Summer 2019
The U’s Jigna Desai listens as Northeast Middle School eighth grader Fatuma Abdi explains her project. Photography by Courtney Deutz
Cover Story

Raising their voices


It was a Friday morning near the end of the school year, and English teacher Sean Baldwin was trying to quiet his classroom of eighth graders. A group of girls smacked gum as they brushed and braided their hair. A handful of boys slouched in the blue plastic chairs, eyes glued to their phones. Kids talked, sang, giggled. But none of this seemed to ruffle Baldwin, who has taught at Northeast Middle School in Minneapolis for more than two decades. He dimmed the lights and asked a student to read the words projected on a large screen. She spoke aloud: “No one can tell your story like you can.”

Baldwin repeated the words to emphasize their meaning, then played a series of videos made by previous classes. One focused on the school’s dress code—which, the narrator noted, pertained only to girls. Another centered on depression and its personal effects. A third wove together facts about climate change and showed pictures of its impact on Minnesota’s landscape. Captivated by the images, music, and stories, the students forgot their phones and hair, and a hush fell over the room. 

Minutes later, the noise and bustle returned. But there was a focus to the energy. Students typed sentences and did image searches on their laptops. For several months, the eighth graders had been learning about storytelling, thanks to the Minnesota Youth Story Squad, a program run by the Department of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies in the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts. As a culminating project, they were producing short videos about issues that mattered to them—race, gender, body image, mental health, the environment, and social justice.


The Minnesota Youth Story Squad is the brainchild of U of M professor Jigna Desai, ’98 Ph.D., and researcher Kari Smalkoski, ’14 Ph.D. Launched in 2016 with financial support from the Joan Aldous Fund, which was established with gifts from the late U of M sociology professor, the program is aimed at closing the academic achievement gap between white and nonwhite students in public schools. Minnesota has one of the worst achievement gaps in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Smalkoski, a former English teacher, became interested in the achievement gap while studying adolescent boys and their emotional-social development. 

A page from a zine created by a student in the program.
Courtesy Minnesota Youth Story Squad

“Boys are struggling in ways that I think surprise a lot of people,” says Smalkoski, who interviewed dozens of boys as part of her research. “I realized there wasn’t one boy in my study who was not dealing with some sort of profound violence at school or home or in their neighborhood. I was also astounded by the number of boys who appeared to have friends, but who felt very alone and isolated.” That isolation, she observed, had a negative effect on their grades.

She wondered if the key to boosting academic performance might lie in helping kids develop traits like open-mindedness, conscientiousness, empathy, and agency, which are reliable predictors of happiness and success in adulthood. Smalkoski believed if kids felt safe and connected—to their teacher and to each other—in the classroom, they might perform better in their coursework. But how could that kind of connection be built easily and effectively?

Smalkoski began to circulate her ideas and soon found a collaborator in Desai, who shared Smalkoski’s interest in race, gender, social justice, and education. What’s more, Desai had a background in cinema and telling stories about identity. 

“Much of my work has been on media. How do we democratize access? How do we create new narratives and additional narratives?” Desai says. One way is to give people the means to tell their own stories through blogs, social media platforms, videos, zines, and other channels. Equipped with a phone camera, editing software, a few other simple tools, and an understanding of what makes an engaging narrative, almost anyone can tell a digital story—so why not middle schoolers?

Smalkoski and Desai developed a curriculum for using storytelling to help students build connections to each other and their teachers. They found a willing partner in Parkway Montessori Middle School in St. Paul, and they recruited undergraduate and graduate students from the U to serve as mentors to the eighth graders. As word of the Minnesota Youth Story Squad spread throughout the Twin Cities, school administrators began inquiring about participating. 

The squad has taught digital storytelling to more than 1,100 students across the Twin Cities during the past three years. Northeast Middle School principal Vernon Rowe was among those who saw its promise. 

“For classroom learning to work, we need to build a relationship with our kids,” he says. “This program allows us to become more connected.” 

The researchers are eager to begin studying the program’s long-term value. A Beverly and Richard Fink Liberal Arts Faculty Innovation Award will allow Smalkoski and Desai to hire a graduate-level researcher who can design and administer surveys that measure student performance and analyze the results. They ultimately hope to track the eighth graders’ performance from middle school through high school and beyond. 


The stories that emerge from the Minnesota Youth Story Squad are candid, beautiful, heartbreaking, and sometimes funny. “The students amaze me with how honest and articulate they can be,” Baldwin says. “And when they share their stories, they get to see how powerful their voices are. They get to see the respect and admiration of their peers.”

But it takes time and trust to get eighth graders to open up. So the squad begins the semester with trust-building exercises. One is a trust walk, where students pair up and lead each other, eyes closed, from point A to point B.  They also get comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable as their mentors share their own stories. 

DeAnna Moeller, ’19 B.A., one of the mentors, admits she was nervous when asked to tell her own story about depression. “It was intimidating, but I figured I couldn’t expect the students to be vulnerable and share their stories with me if I didn’t do the same,” she says. “In order to grow and learn, we have to push ourselves to be vulnerable sometimes.”

The squad also brings in writers and artists who tell stories and offer tips on storytelling. The eighth graders discuss the approaches: What topic was at the center of the story? Was it personal? Was it powerful? What kind of visuals, music, and narration made the piece work? Talking about the stories of other people allows the students to experiment with telling bits of their own: “We talk about mental health, gender identity, and gender roles and stereotypes. We talk about race. And we talk about poverty—we talk about issues that are important to youth in their lives,” Desai says. 

Beyond middle school 

One goal of the Minnesota Youth Story Squad is to get middle school students to think about their future. In the classroom, they interact with graduate and undergraduate students from the U who aren’t much older than they are. Visiting the U for the completion ceremony also exposes the eighth graders (and their families) to campus life. 

“The aim isn’t necessarily to get them to attend the U—although that would be wonderful,” says Kari Smalkoski, a researcher in the U’s College of Liberal Arts and one of the founders of the storytelling program. “Mostly, we want them to understand that there are options. They may not know about community college or trade school. Some don’t even know that the U is in Minneapolis—or if they do, they see it as this big, large, imposing, intimidating institution that is nowhere near where they live. It’s very exciting when they find it’s so accessible to them.”

Inevitably, students and teachers learn unexpected things about each other. In one class, there was a student from Nepal. “But nobody knew he was from Nepal,” Smalkoski recalls. “Nobody had any idea where he was from, or what language he spoke. Nobody really talked to him. So he did this visual story on Nepal and suddenly people were interested. They learned about the  geography, they learned about the economy, they learned about migration, they learned that there was a refugee community. And they learned what was important to him. He got to be the teacher. He got to have a valuable place in the classroom.”


Last June, the eighth graders from Northeast Middle School paraded into Northrop on the U’s Twin Cities campus—greeted with applause from friends, family, staff, and teachers—as their time with the Minnesota Youth Story Squad came to a close. Many students were dressed in sequined gowns, high heels, fancy suits, beautiful hijabs, and carefully chosen sneakers and hoodies. Amelious Whyte, the College of Liberal Arts’ director of public engagement, welcomed them warmly: “The University of Minnesota is your university, and we hope you visit often,” he said. “Today marks the end of your middle-school journey, but it is not the end of your academic journey.”

The students watched videos made by their peers—digital stories about body image, race, gender and sexual identity, global warming, immigration, homelessness, even bees. They clapped enthusiastically for every single one and then went wild as their teacher, Sean Baldwin, mounted the stage. He smiled at them, raised a hand to hush them, and then, in the stillness that followed, delivered one last lesson. “Now you know how important your voices can be,” he said. “I hope you use those voices to make change in this world.”

Joel Hoekstra is a Minneapolis writer.

Watch some of the digital stories produced by the Minnesota Youth Story Squad:

The perfect body