Providing the Tools and Space for Girls to Tell Their Own Stories

Last February, Michaela Leslie-Rule traveled to Rwanda to teach digital storytelling to a group of girls involved in Firelight partner programs. The girls learned how to record their stories and shared them in village film festivals in their community. Firelight was able to provide this opportunity thanks to funding from the Nike Foundation. Michaela wrote the following blog about her experiences with the project. We're grateful for her expertise and fantastic work with the girls and our partners.

Providing the Tools and Space for Girls to Tell Their Own Stories

Each one of us begins and ends our day telling ourselves a story. With our stories we bear witness to the people and events who have changed us, give testimony to the people we are, and imagine the people we will become. Storytelling is our way of understanding the universe and our place in it.

An African woman smiles as we see her and her image being recorded on an Apple iPhone

Despite the universality of storytelling, some stories are privileged over others. International development is flush with stories about women and girls. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these portray girls as subjects of social and health policy. Typically, a girl speaks into the camera about her experience. Then the filmmaker interweaves this narrative with additional footage of the community, the NGO, or foundation staff. When the film is complete, we applaud the ‘amplification’ of girls’ stories. As media professionals and social scientists we have fooled ourselves into believing that our professionalism and training, somehow minimizes our outsider status and enables us to tell the stories of others without bias.

What would happen if I, and others in my position — documentary filmmakers and social scientists — flipped the script? What if, instead of telling well-intentioned stories about girls, we provided girls with the tools and training for them to tell their own stories? What if we asked girls how they wanted their experiences portrayed? What if girls documented the impact of development interventions?

An African girl uses an Apple iPhone to take a photo.

This February Firelight invited me to explore this idea by contracting me to design and implement a participatory video training for Nike Foundation’s Grassroots Girls Initiative.

The training took place in Gisenyi, Rwanda. Six girls from two community-based organizations (Action pour le Développement du Peuple located in Gisenyi and Tuvuge Twiyubaka located in Nyamagabe) were trained as digital storytellers. The project aimed to increase the agency of girls to tell their own stories and to diversify the ways in which social impact is documented and reported. The girls were provided with the tools to create, record and edit their videos. Later, the girls partnered with each organization to organize a video screening in their respective communities. The project demanded an inversion of a power dynamic deeply embedded in each organization’s culture. The girls would take the lead and the CBO would follow.

Three African girls group together. One is looking at her iPhone and two are holding notepads and pens.

This may not seem like a risky undertaking, but for a grantee partner it is. Think about it. Typically grantees have a vested interest in showing their work has impact. Moreover grantees, using traditional reporting practices, have some level of control over the ways in which that impact is expressed. Most foundations rely on third-hand anecdotes — provided by the grantee — about the families and communities served by a program or intervention. In some cases, a video is made, but even then the story is often put together in boardrooms far from where the story takes place. With the video training, Firelight made a departure from business-as-usual.

Trust had to be built quickly. The training only lasted four days. In that period the girls needed to learn all of the technical and creative skills necessary to put together their short videos. On the first day, I asked the girls what they thought the goals of the workshop should be and what impact sharing their stories might have.

My questions were met with quiet…for about 15 minutes. Then the floodgates opened. For the next four days, we interwove technical video training with passionate conversations about the politics of Rwanda, the goals each girl had for telling her story, and the girls’ and women’s empowerment slogans the girls felt inundated with daily. They spoke courageously and eloquently about what they felt these messages missed, and how these messages overlooked the value of their contribution to their country.

Collectively, the girls created the following statement.

“Many people in government focus on the value of women entering leadership and senior positions — positions that require a college education. But our society would not function without many people contributing, and each person contributes in a different way. Girls like us, are contributing to the development of our country.

An African girl wearing a red and black checkered shirt writes on a large sheet of paper

As Heads of Household, these girls supported their families. They paid for younger siblings to attend school, and sometimes also supported their parents and other family members. They did all of these things as seamstresses, beekeepers, hair stylists and market workers. They felt empowered, yet their contributions went uncelebrated and were often overlooked by their communities and their government.

A woman talks to African girls, one is holding an iPhone

During the training the girls learned how to ask for consent, frame and take pictures, shoot video, conduct interviews, and how to edit. On Day 3 the girls made a collective digital story asking a Deputy Mayor how his policies would help their small businesses. The Mayor arrived the following day to answer them in person.

I watched their progress in awe. Six girls, who had never used a computer before, never mind an IPod Touch, clustered in groups, pointing to the screen. Each one helping the other to choose the best photos, build their visual story, record their narration, and navigate the editing application.

Africn girls look at an iPhone

At the film festivals that followed, the girls sat, perched at the front of the room. They greeted their audiences as experts of their own experience and representatives of a generation of girls who have taken on adult roles and responsibilities when there was no one else to do so.

In the months since the training, the girls have transferred their skills to their peers. In some cases they have become the ‘documentarians’ for their respective organizations, teaching staff to edit on the IPod Touch and to upload stories to the web. The girls have been invited to share their stories with local, national and international audiences. They have offered first-person testimony as key stakeholders on policies affecting girls in Rwanda.

As of this writing, the girls have presented their stories to District officials, representatives of Nike Girl Hub (in Rwanda), Department For International Development (DFID) and the Novo Foundation. The girls are currently in the process of completing a second round of videos for the Grassroots Girls’ Initiative.

I think it is appropriate on the International Day of the Girl, to reflect upon what we mean when we say, “amplify girls’ stories.” If we intend to create spaces in which girls can claim their agency to speak ‘truth to power’ then we must do more to invert the model of storytelling that privileges the voice of an outsider over the lens of an insider. I can promise you that if we commit to doing this work — the work of shifting power — we will have an opportunity to benefit from tremendous stories told by ferocious storytellers.

-Michaela Leslie-Rule MPA, MPH


Stay tuned for the girls' videos. We'll be showing two of them this week in honor of International day of the Girl on Friday, October 11th.


Michaela Leslie-Rule is a social scientist and artist. Through her company, Fact Memory Testimony, she provides foundations and nonprofit organizations creative tools to communicate, measure and demonstrate the impact of their work. Michaela has produced research and media projects for Firelight, Nike Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, EngenderHealth, The California Endowment and Public Interest Projects.

To learn more about Michaela and her participatory research and media work, please visit her website Twitter @MichaelaLR Facebook