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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Digital Storytelling in Human Rights: Immigration in WA State

November 25, 2014

(An excerpt from our 2013-2014 Annual Report)

By Bryce Ellis
Over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year, I had the opportunity to participate in an honors research program through the Law, Societies and Justice program, studying the impact of deportation on immigrant families in Washington State. This was unlike any other class I have ever taken, examining an intensely difficult topic in our country today.

Our class set out hoping to conduct research and develop policy prescriptions that might make a difference for communities living in our state. We quickly discovered, however, that any kind of quantitative research would be very hard to do, because these populations live in the shadows; we heard many anecdotes, but gathering accounts that were systematic enough to constitute hard data was a challenge.

Ultimately, however, we realized it was those anecdotes – the personal stories of individuals impacted by immigration policy—that had the greatest power. In particular, we were struck by the stories shared with us by a group of youth from Burien, Washington, who we met in the course of our research. We were completely taken aback by the way their warmth and honesty juxtaposed against the harsh realities of their experiences with deportation. After some consideration, we decided to shift from our original goal of producing “hard numbers” to inform policy, to a participatory action research model, in which we worked alongside those who know this issue best–the youth themselves–to develop and share their expertise on how deportation impacts families. Over the course of the year, working together with the youth we produced two short films focusing on education and family life.

Every person involved in this research took risks, leaps of faith. As undergraduates pursuing goals beyond completing our bachelor’s degrees here at UW, we took a leap of faith in not knowing how such an experimental project would turn out: would we get a good grade? Would we do their stories justice? Yet given their vulnerability, the youth we worked with risked much more: they risked disclosure of their identities, the security and stability they work so hard to maintain, all to tell us how, despite their hard work, intelligence, and accomplishments, they are not sure if they will have an opportunity to even attend college. This is serious, it was serious at the time, coming to terms with the implications of their situation, and it remains serious for me as I weigh my options for the future, for what I hope to pursue in a career.

Attempting to honor the stories of others, especially the stories of those who are systematically disenfranchised in our society, was an experience unlike anything else. I am still learning about myself; like most people my age, I’m still young, curious, confused, frustrated, lost, you name it, and that’s okay. It’s part of the uncertainty that accompanies adolescence and early adulthood. Working with the youth helped me imagine the uncertainties that are common for undocumented immigrants in the United States—the daily concerns, for example, about who would take care of my siblings if my mother doesn’t come home from work tonight, juxtaposed against the bleakness of a future without access to education or legal employment.

Attempting to explore the youths’ stories of pursuing normalcy in their lives when things just aren’t all that normal, jarred everything into perspective for me, pushing me past the seemingly “typical” thoughts of my age group. Going into this project, I expected to learn, to be moved and challenged by the facts we encountered; but I never expected that in learning so much about other people’s realities, I would ultimately learn so much about myself. So often in college we are isolated from what we are learning about by the confines of a classroom, measuring the depth of our engagement by the number of journal subscriptions we can access through our online library system. Often I feel as if we never really are able to fully expose ourselves to the humanity of the issues we are learning about. This experience put a face to the problem, put tears, devastating anxieties, awesome dreams and wide, beaming smiles to a problem that I am no longer comfortable being isolated from. This is the perspective that I have gained from my time working on this project and most importantly working with and learning from the youth who understand it best.

In partnership with the Law, Societies, and Justice Program, the UW CHR provides funds to support engaged instruction on human rights topics. In 2013-14, an honors research course on immigration in Washington state was supplemented to provide training in digital storytelling for both UW students and a group of youth from families who had experienced deportation; in 2014-15 funds will support a mixed enrollment course in which students from UW study alongside inmates at Washington State Reformatory.

Bryce EllisBryce Ellis is currently a double major in Communication and Law, Societies, and Justice at the University of Washington. He serves as president of the Alpha Rho chapter of  Theta Chi Fraternity and the Mortar Board National Honor Society Tolo Chapter. He hopes to work for his fraternity after graduation, and eventually plans to attend law school.

Read Full 2013-14 Annual Report