Reconnected in a Disconnected Wortld
In New Mexico where I now live, cultural and historical inequities of access to education have been intensified by the pandemic. In the Santa Fe New Mexican, Anthony J. Wallace describes how COVID-19 has challenged the Navajo Nation with death and loss, upheaval and isolation. He writes about Native American youth and their interrupted dream “to graduate high school, find a way to go to college, get a degree, land a dream job.” Not only are indigenous learners in the Southwest engulfed in these challenges, but also those I know in Mongolia, South Africa, and Central Asia facing an uncertain future.
After schools were closed in Tajikistan and students in rural southwestern villages lost connection, I reached out to my long-time colleague Zebo Muradova, who teaches in Bokhtar in an after-school English ACCESS program supported by the U.S. Department of State. Though the non-profit American Space where the students had been meeting was closed indefinitely, the Director provided internet packages and loaned cell phones, so Zebo was able to connect with her fifteen English learners twice weekly on Google Meet.
That connection allowed Zebo and me to imagine a hybrid Digital Storytelling project for September/October 2020. In six hybrid workshops, five ACCESS girls wrote, recorded, and illustrated personal narratives of loss and loneliness amplified by the isolation of COVID-19. Munisa tells the story of the death of her youngest uncle: “That was the worst day in my life. I stopped eating. I cried all day. Even I got sick.” Mahina shares the story of her father’s abandonment and her mother’s second marriage and divorce. Marhabo writes of the challenges when COVID-19 canceled school and her ACCESS program: “I lost my hope and motivation….Most of my ACCESS friends experienced the sadness which came with feeling lonely.”
In the digital stories, the girls proceed to express hope and strength through their cell phone classes. Munisa finds resilience in focusing on her lessons. Mehrangez gains motivation, embracing change. Mahina says her lessons “helped me to be brave, overcome my challenges and feel connected with other students.” Sabohat shares, “I must not forget this. Never give up.” Each of the girls embodies a more resilient self, awakening to her own inner strength, her soul-force revealed in the act of making her story heard.
Gandhi says of satyagraha that one’s soul force must be “expressed in action in the service of social justice” (Sethia 2012 p. 47). In a Google Meet interview after the workshop, two of the five shared their future hopes and dreams. Mahina wants to “open a classroom in our school and teach what I have learned in this workshop.” Munisa hopes to “share my ideas with students . . . to improve my English knowledge by teaching students.”
Empowered by their identity as strong, resilient young women, the first five Tajik storytellers applied for and recently received an ACCESS Alumni Grant to share their learning by teaching girls and boys in their school.
In a small way, this hybrid digital storytelling workshop attests to the power of digital connection in a socially distanced world and to dreams that may be realized from sharing of authentic voices.