fellow students at high schools in Narrows and Pulaski, Farris gathered video and narratives from school guidance counselors, students, business owners, and medical professionals. One of his interviewees is Danny Knott, the principal, who highlighted the need for regular access and visits to the doctor or dentist. A school counselor identified lack of jobs in the community as a concern, while a health educator said the community fails to provide enough support for people with drug or alcohol addictions.

The teens' work caught the attention of WSLS, Channel 10, which featured a report on Farris and his digital project.

The solutions articulated in his digital piece include raising awareness of health problems and helping teens learn about the consequences of drug abuse.

Healthy NRV's digital storytelling and data gathering will continue through Oct. 15, 2014, with a new group of high school students asking questions and offering ideas for their local communities, Lesko said. "These kids are true community health ambassadors with not only the ability to grasp the complexities of what impacts health in their community, but also the compassion and hopefulness to ask important questions and offer promising insights for action." 

Their work consists of more than the digital stories they’ve developed. "Each community-based youth team has or will support a local project that promotes health in their community and provides a forum for showing their videos and engaging their community in further conversations about health," Lesko said. Some of the current youth team members will continue to be involved with upcoming teams as mentors and youth trainers.

In addition to the digital storytelling component, the grant also includes convening local and regional partners to assess health data and metrics for measuring them to better inform regional policymakers about the costs and benefits of health-related choices in decision-making and investments, Lesko said.