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Tackling Social Justice Issues Through a Storytelling Hackathon

Why do we know more about yet another "hand-crafted small-batch premium vodka made only with the freshest of water from pristine location X" and not much about the 80,000 people in solitary confinement right now in our prisons, or the arbitrary detention of 34,000 immigrants every day, or the myth of our representative democracy?

What if we could find a way to make these pressing issues not heavy but engaging enough to inform and effect change? What if we could bring together the frontline advocates who are struggling to make their voices heard with the most talented designers, filmmakers, writers, technologists and other creatives in their city?

We set out to create a new type of hackathon—one focused on bringing the best storytellers to work on social justice issues, but in a highly guided way. Unlike most of the almost-weekly hackathons, where sometimes the principle of unstructure can lead to ineffectiveness and frustration, we would curate the stories, create teams, and strip away all the points of inefficiency.

But would it work? Would top creatives be interested? Would they put in the pre-work? Would our guidance allow creativity to flourish or would participants chafe at having decisions taken for them?

Over the StoryHack weekend, multidisciplinary teams of five to seven collaborated with the activist who nominated each story. The energy and enthusiasm was palpable as they innovated new ways to think and communicate these stories through writing, visuals, performance, and code. In just about 36 hours, the StoryHackers created some pretty impressive results:

So how did it work?

High Standards

By putting the most talented people available to us in the room, we set the stage for excellence. Of 200 applicants, 100 creatives were chosen to participate, including people from reputable organizations like The New York Times, Google and the Wall Street Journal. Of 40 stories nominated for them to work by subject-matter experts, only eight were chosen and developed further. Selected stories focused on the perception of homelessness, immigration detention, solitary confinement, gun violence, representative democracy, economic justice, and more.


Creatives chose what stories they wanted to communicate. Evenly distributed teams of five to seven were assembled a week prior to the event, based on level of experience and skill sets. Both genders were equally represented in the creative pool, with slightly more women than men. Creatives originated from nine different countries and had an average of nearly 12 years of professional experience. Three out of four were participating in their first hackathon.


We worked closely with story nominators to craft tight creative briefs outlining the specific issues, audience and supporting evidence needed to provide creative teams with a solid base to work from. We set up immersion sessions to get creatives out of their comfort zones and onto the frontlines of social justice. Our StoryHackers met fast-food organizers in Brooklyn, advocates for the homeless in the Bronx, a gun-violence mediator in Crown Heights, and visited a detention facility in New Jersey. On average, winning teams spent a collective 30 hours working on their project prior to the weekend of the StoryHack.

Collective Ownership

All subject-matter experts, creatives, and organizers selflessly volunteered their time for the collective good. The products generated are all open source and available for any organization to help inform their stakeholders about these issues.

We set out to re-act, re-think and re-solve the way we tell the stories that matter. The momentum and excitement generated over the Re3 StoryHack weekend was inspiring, to say the least. We're looking forward to bringing the StoryHack model back to NYC as well as new cities around the world!

Images courtesy of Hyperakt

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