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Donna is the Founder and Director of Unlocking Silent Histories and a Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. She completed her doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004. Her dissertation focused on how technology-mediated activities in a cross-community partnership worked together to empower youth to have a voice in the organization of their learning and the expression of their own ideas. A manuscript she wrote about her study won her a distinguished paper award in Cultural Studies of Science Education. Later, she continued her research with youth, in the Dominican Republic and Dorchester Massachusetts. Inspired by the youth participants, Donna took a leave of absence from her tenure track position to focus on developing a social justice, youth-directed pedagogy. She uprooted her life to move to Guatemala, where in 2 years she and many indigenous youth experienced successes, struggles, and celebrations - and together built what is now Unlocking Silent Histories, a nonprofit organization that opens spaces for Indigenous youth to critically analyze how they are represented in the media and creatively express their worlds, through their perspectives in the form of documentary film.

A continuous journey

In September of 2016, I sat on the stage at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, with Carmen, Chema, and Carlos (Program Leaders at Unlocking Silent Histories (USH), a nonprofit I founded in 2013). Sitting on this stage, I reflected fondly on the 12 years leading up to this moment. My journey has not been a smooth one. I had experienced marginalization for challenging the accepted models of education, particularly for underrepresented youth. I had found myself struggling in the midst of the theory or practice dilemma, fighting for both to exist in harmony. I searched for a place in academia where innovation and vision were celebrated above conformity and complacency. During this time, I was feeling increasingly drawn toward working in the field with youth, and I took a leap. Approximately 4 years ago, I applied for a leave from my tenure track position, let go of nearly all my belongings, and moved to Guatemala. It was a risk, but one well worth it. It was there that USH was born, an outgrowth not only coming from the voices of Carmen, Chema, and Carlos, but also from all the youth and the community members directly or peripherally connected to its emerging vision.

Recaptured by the testimonies of Carmen, Chema, and Carlos, I was brought back to the moment. The ways in which each of these youth responded to the questions of the audience, illustrated a vivid testament to powerful results of Critical Pedagogy and Transformative Praxis. Each of them, expressed how they were part of creating USH, how they made it their own, and why the work was (and is) important for their indigenous communities. These academic concepts were no longer simply theoretical wonderings; they were practical realities. I knew what we were doing at Unlocking Silent Histories was unique and would one day be recognized for its novel pedagogical and youth-driven model. It had not occurred to me when I left academia for two years to place my focus on creating this model alongside youth, that we would be so quickly be sitting on this global stage sharing our work. What was more, I could not have been more emotionally touched by what happened on this stage, I spoke very little and instead sat and observed how Carmen, Chema, and Carlos had taken ownership of USH and had truly developed their unique voices.

I have returned to academia, bringing Unlocking Silent Histories with me. I am finding ways for my theoretical and practical self to intersect. The work of opening spaces where different views and different experiences exist simultaneous is a continuous journey. Every journey comes with rewards and challenges. In academia, this is particularly true given the ever-present gravitational forces that pull us into familiar roles and structures of living and learning. This model, the foundational principles of Unlocking Silent Histories works to defy gravity, and instead create spaces where multiple perspectives, definitions, ideas, and voices are valued and welcome. And when they do, the exciting results is a kaleidoscope of colors and textures that enrich the way that we see the world. The beauty emerges as we commit to learning with and from each other. More to come!


Unlocking SIlent Histories starts a new chapter in the United States!  See blog post.

Donna will give a keynote at the International Indigenous Research Conference New Zealand! November 15 - 18

Unlocking Silent Histories, Sneak Peak Photos

Catalina Chirijox

Fabiola listens to an archive

Fabiola Chirijox

Catalina films in the field

Chema preparing Audio

Chema checks the audio

Edgar Chirijox

Edgar frames his shot

Carlos and Jessica Mujer Bonita

Jessika & Carlos discuss shots

Santiago ADDECAP

Santiago Girls review film

Chema San Juan7

Natik students learn settings

Anna and Mirna Chuacruz

Mirna looks on as Ana films