As I write this at the beginning of March, the Storymakers project is making an important turn into a new and exciting phase.

Phase 1 was a series of Story Circle events across the city of Durham. Our events were hosted by TROSA, the renowned residential substance abuse treatment program; Trinity School, a private, Christian school in southwest Durham; SpiritHouse, Inc., a black-women-led arts and advocacy group (and a Storymakers partner organization); the Levin Jewish Community Center; and Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which has many hundreds of Latino parishioners.

By design, these events were relatively small – 25 people or fewer attended each event – and drew from widely diverse parts of the community. Some of the events were quite homogeneous, others more diverse, but collectively, the people who turned out looked like Durham: black, white, Latino and Asian; religious and secular; professional and working class; financially comfortable and struggling.

So, what’s a Story Circle? It’s a process developed by John O’Neal, a former civil rights activist with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and founder of the Free Southern Theater. The Circle process was brought to Storymakers by our partners, Nia Wilson and Mya Hunter of SpiritHouse, Inc. Led by Nia and Mya, we arranged people into small circles of about five people each. And we gave folks a prompt: Tell a story, in two minutes or less, about a time when you had an advantage. It’s a prompt that could elicit something quite benign: “I like to hear music in bars, and I have the advantage of being tall so I can see the band over the heads of others.” Or something more serious: “I was pulled over for speeding and realized I didn’t have to worry much about how the officer would treat me because I have the advantage of being white.”

Many of the stories, though brief, opened moving and revealing windows into the storyteller’s past or current life situation. The white woman who felt that her “shitty childhood” and her experience in the military had toughened her for a life of success; the Latino man who said that as an auto mechanic in a Durham shop otherwise staffed by whites, he was asked to do more than his share of work for the same pay.

After the stories were told, we went around the circle again with each person reflecting briefly on what (s)he had taken away from the other people’s stories.

We had two things in mind with this phase of the project: First, to get Durham residents together, in the flesh, looking one another in the eye and speaking to and hearing one another. The feedback at the sessions was resounding: This experience was meaningful and uplifting. As Ruthie Lyle-Cannon put it at the Trinity School circle: “You realize people are very similar. You walk in … and you say, you know, I don’t know anybody in this room. And now you feel like, ‘Hey, now I know you, let’s go for coffee!’”

The second goal of the Circles was to find storytellers. From each of the Circle events, we identified several “live wires” and invited them to participate in Phase 2 of the project – not because of the content of the story they told in their Circle, but because of HOW they told their story and also, in some cases, because of the way they listened and connected with those around them. We chose people based on the hunch that as Storymakers, they would do SOMETHING interesting. We believe they will, and we’re excited to get started.

In our next post: Phase 2 begins.

-John Biewen

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *