May 2015 Art of Storytelling Workshop Page

What we mean by story.010

Here you’ll find Art of Storytelling May 2015 slide deck for the workshop,

the handout,

and a vast array of resources out there to help you tell stories!

Why I Follow Somerset Maugham’s Three Storytelling Rules

to tell a story.010It’s no secret that I’m leery (and weary) of posts entitled The Six Secrets to Storytelling Success, The Seven Rules, The Three Best Practices, The Twenty Must-Dos… or that I’m dismayed by folks trade-marking storytelling processes and terms that are, actually, just plain old common sense and age-old practices. When people ask me for rules, for best ways, for the one true answer, I quote Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel.  Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Indeed, the twenty some years I spent as a classroom teacher and the many more than that as a writer have taught me that no one-size-fits-all in storytelling, no set of rules guarantees success, no short cut is worth taking in story-work-for-change.  Each story, each storytelling has its own set of rules–to get it right, listen hard enough to the variables: the storytelling moment and audience and context and need and elements of story, and what they do to one another.  And that takes practice, the building of skills and the exercise of patience and effort. Each time you tell a story is the first time.

And here’s another thought some folks won’t like: I think nonprofits should almost always do their own storytelling, not hire out, at least not during the first, formative steps of the telling. It is through the very act of sharing and listening to story that we learn deep truths about our work and ourselves and the people/places we are trying to help. When we are engaged in authentic, ethical story sharing and story listening together, we make ourselves vulnerable, build trust, open to empathy and understanding. The more skilled we all get at listening to story and to telling authentic stories ethically, the better work we’ll do in our change efforts. to tell a story.012

That’s why I’m grateful for the forward-looking Vermont Community Foundation and Ben and Jerry’s Foundation who sponsored the latest series of  ten storytelling workshops I’ve put together for Vermont nonprofits. My hat is off to them for helping their grantees (and applicants) with far more than grants–i.e. some theory, tools, skills and a bit of practice with storytelling through exercises designed to illuminate the power of stories to teach us and connect us and inspire us and lead to action.  And the half-day workshops are free.  Imagine that.

As a result, we’ve reached scores of tiny volunteer-based groups as well as branches of national organizations and taken the first steps to building a storytelling network among Vermont nonprofits. There’s no parachuting in to give a snappy presentation of the five steps to a perfect story then leaving these folks to sort it all out on their own (which in many cases would lead to abandoning storytelling altogether or settling for some slick version of a sort-of story). Instead we’ve designed a slate of workshops that build one to the next, aimed to provide a thorough grounding and practice in the art of storytelling and the many ways nonprofits can use story to serve their cause and community. And there’s follow-up support. It’s about these folks teaching and inspiring each other and putting together sound storytelling strategies they can actually follow. Daring to slow it down, go deep to achieve lasting results. Thank you, VCF & B &J, for getting it about story and the rules of storytelling.

So next time someone asks you what you know about storytelling?  I hope you’ll give them Maugham’s most excellent set of rules and then share a story and ask for one.



Visual Storytelling Comparison: One Story, Three Platforms–Cowbird, Exposure & Medium


One story, three platforms. A modest page from my friend, Alan Levine-of-50 Ways to Tell a Story-fame’s book: put through their paces powerful, elegant, free visual-storytelling platforms, in my case Cowbird, Exposure and Medium, platforms that seem, on the surface, pretty similar.

My questions: Do I really need all three?  Does one stand out?  How can I advise overwhelmed nonprofit storytellers as they make their way through a maze of storytelling choices on the Web?

To prep for a digital storytelling workshop for Vermont nonprofits (one in a series of twelve storytelling workshops sponsored by the enlightened Vermont Community Foundation and Ben & Jerry’s Foundation), I brought a single story through the three platforms one after the other to see how they served my story.

I have to say I had a blast. These are dreamland for digital storytellers–

Some thoughts and lessons:

1. What I say again and again and again in every workshop I teach: you have to know why you are telling the story and to whom (and why they should listen) before you take a single step into making story.

What we mean by story.010

2. It’s crucial for digital storytelling mentors to explore and experiment with and push their own storytelling. Tell stories. Daniel Weinshenker of Center for Digital Storytelling has been urging the digital storytelling network to do so and recently posted a new digital story of his own to walk the walk. And he’s absolutely right. If you do not actively practice what you teach, you shouldn’t teach it.  There, I said it.

3.  Pulling a single story through the three platforms reinforces the intricate relationship between the story’s urge and how you tell it. How you thought you’d tell it and how you actually end up telling it are not always the same. Listen to the story; follow its lead. My story changed, and I had to change bits of the story, and let my understanding of the story change as I moved from platform to platform.

4. All three of these platforms are a delight to use.  While they each carry their own personality (something I like), they are all spare and elegant and easy to use!  Anyone can make a story on any of them with little difficulty.

Here’s my initial take:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.20.29 AM


A community-based platform where you tell your story in photo, text and/or audio with a horizontal slide to turn the “pages.” I have by far the most experience here, having created 159 stories since February 2012, experimenting over the years with the various features of the platform and getting  involved in the Cowbird community.

Pros: I love Cowbird’s simple, friendly, lean approach; that it is truly aimed at everyone/anyone telling their stories, learning from one another, trying to tell those stories as well as we can with image, text and/or audio. Easy peasy. It works equally well, I think, for the photographer who focuses on the visual story, the audio storyteller, and the writer, not quite as well for the experimental digital storyteller (though they seem to overcome any hurdle.) You can embed stories (almost) anywhere you like (not on WordPress).

Cons: That said, it has limitations. There’s only one way to tell your story: with the horizontal slide. The audio track is not tied to the image track, and so unless you do a bunch of fancy pre-editing work outside the platform ahead of time, you cannot advance the slides with the audio as you might like. Nor do you have control over the size of your font page to page–it is tied to the number of words on the page, not your preferences. It’s about simplicity and approachability, not artistic control of certain features of the story.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 9.19.44 AM

 The Cowbird version of my test story, There’s No Place Like Home

Notes: Horizontal images work much much better on Cowbird, and it’s better, too, to crop them wide and short so the viewer doesn’t have to move all around the screen to get the full image. I had to adjust my photos to compensate for these quirks, which wasn’t a bad thing, and really I should go back and keep adjusting. There’s a nice drama to moving the slider to get the next bit of text and then the next and then an image and then–it adds tension and suspense and a moment of breathing missing on the other two.
Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.07.07 AM


I’ve only made a couple of Exposure stories thus far, but I do love the straight-up, scrolling approach to visual story. Created for photographers, the platform keeps distractions to a minimum, concentrating on gorgeous visual storytelling. Nonprofits such as Charity Water are using Exposure directly, powerfully in stories such as What Will You Do With It.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.09.40 AM

Pros: Drag and drop ease; simple to use; gorgeous scrolling look; you can set up your own domain; incredibly responsive staff. If you are a visual storyteller, this is your baby.

Cons: You cannot embed stories onto your own site. You have to want simplicity and your photos really have to stand up, and I mean stand up! (I actually think that is a great thing.)

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.14.50 AM

 There’s No Place Like Home on Exposure

Notes: Your writing needs to be sharp and easily segmented between images, and it must make sense to have your text sandwiched this way. Short stories work better, I have a feeling, and not all stories will work here. But that’s as it should be. I had to toss some images I had used in Cowbird and Medium, and think long and hard about the bits of text to use from the original story version. I love the title slide.  So beautiful.  I also like how the storyteller’s profile appears at the end of the story.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.32.25 AM


 Wow.  So much you can do with this scrolling platform. Created to help digital writers tell their stories and connect to other storytellers, it puts the writing first, the images second, or so they say.  I say get out there and try this one–so much fun and quite stunning results.

Pros:  I think it does a magical job of putting image and text together as more than one plus the other, or one then the other; rather, with its feature of writing over an image that fades out beneath the text as you scroll down:

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.40.24 AM

it causes image and text to do extraordinary things to one another. It makes you put every word on trial for its life.  You can embed the story!  I’m sure there’s lots more to love here, but I need to run a few more stories through before offering more.

Cons:  You can throw too much in here and end up with clutter (but that’s the responsibility of the teller, not the platform). Though I like the version of my story here, I intentionally used images in as many ways as I could just so I could show the choices and outcomes to my workshops. I think the small, inset photos do not work quite as well as the larger ones, but that’s probably just my story. And if you use too much text over image, it can get pretty slick pretty fast. I don’t much like the offering of another story to read at the end of the story–it takes away from the story as singular, and the beauty of breathing a bit between stories.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 10.29.38 AM

No Place Like Home on Medium

Notes: It’s important to do a lot of experimenting here to find the balance between image and text and scrolling and revealing, insets and fancy dances. Listen to the story, be true to its voice–simplify simplify or you’ll end up with a jazzy, yes, but messy stew.


What’s the upshot?  Three fabulous options depending on what story you want to tell to whom and why. These are quick first thoughts.  I will continue to use them, as well as the superstar Soundslides and a full slate of photo, video and audio editors, listening to each story and then choosing the platform that helps it say what it needs to say to whom I need it to speak. How lucky we are to have such riches from which to choose!







 A Series of Workshops for Vermont Community Foundation and Ben & Jerry’s Foundation March- June                      

  Art of Storytelling Workshop OVERVIEW, HAND-OUTS AND LINKS

NEW COLLABORATION!  I’ve joined the wonderful Bill Roper at Slow Communities as an affiliate (full disclosure–he’s my husband),  to connect Community Expressions’ storytelling  to strategic and community planning processes.  Check out his work–it’s brilliant.

INTERVIEW PUBLISHED: The fabulous Nancy Ancowitz recently interviewed my good friend and colleague, Alan Levine, and me about storytelling for introverts.  Check out what we have to say on Psychology Today’s blog.

NOTE: The deeper I delve into storytelling-for-good work and the more I commit to my own storytelling practice, the less I write about it.  I’ve written extensively online and off about theory and practice, sharing tips and approaches (it’s all here on Community Expressions and  Now I mostly link on Twitter (I’m @bgblogging) to interesting work, write image-text stories on Cowbird , and add to the resource pages here at Community Expressions, but I’ll be back to my blogging, at least from time to time, over at Slow Communities.  And  because folks have asked, I’m adding this weekly News page to keep you updated about our direction, collaborations and projects.

Storytelling & Community Planning: What Even a Single Story Can Do

It was an honor to participate in yesterday’s  Community Matters conference call on Storytelling for Community Planning  to share  some of the reasons why we should weave storytelling into community practices and how.  I particularly appreciated hearing from Betsy Rosenbluth, Orton Family Foundation’s Director of Projects on methods  and approaches her team uses in Heart & Soul planning and from the participants who asked important questions and shared their inspiring storytelling and community work.  I just wish we could have heard from everyone and had time to delve into each topic in more depth!

One important question that surfaced had to do with helping people tell stories they are afraid to share–how to make sure everyone feels safe participating in a story project.  We discussed ways to ensure the ethical, respectful, empathic embrace of storytellers, but in that short time could do little more than touch upon some main points to keep in mind.  A truly excellent resource for anyone working in trauma stories is the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Silence Speaks.  Also check out Thaler Pekar’s posts for PhilanTopic.


Past & Present Stories to Serve the Future

Another question focused on refugee stories–where to find resources and training.  A couple of places to start are displacements and Finding Voice and Patient Voices; also, the UN Refugee Agencyhas some powerful digital stories by refugees.

I was pleased, too, that Phil Stafford of Elderburbia blog brought up the risk of story sharing sinking into nostalgia for an unrecoverable past.  We discussed the line between learning from the past and privileging it–we need the past stories, but if we’re working on change projects, we need to nest them –and make sure we gather varied perspectives on that past–within the larger portrait of the now as we work toward the future story.

It is clear from the enthusiastic response  that storytelling is moving out of the corners and into the center of the community empowerment room.  People are eager for training, resources, examples and a community of practice.  Here’s to Community Matters for helping to make that happen!  I’m hoping folks will stay in touch.  The podcast will be released soon, so look for it on the Community Matters site.

Here is the story I shared at the beginning of the call:

By way of introduction I want to share a story with you.

Heading HomeOn a plane to Montana where I was to teach a workshop on storytelling for community foundations this past October, I was seated next to a college student, Shelby. In that little exchange as we buckled our seat belts, I learned she was from Montana and going home for vacation from study abroad.  What luck–here I was heading to a place I did not know well, and right next to me was a local expert.  And so instead of burying myself in my book on Montana, I turned to her (visions of Paris, Bombay and Beijing dancing in my head) and asked, “Study abroad?  Where?”

“North Carolina,” she said.

When I shared that anecdote the next day with the 75 people gathered for the workshop–many looking mighty skeptical about the connection between storytelling and community foundation work–they roared, smiled  and murmured, indeed that would be abroad.

It was a moment of cultural bonding, of sharing a common context—of belonging—they recognized Shelby; they recognized themselves. They connected through her story.

And they began to connect with me, a newcomer.  All in that moment.

Sharing a story—authentically and respectfully—draws listeners close to us and allows trust’s tendrils to grow between us. And to plan together for our communities, we have to listen to each other; we have to trust each other.

But the story didn’t end there.  I asked Shelby if she was looking forward to going back to Montana.

She lit up and said, “Oh yes!  I love my home town.”

“What do you love about it?” I asked.

“Oh, our ranch—it’s beautiful.  And the people—everyone is so close.  And the town—we have a movie theater that sells hot pizza!”

Shelby's ranch

I asked if she would share a story to illustrate what the place meant to her.  She thought for a moment and then over the next few minutes told the story of  early spring calf branding on the area ranches.  She painted a verbal picture of people cooking,  herding,  branding, and the strapping high school lads wrestling the calves.  Ranch people or not, everyone showed up. They worked and ate together, laughed and swapped news.

Through that one story Shelby taught me many things—holistically and memorably–about life in her town: her community’s values and her own perspective, potential divides and tensions, as well as assets and capacity that might go unnoticed as such.  She was a bundle of local knowledge.  And teaching me through story made the details STICK.  I will never forget the images of those boys let off from school to wrestle calves or of women cooking together in ranch kitchens.

In asking each other for specific stories of what works and how in our communities, what challenges and what helps us, we build the foundation for working together on tough issues. We are heard. All our points of view, our knowledge, our experience matter.  As we share local expertise and information—we build community intelligence and trust and energy and vision.

But that’s not the end of Shelby’s story—a shadow crossed her face as she added: “But it’s changing so fast.  Even in the time  I’ve been in college, things have changed.  The boys no longer want to help out.  Kids aren’t connected to this place—they’re heading to the cities and even out of state. They’re leaving.” She shook her head.

“Do you want to return home after college?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but I won’t be able to—I’m training to be a schoolteacher, but I’ll have to go to a bigger place.  No jobs in my town.”

“What would change things, make the future brighter in your town?”

Community Story Dance“Wow, no one has ever asked me that. Well, we need more job opportunities, sure,” she said. “But we also need to feel that our town is special, as special as anywhere else. Instead of everyone on phones and computers, we could do things together and talk about what we want to save.  Like our movie theater or our ranching life.”

Shelby’s story contained seeds of important information for future planning. She dared imagine a different future and even in that plane ride was plotting possibilities.

But no one in her own community had ever asked for her story.

Imagine what might happen in that community if the youth gathered with their elders to share and collect and discuss stories about what they celebrate about the community– past and present– and what they envision and need for the future? What if change projects started in story?

It’s pretty simple.

waiting for folksTo engage people and build relationships and gather local knowledge, her community can conduct one-on-one STORY INTERVIEWS of each other such as I conducted on a plane—formally in story booths or via community radio or through email or on video, or informally around town—the post office, the movie theater, the barber shop, in homes. And then share those stories. People in her town  can hold STORY CIRCLES around a kitchen table or at large community events about discovering and articulating community values and vision. Simpler yet, the town can weave storytelling into existing community events or hold monthly story cafés that move from neighborhood to neighborhood centered on topics folks have proposed.

The stories can be collected and honored through publication (in a book, online, on the air, in a video screening or a theater production)—they can then serve as the catalyst for dialogue and discussion and planning.  Her community can study the stories for the information they contain—assets and values, resources and perspectives, possibilities and challenges.  And they can be embedded in the townscape through murals or kiosks or mobile-phone tours.

The storytelling and resulting stories become an effective way to bring people together across generations and traditional divides  to puzzle out and create the future.

Stories connect us to one another.

Stories reveal deep truths and essential information.

Stories stick.

The great news is that we are all storytellers—we’re all Shelby– and so with some good project planning, storytelling efforts can be quite easy, quite natural to launch in any community with powerful, enduring effects.

And that workshop group? Well, here’s one skeptical participant’s story:

I must admit that when I saw the chunk of time for “storytelling” on the agenda, I thought the time could be spent in a better fashion.

But I was wrong.  I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the power of storytelling.  And now, [our] Community Foundation has a success story as a direct result.

Last week, I received a last minute call from a lawyer supportive of the CF to be at a Old Timers and Pensioner’s meeting  because the group was disbanding and wanted some place to spend their $35,000. 

I was faced with a group of retired miners who didn’t understand that as a 501c3 they could not divide the money amongst themselves.  After the legal issue was resolved, the discussion began as to where the money should go….some wanted to send it to a charity out of town. 

So…I told them a story.  I told them about my Dad working on the hill for years, how he loved this community and wanted to give something back; how he would have enjoyed being in their boots and have the opportunity to give.   I also brought up the C heiress and wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Mr. C would have started a foundation [here] years ago?

Anyway…the story telling worked its magic and the entire amount was given to the CF.

I treasure what was learned as a result of the foundation Retreat and wanted you to know how valuable your work has proven to be.

There you have it: the power of even a single story.

Tuesday Stories: What A Single Story Can Do (PART I)

Storytelling for Communities

Community Story

On Thursday I am participating in an open conference call for Orton Family Foundation’s Community Matters to discuss storytelling for community planning.  As I think about what might be useful to share with the participants, a recent story comes to mind of my time in Montana working with community foundations to find and tell great stories.   I’m sharing here the final part of that story–the follow-up to the workshop.  The rest I’ll post after the call–I do hope you’ll join us!

When I tell people that I help communities to use storytelling to build civic engagement, to strengthen connections across the community and to the world, to plan for the future, and to understand and articulate the assets, capacity, opportunities and challenges within the community, they tend to imagine that I must stand on a stage and tell stories.  It’s a natural reaction: the first image often associated with storytelling=storyteller with an audience.  Such an association is deeply engrained in us, so  I spend time painting a new picture of storytelling–collaborative, community storytelling for change.  And then the response is sometimes that it sounds fun–probably good to use with youth–but isn’t it too touchy-feely, too soft, too much in the realm of feeling to be of much use really in the tough, serious arena of solving problems and planning for the future?  Where’s the quantitative data?  The charts?  The step-by-step action plans?  Oh, we use them, too. But storytelling–pure personal narrative– has its own powerful role to play.

Indeed, at a recent workshop I gave during a statewide community foundation’s annual retreat, I’m sure many of the 75 or so in attendance had their doubts about spending all that time talking about stories and storytelling.  Storytelling is one of those approaches that you have to try out to understand and to appreciate.  But once you do?  Well, here’s what one participant in that workshop wrote recently in an email:

#2 PlaceI must admit that when I saw the chunk of time for “storytelling” on the agenda, I thought the time could be spent in a better fashion.

But I was wrong.  I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed experiencing the power of storytelling.  And now, [our] Community Foundation has a success story as a direct result.

Last week, I received a last minute call from a lawyer supportive of the CF to be at a Old Timers and Pensioner’s meeting  because the group was disbanding and wanted some place to spend their $35,000. 

I was faced with a group of retired miners who didn’t understand that as a 501c3 they could not divide the money amongst themselves.  After the legal issue was resolved, the discussion began as to where the money should go….some wanted to send it to a charity out of town. 

So…I told them a story.  I told them about my Dad working on the hill for years, how he loved this community and wanted to give something back; how he would have enjoyed being in their boots and have the opportunity to give.   I also brought up the C heiress and wouldn’t it have been wonderful if Mr. C would have started a foundation [here] years ago?

Anyway…the story telling worked its magic and the entire amount was given to the CF.

I treasure what was learned as a result of the foundation Retreat and wanted you to know how valuable your work has proven to be.

Yup.  That’s what a story can do: inform minds, move hearts, initiate action.  Nothing soft about that.

Tuesday Stories: A Set of Storytelling Cards

salmon leaping/Meg Wheatley quoteStorytelling for CommunitiesWhy we tell storiesPast-Present-FuturePast-Present-Future StoryStory Traces
Story settingDetailsOpeningwhat-happensStory EndingsStory process
Structuring the tellingStorytelling ChecklistApproaches & OutcomesAssessing ReadinessWhy we will begin at the beginning, with our own stories

Storytelling Cards, a set on Flickr.

Weybridge Hill

Weybridge Hill

I live in a small village on the edge of a lovely Vermont college town. For the most part, people who live here, work here, which is what I did for some twenty years, traveling out of state as the exception — to give talks and workshops or to attend conferences or to go on vacation. When I moved out of higher ed and into community-change work, I also moved from working within Vermont to testing my theories and practices in communities across the country. I feel a bit like the itinerant bard, a migrant worker, moving from place to place as folks have need for my skills.

And that’s a good thing. Being invited into foundations, academic institutions and geographic communities so distinct from one another puts my theories and practices to the test day after day. It keeps me alert, on my toes, seeking new ways to approach story, to weave it into the heart of community. It makes me listen carefully to the cultural context I enter and to respect it–I am merely a guide into the ways of story, not an expert on any specific community.

My travels reinforce for me the power of being a generalist in this time of increasing specialization– I am a bit of a shape-shifter, seeking to match practice with context and need instead of branding a one-size-fits all approach to community building. I come away from each experience convinced of the need to develop a whole bag of tools and strategies: network analysis, community mapping, story circles and interviews, digital stories, facilitated dialogue, deliberation, collaborative art projects. And to be able to weave them together. And revise them, listening deeply to the moment and the context and the need.

Storytelling for Communities

Storytelling Cards

As a result, I am constantly developing and tweaking materials, something I have just done yet again in prepping for a meeting/presentation with several foundations out in Portland, Oregon eager to bring storytelling to their grantees as a means of reporting and reflecting on their work and deepening it.

Using’s wonderful print services, I have made these slides into a card set to use in storytelling workshops. One thing to note–before discussing the hows of storytelling, workshop participants read my essay on the whys of storytelling. It saves time and obviates the need for lecturing on theory and history! We can jump right into discussion and exercise–experiencing the power of story as we learn about it.

Each slide has a brief explanation attached, but I have not yet written up the game rules and instructions–I want to try it out a few more times (this is the fourth version) before posting it. But do let me know if you have questions or feedback or if you would like a look at the storytelling card game.  I’d love to hear from you!


Tuesday Stories: The Power of Maps

Last week as I wrote about the role of network/assets/identity and geographic mapping in community-engagement efforts, I revisited projects that have inspired my work and I ran across new examples of mapping woven into community-building projects. It’s great to see such interesting and promising work with geographic maps, social media and civic engagement efforts.  The real question is how will these projects fare down the road–will they grow? Be connected to other local initiatives as a deeper collaboration with community? Continue to invite broad participation?

This week’s stories:

Project for Public Spaces’ Power of Ten: “Map Your Ideas to Reimagine the Heart of San Antonio.”   PPS’s recent blogpost  on the project points to the power of incorporating social media into their face-to-face strategies, what they call “Digital Placemaking.” One aspect that I particularly like about this ambitious project is how instead of racing to the purely digital, PPS sat down with community members in face-to-face meetings first:”In August, the first phase of the PlaceMap project ended with citizens coming together in meetings at the library and at a “Views and Brews” event hosted by Texas Public Radio (TPR) to discuss the results. Participants sifted through, discussed, refined, and expanded on the varied concepts that had come up, including many that fit into the “Lighter, Quicker, Cheaper” (LQC) category.”  Weaving together the digital and physical place, giving community members several ways to contribute through various channels opens the work to a fuller, more inclusive participation.  I’ll be interested to see how the project unfolds, whether  the digital components will continue to draw people and provide planners with valuable input form the community.

Mapping Main Street, a remarkable, insightful (and fun) compilation of stories shared by all kinds of people about their Main Streets:

City Fruit: The Urban Orchard Project in Seattle and its Fruit Tree Mapping project–Now if only they added storytelling to the mix!  This project reveals a good deal about the city through its fruit trees, but I’d love to see ways this mapping has been attached, connected and woven into other sorts of Seattle-based mapping and neighborhood projects.


Community & Network Mapping


“First, we see what we have — individually, as neighbors and in this place
of ours. Second, we know that the power of what we have grows from creating new
connections and relationships among and between what we have.
Third, we know that these connections happen when we individually or
collectively act to make the connections — they don’t just happen by themselves.”
~John McKnight “Community Capacities and Community Necessities”

“Community building strategies should respond to important features of the local context, not just generic principles about being inclusive or building productive relationships… Because meaningful change requires leverage that “multiplies” the force of your strategy, a savvy scan of the local context is vital as an input. Relationships are time consuming to build and sustain, some are more important than others for accomplishing particular objectives, and strategies grounded in a realistic assessment of organized interests and patterns of influence are more likely to pay off. Beyond generic trend spotting, a variety of tools for mapping the local civic structure are available—but not yet widely or systematically used to build better civic strategies in community development.”
~ Xavier de Souza Briggs “Networks, Power, and a Dual Agenda: New Lessons and Strategies for Old Community Building Dilemmas”

“Maps are more than pieces of paper. They are the stories, conversations, lives and songs lived out in a place and are inseparable from the political and cultural contexts in which they are used”
~ Warren, 2004 qtd. in

leaf map


Last week I wrote about the need for deep listening in community-building work and how storytelling-as-process is all about listening.  In this post I explore another critical lesson: the more we do in our communities to understand who we are and how we connect with one another, the more effective our actions to build capacity, foster participation, and affect change from within. Common sense, yes? But in our excitement to bring about positive, urgently needed change, we often leap into dialogue or action and overlook the crucial ongoing foundational work that is, after all, also action. And then things can stall.  Or break down. Or leave some folks behind or out.  Or we burn out. Or we waste community potential and squander promise.

For storytelling projects to build lasting trust, to reveal community values and to help move it to action, we need to understand as much about our community as possible. For community building to be truly inclusive, truly participatory, we work together to identify the inhabitants/members/constituents, not merely by name and address, but also by affiliation and connection to others through  formal and informal groups and associations, neighborhoods and workplace.  We take another step by getting to know our connections through identity as revealed by expertise, experience and  interest.  We explore where people gather, why and when.  We discover such things as who loves to fish.  Who collects mementos of the region.  Who grew up here, left and then returned.  Who gathers at the local barber shop. Who likes to take photos. Knits. Cares about the old stone buildings in town. Caretakes the wisdom from past generations. We come to understand the vital links, both strong and weak, that tie us to one another and to this place.  And in so doing, we make it possible to work together to build a strong, healthy future for our community.

And so to do storytelling well in community-change work, we do more than share our stories, more than capture and archive them. A crucial piece of the storytelling-for-change puzzle doesn’t, at first glance, have anything to do with storytelling.  It has to do, rather, with visuals more than words, with drawing and arranging and then naming.  It has to do with maps and mapping. Map Stories of Philadelphia

The participatory community mapping movement grasps the power of community members making their own maps of place and space.  We’re naturally eager to place our stories within the context of geography: and digital tools make it easy to embed our stories into maps of place and maps into our stories (such as in Cleveland Historical-one of many examples of historical narrative & mapping using tours and mobile apps– Biddeford Maine’s Heartspots or MapSkip or the Center for Digital Storytelling’s Placemeant Project in Ukiah, California)–examples of stories incorporated into digital maps abound).  Or we can sit together and make maps with pen and paper, as Crayon your Community does. Indeed, I use geographic maps in many of my storytelling exercises– participants draw maps, or locate story hotspots on maps, or create future-vision maps.

Map of Online Communities

D’Arcy Norman’s Map of His Online Communties

But there’s another sort of mapping essential to community-building. With sticky notes on walls, and with computers, we map relationships, identities, networks, capacity, assets, third places and sacred spaces: what people care about in the community and how they interact in it and with each other.  We use simple maps community members draw and assemble by hand–of the ways they use local resources, say, and their  connections–both formal and informal–within the community and to resources beyond the community.  We use digital mapping and social network analysis tools to help uncover patterns, connections, dislocations, opportunities and challenges we had not noticed or clearly understood.

This sort of mapping is being used to study almost every aspect of the world. What’s fairly unusual is participatory mapping of these relationships– mapping our community connections together as part of the participatory change process.

Group Community Connections Mapping Exercise

The group process of relationship mapping helps us to build trust and a shared understanding of one another–sitting next to one another, comparing maps or our perception and experience of those maps and what they represent and reveal– can shake us from our ruts of thinking.  Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in his new book, Thinking, Fast & Slow (Slate has a fine review) reminds us of the near impossibility of escaping our own biases by ourselves: “It’s easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.”  We fall victim to “our excessive confidence in what we believe we know, and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance and the uncertainly of the world we live in.”  We rely far too much on first impressions and “place too much faith in [our] intuitions,” Kahneman writes.   With these human tendencies in mind, we can embark on collaborative processes across a community that reveal a variety of viewpoints, experiences, and perceptions, and yes, biases. Weaving mapping into the connective tissue of storytelling, dialogue and art-centered approaches grounds the conversation, the vision, the planning in the complex reality of what actually exists in our community and who we are.

Mapping does even more–

Mapping builds enthusiasm for a project  as it provides almost immediately a powerful view of a community.  Early project mapping and analysis reveal gaps in a community’s knowledge of the pressing issues or of an organizing committee’s understanding of the full community as well as groups and individuals underrepresented in the project formation.

Mapping saves time by locating stories, storytellers and story catchers, and story-sharing opportunities. By identifying and synthesizing the interests and allegiances within the community, mapping points to story themes located in place or micro-community or issue. Mapping informal groups by interest, such as knitters or gardeners or hunters, can bring people into the project who might not otherwise participate.

Mapping provides a nuanced, deep view into a community by revealing interactions within and between formal and informal groups, associations and institutions.  It locates leaders, both those known and those unrecognized, and the people who connect groups, who have a long reach into the community.  Anthropologist Karen Stephenson defines the roles of crucial people identified through network mapping:

Hubs are the people who know the most people. They facilitate expansion of the network, trading (for example, the exchange of favors), and the rapid dissemination of information. Gatekeepers occupy a critical path. They are often the only bridge between an important part of the network and everyone else. They make a network stronger, in part by helping people focus and move things along. Pulse-takers are called on by other significant connectors, often for their judgment or insight, and they help the group maintain its integrity and perspective. They are invaluable in times of turmoil.”

Simple relationship map shows where connections could be woven

The Pathways through Participation report from identifies five crucial community roles revealed by mapping:  Leaders, Catalysts, Initiators, Consolidators, Helpers, Organizers as well as the role of gathering spaces:

“The maps themselves and what the participants said about the maps proved to be particularly rich, complementing significantly the information gathered during the area profiling stage. The sites of participation identified helped the researchers to find some key places and spaces where participation happens locally, which helped them target certain sites and organizations to recruit interviewees.”

Maps can reveal gaps between groups and individuals that can be addressed as pointed out by Network Weaving.

The maps, if updated  and analyzed continuously and in relation to one another, continue to highlight the reach of the project, the authentic engagement of the full community’s participation, as we build an effective evolving portrait of the project as it proceeds.

So why not dispense with storytelling altogether and just do extensive mapping and network analysis?  We need maps, yes, but alone they provide an incomplete picture, for as Herman Melville wrote, “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” Stories fill in the gaps, provide the detailed images, the narrative, the full, nuanced picture. Storytelling can do its magic when it stands on the foundation of  deep knowledge of the many ways a community is itself.  Together, mapping and storytelling can weave a complex but clear picture of a community while forging new connections and building trust.

Community Map in Davis, California

Useful Resources in Participatory Community Mapping

UMap: ” a clearinghouse of information on how to conduct community mapping with and for children and youth growing up in urban areas to promote social action and neighborhood change. Maps tell stories about places and people’s connections to those places. uMAP is a unique civic engagement model that allows communities to use maps to share what they know about where they live. uMAP brings youth and adults together in partnership to give voice to youth perceptions and improve the quality of life for all citizens.”

Ushahidi: ” We are a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. “

Global Giving:  Stories plus maps (Using Ushahidi)

Natural Borders: James Kent Associates use human geographic mapping in their Discovery Process.

M.I.T.’s Timenesia : “Many communities suffer from “timenesia”: a lack of awareness-of and interest-in their own past, present and future. They don’t showcase their rich past, aren’t aware of their neighbors different takes on their present, nor their hopes for their shared future.’s goal is to overcome this problem by enabling communities to awareness, engagement and excitement via hyper-local guided tours featuring residents’ voices, pictures, and text about the past, present and future. ”

More and more studies examine the impact of network mapping and social network analysis on communities and networks.  Here’s an example:   LLC Social Network Analysis Project Final Report Microsoft Word file

“LLC, through its Community Seed Fund, recently supported four members of the Community (Bruce Hoppe, Meredith Emmett, Dianne Russell, and Odin Zackman) to test the usefulness of this methodology in different network contexts. The team produced a very informative summary about the outcomes of this project. One of the more interesting findings was that network maps can be a valuable tool for generating group reflection about itself. The study raised the question about which networks would find this a valuable tool and which might not. There is some indication that those networks that have a clear purpose, are more bounded and formalized, and that have outside funding, may be more motivated and interested in using network maps to deepen t understanding of themselves as a network. Another interesting lesson learned is that the interpretation of network maps is full of complexities. There is no single interpretation of what the maps mean. This means that the maps can lead to many interesting conversations. The summary does a nice job of specifying and evaluating the outcomes of the three projects that were part of the study. It provides valuable guidance to others who may consider undertaking an SNA of their leadership networks. In addition, the report analyzes the three networks along 11 dimensions. These will be helpful to you if you are looking to better understand the networks you are part of regardless of whether you use SNA or not. While our understanding of networks is still very much evolving, SNA is a promising tool to help us “see” leadership networks.”

Media Engage’s Mapping Tools:” Mapping is a great way to identify local assets, networks and opportunities in your community. Using data and some free tools available on the internet, you can create a visual display of key community organizations, partners, and even related issues. For a taste of what mapping can do, check out our new tools created for The Takeaway radio stations.”

NetMap: “an interview-based mapping tool that helps people understand, visualize, discuss, and improve situations in which many different actors influence outcomes . By creating Influence Network Maps, individuals and groups can clarify their own view of a situation, foster discussion, and develop a strategic approach to their networking activities. More specifically, Net-Map helps players to determine what actors are involved in a given network, how they are linked, how influential they are, and what their goals are.”

Beth Kanter’s Description of Network Mapping for Nonprofits

Good Practices in Participatory Community Mapping (.pfd)  Geographic mapping


Overview of Rural Participatory Appraisal–List of Tools, including network analysis and mapping tools

Mailana’s network mapping tool tool is super easy if you have excel or Google spreadsheets.

Many Eyes  has an easy-to-use network mapping tool  Easy, free  Mind-mapping tool that can be used for simple network maps.

Gliffy for drawing simple network maps

Tutorial on geographic mapping of assets using Google Earth:

Mapping Examples


Video of a Project in Venezuela to have the community members map their ancestral lands

Mapping As Political Practice for Argentinian Youth

Photographer Erik Fischer Uses Geotags to create Maps that Reveal Sites on Interest in Cities

HistoryPin: “Historypin local projects aim to start something that local people and partners continue for many years to come, building the record of local history on and bringng people together to enjoy it.”

PhilaPlace: “Explore the City of Neighborhoods through maps, stories, photographs, and documents, and share the story of your PhilaPlace.”

Mapping Memories: Experiences of Refugee Youth in Montreal

It is more difficult to find good examples of participatory community network mapping outside of academic papers as often the information is sensitive.  Here are a couple:

Asset Mapping through a Participatory Rural Appraisal: “The DCS (Design for Community) Lab at Srishti, put together a team of designers from different fields, to work with a community of potters in the south of India in order to help the indigenous artisans learn how to plan their production and business needs more efficiently.”

Nancy White’s  Network Mapping Exercise

A simple, introductory mapping exercise I have done with community groups, and Orton Family Foundation’s Community Network Analysis chapter (.pdf)

Tuesday’s Stories: Examples from the Field

withinToday I launch a new weekly post, Tuesday’s Stories: Examples From the Field, to highlight community storytelling projects of all sorts that I come across in my travels online and in the physical world. These projects inspire or teach, surprise or delight–they remind me to reflect on the hows and whys of storytelling while encouraging me to make connections between what I’m trying to do and what others are already exploring. I post most of these links on Twitter and delicious, but I hope that gathering them here will also prove useful for readers and lead me to more examples of fine community storytelling.  Please let me know if you come across intriguing storytelling projects!

Project Aspect

Project Aspect, UK

From their website: “Project ASPECT was born from a more general search for new communication tools to help the wider public engage with important but inaccessible issues. In particular, the project considers the complex issue of climate change.

ASPECT recognises that to date, climate change communication has engaged a narrow audience and stimulated a limited public dialogue. As a result, ASPECT explores how the wider public might connect to the climate change discussion through digital storytelling.”

I like that they are trying to reach the wider public using digital storytelling–not so easy to do since DS can be time-consuming and skill-intensive. I’m interested in seeing how they will use those stories not just online but in the actual places described, bringing people together to discuss, plan, and act.  One shortcoming I’ve seen in many storytelling projects is a tendency to get all excited about the process of creating the stories just to have them languish on a static website once the telling is captured.  I’ll be following their work to see how they use the process of digital storytelling and then the stories themselves to stimulate dialogue and move to action.

Living Flood Histories

Living Flood Histories:  Learning to Live with Water: Flood Histories, Environmental Change, Remembrance and Resilience, UK

From the website, some of their goals:

–To explore how memories, archives and mnemonic practices surrounding extreme and casual flooding, awareness of flood/watery heritage, local/lay/informal knowledge of 18th-21st century floods have been and are experienced, remembered, materialised, formalised and enhanced in UK lowland/wetland floodplain communities. The idea here is that the deep, time-rich and embodied practice of coping with water in and on the landscape is one that can be both shared and materialised in the ‘waterscape’.

–To research the changing and potential role of different creative practices – including flood marking, oral history, creative writing, local archives, websites, local history writing, storytelling/digital storytelling, reminiscence theatre, performance arts, digital archiving, social networking, and photography/film making, singing, song writing – have in developing knowledge about flood histories and environmental change which may help local communities live with(in) watery landscapes in an emotionally and practically resilient way.

What I admire about this research and network-building project is its embrace of stories and creative practices as means of supporting recovery and of providing lessons for the future–stories as action.  That they are collaborating across sectors (government, university, community activist) is exciting–imagine!  I look forward to watching their work for general insights into using storytelling to build a better future and for particular ideas for helping Vermont in its recovery efforts from Hurricane Irene. (See Vermont Folklife Center for their work at assisting communities to capture flood stories.)

Mapping Our Voices for Equality

Mapping Our Voices for Equality, Seattle

From the website:

“Mapping our Voices for Equality (MOVE) is a grassroots strategy using new media tools to promote health equity in King County. MOVE features on-going changes that improve healthy eating and physical activity and create tobacco-free environments in King County.  This website showcases over seventy-five multilingual digital stories produced by community members and a local map that illustrates policy changes that are improving health.”

I’m a big fan of Tasha Freidus and her community storytelling work at Creative Narrations, especially her efforts at using storytelling to improve community health.  This is her latest project, and it’s a great example of how simple maps and stories can be used to share experience and knowledge while building community. It goes beyond creating and capturing stories.  Public health activists have been among the first and most effective storytellers to lasso the power of the digital in their communities.  See Pip Hardy and Patient Voices in the UK, Amy Hill’s Silence Speaks and the Center for Digital Storytelling for outstanding examples of storytelling and public health. Take a look, too, at ShotByShot.

15 Second Place

15 Second Place, Australia

From the website:

“Around the corner, up the street, down the lane. We invite you to capture the mood of where you are in 15 seconds of video.
Share your experience with others to create new stories about where you live. Record your perspective on different places, track the same place at different times, or in different seasons. No one experiences places in the same way. Any one location can have many moods, many stories. Armed with a hand-held device, you can become diarist, reporter and documenter contributing over time to the collective online experience of place.”

I’m also a big fan of ACMI (Australian Centre of the Moving Image) and their early work with digital storytelling and place.  This new project looks like a lot of fun, promises to bring in a wide range of voice and perspective, and can serve as a model of the sort of project many communities can try out as they explore the spirit of place and people.  Murmur-type embedded oral history projects have caught on in many locations–how about short, minimally smart-phone videos?