Suitcase Stories: Exploring climate adaptation through participatory storytelling with young people

20th July 2022 - Kayla Herbert

Written by Matthew Reason, Institute for Social Justice, York St John University

Courtesy of York St John University

Suitcase Stories is an arts and geography collaboration which used participatory storytelling with young people to explore themes of climate change and climate adaptation. Aware that schools faces many challenges in teaching the complex and sensitive issues raised by the climate crisis, we have found that storytelling is a powerful way for young people to develop understanding, agency and a sense of leadership. 

Introduction 

As a group of researchers and practitioners from the Performance and Geography departments of York St John University, we shared an interest in enriching the school curriculum on climate change. Many schools are seeking new approaches which combat students’ ecological anxiety and incorporate a wide variety of subject skills beyond natural sciences and geography. However, 75% of UK teachers feel they haven’t received adequate training to educate students about climate change (Oxfam/UKSCN 2019).

Through Suitcase Stories we wanted to innovate and test an arts- and narrative-led approach to teaching climate adaptation and community resilience. Suitcase Stories was delivered between January – April in one secondary school (Batley Girls High School) and one community context (We Are Seacroft, Leeds), as captured in our project film.

Focusing on adaptation

Courtesy of York St John University

We first connected young people with stories, experiences and insights from different contexts in the global North and global South. They exchanged questions with young people in Nigeria about how climate change is already affecting communities, and how they are responding. The young people also met climate journalist Thimali Kodikara, who told them true life stories of the (often female) leaders of community climate adaptations in the Global South – from seed exchanges to new ways of irrigating crops or generating energy.

“I feel like people should be more respectful of what’s happening in other countries. Just because you’re not affected by it doesn’t mean they’re not either.”

“You know, no matter how big or how small the change is, it’s going to be hard to adapt in some way. But we’ve all got to learn to adapt because otherwise there’s no hope for our planet anymore.”

Storytelling and agency

Courtesy of York St John University

We then supported the young people to develop storytelling performances about climate adaptation. As well as building their confidence, public speaking and collaboration skills, the young people recognised that telling stories about our world helped them construct and share meanings and emotions, and built a sense of agency:

“The skills that we’ve learned, are like, how to tell a story and like how to tell the story in a big audience. And not to be, like, shy.”

“The entirety of storytelling just brings much more than just information can, it really like draws you in with the emotions, and really makes you feel what that person feels, which sort of makes you understand it better.”

“From the project, I feel like I’ve really worked on actually working on my leadership skills.”

The Future

Courtesy of York St John University

We then supported the young people to develop storytelling performances about climate adaptation. As well as building their confidence, public speaking and collaboration skills, the young people recognised that telling stories about our world helped them construct and share meanings and emotions, and built a sense of agency:

“The students have enjoyed looking at something that is a very important and serious issue. But in a creative and thinking outside of the box way. They’ve taken ownership, they’ve really bought into it.”

Our two downloadable teachers’ resource guides, for ages 7-11 and 11+, include suggested activities and climate adaptation resources to conduct a Suitcase Stories project.

The more knowledge that young people have, and share through storytelling, the more they are able to combat eco-anxiety in a resilient and compassionate manner:

“I’ve learned how I can pick up on issues and how they can be solved. Looking at it more into what can be done and the people around it. Instead of more, kind of like, being upset about it.”

Project conducted by Olalekan Adekola, Catherine Heinemeyer, Natalie Quatermass, Matthew Reason and Natalie Wood.

Funding from Natural Environment Research Council as part of the ‘Creative Climate Connections’ programme. For further information visit our website or contact: ISJ@yorksj.ac.uk.

Related Articles

13th August 2022

Raising career aspirations among young women at Bishop Young Academy

The Programme: The Effective Transitions Fund launched in West Yorkshire in November 2021, funded by a project of Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, the…

Read More
25th July 2022

Chapel Allerton Primary: embracing a diverse curriculum

Written by Tess Parker, Story Tiller Communications When Chapel Allerton Primary took part in IVE’s ’Hidden Narratives’ teacher CPD programme they couldn’t foresee its…

Read More
20th July 2022

RiteTrax digital & creative skills programme and work experience

Written by Adam Seymour, RiteTrax RiteTrax delivered a digital and creative skills training programme for young people in Sheffield who were, at the time,…

Read More
Sign up to our newsletter