A recently completed research project by the Higher Education and Human Development (HEHD) group at the University of the Free State (UFS) aimed to understand how digital storytelling methods can foster spaces for youth voices in terms of a just society, how the youth can shape stories of inclusive transformation for bottom-up change, and how the youth can contribute substantive knowledge to our understanding of social justice.
This project – Youth voices on social justice – focused on the youth at one South African university. The young people (all postgraduate students) involved in the project had diverse biographies and varied experiences of voice and inclusion or marginalisation. The digital storytelling and participatory video methodologies offered a space for them to exercise agency, creativity, imagination, mobilising knowledge, and learning new and empowering digital skills.
The researchers were Prof Melanie Walker, who is the SARChI Chair in Higher Education and Human Development (HEHD), and Dr Carmen Martinez-Vargas, a postdoctoral fellow in HEHD. The group of 12 graduate student co-researchers were: Luvuyo Ngobeni, Natasha Kabaso, Cheri Matjila, Ntombi Nhlapo, Getrude Jana, Nontobeko Mathebula, Angel Zungu, Christiaan Botha, Nhlanhla Mgobhozi, Jeremiah Hlahla, Neliswa Emeni Tientcheu, and Moroesi Talita Makape.
The project was funded by Prof Walker’s SARCHI Chair.
According to Prof Walker, research in the HEHD group focuses on the contribution of higher education to well-being and human flourishing in sub-Saharan Africa. The concern is with advancing justice in and through higher education policy, processes, and practices, and at multiple levels of the higher education system.
Currently, there are 16 research and publication projects: five PhD projects, six post-doctoral fellow projects, and five externally funded projects. Together, these and previously completed projects make a substantial contribution to rigorous South-based social sciences scholarship, says Prof Walker.
Participatory storytelling was utilised as methodology
According to Dr Martinez-Vargas, participatory storytelling was utilised as methodology and as a space of decolonisation for a rich ecology of knowledge. Says Dr Martinez-Vargas, “In this project, the methodology was central: a key political goal for participatory research has to do with the fact that it is typically those with less power who speak through the research process, deliberately including the ‘investigated’ in the process of investigation itself, with methods that are ethical, open, respectful, and alert to power dynamics. Therefore, participatory approaches aim at doing research with and alongside rather than on and about.”
The research process involved students working face to face for the first group, and online for the second group after the COVID lockdown, producing 12 compelling and moving individual digital stories, and thereafter as a group to make a participatory video (see https://youthvoicesufs.wixsite.com/mysite for all the videos). Analysis of the stories in relation to social justice knowledge was done online as a research collective, and dissemination activities were planned together.
The project has been disseminated through webinars, the project website, and through social media, while an open access book is planned for completion in 2022.
The project demonstrates the possibilities of a decolonial participatory methodology to create inclusive epistemic and research communities, as well as substantive knowledge from the stories as a contribution to a South-based ecology of knowledge. It enabled the empowerment and agency of student co-researchers in the process of co-researching, in order to understand and change together.
Objectives of the project
According to the researchers, the objectives of the project were to identify ways in which the youth can work together to shape stories of transformation for sustainable social justice and to encourage inclusive, co-constructed knowledge-making. Other objectives were to engage diverse stakeholders nationally and internationally on youth voices for social justice using digital story methods, and to develop new ways of thinking about, and practices for doing youth-led social justice development.
The research team set out to answer these key questions; What are the education and social experiences and aspirations of university youth? How do they understand social in/justice from their own experiences? And how can participatory digital storytelling methods contribute to social justice and to the university as a space for decolonial research?
The project has attracted a great deal of attention, especially internationally. Co-researchers have had the experience of organising their own national webinar (on gender-based violence) and contributing to an international webinar, hosted by the Human Development and Capability Association.
In the inspiring, heart-warming, and sometimes personal videos, the youth talk about everyday struggles that South Africans have to deal with, including gender-based violence (GBV), overcoming adversity and hardship, sexual harassment, and working hard to achieve your goals and ultimately becoming successful.
- Visit the project’s website to read more about the research project and for all the videos produced by the participating students.