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 MOO.com’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.


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?