How storytelling heals and strengthens communities

In April of 2014, Damian Woetzel and the Aspen Institute Arts Program convened a Strategy Group in Detroit. This convening brought together local and national experts: artists and leaders in arts, policy, community development and education. The group spent a thrilling morning at Spain Elementary School where Yo-Yo Ma, Damian Woetzel, Lil Buck, Aaron Dworkin and Cristina Pato conducted an ArtStrike with students and teachers followed by a roundtable discussion on the role of the arts in Detroit Public Schools. In the afternoon the group focused on creative placemaking and the ways in which art is contributing to Detroit’s future and how it can be further utilized to reimagine the city. There is so much important, groundbreaking work happening in Detroit right now that the Aspen Institute Arts Program felt it was important to share the story of this work more widely. Our hope is others may learn from and understand more deeply the challenges and opportunities facing Detroit and the unique way that Detroit views artists as a critical asset and building block for the future. This is the second of three pieces commissioned by the Aspen Institute Arts Program in partnership with Creative Exchange. (Read part one here and part two here.)

Performer and writer Satori Shakoor knows that for some of her white friends, she is probably their only black friend in the city: the one African American who comes to their home, plays with their child, and altogether is a meaningful part of their life.

With one of these friends, Shakoor broached the idea of having a conversation about white privilege — and met a great deal of reluctance. “She said it was uncomfortable, that she didn’t want to feel lectured to,” Shakoor said. “But we have to practice the end of racism, and that means we have to talk about things.”

So what happened? The friend came over and they had a “good talk” – not explicitly about race, exactly, but they told stories together. They talked about race by sharing stories about art. In this way, they nurtured a personal connection even while approaching a provoking and difficult issue. They are practicing the end of racism, as Shakoor put it, by “creating a relationship that can handle that.”

In Detroit, artists are alert to how their craft transcends entertainment – even though the pleasure is worth it for its own sake. By cultivating vulnerability, empathy, and creativity, artists are making it possible for citizens to grow into more wholehearted people with the capacity to make wise and compassionate decisions for themselves and their city. Artists are becoming a vital and singular source for community health.

Satori Shakoor produces The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers. On the third Friday of each month (except for January and August), up to 200 people crowd into an auditorium at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. There, individuals share their true personal stories, woven together by a theme and punctuated by music and dance performances. Twisted Storytellers, a Knight Arts Challenge winner now in its third season, has put the spotlight on Detroit’s elected officials, clergy, and activists, as well as ordinary citizens. In November, nationally-renowned standup comedian and author Dick Gregory will be a special guest for the Twisted Storytellers evening that features stories on the theme of “patience.” A nonprofit, the group charges $20 tickets at the door ($16 online), and offers special rates for groups over ten. (A portion of ticket sales go to the Wright Museum.) At the events, there is a cash bar and visual artists selling their work in the museum rotunda. In the future, Shakoor hopes to widen the community of the Twisted Storytellers further — and enhance the visual experience — by more regularly having signers for the hearing impaired interpret the stories as they are told.

Shakoor herself comes from a long line of storytellers — “just old ladies pouring stories in my ears as a little girl, and having my toes curl. My stepmother could make going to the mailbox like Lord of the Rings.” Amplified in the performance space of a Midtown Detroit venue, Shakoor is attentive to heightening the craft for storytellers who are newer to the art. She asks questions to help shape a morass of talking into a honed and passionate story. (“How to tell a story is a lost skill in our a culture,” she said.)

As Shakoor sees it, the tales told on the Twisted Storytellers stage accumulate into the collective wisdom of the community. Because no one person dominates the evening, the forum avoids preachiness, and sidesteps the blindness of what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has called “the danger of the single story.” It is something of a democratic model: the stories of all are wiser than the story of one.

The events are often a meaningful catharsis for the storyteller, too. “It’s just like being in therapy,” Shakoor said. “You put your story out there and if there is a willing and non-judgmental party listening to you, it relieves you of fear and pain. You discover that there are people who can understand you, who can support you.” Laughter, tears, and sitting at the edge of the seat, chins resting in palm, are all common experiences for listeners. Shakoor remembers a time when a woman told her story of living with lupus for 20 years. In the audience was someone who had been diagnosed with lupus three days before. Through the story, and beyond it, the listener was able to find “a kind of map for what comes next,” Shakoor said. “It’s really something. It’s hope and magic and inspiration.”

That’s meaningful enough. But this is an artistic venture with untold power to make change in the city, socially and politically. “I want people to know that listening (to stories) is really a revolutionary act,” Shakoor said.

Listeners show up for the Twisted Storytellers, not because they are looking for what the storyteller can do for them, or because of whom the storyteller knows, or because they are simply waiting for others to stop talking so they can start. It’s because they are seeking genuine connection. “Even though there’s social media, I think the personal relationship, the real knowing of another, facilitates change,” Shakoor said.

That’s a belief echoed in other corners of the city. The groups Detroit Dialogues and  Mental Health/Social Justice for Detroit Artists are collaborating to build spaces where young professionals, creatives, and activists can find “uncensored artistic expressions” for their feelings on social issues and opportunities, according to Cornetta Lane, the founder of Detroit Dialogues. Once a month, the group gathers to make art — maybe paint on a canvas, storytelling, theater, music, or improve — around a specific topic. The idea is that art, as an avenue of self-expression, will help participants make choices about how they will contribute positive change to the city. “Art is a powerful form of communication,” Lane said. “Sometimes words can’t convey what art can.”

These events are more intimate than the Twisted Storytellers events, and its mission is explicitly about the intersection of art and civic health. The collaborative group’s third session in August drew more than 20 participants, and it focused on ensuring that the disenfranchised people of Detroit are included in decision-making for the future of the city, with a particular interest in youth voices. Through art-making (and some accompanying barbecue), participants also examined the tenet that “a healthy self is a healthy community.” Rather than talking dryly about abstract ideas, participants divided into three groups to develop concrete dramatic presentations of their ideas, and performed them for each other. This artistic space cracked open a political conversation that might have been filled with bromides, and — as Shakoor’s friend feared in another context — lectures. Instead, it created an empowering and interactive model for political participation and community health in Detroit.

This is a time, after all, where our community health depends upon empowerment and empathetic change in our politics. Shakoor points to laws around the country that are created out of hate and fear, triggered by voters or lawmakers who dread the seeming unknowability of people who are different than them — “whether it is an African American in the White House or women who rock the boat of the status quo,” Shakoor said. Much research shows how storytelling is essential for developing our identity groups and community formations; this is healthy, but it also risks division, defining an implacable difference between “us” and “them.” In Detroit, a city and region that is infamously divided by class and race, where 8 Mile Road has become weighted down with the baggage of metaphor, today’s artists are experimenting with storytelling as a vehicle for expanding citizens’ ideas of who they are connected with. Implicit in that work is the belief that a deepened and broadened sense of community will improve our civic decision-making, a rich resource we will depend upon as we build a better structure for an equitable and dynamic city.

Satori remembers, for example, a Twisted Storytellers evening where a trans woman told her personal story, which included a great deal of harassment by police. Afterward, Shakoor heard from listeners — “mostly men, mostly African American men”—who told her that they hadn’t (knowingly) so much as been in the same room as a trans person before, and were surprised to find that they could identify with the woman’s story. “Through the story, they could access their commonality. And they found their heterosexuality isn’t threatened or anything,” Shakoor said.

In other cases, friends and family of the storyteller find that when they show up to support their loved one, a story they’ve heard for years becomes something new when they hear it through the audience’s ears. Seeing the applause and the empathetic response from the audience inspires new insights and feelings. What’s more, “things left unsaid between people get said on the stage,” Shakoor said.

Revealing what is true and inspiring people to pay attention to it: that is the purpose, then, of the artistic of work of today’s Detroiters. And what city wouldn’t benefit from more citizens who are engaged and truth-seeking?

Anna Clark is a freelance journalist and the editor of A Detroit Anthology. This story is the second in a three-part series about urban transformation through the arts in Detroit. (Here’s part one and part two.)  It was produced in partnership with Springboard for the Arts and the Aspen Institute Arts Program

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