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Stories On Your Wavelength

To mark World Ocean Day 2021, we can’t think of a better time to share a recap of our wonderful partnership project with YouthLink Scotland. On Our Wavelength is a youth-led project exploring environmental impacts on Scotland’s coastal communities. Take five to read about John Hamilton’s experience of being involved and how he adapted storytelling skills in order to share these important stories. 

I loved it when I first discovered the theory that the reason early Homo sapiens travelled so far across the globe in a relatively short time was that they moved linearly along the coastline, largely ignoring the vast hinterland. They were uniquely adapted to a seashore life, being better swimmers than any other ape and thriving on a diet that includes fish and shellfish. Our association with the sea is deep in our genetic makeup!

As “sapiens”, (Latin word meaning “one who knows”), you would think that something so fundamental to our wellbeing would be cherished and protected. But we learn more and more each day how far from reality that is. We learn more and more how urgent action against pollution and over-exploitation of the sea really is.

So, you’ll understand, that when I discovered that YouthLink Scotland were launching a project inviting young people to explore their local marine environment I was very keen to be involved. I had worked with YouthLink before and knew they understood the value of a storytelling approach. The Scottish Storytelling Forum was a partner in the project from the outset and I was delighted to be on board working with Amy Calder and the teams across Scotland.

ON OUR WAVE LENGTH, was principally funded by The National Heritage Lottery Fund. It engaged youth groups from the Western Isles, North Berwick, South Ayrshire, Argyll and Fife. The principal was to encourage young people to investigate the marine environment.

I have long said that the first question any project, working with any group, on any subject has to answer is “What’s it got to do with me?” In the first place the project asked about the local marine environment.  “The place where I live.” The saying “Think globally, act locally” is as relevant today as when it was first used by Scottish thinker, Patrick Geddes, around 1915.

But, fundamentally, the project was youth-led, an approach central to YouthLink’s thinking. Young people choose to participate and build from the place they are.  It recognises the young person and youth workers as partners in a learning process.

It’s all about asking questions, not about being given answers, so research was a major part of the activity planned. Partners, including the Marine Conservation Society, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Scottish Sea Bird Centre and Greenpeace, provided information and expertise.

Once knowledge had been acquired the idea was for the young people to share their acquired understanding within the project, within their community and with the wider world. There would be opportunities to share with other groups, to share on digital platforms, with a highlight of a live showcase in Edinburgh. This is where the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and myself, came in.

The approach was to “train the trainers”, providing the youth workers with skills to share in their shared learning process with the young people. I had the pleasure of running workshops and providing resources for the workers.

Everything was in place, the trainers were trained, the showcase was planned, the groups were recruiting. Then COVID 19 hit.

A STORYTELLING APPROACH

Why “storytelling”?  “Storytelling” being the activity which identifies us as human. From a very early age we all “get” stories. An understanding of how stories work seems to be pre-programmed in. A huge amount of research has been done into this. A favourite image of mine comes from neuroscience of all things.

Consuming information engages only a limited portion of our brain. Listening to a story is a much more complex process. Putting my own, less than scientific, mind to thinking about we can get from a story – I came up with a slightly more colourful diagram.

Listening to a story requires not only technical activities but also inspires a whole range of emotional responses. Both left brain and right brain. All of this mind work creates something more inspiring and more memorable than absorbing facts.

For this project the first action was research and the accumulation of information. The second was to share that information with their peers, with their communities and the world. Which is where storytelling comes in.

So, how to create the story? For me it is always about going back to basics. The question is quickly asked “What makes it a story?” A story needs a setting, it needs characters and it needs something to happen. You may have a cow and a moon, that’s a fact, but as soon as that cow jumps over that moon, you have a story.

The setting does not need to be detailed: indeed, the more of the picture that the listener creates in their own head the better. The characters need not be good – a good baddie is a wonderful thing. They need not be human. They may be animals, they may be places, they me be corporations, or attitudes or ideas. What they must be is someone the listener cares about. It is no accident that many marine conservation campaigns focus on dolphins, or whales or turtles (especially cute baby ones). Creatures we can identify with. It is much easier to be concerned about whales than plankton, even if the story is actually about plankton.

And something has to happen! Often it is a journey. The story moves the characters, and hopefully the listener, from one place to another. It may be moving from recognising a goal to achieving it. It may be a journey from ignorance to knowledge. From indifference to action. Many possibilities, but it’s got to move.

Then, how to you create a story? Basics again. I describe the process as Stripping, Painting and Dancing.

By “Stripping” I mean taking the traditional tale, the personal memory or the raft of data and paring it down to its basic setting, characters and action.

By “Painting” I mean colouring in the picture seeing the bare bones and fleshing it out with imagery. Giving it a rhythm. It is about visualising the story in your own creative mind. By visualisation, I don’t mean to be sight orientated, I describe the practise as, “What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? And, most importantly, how do you feel?”

By “Dancing” I mean performing the story. If the intention was to lead to live storytelling, the “pure drap”, I would talk a lot about paralanguage and vocal dynamics, but for a project like this I was keen to explore the variety of different ways a story could be performed. A story could be “danced” through film, music, artwork or, well, dance.

As to the process of the workshops. I told some stories. Some from the great cannon of creation myths (other cultures are often so much better at animating our connection with nature than our own), some personal. I expanded a bit on the basics mentioned. Mostly we played games.

THE OUTCOME

Everything was in place. Some groups had a flying start and had some activities in the bag. The young people had worked on creating an impressive logo. Then everything was locked down. 2020 was not a good year for a project that would have benefited from lots of outdoor, on-shore experiences.

In spite of everything the groups managed to achieve an amazing amount with the imaginative use of the interweb and a timeline extension.

The showcase event was included in the Scottish International Storytelling Festival’s Global Labs programme in October 2020. Many of the participants were able to share their thoughts and feelings. A very interesting discussion followed.

The youth-led approach paid dividends as the young people came up with a diverse array of themes to explore, from “bioblitzing” to “terracycling”.

The North Berwick Youth Project were off the marks early and were out on the foreshore litter picking and also contributing to citizen science by working with the Marine Conservation Society to document the shore debris. The participants were able to tell the personal story of their own journey through the project. You can watch the North Berwick video, here.

The South Ayrshire group elected to research changes in local marine wildlife, but unfortunately missed out on their plan to track down the elusive basking shark.

The Argyll and Bute team took a campaigning approach, exploring “terracycling” (recycling so much more than is currently saved) and creating a comic strip to promote their ideas in the community.

With the polar ice caps declining day by day the Fife group decided to look at the effects our changing climate may have on coastal erosion and the potential for flooding. They intended to interview members of the community as part of their exploration.

Also taking an oral history approach were the Western Isles group, based on Barra. They made an impressive study of the uninhabited island of Mingulay, famous in song. They teamed up with local film-makers and created a fantastic documentary based on interviews with locals who had stories to tell of the island. You can watch the Mingulay video, here.

I was asked what I most enjoyed about the project. I have to say that it was watching the group shed their inhibitions, let their creativity flow and feel the rewards of creating story. This group were a delight to work with, moving very quickly to some fabulous stories.

All in all I’d like to thank Amy and her teams for impressive job they did under very difficult circumstances and, mostly, to congratulate all the young people involved for their tremendous efforts. I can only hope that some of the storytelling elements will stay with them all.

John Hamilton, Scottish Storytelling Forum storyteller.

Want to hear more about the project?

Visit On Our Wavelength 

Check out John’s storytelling Resources