I was asked to participate in a WOW Bites session during the Southbank Centre's 2012 Women of the World Festival. Bites are short talks, inspiring ideas, achievements, obsessions, stories, performances, manifestos and more. I thought I'd share the essence of my bite with you.
One of the most satisfying outcomes of spending so much time online is discovering interesting people doing exciting and amazing things. In my time internetting, I have discovered several women, around the world, using the digital space to tell their stories and through this: creating relationships that transcend barriers such as geographical distance and class; building supportive and collaborative networks and communities; and making things happen for themselves, for others and ultimately, for us all.
What is it about stories?
They are powerful. They enable us to express ourselves in ways that may not be usually possible (as I observed in the Funny Women workshop I mentioned on Monday. They allow us to talk about difficult things. Through stories and through storytelling, we learn about ourselves and others. I know this to be true of when I write – in the process, I often discover connections or feel lightbulbs go on, where before, there wasn't this clarity or revelation. Stories carry messages and collective wisdom that is passed on from generation to generation. I can recall sitting around with my grandmother, my mother, my aunts and my female cousins, listening to stories and learning from them, about life, about where I come from and about some of the challenges as well as joys of being a woman. Stories open our minds, challenge our assumptions and spark our imagination. And through stories, cultures are kept alive.
Different ways to tell a story
Women has been responsible for storytelling in many ways over time and across the world. In 19th century North America, the (contentious) Quilt Code enabled slaves to escape by reading the messages encoded in quilt patterns that the slave women had made. If you consider the use of symbols to convey a particular message, it is a kind of visual storytelling.
Not too long before this, in Southern Africa, the Ndebele people were suffering in the aftermath of a lost war with the Boers. They began to paint their houses with symbols that expressed their grief and communicated resistance to their oppression. Vibrant pretty patterns to some but to the Ndebele, a coded language of subversion. It was the women who were responsible for painting.
Over in North and East Africa, Zar ceremonies have enabled women to come together and share stories in the context of societies where their movements are restricted. A great social occasion, there is music, dancing and trance (all the trappings of a good party!). The official line is that these ceremonies are held to pacify women who have been possessed by evil spirits that are making them ill. While in trance, the spirits within these women often make demands, often for luxuries that are normally afforded only to the men. A wise husband, who wants their wife healed and peace restored in his home, will usually oblige.
Enter digital media …
… And the ways for us to tell stories expand exponentially. As do the audiences we can reach – in terms of size and diversity.
Take The Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond who started a blog documenting her new life when she moved from cosmopolitan LA to live on a ranch with her cowboy husband. Stories of homemaking and homeschooling, cooking and gardening that have engaged and resonated with hundreds of thousands of women. Through this online space and community, The Pioneer Woman has created a livelihood, published books and landed regular national television appearances. She proves, contrary to popular thinking, that being a homemaker can be very empowering indeed!
Bloggers such as Sheena LaShay candidly share some very personal stories about their experiences through a combination of digital channels including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Stories about healing from childhood trauma, about spirituality and about 'lighter' topics too such as creativity and food. Sheena herself says:
"I am the woman who can tweet about god, sustainability, depression, sexual abuse, pole dancing, raw food recipes and natural hair within a ten minute stretch."
Stacey Monk's mission is to harness the power of compassion through "social good experiments" such as Epic Change, Tweetsgiving, Epic Thanks, TwitterKids and To Mama With Love which, I had the opportunity to help create. A collaborative online art project, last year To Mama With Love raised over $30,000 in less than a week to support the work of 4 "mamas" in Tanzania (Mama Lucy Kamptoni), Afghanistan (Suraya Pakzad), Nepal (Maggie Doyne) and Bangladesh (Renu Shah Bagaria). Women who are doing extraordinary work to improve the lives of children in their communities. Incidentally, Stacey and I met very randomly via Twitter and 3 years later we've collaborated on great projects such as To Mama With Love, Epic Thanks and LaLaLove. And we still haven't met in real life.
Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women is a blog that was started by Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah and Abena Gyekye, 2 young women in Ghana. On it, women share stories about sex and sexuality, challenging a cultural silence around the subject that often has destructive consequences.
In my little space on the internet, I tell stories about my observations and experiences as: an African, an Afropolitan, a woman, a creative professional, an entrepreneur. It is a love letter to my continent and a love letter to myself (the story of my journey to better love myself). Through this space I have learned so much, met so many wonderful, inspiring and passionate people (especially women). I have started relationships with amazing people – online.
The tapestry grows
There are so many other examples I could give and I decided to create, in the spirit of taking advantage of digital media, a Pinterest board showcasing more women who are using the digital space to tell stories, build communities and make things happen. I'll be adding to it over time and would love your suggestions as to women to include.
You know how it feels to be in the company of amazing, positive, resilient, smart, funny women. It's one of the best feelings I know. The online space gives us an opportunity to recreate this feeling whenever we want to, whenever we need. Nothing can ever completely take the place of interacting in person but, in these busy times, it's good to know that sisterhood can be just a click away.
How are you using the digital space? How are you telling stories?