BEHIND THE SCENES with Sarah Varney

*[Editor's note: Beta Project is an unusual feature for the Third Coast website in that it was made not for the radio but as a tool for fostering discourse. It's a great example of how documentary audio can be presented and experienced beyond the airwaves and Internet.] ###

What is Beta Project? How would you describe the Beta Project experience?

Using a multi-media documentary as a springboard for dialogue, it is the mission of Beta Project to generate a new conversation about abortion rights in the United States -- one that is informed by history, acknowledges the complexity of the issue, and evokes the weighty and paradoxical experiences of women considering and having abortions in America both prior to and following Roe v. Wade

We created a 35-minute audio documentary that tells stories of women's lives before abortion became legal in the United States: stories about a woman who travels alone to Tijuana, Mexico; a woman who boards a train to Baltimore; a doctor's wife forced into sterilization; laws that required women produce a certain number of children before they could have their "tubes tied.

We play the stories for groups at high schools and colleges and in communities around the country -- we call it an "audio dialogue." After a brief introduction, the participants listen to a segment of the documentary, then are instructed to get into small groups, usually four to six people, and discuss a set of questions that we give them. The questions help them engage with the stories and think about how they relate to their own lives today. The small groups spend 10 to 15 minutes discussing the questions and then are called back in to listen to the next audio segment. There are five segments and five discussion groups. The event takes about two hours and at the end we invite people to make public declarations, sort of Quaker style, about what world they now see is possible. The declarations get everyone's goose bumps flying.

What effect do you hope Beta Project has on its participants

Our intention is to give people an emotional experience of an issue that is framed as an abstract moral position -- abortion is either right or wrong, murder or not. Anyone who takes the time to talk with a woman who has had an abortion (and about 43 percent of all women in the U.S. will have one in their lifetime) knows that life is more complex than the absolutists would lead us to believe. During a Beta Project event, people viscerally experience our shared history and then practice in their small groups how to bring empathy and compassion into the discussion. Ultimately what we want is for people to get talking -- talking with their families, with their friends. We want them to share the stories they heard and add their own. We do a follow up survey after every event and ask, "How many conversations have you had about your Beta Project experience?" The response is incredible -- people talk with their sons, daughters, co-workers, and grandparents. People are moved to share their experience -- that's what we want.

How do you create a setting in which participants feel comfortable discussing this sensitive and often deeply personal issue

The most important thing is for people to feel that they are connected to the other people in the room and that they won't be judged. If we can do those two things, people hopefully feel safe. We spent as much time designing the format of the evening and the questions as we did doing the documentary. My mentor, Kathryn Clubb, who worked on the project, really shaped this

The five segments of the documentary map to the five "stages" that we decided people needed to go through before a new conversation about abortion could take place

The first step is to set the context for the evening. That means helping people connect with each other and get clear on why we're here and what our hopes are for the evening. When organizations or leaders want people to have an emotional experience of something, they often dive right in to the horror; they put a person up on a stage who tells a chilling story and the audience feels for them, but they don't feel for them as a connected group. We felt strongly that people needed to build relationships with the strangers in the room before getting into the heart of the stories

Next, we give people a set of common facts -- in some cases those facts are legal decisions ("It wasn't until 1965 that is was legal for married couples to use contraception in all 50 states") or contraceptive failure rates. In other cases, the facts illuminate the social mores of the time ("I would have lost my job if my boss found out I was pregnant"; "My father would have disowned me"). Through the audio segment and the questions, we establish a common knowledge base among the people in the room

The third segment is called Choices -- now we start to meet some of the women and men who will tell us their stories. It's everything up until the point when they have an abortion ("I thought I was in love"; "I was pregnant with my third child and then caught measles"). We begin to understand all the ways people come to make their choices and we reflect on the choices we see ourselves making in the next few years. We're left thinking, "Who I am to judge this woman?

The fourth segment is called Paradox . These are the women's stories of their abortions and through them we come to feel the paradox: the procedure is so simple, yet women did so many things to get it; the procedure is so simple, yet it had dire consequences for women's lives

The final segment is about the future -- if not this, than what? People reflect on the journey they've just been on and discuss what has changed for them.

How do you create a new discussion about an issue that has been discussed and documented in so many ways already

Our entire education system teaches us to discuss and debate -- meaning we break down issues into parts and we find the distinctions between the parts. We are taught to justify or defend our assumptions. And in the end, someone wins and someone loses -- it's a zero-sum game. While those skills help us make new scientific studies or develop policies, they don't do much for complex human problems. So, yes we've discussed and debated abortion, but we rarely have a meaningful conversation about it. We rarely hear each other and simply bring compassion to the choices people make. I have a definition of courage taped on my computer that says: "Courage -- speaking your mind by telling all of your heart." That definition shaped all of Beta Project . Usually we think of courage as moving forward in the face of fear, something soldierly, but what if courage was simply the act of telling your heart?

Why did you decide to take the personal approach at the issue of abortion rather than the political approach

The hyperbolic sound bites from the pro-life and the pro-choice sides have left many in my generation numb and uninterested. For those of us who grew up after Roe v. Wade, we don't have any first-hand experience of what life was like when abortion was illegal. And it's rare that our parents and grandparents tell us their stories. Beta Project is based on the assumption that people engage when they have some emotional connection to the issue, and we believe you create emotional connection through personal stories.

How did you deal with the issue of objectivity while producing the Beta Project

News stories frame abortion using the exact polemic we are dismantling. A cut from the pro-choice side is then matched by a cut from the pro-life side. The reporter is forced to give equal airtime

Our mandate is quite different and we have greater latitude in which stories we choose to tell. Our intention was always to tell stories that illustrate an undocumented period in our country's history. Just as it's critical to tell stories of lynchings in the south and concentration camps in Nazi Germany, we felt it was important to simply let women tell us what happened to them when abortion was not legal and safe. No editorializing, no right or wrong; it's simply what happened.

Why did you choose audio documentary as the medium for the Beta Project

Great question. When I started the project, friends would say, you need visuals, images of the women's faces on the walls, or why not a film documentary? And I've always thought that it's easier with film to think, oh, that could never happen to me. You watch an African-American woman telling her story of an illegal abortion and kick out the image. Or maybe she has blonde hair and I have brown hair. Or maybe she's overweight. Whatever distinction we can concoct to keep us safe from believing that her experience could never happen to me. With audio, it's not so easy. We invite people to close their eyes when listening to the Beta Project. And what pictures do they attach to the voices? Often pictures that look like them or their moms or sisters or best friends. Audio is creepy that way. The listener has to do her own creating.