The Huddle: Storytelling

March 10, 2016

By: ArtPlace

We’re excited to continue our new blog format: The Huddle. As anyone who’s journeyed through our ArtPlace website will see, we have a very diverse group of funded projects that make up the ArtPlace family. But as with many large and dispersed families, it’s often hard to connect with one another.

The Huddle recaps conversations where our ArtPlace funded projects and organizations came together to talk through topics, get advice, and perhaps even gossip a little. After each one we will use these blogs to recap the insights, questions, and provocations from these conversations.

This round featured a conversation with Lynn Osgood of Drawing Lines, Henry Reese of the City of Asylum, Laetitia Wolff of the American Institute for Graphic Arts, and Hanmin Liu, Wildflowers Institute on the question: How can I tell my project's story & outcome?”

Every few weeks, the Huddle examines the stories behind ArtPlace's grantee projects. This week we're going to dig a little deeper.

Today we're talking about the power of storytelling itself: as a powerful tool for documenting change, as a way of empowering communities, and as a mirror that helps our funded projects  learn about themselves.

Lynn Osgood, the principal researcher and urban planner at GO collaborative in Austin, TX, got things started by talking about how their project team is using storytelling to help their city move through recent – and historic – political changes that have occurred.

"We went through a radical change," Lynn said. "Coalitions on both the right and the left [in Austin] got together and decided they wanted a geographically specific system of government. So now we have a district system. We didn't do redistricting. We actually did districting."

GO collaborative worked with the City of Austin Economic Development Department on "Drawing Lines", a project that helped explore the new understandings of place emerging within the city. 

"We're putting one public artist into each of the new districts to co-create something with the residents about the district. We're bringing an investigation into what these new districts are about," Lynn explained.

Laetitia Wolff, Program Director of Civic Initiatives at the NYC chapter of the American Institute for Graphic Arts (AIGA), is also working to help a community make sense of itself after a major upheaval. Design/Relief is a design initiative tasked with helping three NYC neighborhoods (Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Lower Manhattan) re-imagine their futures as they overcame the effects of hurricane Sandy.

"Design makes things legible, visible and navigable," Laetitia explained. "What I found often in interacting with these underserved communities is that they don't have an outlet for their stories. They're sort of covered by other things [like] the disaster itself and how depressed their situation is. But the true drive of these residents we interacted with was to share deep memories of the place they live in and how they're attached to it. For Design/Relief, the Rockaway team set up a pop-up oral history station at The Wave, the local newspaper headquarters and people started to tell us really personal anecdotes. It fed into our graphic design strategy, which was to record and print those stories and bring them back to the people who had participated in the form of newspaper inserts. They were wheat-pasted all over the neighborhood, guerilla-style and also stenciled on the sidewalk in chalk. We took those words we had heard and presented them back to local residents as a mirror of the community’s collective psyche."

Storytelling as a tool of regrowth is just one of the uses our projects found. Telling the story of their own organizations became, for some, a great step in documenting present projects and informing later ones.

Hanmin Liu, president of the Wildflowers Institute in San Francisco, CA, told us how his team collects survey data, holds focus group sessions, takes photos and obtains other information to make visible the many hidden gems of the community. This approach helps the institute understand the community the way the community sees itself.

The Wildflowers Institute has been working for the last forty years to map formal and informal structures of nineteen communities, most recently in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood – an area with a high population of immigrants, refugees from war torn nations, poor blacks and whites, homeless, transgenders, and independent artists. They developed a simple survey that asked artists questions like, ‘where do you live, work and hang out?’

Over time, a trust is developed and Wildflowers is invited into the artists’ live/work spaces. The staff receives permission to take many photos which then becomes a part of the institute’s documentation. “Everywhere we go, we bring a digital camera and an iPhone and we take photos of the artist, their artwork and their space. Then that becomes a part of our library of information – we can see what's in their room, and what are the symbols or icons that help us understand who the artist is,” Hanmin said. And from the survey data, photo documentation, and focus group discussions with artists, a story unfolded.

What the institute discovered was not only remarkable artworks created by resident artists but it uncovered over 650 artists living and working in the neighborhood. Wildflowers also learned that the majority of the artists are focused on healing and self-improvement. The artists themselves declare the Tenderloin as their “sanctuary”. In addition, what emerged from the focus group sessions was the discovery—in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America—of a common premise held by local residents and organizations of being free to be (“free2b”). 

“The realizations of a galaxy of artists, of a sacred space where healing and self-improvement prevails, and of the determination to being ‘free2b’ formed the guiding principles for the Wildflowers staff in curating the stories of the Tenderloin and in identifying which artists would best tell this remarkable story of the people and their community to the world,” Hanmin said.

Sometimes the roles are reversed, though – organizations aren't always in control of how their own story is told. (Especially in the age of wi-fi and social media.) But that lack of control isn't always a bad thing.

Henry Reese, co-founder and president of City of Asylum/Pittsburgh, has worked for years on the Exiled Writer Residency and its mission to give asylum (in the form of a stipend, health care and housing) to writers who are under threat of persecution in their home countries. Of course, not everyone knows the story behind the project.

"People at our events may be posting on Facebook or Twitter, sending information out, telling other people

 and telling the story without our control," Henry explained. "They tell us what the story is. In many ways that's been a good learning process, to see what story people tell about us."

As scary as it may initially seem, giving up control of your story can be liberating – maybe even a necessary part of a project. Some of our projects found that distancing themselves led to unexpected results.

For example, Lynn and her team had a videographer documenting the Drawing Lines project every step of the way. At the end, the project team did not direct the outcome of the videos.

"We gave away that story to him and really brought him on as an artist himself… In a way, to effectively tell our story, we had to let go and let him be there, look at it from his perspective… He's lending a beautiful voice, richer and more intuitive and more heartfelt than we ourselves would have if we were in front of it and guiding it," she said.

This session's moderator, Lyz Crane (Deputy Director of ArtPlace), summed things up in her closing statement: "Part of the reason we tell stories is not just to pat ourselves on the back, but to actually be able to reflect and process and do better work in the future."

What other questions would you have asked our group? How do you approach storytelling in your community? What did you find most interesting from our conversation?