Apr 12 2018

ScienceTapes brings diversity of voices to science

What stuck with Jessie Young-Robertson after attending a large international science conference didn’t have anything to do with the scientific data presented.

Young-Robertson, a researcher with the School of Natural Resources and Extension at UAF, was hoping to be inspired. She wanted to connect to the larger world of science through the experiences of researchers, but something was missing.

“I sat through talk after talk thinking I just want someone to tell me a story,” says Young-Robertson. “That’s when I started looking into StoryCorps.”

StoryCorps is a non-profit organization that records and preserves stories from people of all backgrounds. Young-Robertson reached out to her Alaska Climate Adaptation Science Center colleague Bob Bolton, who immediately related to her pitch.

That conversation was the start of a year-long partnership with StoryCorps and the creation of a story-based program of their own.

“StoryCorps gave us the tools that we needed. I felt incredibly inspired by listening to our first volunteers record their stories and I knew we were onto something amazing,” says Young-Robertson. “Now we’re looking to move forward with ScienceTapes.”

ScienceTapes was created to provide a space to share Alaska’s science and place-based stories with a goal of building bridges between people, communities, agencies, and scientists. Using the StoryCorps model, each story comes from a conversation between people with different perspectives.

To collect the ScienceTapes stories, Young-Robertson and Bolton chose 12 facilitators from various agencies with different perspectives on science. Facilitators range from a tribal liaison to science communicators and educators.

“As of now, our facilitators have recorded more than 45 stories, which are archived with the Library of Congress,” says Young-Robertson. “About ten of them have been fully edited down.”

One of the project’s immediate aims is to enhance connections between scientists and the people in the communities where the research happens. Young-Robertson says it starts with sharing knowledge, but it doesn’t end there. “Researchers need to understand the lens through which rural communities see us and then use that information to strengthen those relationships.”

The stories also offer content that enhances Alaskans’ capacity to make well-informed, responsible decisions about science-based issues. Since they start with shared conversations, there is an authenticity to the stories that reveals the humanity that exists within science.

Each conversation is unique with the storyteller offering insight through their personal experiences and knowledge.

One example came from a conversation between Young-Robertson and her then-student Abraham Endalamaw, who wanted to talk about his journey from Ethiopia to Alaska, As they remembered Endalamaw’s graduation day, Young-Robertson recalled that she had not recognized the significance of him wearing his national flag.

“Before I came here I was working as an activist organizing people to speak out,” Endalamaw said. “If I were in Ethiopia right now, I would be in jail or probably, I would be killed. When I had my country flag on, I am safe but I cannot be as happy as I want to be that day because I would really like to see my country free.”

They also discuss his experiences during graduate school at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Young-Robertson describes trying to get Endalamaw to speak louder for his thesis defense by having him read a newspaper to her from across a room.

“It’s partly cultural, we are not encouraged to speak louder [in Ethiopia], but I also want to be heard,” said Endalamaw.

Another story emerged from a conversation between Megan Hillgartner and Sorina Seeley, who came to UAF as fellows from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies to finish their degree in international environmental policy.

They recalled their struggle to connect with a liaison to a community important to their research. who would become.

“We wanted her to trust us right away based on what we thought were principles of trust,” Seeley said. “But we didn't listen to her story.”

After they regrouped and went back with a different approach, Seeley said that changed. “We just listened. We didn't have any questions. We didn't have any ideas. That space for communication grew back.”

With the ScienceTapes project, the team is looking to expand the reach of their stories by collaborating with rural and urban radio stations. In fact, these stories will soon be featured on KUAC’s Northern Soundings. They’re even looking to develop an app for mobile users to access stories right at their fingertips.

The stories will also be available for people to explore in person at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. The team will participate in the museum’s family day event, offering live recording opportunities and storytelling activities on April 21.

The team hopes these activities will help them reach an even wider audience.

“We’re always looking for more storytellers and for any suggestions on who to interview next,” Bolton said.

As the project expands, Young-Robertson and Bolton have decided to include ScienceTapes under a larger umbrella, called AlaskaVoices. The organizers explain that the new name reflects the diverse nature of the storytellers who have responded and their perspectives.

“This allows their perspectives and stories more freedom to grow. We did not want people to feel limited in what they could or should talk about,” explains Bolton.

As the team moves forward with their work, they hope that these stories continue to provide a source of inspiration and empowerment.

“I see ScienceTapes as a beacon for people to come and listen,” says Young-Robertson. “And as a beacon for people to be heard.”

Do you have a story to share? Do you have someone you want to interview? Please contact the ScienceTapes team by emailing sciencetapes [at] alaskavoices.org with the subject line “Recording a story”.

Media Contact:
Theresa Bakker
UA Museum of the North
tabakker [at] alaska.edu