The Power of Storytelling to Build Community and Inspire Action

We recently hosted a Heart & Soul Talk, Stories to Action—How Listening Can Lead to Change, focused on the power of stories to galvanize community action. Our speakers shared compelling examples of action that happened from saving an African-American church and cemetery to restoring an historic theater. Listen to the call recording.

We knew that many of our listeners have also experienced the power of stories in their communities. So, we asked our audience to share how stories have inspired action in their communities. More than 30 people shared ideas, and we found some common themes—communities coming together around a devastating loss, a revered historic figure, a beloved place. Here is a small selection of what we heard. Please add your own examples in the comments.

Boles Fire Community Disaster Relief Fund (Weed, California)

Video tells the story that inspired a community in California to come together after fire ravaged the town. In an alarming 120 minutes on Sept. 15, 2014, the Boles Fire in Weed (pop. 2,912), California destroyed 143 homes, two churches, and businesses--including a food bank, the library, Head Start offices, and the community center. The fire also severely damaged a lumber mill, displacing 60 workers. Almost one third of the town’s property owners and renters were affected.

Immediately after the fire, the Shasta Regional Community Foundation (SRCF)  attended first responder meetings and provided a fiscal sponsorship for relief efforts as part of the newly formed Weed Long Term Recovery Group. The fire story was captured on video to help in fundraising.

The Community Foundation took the lead to circulate the video via links on websites, social media, and as it turns out, at a fundraising opportunity with local country music legend Merle Haggard. He agreed to donate a portion of the proceeds from  a concert to disaster relief and encouraged attendees to give generously. Links to the fund were shared far and wide and donations came from around the country and beyond. From anonymous donors, to kids emptying their piggy banks, the heartwarming response raised nearly $22,000 in just eight hours and peaked at just over $641,000.

Watch the Disaster Relief Fund video.

Swamp Gravy (Colquit, Georgia)

Each year since 1991, Colquitt/Miller Arts Council in Colquitt (pop. 2,000), Georgia has collected stories from community members around a theme and turned them into a performance piece called Swamp Gravy.  The plays are produced in March and October; the theme of this year’s play is “Home.” The stories are collected from a wide variety of people in southwest Georgia and are performed by a multigenerational cast of 85 people. Swamp Gravy has brought a sense of empowerment and pride in heritage to local people while boosting the cultural tourism industry, and in turn, economic revitalization. More information is available at


Clemmons Family Farm (Charlotte, Vermont)

In Vermont, one family is preserving an important piece of history and raising awareness about it through story. Lydia Clemmons’ parents, Jack and Lydia Clemmons, are both 93 years old and live in Charlotte (pop. 3,754), Vermont where they have owned and operated one of the largest African American-owned farms in the state. Less than half of one percent of farms in the U.S. are owned by African Americans. During the senior Clemmons' lifetimes, African Americans in the U.S. have lost 40 million acres of land, now owning only about three million acres.

Lydia and her siblings are working to preserve the farm as well as their family legacy. They have spent the last year documenting stories from their parents to capture the farm’s history and are mobilizing the community to help preserve the farm. Early reactions show promising results—videos featuring Jack and Lydia inspired the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing to add the farm to the state's African American Heritage Trail.

Watch a video about the Clemmons Family Farm.

Gathering Our Voice

The Initiative for Rural Innovation & Stewardship designed the Gathering Our Voice program to celebrate and strengthen the sense of place in North Central Washington by gathering and sharing hundreds of stories with the intent of inspiring community action. Stories have been collected since 2005 and shared in a variety of ways—local news, videos, and even a forthcoming book. Community members can also hear the stories through the Listening Post Network, a system that encourages people to learn more about local landmarks by listening to stories while they are out and about in the community. More at

Thanks to our contributors: Audra Beylik, Joy Jinks, Lydia Clemmons and Nancy Warner.

Listen to the February Heart & Soul Talks call recording:

Finding Your Hometown’s Heartbeat: Community Engagement with Bouncy Castles, Beer Coasters, and Ball Games

When it comes to community engagement, high-tech tools and complicated processes often take center-stage, but Heart & Soul communities find that successful engagement comes from the simple act of connecting with residents to learn why they love their town.

As part of the Heart & Soul Talks series, three speakers joined Orton Family Foundation on January 26 to talk about successful community engagement. Their strategies weren’t traditional—block parties, living room conversations, and soccer tournaments—but they got results.

Jim Bennett, city manager in Biddeford, Maine, and past president of International City/County Management Association (ICMA), emphasized the importance of community pride in garnering engagement.

 “People love where they live—they want to be proud of their hometown. Having pride in the community is a powerful motive,” he said.

He should know. For years, Biddeford’s moniker “Trash Town” overshadowed its best assets—historic downtown buildings, affordability, family friendliness—preventing positive growth and investment. Community Heart & Soul® helped the whole community rediscover those things that make Biddeford a great place to live, restoring pride and spurring action to clean up downtown. Today, commercial real estate values in downtown have averaged a 60% increase in value since 2014, residential values are up by 12%, and 1.6 million square feet of previously abandoned mill space is almost full.

This remarkable turnaround began with community engagement.

 “There is something special in every community. The challenge is to find what that is—the heartbeat, why people care,” he shared.  

In Biddeford, that challenge was met through conversations between residents—activities like youth interviews with their grandparents, a storytelling hotline, neighborhood meetings, and listening to Franco elders at the local Franco-American festival.

In contrast to  Biddeford, Golden, Colorado, wasn’t struggling when it embarked on Heart & Soul in 2010, and it has only grown more prosperous since. Community engagement that included block parties with bouncy castles, hotdogs, and opportunities for citizens to connect with city staff were at the heart of the process. The result was a set of guiding principles that have stood the test of time.

Seven years later, the city is still seeing positive results, and the culture of citizen engagement, confidence in government, and a welcoming community has been verified by the National Citizen Survey and the Gallup Well-being Index.

Mike’s favorite tip for engagement comes from another town, Paonia, Colorado, where the Heart & Soul Team used bar coasters to collect input from 30-somethings at the local brewpub.

Kirsten Sackett, director of community development in Ellensburg, Washington, first experienced the benefits of Community Heart & Soul while working in Cortez, Colorado. She is leading a similar effort in Ellensburg, starting with deliberate outreach to community members. Kirsten and her staff are reaching residents in unlikely places, at least for city government. One of their first steps was a local soccer tournament, where they connected with parents during games. On the importance of intentional communication, Kirsten recommends, “Go to the places where people are most familiar, where people are available, and where trust can be built.”

Hear more from Jim, Mike and Kirsten in the Heart & Soul Talks recording:

Essex Schools Reflect Town’s Heart & Soul Values

As students returned to school this fall, I began to notice things were just a little bit different.

There were all the usual signs of school starting up: sidewalks lined with young walkers, streets sprinkled with bikers, baseball hats turned backwards, colorful backpacks, glittery hair ribbons and flashy footwear.

Children not quite school-aged were walking with their older siblings, anxiously waiting for the day when it will be their turn to have a backpack over their shoulders. Flowers were blooming at school entrances, and inside, freshly waxed floors shined.

Yet something still seemed just a little bit different.


Making Change Through Stories, Large and Small

Storytelling and Social ChangeStorytelling has caught on as a means of social change and civic engagement in the last five to ten years, and has been a popular practice for, well, pretty much forever. Consider the use of slave narratives in the US abolitionist movement, or popular theater performed from early on in the farmworker movement.

Anyone reading this blog has probably thought about how stories can motivate people to volunteer or donate money; a personal narrative tugs at your heart and compels you to help out.

Perhaps less obvious are other applications of storytelling that change the way people interact within communities: to assess a community’s needs and strengths (Orton’s Heart & Soul is a great example); to organize people in a group (consider Marshall Ganz’s “Public Narrative” method, adapted by the 2008 Obama campaign); to educate the public (such as Voice of Witness does with human rights); or to advocate a cause (examples include the grantees of the Health Media Initiative of the Open Society Foundation).


Slow Democracy: Inclusion Takes Creativity

This is the second in a four-part series adapted from the book Slow Democracy: Rediscovering Community, Bringing Decision Making Back Home by Susan Clark and Woden Teachout (Chelsea Green, 2012).

A great example of “outside-the-box” thinking actually comes in a box.

In Essex, Vermont, “Essex Heart & Soul” is working to engage the community in dialogue about the future.

Rather than beg busy residents to attend yet another 7 p.m. meeting, leaders brought the conversation to living rooms and other gathering places across the community with—you guessed it—a “Meeting in a Box.”

It’s an actual box full of printed materials: a discussion guide, priority-setting tools, clipboards, nametags, and more.


Heart & Soul Principle 3: Build Community

This is the third post in a series that shows how our nine Heart & Soul Principles are coming to life on the ground in small towns across the country.

Principle 3. Build Community—Build trust, seek common ground and encourage civil dialogue. Strive for a community where people listen to each other, understand each other, and embrace differences.

As Damariscotta, Maine’s Heart & Soul project was getting underway back in 2008, native Buzz Pinkham was invited to an event aimed at gathering community feedback on shaping the future of his town.

“When I was originally asked to be part of the process,” says Buzz, “I gave the regular native answer: ‘I don’t have time for that.’”

“Then I got a thing in the mail and it had all the names of people who did have time, and a lot of those people I didn’t recognize. I said, ‘There aren’t any natives in there…and these people are going to decide the future of this town? I can’t have that.’ And so I went to the next meeting.”


Heart & Soul Principle 2: Explore Local Culture

This is the second post in a series that shows how our nine Heart & Soul Principles are coming to life on the ground in small towns across the country.

It has been said that only 10 percent of the culture of a place is seen, while the other 90 percent is unseen but expressed through habits and networks and how people interact.

This Principle is about paying attention to that 90 percent—to the peculiarities and richness of a singular place. It’s about taking time to question whether you’re really examining the culture of the whole community and not just the parts you already know (or thought you knew), and then applying that understanding to your project.

Here is the Principle:


FUN: The Key to Community Participation

Our atmosphere’s getting all gunky.
And climate change makes us feel funky.
But we’ll change our fate!
Play Vermontivate!
And celebrate with Chunky Monkey!

Even if you don’t have a clue what Vermontivate! is, there’s a good bet that an initiative that plasters this limerick on their homepage has got to be fun.

Read on and you discover that Vermontivate! is a community energy game—an interactive way to get people to conserve energy. Players compete to earn points for their town. Change an old tungsten bulb to a compact fluorescent, collect points. Start composting, more points. Reduce your household consumption of paper products by pointfest. Install solar panels and you’ve hit the point equivalent of the carnival strong man bell. Basically, do anything you can think of to lessen your dependence on fossil fuels to compete for the grand prize: a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream party hosted in a local gathering place.

Why play Vermontivate!? The website makes it clear: “(W)e believe that by having fun and building community, we stand a good chance of helping each other reduce the impacts of our energy consumption AND bring hope and infinite possibility to the beautiful land of Vermont. And the world.”