The house that stories built

by Andre DP. Encarnacion, UP MPRO

The video begins with a plaintive piano track to accompany the visuals. Hand-drawn and labeled with black pencil, the story is told via a series of drawings depicting the day Typhoon Pablo made landfall. A figure resembling a truncated arrow with near-perfect circles for wheels represent the Isuzu Elf truck carrying survivors towards the purple parallel lines of the bridge over Mindanao’s Mayo River.

The narrator’s voice is impactful, going through every painful detail of how a flood that seemed as “wide as the ocean” scattered families and neighbors in their barangay. The relief in that voice when she found her family alive after fleeing to higher ground is a far cry from the polished pitch found in typical documentaries. It was a survivor’s voice, telling her own story the best way she knew how.

Meet the UP alumni behind the company giving a digital voice to Mindanao’s voiceless.

For more than five years now, teaching the people of Mindanao to craft and share such stories to the world has been the mission of sisters Glorypearl Dy and Gloryrose Dy-Metilla. Together with cofounders and fellow UP Mindanao alumni Marben Jan Picar and Angely Chi, the pair are the force behind the Swito Corporation (swito, a Bisaya word, translates to “wise guy”)– a global impact innovation hub dedicated to the promotion of Mindanaoan culture.

While their services have expanded to include a firm upholding traditional Mindanao architecture and handcrafted 3D puzzles of the same, Swito Corporation is undoubtedly a house built on stories. With the expressed intent to provide a voice for Mindanao’s voiceless, what they now call the Swito Digital Storytelling service started it all, helping those in need create their own digital stories since 2012.

Digital empowerment

Digital storytelling is, as groups like define it, the use of digital tools to empower people to construct their own personal narratives. It allows the common person to bypass the expensive crew and equipment typically associated with big productions to produce their own personal stories with simple gadgets that can be made accessible with a click.

Glorypearl Dy first encountered the medium as a Communication Arts student in UP Mindanao. Seeing its potential to both help people in far-flung communities get their voices heard and use accessible technologies to help them do so, the partners pooled their knowledge to informally begin the enterprise in 2011. The very first digital storytelling workshops began soon after.

This small initiative among friends to provide digital literacy to sensitive populations in public school classrooms or barangay halls soon drew attention from a great number of larger entities — including non-government organizations (NGOs) and local government units. It soon became clear to everyone that the stories they were producing also held immense psychosocial and organizational promise for both participants and host communities. Scholars and organizations soon began approaching the group for help in their data collection and impact assessments.

“Our friends from the NGOs started to hire us and saw what we were doing was good,” Picar recalls. Other partners included them in anthropological research, working with the group to get a feel for how individuals, children in particular; view themselves vis-a-vis their communities. As it turns out, putting creative tools in the hands of stakeholders allowed them to make their unfiltered views and reactions reach decision-makers muck quicker.

It was, however, only in 2013 — when the team joined the British Council’s I am a Changemaker Social Enterprise Ideation Camp — that the idea dawned on them that they could turn the practice into a sustainable business that they could do, in their words, “forever.” That year, efforts to turn what they had into a long-term, socially-minded enterprise began in earnest.

A three-day workshop

While Swito Digital Storytelling offers specialized versions for a broad range of stakeholders that can last up to a week, the typical workshop lasts around three days.

The first day is reserved for introductions, an understated phase in the storytelling process. The group found that without a solid foundation of trust, getting people share to share their stories was difficult if not impossible. “Our tried and tested method,” the group agreed, “was to have participants create cut-out puppets of themselves, like a mini-you representing how you view yourself”.

Picar, who usually facilitates, remembers a workshop with children where the icebreaker question was “What you want to be when you grow up.” He adds, “Me, I drew a superhero. Because I wanted to be a superhero when I was growing up.”

What follows is what the group calls the “story circle.” This segment allows participants to sit face-to-face and discuss the workshop topic. For thematic cases, one participant begins by expressing his or her say on an issue, which others can build on afterwards. This is followed by breakout sessions, where participants separate to draft their individual stories. Afternoons are then dedicated to training participants to create storyboards that serve as guides for their final outputs.

During the second day, the process of video-making begins. Participants create the graphics — either drawn or photographed — that best represent their stories. Perhaps the most powerful part of the entire process is the recording of participants’ voices, which many of them had never heard on tape before. A considerable number of participants get very emotional and even break into tears when hearing their stories told with their own voices for the first time.

The second day ends with facilitators guiding participants in the process of editing their videos and getting them ready for presentation. All outputs are produced with inexpensive, readily available gadgets and open source software.

The final day is dedicated to a group viewing session of these digital stories. This is a process that gives a considerable sense of pride and accomplishment to many of their creators. Participants are then debriefed before goodbyes are said and the workshop concludes.

Giving voice to the unheard

While some of these groups workshops are straightforward sessions where participants can engage in free-for-all storytelling, it’s holding sessions with Mindanao’s underserved and unheard communities that gives the group the greatest satisfaction. To date, they have conducted peacebuilding workshops for survivors of armed conflict, as well as workshops for disaster survivors, domestic violence survivors, traditional birth attendants and other indigenous peoples, among others.

One particular workshop with children with special needs is what the group considers among their most memorable to date.

Dy herself distinctly remembers a video from that session where a deaf-mute participant used a combination of sign language and subtitles to create a memorable story about fashion modelling. The delivery was unique but entirely appropriate, as it was “the way the storyteller actually communicates,” she says.

Moreover, it was an opportunity to both make the story known and to allow viewers to see things from the vantage point of the literally voiceless — something they hope to achieve on a broader scale.

Today, Dy and her partners are focused on helping more Mindanaoans realize the inspirational and purgative power of sharing their digital stories, taking every opportunity to provide the service for free for sensitive groups and organizations. The lasting value in the process, they believe, is that it helps Filipinos everywhere communicate in the digital age using a medium and tradition innate to all of us — an oral one.

“We want to give them the power to tell their own stories without our intervention,” Dy says. “Especially those in far-flung communities. Why not give them that chance?”