Case Study: The SpeakOut! Project

Roland Dumavor


As scholars of Digital Humanities (DH) are still engaged in conversations around what DH is or is not, the boundaries and demarcations of DH keeps shifting (Gallon). For Kim Gallon, these conversations are complex but necessary for the field. The necessity of these conversations, which are situated around the intersection of technology and with humanistic fields, is based on the impacts of emerging technologies on the humanities. Ryan Cordell, in his piece, admonishes DH scholars and educators to be mindful of how they define the field so that students’ curiosity and interests in DH are not stifled. It is instructive for me to note that the discourses surrounding digital humanities, more especially about what DH includes and excludes, can be detrimental to the field as students whose interests and who are adept and thoughtful about the tools, platforms, and media of our day need to be catered for with utmost tactfulness, thoughtfulness, and creativity (Cordell). I intend to bring this point up because there have been some exclusionary definitions and arguments made by some scholars in the field, probably, with the intention of restricting the field to a high-level technological know-how or use paradigm. My point here is that the DH project that I intend to review in this study may fall below the scope of digital humanities based on the arguments of some scholars who are keener on the definitions that are more exclusionary. This is the concern that I see being at the forefront of Cordell’s piece and that runs through the definitions or understandings of Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Rob Nelson in Julian Chambliss’ podcast series. For instance, this is what Fitzpatrick says:


I define digital humanities as that work that gets done in the overlap of the Venn diagram between humanities and technology. And that happens in a lot of different ways … My sense of digital humanities is that it’s super broad and that it’s a constantly shifting and changing field as both the tools shift and the questions shift, and we start to think about new ways of approaching the kinds of interests that the humanities has always had.


It is refreshing to hear Fitzpatrick acknowledge that the … constantly shifting and changing … nature of DH is influenced by emerging technologies –the affordances they offer. This means that the field should not be stifled from expansion as some scholars seem to desire it to be put into disciplinary shackles.

I want to emphasize Cordell’s contention that the field’s or some DH scholars’ fixation on definitions and professionalization of DH … can interfere with innovative but necessarily local thinking about digital skills, curriculum, and research …. Hence, there is the need for DH scholars to adopt and apply a more inclusionary and non-limiting scope to the field. As Rob Nelson talks about the complexities that surrounds the definition of DH, he says something that I find useful to this study:


Obviously, it’s humanistic research that involves computation in some way, shape or form, either as a product using mostly the Web or, I guess, apps as a way of publishing and sharing humanistic content and research. Then increasingly, and particularly for Digital History, I’d say, and literary studies, using computation as an aid to doing research, to grapple with big data sets.



From Nelson’s position, I contend that though community engagement programs that employ digital technologies –digital tools, platforms, and media– may not involve the use of high-level computation, they are DH projects as they publish and share humanistic contents and research. Basically, they engage in the using of technological tools to do [their] work, as Fitzpatrick puts it.

As the conversation about what is and what is not digital humanities continues, I want to contribute to it by making a case for community engaged projects –which are based on criminal justice and literacy– as projects that operate in DH frameworks. For me, I see this project being at the crossroads of DH and community or community engagement and contributing to social change just as some DH scholars address issues of racial inequities and injustice in their projects. For instance, Kim Gallon, in her article, raises some serious concerns about the definition of DH in relation to race (more specifically Blackness).


Understood as the union of digital technology and the academic disciplines that study human culture, what do we do with forms of humanity excluded from or marginalized in how we study the humanities and practice the digital humanities? What are the implications of using computational approaches to theorize and draw deeper insight into a modern humanity that is prima facie arranged and constructed along racial lines?


Though Gallon’s focus is on the relationship between DH and racialization (Blackness), I think her quote is relevant to this study because there is a somewhat positive correlation between criminal justice issues and racialization (Stewart et al. 120; Race 1). However, my intention here is to adapt Gallon’s concerns to align more closely with the relationship between DH and Community-engaged work, with focus on criminal justice. Since issues of incarcerated people or criminal injustice fall within the scope of the humanities, I contend that it is worthwhile adopting DH frameworks to explore the work of community engagement related to incarcerated populations who are underserved and vulnerable. By this, the questions that DH scholars interested in criminal justice might consider will be: What do we do with incarcerated people who are excluded from humanity or are underserved, marginalized, and underrepresented in how we study digital humanities? What are the implications of adopting DH frameworks and approaches to theorize and draw deeper insight into a modern humanity that is arranged and constructed on problematic ideologies and ontologies?

In this study, I seek to set a conversation in motion about community engagement, with focus on criminal justice, by drawing attention to DH frameworks and approaches adopted by the project under consideration in this study. Some scholars in the field of DH argue that DH has robust elements and principled focus on community building (Fitzpatrick see Building Community through Digital Humanities). Though I agree with this contention, I want to argue that community-engaged projects that focus on criminal justice have not received much attention in the field of DH. Hence my interest in making a case for criminal justice-related community projects through the DH lens or frameworks. In other words, my goal in this study is to articulate the relationship between DH and criminal justice related community engagement. Although work related to injustice or social justice and ethnic, racial, and national issues is emerging in the field of DH (Gallon), concerted efforts and interest to bring criminal justice related issues are low, even seem non-existent, in DH.

Another point that I want to emphasize is that Kath Burton and Daniel Fisher’s article reminds scholars, who are interested in community work through the frameworks of digital humanities, to be conscious of the differences between public humanities and publicly engaged humanities. Based on Kath Burton and Daniel Fisher’s definition of publicly engaged humanities as “encompass[ing] humanities research, teaching, preservation and programming, conducting with and for diverse individuals and communities” (1-2), I argue that “SpeakOut! Online” –the project under consideration in this study– is doing public and publicly engaged [digital] humanities work.

Case Study: SpeakOut! Project –At the Crossroads of Digital Humanities

SpeakOut! Online is a subset of the SpeakOut! Program which is run by the Community Literacy Center of Colorado State University. SpeakOut! Online is a digital space created for people (mainly people in places of confinement) who are interested in writing. The website’s “About page” has a brief description of the goals and the focus of the project. The project provides space for participants to engage in writing of any kind, receive feedback on their writing, and get their work published. The same has featured writing from a writer from the Larimer County jail. This featured piece is advice to children, which suggests that the project is not limited to only adult writers/participants. The project’s mission statement reveals that the focus of the project is on peoples in places of confinement, experiencing current and historical oppression –racial inequity and violence–, as the project provides the needed space for them to share their stories through writing. The “About page” expresses the driving philosophy that underlies the project, which is that everyone has a story to tell and that they are the ones who can tell their stories best. Thus, this platform is provided for them to participate in the conversations about justice, freedom, equity, and social change through writing and artwork, while they use storytelling as a methodology. This space is aimed at enacting change through writing and publication via the internet and making the published materials openly accessible. The audience for this project ranges from the general public to scholars and students interested in community engagement, criminal justice work, and writing and literacy beyond the school.

How The SpeakOut! Online Operates

This project is a combination of about three genres –archive, website, and journal/blog/publication. Thus, my review will be based on each of the genres of the project. The SpeakOut! Online is an open-access digital project that has ten menu items. These items are Home, Submit Your Work, Permission to Publish, About SpeakOut!, SpeakOut! Journals, CSU’s Community Literacy Center, Writing Resources, Donate, Contact Us, and Featured Artwork. The menu items are easy to navigate because they are boldly written and fixed at the top of any open page. This means that they do not move when a user is navigating the menu.

Clicking on the “HOME” menu takes the user/reader to short descriptions about the latest and the immediate past publications by the project. For instance, the latest publication is a collective piece that highlights the pieces of writing from participants/writers since 2006. Thus, this publication is a piece that celebrates the fifteenth anniversary of the SpeakOut! Project. This means that the project has been running for fifteen years now and still counting. Users who come across the milestones achieved by the project would be convinced about its sustainability and how well it has been managed by the project creators/administrators. The second menu item, which is “SUBMIT YOUR WORK,” calls for open-sourcing and its participants, who are “out,” are encouraged to turn in their work to be published. This page does not only provide space for participants turning in their work but also provides clear guidelines for how participants’ work can get published or otherwise. The next menu item is where participants can access a form, “Permission to Publish,” to give their consent for their work to get published in the journal. The “About SpeakOut!” menu-item directs readers/users to what the project is about and its mission statement and goal. The next item of the menu is SpeakOut! Journal. This is where the published work can be accessed in pdf format. These pieces are downloadable which makes it easy for readers to access and read. The next item on the menu provides information about the project being connected to Colorado State University, particularly its Community Literacy Center. This reveals that the project has affiliation with the University. The item that follows on the menu is “Writing Resources,” which provides a list of resources that are deemed useful to the project. The next item on the menu leads to where people can donate to support the project. This reveals that the project is not funded by the University though it is affiliated to the University, rather it depends on donations and grants. Because the creators of the project anticipate that some people might want to reach out to them, they have created an item on the menu that allows the administrators of the project to be contacted. The tenth and final item on the menu is where featured artwork is published though much artwork is published as any user would expect taking into consideration the fifteen-year existence of the project. All the sections of the project function effectively as expected by any user. This project’s site is responsive because its content can be accessed by mobile devices and tablets.

The online site which hosts the project is developed by the creators and powered by WordPress. In other words, the site is a blog hosted by This means that not much programming or coding choices are needed or used in producing, maintaining, and running this project. The page of featured artwork provides space for artwork (which are done by hand) converted into digital formats to be published or exhibited on the site. Though digital conversion is done to the artwork, they do not lose their original form as they remain and look like pencil work. The interface of some of the pages has social media-enabled links —Facebook, Twitter, and Like— that users can use to circulate and distribute the content of this project to the public. In addition to that, some pages have a comment box enabled, which allows and encourages interaction between the project administrators and the audience. One thing that seems missing from the interface of the pages is links to the social media platforms or accounts of the projects. If it happens that there is no such social media for the projects, I am of the opinion that it be created to enhance the interaction between the audience and the projects to promote circulation and distribution of the published work to reach a larger audience base. Throughout all the pages of the website, users are invited to subscribe to blogs to receive notifications anytime a blog is posted. Since the subscription is hosted on a website, not by an application, the subscribers are required to provide their emails in the notifications. Though this feature is a good idea, it seems people who do not have email addresses may not be able to subscribe for the blog.

The SpeakOut! Online As a Journal/Publication

SpeakOut! Online project serves as a publishing space for participants interested in getting their work published. Even in the academy, issues of publishing are major concerns that many people who want to get published always navigate. As the issues of publishing are worse among people outside academia, anyone would imagine how it might be for people who find themselves in places of confinement. It is this gap that SpeakOut! Online fills, as it provides space for the voices of the marginalized and underrepresented to be heard and to participate in conversations on justice, confinement, and social change. The journal section of this project publishes both artwork and written work of participants. The published journals seem very important to the project such that another section is programmed or designed in a way that makes the journals accessible on any page. Though artwork is published together with written work in the biannual journals in the pdf formats, there is a page solely dedicated to artwork. However, it seems that the publication of artwork on this page has been put on hold since the last time any artwork got published on this page was in 2014. For this confusion to be addressed, the creators of this project would want to take down the artwork page, as they publish them in the journal. Alternatively, the creators can update the artwork page if they want it to do what it is designed to do.

The journal did its first publication in 2005 and has since been publishing contributions from its participants who are people in places of confinement –specifically, Larimer County Jail, Larimer County Work Release and Community Corrections, Alternative Homes for Youth and Turning Point. The SpeakOut! Project does its journal publication twice a year –Fall and Spring– since 2008, except in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2021. The years 2005, 2006, and 2007 mark the inception of the project, hence the project could publish a journal in each of those years. However, the single publication in 2021 can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. The consistent publication of journals by the project over a decade speaks a lot about the management and administrative strategies adopted by the project creators/administrators, and about the project’s significance to its intended audience and donors. The publications are made openly accessible and are formatted in pdf –which is easily downloadable. As the creators imagine that the over a hundred-page journal may be slow to download, they leave the reader/user a note about the possible delay that may happen in downloading the journals.

The SpeakOut! Online As an Archive

This project does not only publish participants’ work but also engages in the process of preserving the published work through web archiving. This process serves as the memory building for and with the participants regarding their work overtime, and for community consumption and referral in relation to issues of justice, incarceration, and social change, among other things. This project serves as an archive for writing resources that writers and the audience can use for their writing activities. The over-fifty sampled writing prompts archived by this project serve a place for any writing facilitator to look toward for writing prompts for community literacy work. Furthermore, these writing prompts can be explored by scholars to examine how and why some contributions are produced. In other words, this could be an opportunity for a researcher to examine how these writing prompts impact the kind of contributions produced by participants in the project.

In addition, the project serves as an archive for published work. The page of “SpeakOut! Journals” is where published journals, since the inception of the project, are archived. Each published journal has its book cover as the image representing it, while the label of the published journal is enabled to lead to the downloadable content of the publication. The images are selected from the artwork of the participants and are designed nicely to attract the target audience. However, there seems to be a little work done to make them more suitable and compatible with the design of the journal. Another thing that is worth noting is that the stories that the images/visuals tell match with the central themes of their assigned published journal. The purpose of archiving these publications goes beyond just disseminating information about the amount of work done by the project facilitators and sharing the writing or artwork of the participants. It, most importantly, serves as the memory space for the work of people who, had it not been the SpeakOut! Online project, might not have their work published and/or their voices heard by the public. All the thirty-one journals published and archived in this project are easily accessible and easy to find since they are all found on the same page. This makes navigation between the journals easy and simple. SpeakOut! Online as an archive provides rich resources and materials for scholars who are interested in doing research for and with people in places of confinement. Many of the topical areas covered by the contributions in these publications include family and parenting, racial injustice, relationships and emotions, crime and justice, freedom and happiness, and systemic and institutional inequities.

Maintenance and Sustainability of The SpeakOut! Online

The sustainability of the project does not seem to be a problem for two reasons:

  1. The length of the project and its consistency in publishing journals biannually, and
  2. The hosting of the project on free WordPress. Since the project is hosted on free WordPress, there is not much technical work needed for the project’s sustainability.


In case WordPress decides to go fee-paying, this project can easily be migrated onto a fee-paying platform without losing anything. Moreover, new materials can be added to the project from time to time, just as the creators do in terms of publishing new journals. Though the publications are updated frequently, some aspects of the projects seem to receive less attention from the creators/administrators. For instance, the last time that the Featured Artwork page was updated was in 2014, while the writing prompts were last updated in 2019. The SpeakOut! Online project will continue to have great impact on several fields such as, digital humanities, community engagement, criminal justice, and writing and rhetoric. The published work of the participants –people in places of confinement– and the archival materials, which are freely available on the internet, will remain valuable resources for scholarly work and pedagogy beyond the walls of the academy. Therefore, so long as the creators get donations and grants coming in, the SpeakOut! Online’s long-term future is secure.


Works Cited

“Building Community through Digital Humanities.” College of Arts and Letters, February 2019. Retrieved: 11/30/2021.

Cordell, Ryan. “How Not to Teach Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. 2016. Retrieved: 9/5/2021.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. “Kathleen Fitzpatrick and Public Digital Humanities,” in Reframing Digital Humanities: Conversations with Digital Humanists, ed. Julian Chambliss, 1st ed. East Lansing: Michigan State University Libraries, 2021. Retrieved: 9/5/2021.

Gallon, Kim. “Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities.” in Debates in the Digital Humanities. 2016. Retrieved: 9/5/2021.

Nelson, Rob. “Rob Nelson and Making Digital Scholarship,” in Reframing Digital Humanities: Conversations with Digital Humanists, ed. Julian Chambliss, 1st ed. East Lansing: Michigan State University Libraries, 2021.Burton, Kath & Daniel Fisher. “Public Humanities and Publication: A Working Paper”. Routledge. 2021.

“Race and Wrongful Conviction in The United States.” in the National Registry of Exonerations. Edited by: Samuel R. Gross, Maurice Possley, & Klara Stephens. 7 March 2017, pp. 1-37.

Stewart, A. Eric et al.. “Race, Ethnicity, and Criminal Justice Contact: Reflections for Future Research.” Race and Justice. Vol. 10(2). 2020.


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Making Sense of Digital Humanities Copyright © 2022 by Roland Dumavor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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