Pre-print for the Proceedings of the Connected Learning Summit, UC Irvine, Irvine, California,
Neighborhood Circulation of Civic Stories: A Trans-Local Platform
By Benjamin Stokes, Olivia Williams, Hazel Arroyo. (American University Game Lab, Washington, DC)
How can cities make their history more visible, and invite residents to participate across
channels? This project investigates a transmedia “storytelling system” for neighborhoods,
designed to circulate audio stories and digital photographs beyond institutional walls. Residents
often discovered the system at one of five neighborhood libraries, each featuring a “satellite
exhibit” of a Smithsonian exhibit on DC neighborhood history. A novel transmedia design
extended the physical installations, yet remained deliberately low-tech.
In particular, the system featured repurposed payphones, a storytelling truck, and a multimedia
texting system to connect key sites around the city. The system recruited residents’ own stories
of neighborhood history, even as it circulated specific oral histories from city archives. Print
media like postcards proved essential for scavenger hunts and learning activities, shaping playful
experiences around neighborhood stories. Over 18 months, the project demonstrated how
connected learning at the neighborhood level can prioritize inclusion by balancing transmedia
organizing with locally-owned platforms.
Fig. 1. Library installations, storytelling truck, repurposed payphone, post-card activity
Civic stories have real consequences, including for neighborhood engagement and learning. The
right stories can anchor the neighborhood identity, boost collective organizing, strengthen the
sense of belonging and group efficacy (see the literature on neighborhood effects1 and
communication infrastructure theory2). Yet in schools, local history is often sacrificed for the
national story; in Washington, DC, the neighborhood perspective is particularly overshadowed.
1 Robert J. Sampson, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
2 Y. C. Kim and S. J. Ball-Rokeach, “Civic Engagement from a Communication Infrastructure Perspective,” Communication
Theory 16, no. 2 (2006): 173–197.
The goal of this project was to scaffold the circulation of specific stories that reveal
neighborhood strength in recent decades, emphasizing how ordinary Washingtonians have
shaped their neighborhoods in extraordinary ways, including in successful battles to stop
freeways, and by advancing a more democratic approach to city planning.3 Historians have
documented these stories for the archives – but too often the narratives fail to circulate beyond
museum and library walls.
In contrast to the early use of mobile media for “anywhere, anytime” engagement, this system
follows the situated approach of Squire and colleagues for mobile games, where the goal is to
enter and inhabit4 specific places; we describe this approach to mobile media as “somewhere,
sometime,” with the goal of deepening the social connection to place. The result is to situate
residents more deeply in their own community, and their own right to the city. The transmedia
approach is location-based, but with a sense of location tied to place more than space and GPS
coordinates. Rather than a game per se, the playful approach outlined by Sicart5 was used to
open new space for conversation and story circulation, including postcards that challenged
residents with questions about local streets and raffles that send historic photographs to
residents’ cellphones upon registration.
Accessibility in low-income neighborhoods was a primary goal, especially as gentrification takes
center stage in many American cities. At some locations, a repurposed payphone was configured
to dial into the system automatically for free. More fundamentally, this project prioritized
accessibility by not requiring smart phones or data plans for any access to the storytelling
system– only basic cell phones, paired with print media and live events.
As a spotlight presentation, this session goes beyond tracing the success in DC – from the
storytelling truck to the low-tech approach. Rather, the goal of this session is to explicitly
question some of the major assumptions about how mobile media should work for cities and
community learning. Instead of privileging digital immersion (e.g., augmented reality), what if
we embed learning in the neighborhood ecosystem for story circulation? What does it mean it we
prioritize storytelling networks, rather than individualized learning of local history? How can
neighborhoods build their own infrastructure for storytelling and civic learning at the
3 Based on the exhibit, “A Right to the City,” currently on show at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum
4 K. Squire et al., “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Place-Based Augmented Reality Games for Learning,” The Educational
Design and Use of Simulation Computer Games, 2007, 265–296.
5 Miguel Sicart, Play Matters, Playful Thinking (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2014).