PassTheMic: Sharing stories of migrants and refugees

Elina Ashimbayeva came to New Zealand from Kazakstan 12 years ago to fulfil the classic migrant dream of better education and prospects. She studied Biomedical Sciences and worked in cancer & immunology research labs before moving into strategy, product and design roles in government agencies, tech and start-ups.

Three years ago, she started Storyo, a platform to share stories of women and gender-diverse people. This week, AMC chats to Elina about her work and building Storyo and one of the platform's recent projects, #PassTheMic, a podcast that shares voices from migrant or refugee backgrounds.  

Tell me a bit about yourself and how Storyo came to be.

Throughout my journey, I have always been passionate about how diversity, equity and inclusion shape not only how we feel at work but how we build things - whether it’s digital products or spaces or services. Three years ago I started a platform called Storyo sharing stories of women and gender-diverse folks in New Zealand, it was totally a personal passion that grew into something wonderful over the years.

Elina Ashimbayeva started Storyo three years ago to help platform stories from women and gender-diverse people. Image: Supplied

I wanted to share stories of everyday people, their inspirations and challenges, not the classic success or trauma porn we see in the media often. We did a series about domestic violence workers, circus artists, people who work in tech, founders and our most recent creation was #PassTheMic. It’s a series started by Belong Aotearoa to share the voices of people from migrant and refugee backgrounds. 

What is the kaupapa behind #PassTheMic? Why did you start the project?

Very serendipitously, I wanted to reach out to Belong team about doing a series sharing migrant voices and so did they! We jumped on a call without knowing that we both had the same question in mind for each other - how do we collaborate on this?

The current #PassTheMic series extended beautifully from the previous work that Belong did but took a new shape: we did 15 podcast episodes and one video capturing the voices of people like Ajaz Patel (Black Caps cricketer), Medulla Oblongata (Drag Queen), Pok Wei Heng (climate justice consultant), Dr Kat Eghdamian (human rights advocate) and SO many more wonderful people of colour living in New Zealand.

We talked about mental health, dating, intergenerational trauma, food, racism. The idea was to get together, create better connections with each other, discuss things that we care about, and celebrate diversity but also challenge narratives that we want to shift. It’s been such a cool project and we did a lot of bonding together through creative collaging (led by Naomi Azoulay, who I so recommend!), pot lucks, events! Also a massive shout out to our partners: Planet FM, Sport Waitakere and funders: Melodics and Auckland Council. Jo and Michelle from Planet FM deserve a special mention for all the sound work that they helped with throughout lockdown times! 

What do you hope listeners will take away from the series?

When we started the series, we wrote that we want two things to happen: 

  1. For people to listen and click their fingers (how they do at the poetry shows when they agree or relate or just love what the person is saying) 
  2. And for people to have an “Ah shoot” moment and recognise some of the stereotypes or harmful narratives that they were carrying. 

A workshop for #PassTheMic was held in February 2022 to help get the ball rolling on the project. Image: Supplied

So ultimately for people to relate and feel seen and heard, and for people to be challenged. Most of the time, these two things will happen in the same person. As a person of colour and an immigrant, I can both relate to most of the experiences, and I need to be challenged in how I might carry myself in the world towards other people and what can I do better. 

Stories are a great tool to change hearts and minds so we are here to do just that with #PassTheMic.

Have there been any stand-out moments for you in hearing these stories shared on the podcast?

Oh gosh, so many! I cried a few times after recording some episodes and not because it was overly sad or emotional, but you know that feeling when you can relate to someone’s experience so much and you understand that we are all in this together? I kept thinking about this saying: “My liberation is bound with yours. None of us are free until all of us are”. 

Stories of parent-child relationships, stories of dating, stories of deeply connecting to your purpose, stories of missing home even though there are many things happening there that you don’t agree with - are all so real and I reckon anyone who will listen will deeply relate or will feel deeply touched! 

If I have to single out a few moments, it would be learning from Pok Wei Heng about climate justice - he is younger than me but feels so much wiser, listening to Vira Paky talk about Black representation in New Zealand, to Ashley Ah-Poe talk about not feeling like she belonged in her own culture…

I’ve listened to these stories SO much and I’m still in so much awe and admiration of everyone who shared with us. 

A collage workshop done as part of building #PassTheMic. Image: Supplied

What has the reaction to the podcast series been?

I just finished creating an evaluation summary compiling all of the outcomes together and was once more reminded of how many hearts we touched. Most people who we interviewed have never been interviewed before so it’s always a lot of responsibility to tell their story in the right way. I had messages that their parents listened to it and to quote one mum “I didn’t know you [our interviewee] knew so much!” or people from overseas listening and saying how much they relate. 

The show was played on five local radio stations around New Zealand and is currently going to start playing on Planet FM at 4.55pm every Friday - so catch us there! 

Do you have any plans for future podcasts? Or next steps for Storyo?

A few things for PassTheMic still - we are organising an event on the 20th July in Auckland to screen the video for the first time, and celebrate the stories we shared so far - everyone is welcome to come - here is a link to register for the event! We are also reaching out to different organisations to share the stories wider and further and to build on the material we’ve done! 

As for other Storyo things, I am doing a few things: we have an Autism Awareness series out featuring five autistic people telling stories and I’m launching an online course for tech companies to learn how to design and develop more equitable products. So at the moment, I’m quite preoccupied with those two things but wanting to do more collaborations in the future. The last few series and three events that I’ve done have all been collaborations so I’m always looking to expand our kaupapa and double down on outcome through collective power! 

- Asia Media Centre