Policymakers are influenced by compelling stories and academic researchers who want to influence policy should consider the power of digital media storytelling to influence policy, as this experience in East Harlem reveals.
East Harlem is among the first of New York City’s “Aging Improvement Districts.” In a global society that’s rapidly aging, Aging Improvement Districts are intended to address the concerns about mobility and accessibility for older adults living in large cities. The Age-Friendly New York City Project, which is behind the Aging Improvement Districts, conducted a public health community-assessment survey to find out about the needs of aging New Yorkers living in East Harlem. The researchers were eager to influence policy makers with some of their findings about the needs of seniors in this community, and they wanted to reach back to those in East Harlem had participated in the survey. They soon realized that an ordinary research paper or presentation wouldn’t accomplish either of these goals.
Instead, the researchers decided that telling the stories, in digital video format, was the best way to reach both policy makers and members of the community. This video (15:53) illustrates the research findings of NYAM’s community-assessment survey through the stories of several seniors living in East Harlem:
The video features the stories of several seniors living in East Harlem and was screened at a large event (August, 2011) hosted by NYAM, and attended by policy makers, service providers and members of the community, many of whom cheered when they recognized friends and neighbors on screen.
One of the issues raised by elders in the video was the reluctance to use public pools and a desire for seniors-only hours for swimming. While the video was being screened, one policy maker representing the NYC Parks Department placed a phone call and implemented a “seniors-only swim” on the spot – and then announced it later in the meeting. Today, Senior Swim in NYC is a city-wide program that opens up access to an important recreational resource to older adults.
While it’s possible this change would have happened following a standard research report and slide presentation, but it seems unlikely. What got the policy maker to pick up the phone was seeing and hearing a compelling story, told by people affected by the policy.
Of course, not all policy issues are as easily addressed. Another issue facing seniors raised in the video is the struggle to do laundry. The video features the story of two seniors taking their clothes from a laundromat and then hauling it up four-flights of stairs to their apartment, a struggle for the even the youngest and fittest among us, and a herculean task for two grandparents. Added to this is the fact that many elders in East Harlem live in public housing, and the local housing authority, NYCHA, recently announced a plan to close all laundry facilities in public housing buildings. A deputy commissioner from NYCHA attended the video screening and, moved by the stories of the seniors and their laundry struggle, promised to keep laundry facilities open. Still, the battle to keep laundry facilities open – and operating – at NYCHA buildings is one that continues.
The point is, policymakers are influenced by compelling stories. Research still plays a role here because it informed the development of the stories in the video. Research can also provide information about the scope and scale of a policy issue. The community screening of the video added an accountability and exerted additional pressure on those with some power to make changes. After the screening, the video was posted to the web and circulated among those in the community, to journalists, and a much wider audience than attended the event.
The strategic use of digital media storytelling – both to engage community members and influence policy makers – is a new and innovative development.
Digital media storytelling can influence policy and researchers should consider it as an important tool if their goal is to shape policy.