Authorship Matters

A conversation with Tara Roberts & Nicolas van Hemelryck, CCL Systems Storytellers

Collective Change Lab
7 min readMar 16, 2022

One of the themes we’ve been exploring in the Storytelling Community of Practice (CoP) is authorship. Specifically, we’ve been discussing how I/We authors (authors telling stories of lived experience) can change the trajectory of which stories matter and which stories get told.

We invited CoP members Tara Roberts and Nicolas van Hemelryck to contribute their experiences as documentary storytellers in our 2nd Community of Practice session. In this blog post, we’ll let them tell their own stories of authorship — and explore what lessons and techniques their experiences might have for systems storytelling.


Tara Roberts, National Geographic Storytelling & MIT Open Documentary Lab Fellow

I started this work when I saw a photo of a group of primarily Black female scuba divers at the “Blacksonian” (the National Museum of African American History and Culture) in Washington, DC. I thought they looked like superheroes! The caption said they were a part of a group called Diving With a Purpose, and that they were diving to search for and help document lost slave shipwrecks. I was floored and immediately wanted to be a part of this work. I am a storyteller by trade, and thought I would mainly tell stories about these women and men divers. But then this idea grew in my mind of giving voice to those who are lost. 1.8 million lives were lost in the crossing. That’s 1.8 million stories that have not been told. I also thought about the stories of the communities and descendants around the world who were connected to the wrecked ships. I wondered what happens when Black storytellers are part of crafting these narratives and thinking about ways to tell this story?

The journey really changed me. I came to the realization that I had been afraid to look at the past because it’s so full of trauma and pain for Black people. I had divorced myself from that past because I was afraid of stepping into that pain and trauma. At some point during this journey, though, I was able to move through the fear. What I saw was that it wasn’t just a history of pain and trauma. It was a history full of life and humanity. I ended up searching for my own roots as a part of this story, and I found a great great grandfather I never knew much about.

This project started with me writing 200–300 word blog entries as a part of a grant from National Geographic. But you can’t really talk about the transatlantic slave trade and the Middle Passage and what’s happening in communities around the world in blog pieces. So I went back to National Geographic with an idea for a longer-form story, and they ended up investing in it.

National Geographic and I turned this experience into a 6-part audio podcast called Into the Depths. And I wrote a cover story about the journey for the March issue of Nat Geo magazine. There are discussion questions and a toolkit for groups to listen to the podcasts together and discuss them afterwards on Nat Geo’s Into the Depths microsite. As we begin to do promo work for the podcast series, members of the public have begun to respond in tremendous and supportive ways. And some have questions. One woman left a comment saying she thinks we talk too much about race as a culture. She objected to the fact that we say the divers are Black. I sat with her comment for a while, and I wondered how do I respond to people who think we’ve talked about this enough already and it’s time to move on?

And I would now say that we actually haven’t talked about race in ways that move us through the shame, horror, guilt, anger and other paralyzing emotions nearly enough. And I would say that there is power in bringing more voices to the table, in looking at this monumental event in our history with an unflinching eye and in doing so with the intent to acknowledge, to honor, to heal.

This is the possibility of the work of recovering slave shipwrecks. This work helps give us the tools we need in order to create a just and equitable future.

Nicolas van Hemelryck, Casatarantula, Filmmaker, Photographer & Architect

In 2016 we were invited to conduct a documentary film workshop for teenage girls in a safe house in Colombia. These girls have experienced horrific things — rape, abuse, violence, drugs. Yet, despite the brutality of their childhood experience, their innocence and humor made us admire them and inspired us to make a film. Together with them, we understood that they live in a circle of violence that gets perpetuated across generations. The question the film holds is, is it possible to break these cycles and imagine a brighter future?

The girls’ stories are stories of pain and marginalization. But they laugh, dance, release emotions. They imagine they can be someone else in the future, that another life is possible. Will they make it? We don’t know. But in our world full of crises, they give us a message: the only way to build a new reality is to imagine it first.

It was a long process before we decided to make a film. We tried different ways of telling this story at the beginning. In the workshops with them we understood the power of imagination to access truths that would otherwise remain hidden. So when we came up with the mechanism for the film of having the girls make up stories about an imaginary girl, Alis, we knew it could work. It’s hard to believe they created these stories on the spot and could make them so believable.

Even so, how can you maintain a story for an hour and a half when you have teenage girls making up stories? We had to think about how to convey their spirit while also building up a dramatic arc. We worked with a screenwriter and editors and co-producers and consultants and funders. In our current culture in the film and media industry, the author is the director, as though the director did it on their own. The reality is, it’s hard to say who the author is. It’s really a team effort. Nevertheless, in my opinion, in this case the authorship relies on the motivation of the director’s. The point of view of the film came directly from there.

The girls don’t know yet that they all made it into the final film. We told them we weren’t sure that would work because it depends on the way the story needs to be told. I can’t wait to see their reaction. We will screen the film at the best cinema in Bogota. Our team is doing everything we can to find them all, get them vaccinated, and make sure they can all be with us. Sharing the screening with them and seeing their reaction is very important to us.

UPDATE: before the World Premiere at Berlinale we screened the film with the girls and they loved it ;) In Berlin the film was awarded the Crystal Bear and the Teddy Award.

What lessons can we learn from Tara and Nico’s experiences to apply to systems storytelling? The CoP dug into this question, carrying their conversation from the session into a shared Google doc which allowed for deeper reflections.

A clear message from the conversation was that the theme of authorship has many facets. Authorship is not just who tells the story but which perspectives are included, the proximity of the storyteller to the story, as well as the editing and crafting of the story. Authorship is also linked to the motivations and intentions of the storyteller, requiring a closer look at empathy, trauma and healing.

  • Multiple Perspectives: Our conversation revealed that authorship and perspective are deeply intertwined.The stories that get told, and the perspectives they amplify, are a representation of what is privileged in a system. Systems stories can help us navigate complexity by featuring multiple perspectives and revealing perspectives that may have less exposure. We explored how this might be achieved by “stitching together” multiple stories rather than simply telling a single story from multiple angles.
  • Proximity: While I/We stories can reveal stories that have been silenced or sidelined, we also discussed the role of insider/outsider authors, or authors with intersecting stories who become an authentic part of a group to tell their stories. For example, Tara undertook extensive training as a diver in order to tell the story of Diving With a Purpose, but this logistical effort merged with her identity as a Black person and her family’s history to elicit a new understanding of slavery. No longer was the issue one of pain and loss, but rather a shared humanity.
  • Editing and crafting: Since there is such power in storytelling, the editing and crafting process should be approached with humility, requiring a significant level of engagement and collaboration. Nico provided his experience as a filmmaker who, with his co-director, spent five years on their project, ALIS, to ensure that they represented the girls’ stories with authenticity and sensitivity. As one CoP member reflected, “How can we leave room for authenticity without dictating that certain norms or rules of storytelling must be met in order for the story to be accepted?
  • Empathy, trauma and healing: Importantly, the discussion led us to the related issues of empathy, trauma and healing. We considered whether systems storytelling is better served by empathizing with a single story or more broadly comprehending a range of perspectives. We also discussed how systems storytelling can be in service of healing rather than retriggering those who have lived through traumatic experiences.

Bottom-line: Authorship matters for systems storytelling, and there are many facets to consider when telling a complex systems story. By “stitching together” multiple perspectives and stories, engaging as insider/outsiders, editing and crafting with humility, and creating healing spaces for storytelling, we can get far closer to telling the stories that reflect the systems change we hope to see in the world.

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