Rural American Digital Lab students from Whitman College and Heritage University

Rural American Digital Lab students from Whitman College and Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash., came together on the campuses of both schools in June to explore using video, photography and audio to tell stories of rural social issues. Their resulting projects were presented at Whitman in late June.

Digital storytelling came to Walla Walla this summer, through a partnership between Whitman College and Heritage University in Toppenish, Wash.

Over a period of several weeks, nearly two dozen students — equal populations from both schools — worked together in a new, place-based storytelling project called Rural American Digital Lab, or RADLab, as it got nicknamed.

The concept was to bring creative digital platforms, used most heavily in advertising and marketing, to shine a light on rural challenges. Think of the campaigns for fast food, movies and beauty products; those rely on a multifaceted approach of TV, online and print media advertising built with text, video and audio clips to catch as much attention as possible.

Why not bring that same technology to bring attention to problems plaguing rural towns and farms, RADLab organizers wanted to know. Why not create the same kind of buzz around issues such as rural suicide rates, education hurdles faced by first-generation migrants, and homelessness in rural America?

The project

Digital solutions are not just for hipsters and innovative cities, said RADLab developer Aurora Martin.

Martin is the founder of Seattle-area’s “PopUpJustice,” an organization that offers social justice research, consultation and analysis, plus collaborations on projects, events and campaigns related to solving fairness and equality problems.

Before founding the agency, Martin worked 20 years at Columbia Legal Services, a nonprofit legal aid organization that works across Washington state.

Young adults everywhere are trying to develop new solutions for today’s hurdles, often within designated, tech-heavy “innovation centers” found in metropolitan areas, Martin said.

It’s time to try and replicate that in the rural setting, despite the limited access circumstances, she added. “Rural America has been left out of this conversation.”

RadLab was intended to combine campus learning with social justice missions, and this year it was accomplished by seat-of-the-pants financing for less than $50,000, and no grant money was involved, Martin said.

“Kind of similar to the tech, startup experience,” she explained.

Noah Leavitt, director of student engagement at Whitman College and a member of the RADLab project, said not many people are talking about rural innovation in America.

“Part of the challenge for bridging the urban-rural divide is that there is limited digital access and opportunity in a majority of rural America,” Leavitt said. “Just as tech labs are popping up in urban-based, higher-educational institutions, RADLab can serve as a model of how to sow the seeds of next generation rural innovation.”

In Walla Walla that meant putting teams of college students together to learn, invent and grow a sense of community in a virtual world, Martin said.

On one end were the Heritage students. The private university is situated on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington and was created to serve students whose economic status and rural location can make getting an education difficult. Its population is largely low-income students of color who don’t live on campus, she said.

Also a private school, Whitman College tends to attract urban students with families able afford tuition and for which education is a priority, she noted.

The young adults began working with each other to teach the broader world about the people who live in rural America.

One example came with a Heritage University student who was interested in preserving his tribal language, Martin recalled.

“Is there a digital solution for that? Is it something like the Rosetta Stone (language program)?” she said.

Although the bigger vision of RADLab is to become a learning lab for science, technology, engineering, art and math, the limited budget of this first year meant the focus was on storytelling through film, photography and podcasts. The idea was not to try and do everything in a few weeks but to define a starting mark for a “rural digital revolution,” Martin said.

Rural issues

In the late June unveiling of their efforts at Whitman College, three teams from each college tackled a number of social ills.

In the packed Kimball Theater on campus, the audience was given a look at six rural issues through stories told one digital way or another.

Those included “Please Hold,” a project outlining the scarcity of women’s health options in the Walla Walla area. The filmmakers found women willing to talk about language and social barriers, the challenge of getting to another city for reproductive health care and the loss of providers with last summer’s closing of Walla Walla General Hospital.

In “Migrant Society,” the story of Ruben Sanchez of Toppenish was explored by a Heritage documentary team. Sanchez, the son of farmworkers, said in the video he had no idea he would become a college student. Now enrolled at Heritage, Sanchez was working part time for a fruit packing house at 16, and life after high school seemed more of the same.

“We need help to go to college,” Sanchez said on behalf of other first generation Americans in the short film. “We don’t know how to go to college. My parents didn’t know how to help me.”

Other projects revealed way suicide is viewed by the Yakama Native American tribe, and the mixed message in identifying as a Mexican-American.

The end justified the monthlong effort, Martin said.

“What I’ve learned is confirming there is a tremendous need for digital infrastructure and opportunity to learn and invent. I wanted to know how meaningful of communication we can create through a virtual learning community.”

Bringing Heritage and Whitman students together resulted in a cultural exchange that was eye-opening to both groups, underlining the whole message of the untold and unseen stories of rural America, she added.

“What I’ve learned after 20 years in access to justice is, to the extent I can, I want to invest all my efforts in the future,” Martin said. “It’s investing in the next generation.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.

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