Handbarrow harnesses and shares the power of stories

People have always told stories—to share lessons and wisdom, to try to explain life’s mysteries, to entertain one another around a fire. And stories are the foundation for how cultures see themselves and are seen, in the art that they create and the values they pursue.

Those truths are the basis for a community organizing practice called Story Circle. With roots in the feminist and civil rights movements, Story Circle is a strategic tool. It uses the structure of people sitting in a circle and sharing personal experiences to forge relationships and begin working toward shared goals.

“If you really want to achieve some sort of change in your community, you have to be able to work within the stories that people already tell about that place,” says artist and organizer Mark Kidd. “You have to have some awareness of how story works in a community in order to create the new stories that help you make things different.”

Kidd is one of the leaders of Handbarrow, a nonprofit company of artists, organizers, and community development professionals based in Letcher County, Kentucky. Handbarrow works closely with several other organizations in Appalachia and the South, including Appalshop and Alternate ROOTS. Their collaborative projects include the Hurricane Gap Institute, a training and skill sharing conference for theater practitioners in the region. Kidd also serves on the steering committee of the Rural-Urban Exchange (RUX), which gathers cohorts of people from across Kentucky to share culture and build relationships.

Story Circle is a fundamental part of all of this work, used not only to drive cultural exchange but also to produce original, collective works of art. Gathered stories can be channeled into pieces like a song, a play, or a collection of photos.

Now, Handbarrow is making their methods for Story Circle and community storytelling available in the Community Story Toolkit, created through Springboard for the Arts’ Toolkit Cohort. The toolkit is a chance, Kidd says, to synthesize and share practices that have rarely been written down. And it’s a chance to disseminate not only Story Circle, but the ways it can be used creatively by organizations with small budgets and few resources.

Listening to lived experiences

At the heart of Story Circle is the invitation for people to share firsthand experiences rather than opinions, telling concrete details of their lives.

Each round of storytelling begins with a prompt, and participants can answer with a short anecdote. The best prompts are direct and specific. Rather than something like, “What do you see as the future of your community?”, Kidd likes to start with, “Tell a story about the last time you ate or cooked something that was really good.”

Story Circle songwriting workshop with Story Catcher Theater members. Photo courtesy of Handbarrow.

These basic conversation starters offer entry to complex topics. Kidd remembers hearing about a financial services nonprofit, working to combat predatory lending, that started a Story Circle with, “Tell a story of a time you learned an important lesson about money.”

He says, “You can go a little deeper with people, and maybe realize how they’re motivated by what they’ve seen or been through themselves.”

The simple but structured format gives rise to what Kidd calls “creative listening,” when participants begin to make genuine connections.

“When the Story Circle is working,” he says, “oftentimes each story starts to build on the one that came before it, and people are discovering their own stories because they are able to fully listen to each other.”

It’s through this process that relationships are formed and deepened, making Story Circle a powerful tool for organizing. Kidd would also like to see it used more often to invite community input on civic issues.

“It can be a way of gathering very concentrated and relevant information, as well as helping people connect to each other,” he says.

Savannah Barrett, a co-founder and staff member of the Rural-Urban Exchange, likes to bookend Story Circle with a shared meal and some kind of social gathering, like a dance.

“Putting it in the middle of an otherwise pretty social event can help people recognize one another in new ways, and can help to break up cliques,” she says. “I think Story Circle could be as useful in a basketball camp as it could be in conflict resolution as it could be at a neighborhood association meeting.”

Stories as a tool for exchange

The Rural-Urban Exchange was founded in 2014 as a partnership between Appalshop and Art of the Rural. Each cohort brings together people from across Kentucky for three intensives, in which they visit culturally significant places, hear from people around the state, and explore their differences as well as what they share.

Story Circle is one of the central practices that fosters connections and learning within RUX.

“When you’re working to bring people together across some kind of perceived divide, it’s much more difficult to dismiss someone or to maintain your stereotypes after you’ve listened to their story and after they’ve listened to yours,” says Barrett. “It’s a really productive way to break down barriers and to get people beyond their perceptions into really seeing one another.”

Barrett also sees storytelling driving RUX participants’ development as individuals and as leaders.

“It expresses a way of honoring someone, to be saying, ‘I value your story, and I know that it means a lot about the place that you come from, that you’re a representative of something much larger than yourself, and you specifically are important in that role,’” she says. “People become more confident in who they are; they become more outspoken; they see more as possible for themselves.”

One of the ways Barrett has continued to integrate storytelling within RUX is with Narrative Stage, in which people hosting the cohort at locations around Kentucky tell their own stories.

The most recent RUX intensive included an event hosted by Hickory Hill Recovery Center, a program for addiction treatment and services. The residents offered to cook a meal for the visiting cohort, and some of them spoke about their experiences with addiction and recovery.

“It was great to see a program where those are the first voices put up on the stage anywhere, not the professional nonprofit staff or facilitators,” Kidd says.

The Hickory Hill residents’ stories led into and informed a Story Circle and further conversations about addiction, privilege, identity, and how they intersect.

“By putting story and lived experience at the center, people are able to get to some really important places on the issues that are facing a region—and the whole point of RUX is to say that they’re facing all of us,” says Kidd.

Collective creativity and civic art

Because it allows stories to surface and build on one another, Story Circle naturally gives rise to creativity—and can even fuel full works of art.

This type of collective creation is sometimes called “civic practice,” a concept from the Center for Performance and Civic Practice that refers to art made as a true collaboration among residents or people affected by an issue.

Handbarrow often uses Story Circle as part of teaching low-cost media practices, helping people and organizations express themselves through photography, video, and social media.

One example is Photostories, adapted from the Photovoice practice that invites people to document their lives with cameras. It modifies Photovoice to work within limited time and resources, and to incorporate Story Circle.

Photostories collage courtesy of Handbarrow.

“Photostories From the Ground Up” was a collaboration of the Cowan Community Action Group, Grow Appalachia, and the Community Farm Alliance, with the goal of supporting local food and agriculture in southeastern Kentucky. Kidd worked with artist Lacy Hale to host three workshops, held after the Whitesburg/Letcher County Farmer’s Market, with the goal of reaching market vendors and especially first-time growers.

Through the workshops, attendees participated in Story Circle, learned photography basics, and practiced taking photos around specific themes. The results: the farmers shared the realities of their lives through photos that were shown in an exhibition. The photos were also used in an advocacy campaign, driving public policy support of the region’s small farmers. And the farmers learned skills to apply to their own marketing and social media, helping sustain their businesses.

The partnership and Photostories workshops also gave rise to a musical play, including the song “Food Around the Corner.” The lyrics collect the culinary memories, lessons, and recipes of the participants, such as:

My family always kills a hog,
every year Thanksgiving Day,
Daddy carves the tenderloin first.
Our mamma makes the biscuits—
big fat country biscuits—
there’s food around the corner, for me!

“People’s experiences as gardeners—which span from hands-on experiences to the stories that they’re gathering by getting advice from old gardeners—those stories connect to policy, they connect to economy, and they connect to culture,” says Kidd. “They provide the thorough, deep content for creativity.”

With the Community Story Toolkit, Kidd hopes other communities and organizations can use the fundamental, specific practice of Story Circle while also building on it in new, unexpected, and creative ways, like gathering stories over social media.

Such possibilities all stem from a simple but powerful act: that of centering and listening to one another’s stories.