MPIRG and Sarah photo

My heart was racing. I looked out at the sea of expectant eyes, feeling like they were swallowing me whole. I couldn’t disappoint them. They were all here with high expectations and minds filled with their own unique perceived truths; the two things that can potentially hinder growth and learning. And I, the “expert”, was the reason why they came here.

This weekend I had the opportunity to co-facilitate a training for the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) at their annual fall retreat. I was there as a part of Line Break Media as well as an MPIRG board member. I remember my friend, the chair of the board, asking me if I would do a workshop to share with other students a hint of what I was learning in my internship at Line Break. I reluctantly said that I would, knowing that it would be a good opportunity to stretch the thoughts of my peers as well as tackle my fear of public speaking.

I was drawn to Line Break because they use media to connect groups and share stories. Story has always been a source of life and a fortress for me. When I was a little girl growing up underneath the scorching sun of Las Vegas, Nevada, my little sister and I were watched over by our nanny who had immigrated from Mexico. After running around all day and causing havoc, Josefina would settle us down by telling stories from her home. Sometimes she wanted to talk about legends and myths, and other times she merely wanted to tell us about her family, whom she missed dearly. No matter what she decided to share with us at the end of the long day, I was always enraptured by her words as they wrapped around my small frame and carried me to a place outside of the walls of Las Vegas and connected me with the history of my own Latina roots.

As the years passed and Josefina left the lives of my sister and I, story was still something I held dearly. After moving to the wilderness of the Black Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota, story became something that let me escape from the angst of growing up. I would run off into the woods with only my notebook and pen as company. Finding refuge beneath the branches of old pine trees, I would write my own narrative about a world other than mine. I always used to hope that the woods would swallow me up and spit me back out into a whole new realm like how I wrote about them doing in my stories. The forest, my notebook, and my pen became a place where I could escape and create a world apart from my own.

As I grew older, I found that the more stories were shared between people, the more understanding and connection happened. It was like difference could suddenly be appreciated and people who were seconds ago viewed as strangers suddenly became friends. I became intrigued by the unseen power that shared stories had over individuals. It was at this time in my life I decided that I would become a journalist so that I could connect ideas, people, and movements with stories. I was inspired to inform the world and create awareness in it. However, I was not aware of all the complexities that this would entail.

When I started college, I began to realize that there was no such thing as being an unbiased storyteller. Everyone has their own angle of how they choose to tell a story. This knowledge threw me into despair when I began to realize that most news organizations did not stand on a platform of justice, but instead only told stories in a way that they believe will “sell”. I decided during that time that journalism would not be my only outlet for story sharing, but instead I would learn any media I could in order to build connections with storytelling. However, there was still the problem of bias that was potentially ruining my ability to share stories.

That is where Line Break Media comes into play. In my time here, I have learned about how the dominant narrative chooses to shape stories versus how people in the realm of social justice would shape them. The method in shaping stories is referred to as a frame, and the way one chooses to frame stories has different impact on the audience that the story reaches out to. In the dominant culture, most stories are very narrowed in and focused on an individual level and create a high sense of blame and guilt directed at groups that identify as people of color, queer, lower socioeconomic class, etc. These communities tend to be either silenced or pointed at as the villain in this narrow focus, which adds to the stereotyped stories that we often receive today. For example, the story of a black couple searching for food after Hurricane Katrina hits is titled as “looting”, whereas the story of a white couple searching for food after Hurricane Katrina hits is titled as “finding”. We are surrounded by stories and frames in every aspect of our lives, and it is to our detriment if we do not become more aware of them. As activists, it is important for us to become aware of our own frame, and then take a step further and be courageous enough to collaboratively create frames in a way that creates a sense of shared humanity and supports community agency, allowing the people who are directly affected to lead these movements that will shift the dominant narrative.

This was the content of the workshop that I was meant to co-facilitate at the MPIRG retreat, where over a hundred students come to learn about how to be a better activist on their own campuses and in their own communities. Although the classroom I was facilitating in was only around thirty people, I was nervous to be in front of my peers, many of whom I felt had been involved in activism longer than I had.

With eager eyes staring back at me, I took a deep breath, smiled, and introduced myself. I shared about my love of story. I shared about how truth is the heart of story, and the amount of truth we choose to reveal determines the story we tell, and how the amount of truth we choose to withhold affects the story that we tell as well. I shared about how telling my identity of being a mixed Latina that appears white has different implications for story than if I chose not to share that.

We went into the group activity, where people used an image in a magazine and a frame that they did not create to form their own story. After that, the group had lots of feedback about the activity, and I began to fall into my element of inquisitive question-asking. I finally got to relax a little in my skin as I realized that a facilitator’s job isn’t to have all the answers, but to work with a group to spark conversations and ideas towards potential answers and deeper analysis. It is amazing to be able to guide an entire group towards new thoughts and ideas; to be the rudder of a vessel as we all navigate through choppy waters.

After the workshop, many people approached me and said that they learned so many new things from it. Many students wanted to be more aware about how they frame things in the way they communicate campaigns. One student, who was doing a strategic communications plan for her own internship, was looking forward to implementing some of the ideas into the plan she was helping construct. Another student, an aspiring artist,wanted to incorporate more social justice-based framing in her art. I was amazed at the variety of people that it impacted and how framing is used in literally every area of our lives.

Sarah Valli is currently an intern at Line Break Media and a student at the University of Minnesota. She loves meeting new people, exploring the city of Minneapolis, and stretching perspectives. Although sometimes accused of speaking in riddles, she makes good use of her witty banter in poetry and playing devil’s advocate in her spare time.