Scene report by
Erica M. Stone
Erin E. Backhaus
Abby M. Breyer
The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.
—Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, p. 2
We are stories and storytellers, story listeners, and story sharers. We begin this scene report humbly, and with a feminist orientation, acknowledging the important work of archivists, volunteers, and marchers that foregrounded our reflective analysis of the Women’s March on Washington Archive. Before we begin our story, we want to thank those who constructed, and are continuing to assemble, this incredible corpus of community organizers’ stories.
Because this project was a collaboration between an adjunct and two undergraduate students at Rockhurst University working within a collaborative, digital, open-access archive, it serves as a very tangible case for how we might fulfill Patricia Sullivan and James Porter’s (1997) call for us to explore personal experiences in a particular context; expose the dialectical relationships between theory/practice, method/data, researcher/researched; and empower the researched to educate the researcher (pp. 60–62). Additionally, our work reflects Spark’s goal to serve as a place for the marginalized voices of academia to participate in conversations about activism and community organizing in writing, rhetoric, and literacy studies.
Storied activism: Storytelling as a catalyst for community organizing
While the study of community engagement is not new and community rhetorics is well-researched by community-engaged scholars in our field (Ackerman & Coogan, 2010; Cushman, 1996; Faber, 2002; Flower, 2008; Goldblatt, 2010; Grabill, 2001; Jones, 2016; Long, 2008; Mathieu, 2005; Moore, 2017; Shivers-McNair, 2017; Simmons, 2007; Weisser, 2002; Welch, 2005), we believe there is more to explore about the role of stories and storytelling, specifically within the realm of community organizing. In fact, we believe storytelling “is the discursive form through which we translate our values into the motivation to act” (Ganz, 2011, p. 279), and as such, we believe this archive, and any work done around it or for it, to be change-work. We align this project with Brenton D. Faber’s (2002) theory of change, situating the oral histories in the Women’s March Archive as agents of change because “they mediate between social structures and individual agency” (p. 25). Using this archive and our own stories as examples, we argue that stories can be agents of change, and potentially, catalysts for future community organizing.
Narrating our methods: Three perspectives on our research process
Since stories and storytelling are important knowledge-making tools (Legg & Sullivan, 2018) and community organizing practices (Goldblatt, 2010) that are integral to our reflective analysis, we begin with our stories as researchers and a multiperspective narration of our research process and methods.
Before you begin reading our storied methods, we invite you to listen to a piece of the conversation where we discussed this section of our scene report. Here, we talk about the importance of writing yourself into the story, the power of personal transformation as part of the feminist research process, and how story archives might function as change agents.
Write Yourself Into the Story Transcript
I hadn’t planned to teach for Rockhurst University during the spring 2019 semester. In addition to teaching for other universities, I was preparing for my qualifying exams, finalizing my dissertation proposal, and preparing my Institutional Review Board (IRB) application for review. As adjuncts often do, I received an eleventh-hour teaching request from the English department chair. When I opened the email, I assumed it would be a request to teach a composition course; I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was an upper level linguistics course required by the state of Missouri for teacher certification. Because I love the Rockhurst students and teaching about pedagogy so much, I agreed to teach the course.
I spent a little more than three weeks planning the readings and lectures with the understanding that most students who enrolled in the course would be English Education majors. When I met my 13 students on the first day of class, I learned that I also had two graduate students, two nursing majors, and three English majors in the course; it was immediately clear that my hyper-focus on culturally responsive teaching and discourse communities wasn’t the best laid plan if I hoped to keep their attention for more than five minutes. As part of my syllabus review and icebreaker conversations, I began an informal discussion with the students about why they enrolled in my course as well as their plans for the future. I asked things like: who has plans for graduate school; why did I have graduate students in my undergraduate course; and perhaps most importantly, how did they envision a final project for the class? As we discussed these questions (and the many that followed), Erin and Abby expressed interest in writing about and/or studying the Women’s March. Since I had recently received a revise and resubmit invitation from Spark for my scene report on my own Women’s March experience in Kansas City, MO. This piece is both an extension of that reflection and an opportunity to introduce advanced undergraduate students to feminist methodologies, qualitative research methods, and the academic publishing process.
Originally, I dreaded taking a class that centered on the development of the English language; the idea of pouring over the works of old white men like Chaucer didn’t exactly thrill me. But it was a Missouri requirement for my degree in English Education, so I enrolled. My professor, Erica, disproved my misconceptions within the first few minutes of class. Erica is a bright, lively teacher who fully understands the impact of language and communication; since our class contained a large majority of English Education majors, Erica made it her mission to teach a culturally relevant curriculum on language. Our first class discussion centered on the concept of discourse communities, cemented through our own understanding of the writings of John Swales and James Gee. My first reading assignment for class was analyzing “Learning to Read” by Malcolm X. The only textbook that was required for our class was Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit, which discussed the cultural conflicts that occurred in the classroom and how to build community with others. Our final assessment for the course was to research and present on a separate discourse community. It has been one of the most ethically responsible education courses that I have taken thus far as it placed a larger focus on the communities I would come into contact with in the classroom, rather than the material I would be teaching. I came to understand the differences between my own discourse and that of my future students, which is the first step in building empathy and mutual understanding.
The opportunity to research with Erica came from a simple conversation at the start of our second class. A few other students and I had been discussing the Michelle Obama autobiography and other historical accounts of powerful women in politics. I then brought up my sign for the Women’s March that said, “Will Donate Organs to Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” which Erica found hilarious. I told Erica that I had participated in the Women’s March a few weeks earlier. She revealed to the class that she was writing a paper about community organizations, archives, and the Women’s March; the paper had just been sent back to her for revision. After a pause, Erica posed a question to the class, “Would any of you like the opportunity to work with me on this paper? I could write the editors and ask if they would feel comfortable with having student authors co-write the piece. This could take the place of your final assessment for the class.” I was stunned. Research and publication was something that professors did themselves, not something they invited you to participate in. Not one to miss out on an opportunity, I raised my hand. Abby also volunteered. Erica said she would email the editors and get back to us.
A week later, we were a team. The editors agreed to let Erica take on student writers on the basis that she was educating us on the purpose of writing and primary research. To begin, we read through Erica’s original article which included her own scene report of the 2017 Kansas City Women’s March and excerpts from interviews that were recorded at the Women’s March. Erica admitted to us that her first attempt was muddled, and as students, we had a say in the direction of the paper going forward. Abby and I tossed around the idea of interviewing my fellow students who participated in the 2019 Women’s March with me to discover their reasons for marching and common themes among their motivation. This idea came crashing down when Erica told us that we would not be able to be approved by the IRB for interviews in time to turn the article in.
Abby and I were extremely disappointed as the aspects of using real stories of activism was something we were interested in. We then returned to the archived interviews: stories, moments of vulnerability in the face of a powerful movement. The three of us came to the conclusion that we would analyze interviews from the archive, specifically those that included an interviewer and two women. We were first assigned to listen to these interviews by ourselves, without taking notes. We then came together to decide how to record our data. Since we were analyzing qualitative data, Erica pointed us in the direction of open coding and grounded theory based on the Coding Manual for Qualitative Researchers (Saldaña, 2016). When coding the data, Johnny Saldaña tells us to begin the coding process by summarizing the content using the same terms as the participant. This shifts the focus from academic and professional perspective to the terms used by the participants in their everyday life. Researchers record any terms or phrases that they feel stand out in a participant’s speech or answer. We completed our first coding session while we sat side-by-side with Erica and used her example as a model. We listened to the recorded interview with the printed transcript in front of us.
On the first pass of coding, we paused the recording every few lines to note the important words and phrases in a section. After making these notes, we resumed the recording; this practice continued until we finished the entire interview. Then, we talked about areas where we made unusual notes or broke our coding methods. To summarize our coding findings, we looked for key themes in the interview. For example, the women in the first piece that we analyzed used a lot of popular phrases often found online so we determined that “media slogans” was a theme present in the interview. After we compiled a list of themes, we were sent off to code the other two interviews by ourselves using the same practice. I coded the interviews over multiple days to keep the themes separate in my mind.
In the meetings that followed, we came together to compare our coding and themes. We played the interviews back and paused every few lines to tell each other what we had recorded for that section. This is where we began to build our theory about stories as agents of change (Faber, 2002). After listening to the interview, we talked about the themes we had recorded for each piece. Erica made a series of sketch notes, or illustrative notes that allow the writer to visually draw connections between information, compiling separate notes of our coding and themes for each interview. When the three sets of sketch notes were finished, we used different colored markers to color code the themes that showed up in two or more pieces. We were literally drawing connections, which made the coding and analysis process solidify in my mind as major themes emerged.
We recorded our coding conversation and Erica took pictures of all of our sketch notes, so that we could practice feminist methods of research. Similar to critical race theory, social justice theories, and community literacy theories, feminist theory and methods are intentionally emancipatory (Sullivan & Porter, 1997, p. 60). In an effort to help us engage in a feminist research praxis that would “empower the researched, to educate the researcher” (p. 60), Erica structured our research methods in a way that emphasized the importance of vulnerability, relationships, and the possibility that the researcher might be changed by the research process, as both story listener and a storyteller.
Similar to indigenous theories and methodologies, a feminist research process is often invested in a narrative, collaborative process (Powell & Takayoshi, 2012, p. 6-7). As feminist storytellers (and sometimes story re-tellers), our methodologies also echo indigenous research methodologies (King, 2003; Legg & Sullivan, 2018) by engaging in a transparent research praxis where we situated ourselves in the narrative (Sullivan & Porter, 1997, p. 60-63). Since Erica and I had participated in Women’s Marches previously, we decided the best way to situate ourselves was to complete the same set of interview questions used for the archival research. This would also afford us the opportunity to have control over the research, to allow room for storytelling and connection. We reviewed the rules and regulations used by the archival group and Abby then took the place of our interviewer. Erica and I divulged the reasons we marched, our concerns for the country, and our hopes for the future of activism. This conversation, along with many of our other brainstorming sessions, was recorded for later analysis. Beginning and ending in conversation allowed us to stay connected to the stories, not as objectified subjects of research, but as representations of fellow women who likely marched beside each one of us in the Kansas City Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2019.
When Erica asked our class if anyone would be interested in working with her on a project involving the Women’s March, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. It seems funny now that I was so excited and ready to contribute, seeing that I have never actually been to a Women’s March. Still, activism fascinates me. For my senior thesis, I spent months researching the #MeToo movement and the rise of social media activism. For countless hours I read and wrote about activism in the past, how it appears in the present, and where it might lead in the future. It was this interest that drove my desire to participate and learn more about how activism might be shaped by stories and storytelling.
Soon our little team formed which included me and one of my fellow students, Erin, and our professor, Erica. It quickly became clear that we each brought different skills and experiences to the table, though we were all bound by our interest in activism and women’s rights. From the beginning, we centered our project around this passion, and we used our interests as a framework for our research.
We used a scene report that Erica had written about her experience at the 2017 Women’s March as a starting point for where our research might go. After examining the reviewer’s comments on the piece, we discussed what directions we could go in to revise. Activism, storytelling, and archiving were three themes that drove our project from the start. We developed research questions based on these themes and decided that we wanted to know more about the role of storytelling in activism and the ways in which archives compile and redistribute these activist stories. Once we had our research questions, we used the University of Florida’s Women’s March on Washington Archive to begin our research. This archive provided us with free access to interviews by participants in the 2017 marches throughout the country. Each interview explored the interviewees’ purpose for marching, what they hoped to accomplish by marching, and how they heard about the event. As the three of us are all currently located in Kansas City, we chose to examine and analyze three interviews from the Kansas City Women’s March, an event that Erica attended.
The research itself was slow moving process, as neither Erin nor I had ever done a qualitative research study before. As undergraduates we rarely get the opportunity to do such an in-depth project with a teacher-mentor. Erica had to spend extra time explaining different types of coding and analyses before we were even ready to begin and once we eventually settled on our research process, Erica had to teach us step-by-step. She demonstrated how to code and then encouraged Erin and I to code the other interviews ourselves. We discussed each of the codes we had found, and then we worked together to compile themes that we saw in each of the interviews, color coding the different interviews and cross examining the three together.
Our research process ended much the way it started, with conversations on the importance of archiving and the necessity for feminist research. We even mimicked the interview process from the archive in order to insert our own experiences into the conversations that we studied. I interviewed Erica and Erin with the interview questions that the archive used during the Women’s March, which led to a long and fruitful discussion between the three of us. Throughout the whole process, we made sure to keep track of all of our notes and recorded our conversations in an effort to be as transparent about our study as possible. Following Sullivan and Porter (1997), we wanted to document each part of our research process, while also looking at the situation analytically enough to draw important conclusions about activism and storytelling.
The story of our results: An archive of conversations
In this scene report, we invite you into our research process through a self-made archive that pairs three oral histories from the Women’s March Archive with the transcripts we made for each. We selected these particular stories for reflection and analysis because they were all collected at the first Women’s March in Kansas City, MO, on January 21, 2017 (the same one Erica attended), and because they all juxtapose two women’s stories with each other. As snapshots in time from the largest demonstration in modern history, these short audio clips tell a story of resistance, of struggle, and of hope. Together, they have the power to call us into action as citizens and organizers.
Listen to Anita and Rae’s oral history interview
Listen to Nicole and Frazanna’s oral history interview
Nicole and Frazanna Transcript
Listen to Taylor and Emily’s oral history interview
Because the Women’s March Archive didn’t have transcripts, we first had to transcribe each conversation. Then, we used open and axial coding methods (Sandaña, 2016) to understand which themes were most prevalent within each interview and amongst all three of them. In the figure below, you’ll find a quantitative analysis of the four major themes we found amongst these interviewees’ stories.
Inserting ourselves into the story: An interview among the researchers
With the feminist hope of centering our writing and research in conversation with the Women’s March Archive (Royster & Kirsch, 2012), we intentionally chose to engage in an interview of our research team. Using the same semi-structured interview questions the volunteer archivists used to collect the oral histories for the Women’s March Archive, we shared our own stories about marching, activism, and what it means to understand feminism as a social movement (Hemmings, 2011, p. 70), not just a theory or a framework for analysis. Because Erin and Erica had recently participated in Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2019, Abby interviewed them about their experiences. Click on the link below to listen to our conversation or follow along with the transcript.
Researcher Interview Part 1 Transcript
Researcher Interview Part 2 Transcript
While some of our responses echo the rhetorical style of the archive, many of our answers to the interview questions deviate into more in-depth storytelling and relational reflections. This is likely due, in part, to the fact that our 30-minute interview was conducted in an office instead of through a 2–3 minute pre-march interview. But, since we’re using the kind of critical reflexiveness that Sullivan and Porter (1997) recommend for conducting feminist empirical research, we must also “fess up” (p. 69) to our own bias for lengthy storytelling. It is difficult to compare a longer interview that is displaced from the Women’s March with shorter interviews that were conducted on crowded streets and in parks, but that isn’t really the point.
Here, we sought to insert ourselves into the story of the Women’s March itself, not just the archive. In so doing, we found ourselves to be both emancipated from and transformed by the entire experience. When we finished our qualitative coding process, Erin and Abby spent some time reflecting on our research process. Below are some short excerpts from their research journals.
Abby’s personal transformation
Initially, I was expecting to find groundbreaking results through our research that would prove the importance of archiving and storytelling for future activism. I did quantitative research in the past and my experience with that type of work quickly made me want to subtract myself from this research and look entirely to the results in a very objective way. I soon realized, though, that the value of this project was in some ways less about the results and more about the process itself. The whole project took time and effort as it involved two undergraduate students learning how to do feminist research. We often got distracted, side-tracked, ran into roadblocks, or had to change our perspective or tactics for the scene report. Still, we never failed to have great conversations, and in the end, our process proved what we were examining all along. We wanted to see how archiving and storytelling are important to the future of activism, and our discussions constantly engaged with the answer.
Examining an archive led to three women coming together in conversation with one another to talk about our roles in the future of activism. We laughed, we cried, and we shared stories from our own lives in response to the stories we heard from the archives. Erin and I learned from Erica how to do feminist research, something that we can now continue to do in the future, and we all learned from each other about how to be better activists. In the end, I realized the importance of collecting and listening to the stories of others because of how I was transformed by doing so. The whole process was enough to inspire me to want to do more, to participate more, and to seek out the stories of others in every situation. It is stories, after all, that convince people to reexamine their beliefs and support new causes in new and more persistent ways.
By finding new stories and elevating them to the forefront of discussions, change is initiated. Sometimes it is initiated by bringing a counter narrative to force new perspectives. Sometimes it comes from illuminating voices that have historically been silenced. And sometimes the change is on an individual level, shifting the beliefs and practices of one person. I for one am changed, and I am sure that the next time there is a Women’s March, I won’t be on the sidelines of activism but in the midst of it, listening for the stories we all have to tell and helping to transform the world because of it.
Erin’s personal transformation
I was hesitant in coming into this project as I had always seen the field of rhetoric and composition as cold and disconnected. But in introducing the concepts of feminist research, Erica opened up a new world, one in which we became part of the narrative. Writing this piece became a reflective experience, allowing me the opportunity to examine my own reasons for marching and for being a feminist. The day of the march was an emotional experience, one that I could not fully comprehend at the time. Writing, “Will donate organs to Ruth Bader Ginsburg” across my sign was something that I saw as a simple joke initially. But during our analysis and discussion, I realized why I and the other women involved found it funny; our nation is in such a state of disarray that my pledging of organs to an ally could be seen as a somewhat plausible scenario.
As researchers and the interviewees, we were all aware of the political climate in which we exist. The stories that we told created an accurate picture of our culture and the challenges that we face as women; listening to these stories also validated that the problems I was facing as a woman were not insignificant. There are others who face sexual assault and harassment, healthcare issues, unequal pay, and political injustice. The analysis and conclusion of our work has brought upon a reassuring sense of solidarity, knowing that I am not alone, that there are others willing to work towards equality. Below is a photo of me and my two friends who marched with me in 2019. We are not alone. We stand together; we march together; and we share each other’s stories.
Storytelling as an activist practice: Why stories matter in organizing
As our interview amongst ourselves demonstrates, stories about community organizing beget more community organizing. Just as the stories that Erin heard from the fellow marchers in 2019 made her want to participate in more demonstrations, the Women’s March Archive, if accessed and shared in a wide range of spaces, could serve as a catalyst for more people to attend the Women’s March in 2020. Or, at the very least, it has the potential to encourage those who may be weary to be more politically active. After all, community organizing, as a social practice, is called into existence because of oppression. Neutrality isn’t really an option (Young, 1990), and the choice to remain silent is only available to those who are privileged or willfully complicit. Below is the first photo that Erica took when she arrived at the 2017 Women’s March in Kansas City. Like the balloons in this photo, we rise up, and we will not be silent.
Equally important to showing up is speaking out and sharing our own stories. Stories, like the ones shared in the Women’s March Archive or in this scene report, have the potential to encourage more organizing because participation in social change is often prompted by stories (Ganz, 2011, p. 284; Han, 2014). Following Margo Perkins’ (2000) claims in Autobiography as Activism, we recognize the narratives of activists as critical sites of struggle, and we assert that activists and community organizers are “aware of the power of words to alter understanding” (p. 84). They’re a kind of “critical consciousness raising” (Polletta, 2006) and an opportunity for us to hear ourselves in others’ voices and to listen responsively (Royster, 1999). In this way, the stories in the Women’s March Archive, and even our own stories as scholar-activists, are part of a feminist rhetorical ecology that has the potential to determine “who speaks, who remains silent, who listens, and who acts responsibly” (Glenn, 2018, p. 9).
Because of the extreme media coverage of protests and activist events, we are presented with an overt, and sometimes overwhelming “paradox of experiencing oneself as invisible at the same time that one is marked as different” (Young, 1990, p. 60). For this reason, we need to establish sites for activist storytelling, like the Women’s March Archive, or even Spark, so that community organizers can tell their own stories before a system of cultural imperialism does it for them. If we don’t create a space for marginalized stories to be told, then the dominant narrative, (in most cases, the straight, white, male perspective) will continue to be the only story. Archives that collect stories, like the Women’s March on Washington Archive at the University of Florida, have the agency to put an end to a dominant voice by creating a space for distributed voices to be heard together in a digital space, even after the marches have ended—thus creating the opportunity for simultaneous storytelling and the possibility of real change.
Archives as story collections: A call to action
In addition to functioning as an argument for how and why scholar-activists should look to archives as spaces for studying the rhetorics of resistance, this scene report also serves an important pedagogical model for how we might write with and alongside undergrads. Following Kristen R. Moore’s (2013) study of storytelling as a relational (pp. 65–67) and platial (pp. 73–74) tactic for listening-centered pedagogy, this scene report demonstrates the value of storytelling as a feminist research practice (Royster & Kirsch, 2012). But perhaps more importantly, it demonstrates how a storied approach to primary research can help novice qualitative researchers pair reflection and action (Freire, 1996, p. 68) and understand research as praxis (Lather, 1986).
Below, you’ll find an audio clip from one of our first discussions about the Women’s March Archive. Because this scene report was part of Erin and Abby’s final project in a linguistics class at Rockhurst University, Erica was working to help them understand how the archive might be situated both as a discourse community (Swales, 1990) and as a space for studying activist rhetoric.
Call to action
The Women’s March Archive has captured a small selection of stories from 65 marches across the country, attempting to “capture a new wave of feminism and document the evolution and intersection of organizers’ identities, daily lives, political activism and roles” (Women’s March on Washington Archive, n.d.). These oral histories, or stories as we refer to them, serve as the antenarrative (Boje, 2001), the story before the grand narrative that is told by the local and national media. As we discussed in the Storytelling as an Activist Practice section, it’s important for activists to recognize the kairotic moment for both telling and documenting their own stories. After all, “change itself is a story and stories are acts of change” (Faber, 2002, p. 21). In light of this claim, we call for more digital, open-access archives of social movements, like the Women’s March Archive, to be created so that we can begin to document activist rhetoric and stories of resistance, not just for future study, but as historical evidence for #whywemarched. If you haven’t already done so, we also invite you to explore the archive and potentially volunteer to collect interviews at the upcoming 2020 marches. Thank you for listening to our stories and the stories in the archive. We look forward to hearing yours.
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This scene report was written in partial fulfillment of Erin and Abby’s final research project in EN3750: Development of the English Language at Rockhurst University in Spring 2019.
Erica M. Stone (she/her/hers) is a PhD candidate in the Technical Communication and Rhetoric program at Texas Tech University. In addition to teaching linguistics and composition courses at Rockhurst, she works at the intersection of writing, teaching, and community organizing. Erica is passionate about making academic scholarship free and accessible. In addition to her TEDx talk on the importance of publicly accessible, community-based research, her work has appeared in Kairos and Community Literacy Journal with forthcoming articles in Basic Writing eJournal (BWe), FORUM: Issues about Part-Time and Contingent Faculty, and an edited collection under review with Utah State Press.
Erin E. Backhaus (she/her/hers) is a sophomore at Rockhurst University where she studies English, Secondary Education, and Spanish. In her studies, Erin has developed a fascination for feminist criticism and storytelling. Her passions fuel her current project, a Dean’s Research Fellowship that analyzes the Cinderella narrative present in modern cinema. Upon finishing her undergraduate studies, Erin intends to pursue a career as a high school English teacher where she hopes to create a culturally responsive classroom.
Abby M. Breyer (she/her/hers) is a recent graduate from Rockhurst University where she studied English and Communication. In her time at Rockhurst, she cultivated a special interest in feminist writing and research, as well as a fascination with the rhetoric of activism. These topics drove her undergraduate thesis which was an examination of the sustainability of online social justice movements with a specific focus on the #MeToo movement. Abby looks forward to going to graduate school in the Fall of 2020 with the hopes of eventually being able to teach Rhetoric and Composition at the college level.
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