Thursday, April 26, 2018

Storytelling, diverse views inspire ScienceTapes project

By Lindsey Heaney
What stuck with Jessie Young-Robertson after attending a large international science conference didn’t have anything to do with the scientific data presented.

Young-Robertson, a researcher with the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Extension, was hoping to be inspired. She wanted to connect to the larger world of science through the experiences of researchers, but something was missing.
ScienceTapes facilitators, including project creators Bob Bolton and
Jessie-Young-Robertson, front row, left, pose for a photo.
 Photo courtesy of Bob Bolton

“I sat through talk after talk thinking I just want someone to tell me a story,” said Young-Robertson. “That’s when I started looking into StoryCorps.”

StoryCorps is a nonprofit organization that records and preserves stories from people of all backgrounds. Young-Robertson reached out to her Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center colleague Bob Bolton, and their conversation started a year-long partnership with StoryCorps and the creation of a story-based program of their own.

“StoryCorps gave us the tools and building blocks that we needed. I felt incredibly inspired by listening to our first volunteers record their stories and I knew we were onto something amazing,” said Young-Robertson. “Now we’re looking to move forward with ScienceTapes.”

ScienceTapes was created to provide a space to share Alaska’s science and place-based stories with a goal of building bridges between people, communities, agencies and scientists. Using the StoryCorps model, each story comes from a conversation between people with different perspectives.

To collect the ScienceTapes stories, Young-Robertson and Bolton chose 12 facilitators from various agencies with different perspectives on science, ranging from a tribal liaison to science communicators and educators.

“As of now, our facilitators have recorded more than 45 stories, which are archived with the Library of Congress,” said Young-Robertson. “About 10 of them have been fully edited down.”

One of the project’s immediate aims is to enhance connections between scientists and the people in communities where the research happens. Young-Robertson said it starts with sharing knowledge, but it doesn’t end there. “Researchers need to understand the lens through which rural communities see us and then use that information to strengthen those relationships.”

The stories also offer content that enhances Alaskans’ capacity to make well-informed decisions about science-based issues. Each conversation is unique with the storyteller offering insight through their personal experiences and knowledge.

Bob Bolton, who helped create UAF's Science Tapes project, plays an interview for
visitors during a meeting at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
Lindsey Heaney photo 
One example came from a conversation between Young-Robertson and her then-student Abraham Endalamaw, who wanted to talk about his journey from Ethiopia to Alaska. As they remembered Endalamaw’s graduation day, Young-Robertson recalled that she had not recognized the significance of him wearing his national flag.

“Before I came here I was working as an activist organizing people to speak out,” Endalamaw said. “If I were in Ethiopia right now, I would be in jail or probably, I would be killed. When I had my country flag on, I am safe but I cannot be as happy as I want to be that day because I would really like to see my country free.”

They also discussed his experiences during graduate school at UAF. Young-Robertson described trying to get Endalamaw to speak louder for his thesis defense by having him read a newspaper to her from across a room.

“It’s partly cultural, we are not encouraged to speak louder (in Ethiopia), but I also want to be heard,” said Endalamaw.

Another story emerged from a conversation between Megan Hillgartner and Sorina Seeley, who came to UAF as fellows from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies to finish their degree in international environmental policy.

They recalled their struggle to connect with a liaison to a community important to their research.

“We wanted her to trust us right away based on what we thought were principles of trust,” Seeley said. “But we didn't listen to her story.”

After they regrouped and went back with a different approach, Seeley said that changed. “We just listened. We didn't have any questions. We didn't have any ideas. That space for communication grew back.”

With the ScienceTapes project, the team is looking to expand the reach of their stories by collaborating with rural and urban radio stations. The stories will soon be featured on KUAC’s Northern Soundings, and there are plans to develop an app for mobile users to access stories right at their fingertips.

The stories will also be available for people to explore in person at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Live recording opportunities and storytelling activities will be available at the museum’s family day event on April 21.

As the team moves forward with their work, they hope that these stories continue to provide a source of inspiration and empowerment.

“I see ScienceTapes as a beacon for people to come and listen,” said Young-Robertson. “And as a beacon for people to be heard.”

To participate in ScienceTapes, email with "recording a story" in the subject line.
Heaney is the science communication lead for the International Arctic Research Center, Scenarios Network for Alaska and Arctic Planning (SNAP), the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy (ACCAP) and the Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center.

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