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The Power of Storytelling to Build Community and Inspire Action

By Caitlyn Davison

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 swampgravy.com.

 

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 http://gatheringourvoice.org/listening-post/.

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

Listen to the February Heart & Soul Talks call recording:

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