by Sandra Yu
Activism is the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.
Prior to Sahiyo, I thought to be an activist was to be loud. Anything less than protests and demonstrations picketing for change outside the White House was not really activism. Actionable change came from legislation and policy changes. I scoffed at digital activism – trending hashtags and posting black squares on Instagram didn’t mean you were an activist.
At Sahiyo as a programs intern, I gained a new appreciation for storytelling and digital advocacy as forms of healing and activism, respectively. In contrast to the physical mobilization of masses in protests, picketing, and policy-based activism, storytelling is a distinctly emotional and psychological mobilization. I remember watching my first Voices to End Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C) video – Change by Rhobi Samwelly. She shared her story in the short span of 3 minutes and 51 seconds, and in that short period of time, I felt as if I had visualized her pain, trauma, and conviction to end FGM/C. It is through storytelling that one will understand the need for activism; the picketing will come later.
Storytelling is particularly impactful in activism against FGM/C. As a harmful and pervasive social norm in many cultures, FGM/C is silently maintained across generations under the guise of cultural normativity. To break the culture of silence is to risk ostracization from their families and communities. Yet, many survivors have taken that plunge and have engaged in storytelling to protect future women from being cut. As allies, it is our job to amplify their stories so that more people may hear them and become inspired to create change.
I recently attended a webinar that spoke about how we can best amplify voices through digital advocacy. Digital Storytelling and Advocacy: How Stories Can Support Progressive Change was hosted by StoryCenter and moderated by Amy Hill; one of Sahiyo’s co-founders, Mariya Taher, presented on the Voices campaign as a panelist. In the webinar, Amy speaks about the need for storytelling as an avenue of advocacy. She presents research on how telling and listening to stories can increase self-esteem and wellbeing, help communities bond and become politicized, and inspire people to take action for change. I translate that as storytelling allows for transformation. It allows survivors and community members to transform the trauma of FGM/C on their bodies and mental health into a point of connection with others of the same community.
Across activist communities, storytelling allows for a transformation from discomfort to vulnerability. Isabel, another intern at Sahiyo, wrote about her experience with StoryCenter and Sahiyo’s co-hosted webinar, Intersecting Stories, where she engaged in intimate storytelling that glimpsed into “the magical nature of storytelling – how words weave friendships, trust, and respect.”
I believe storytelling has a way of transcending the individual to bind communities together through shared values and experiences. In the current age of digitization, we see stories framed in a variety of mediums such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. While it may be easy to get lost in trends, hashtags, and stories in digital activism, I find that digital advocacy is equally powerful as traditional media in allowing us to amplify the voices and stories of survivors. The process of connecting people and communities across the world through a screen is an important concept to develop. I’m proud to be a part of an organization that creates change through digital advocacy and storytelling.