19 November 2015

Digital storytelling: bringing local neighbourhoods to life

Jeni Burnell, Research Associate in the Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) on the storytelling project helping to enable a greater understanding of Oxford’s cultural heritage.

This summer I have been working with filmmakers StoryWorks UK in the Blackbird and Greater Leys neighbourhoods in Oxford. We have been recording local people’s stories, past and present, to create a series of digital stories that share the unique heritage and character of the estate.

I developed the storytelling project, known as Time to Talk: Digital storytelling in the Leys with StoryWorks UK, the Museum of Oxford, Oxford City Council and Leys Community Development Initiative. It received a Sharing Heritage grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in early 2015.

A digital story is a short film approximately two – three minutes long told in the first person that, when combined with photographs and video footage, shares personal insights about people and their life experiences.

With ties to the car manufacturing industry, the Leys contribute significantly to Oxford’s manufacturing heritage. Storytelling projects give people a chance to tell their story in their own words. The stories shared in the Leys have been fascinating. Many of the people we spoke with have lived on the estate since it was built. They talk about working at the nearby Pressed Steel factories and of the estate's active social life. This includes memories of The Singing Estate, a popular, four part documentary series on Channel 5 back in 2006, where renowned conductor Ivor Setterfield took 40 amateur singers from the Leys estate and turned them into a choir.

My research work explores how small, practical and low-budget interventions, such as community art projects, can bring about bigger, long-lasting change in neighbourhoods. This international development approach is known as 'Small Change' and has been developed by Oxford Brookes’ Emeritus Professor Nabeel Hamdi. In his book Small Change: About the Art of Practice and Limits of Planning in Cities Professor Hamdi explains that, “…to achieve something big, start with something small, and start where it counts.”

This way of working can been applied to many emergency response or long-term development situations, such as housing, health, education and enterprise programmes. Since 2010, the Small Change team, in association with community arts organisation Multistory, have carried out a number of arts-based Small Change projects across the UK.

Findings from this project relating to better understanding the role of participatory arts, and in particular digital storytelling, as a catalyst for change in community development will contribute to my CENDEP research.

The Time to Talk stories are on display in the Museum of Oxford’s ’40 Years, 40 Objects’ exhibition, which runs until February 2016 at the Oxford Town Hall. They have also been shown at the Blackbird Leys Community Centre and online.

It has been a privilege hearing people’s stories from the Leys and I am incredibly grateful for the time and generosity of those who have contributed to the project. I look forward to sharing these stories with others and celebrating the Leys unique contribution to Oxford's cultural heritage.

Oxford Brookes’ Centre for Development and Emergency Practice sits within the School of Architecture and brings together aid workers, academics, professionals and practitioners to develop practice-oriented approaches to tackle global humanitarian issues such as responding to natural disasters, chronic poverty, torture prevention and issues which arise in areas of conflict. CENDEP offers a number of postgraduate courses including its award-winning Masters degree in Development and Emergency Practice which has an international reputation for pioneering education and training humanitarian aid workers.