Best practices for doing community-driven storytelling
What journalists learn from listening to voices
Each Finding America team immersed themselves deeply in their communities, first as outsiders and, over time, building meaningful relationships. The degree to which they succeeded in their assignment to create new story-making models was directly tied to their ability to establish trusting bonds.
1.) People are yearning for the chance to be heard and understood. “Storymakers gave me a chance to tell a story that has been on the edge of my mind for a long time,” said Kimani Hall, who pursued a Storymakers piece about his experience dealing with people who tell him he’s “articulate” and “talks white” as a young African-American man in North Carolina. “The validation I had from the people I interviewed, as well as the people that had heard my story, was exhilarating. Because I was able to release my own story, people were able to see my views — or at least take that first step toward understanding me.” (Kimani went on to become a part-time producer at WUNC after Storymakers ended.)
2.) Untold narratives are hiding in unlikely places. Richmond activist Egunfemi created altars across the city to mark significant historical places that are — sometimes literally — buried. In one of the Finding America stories that aired on NPR’s All Things Considered, Egunfemi took listeners through a local restaurant basement that was once part of the Underground Railroad. “This was the last space in Richmond that many people actually occupied before they whisked themselves to freedom and started a new life in places like Philadelphia. This was something that I was able to uncover through conversations with the people who live and work here, and digging for the untold story,” Egunfemi said. “Richmond is a majority black city … and our narratives have not been celebrated, nor have our accomplishments.”
3.) We need more safe spaces for youth to share their stories. This reality was especially evident after a Precious Lives performance that featured teenagers sharing stories about their experience with gun violence. Thirteen-year-old Zanaria Banks, who shared a painful story about her baby brother being shot, told WUWM: “It really hit me really hard, but getting it out with Precious Lives really helped me. I needed to tell my story, because if I didn’t, I knew that I was going to continue to cry at night in my room.” Timberley Princess Brown, 16, who lost her cousin to gun violence, had a similar experience: “In many places, they probably don’t see gun violence. I touched as many people as I could tonight. Even though the people I lost are gone, sharing my story gave me a sense of relief.”
4.) People are more resilient than media coverage would suggest. Many of the Finding America projects were rich with stories of resilience. One example comes from competitive sprint kayaker Dorian Taylor, a paraplegic who collaborated with the What’s the Flux project. “Sometimes I don’t know how I’m still alive. I think, ‘I’m not strong enough to do this,’ and ‘I’m not strong enough to do that,’” Taylor said. “It is kind of interesting to still have so much anger around what happened but still be at peace with my body and who I am. It’s kind of amazing how anger and sadness can create something so beautiful and something you weren’t expecting.”
5.) Media can be a powerful catalyst for difficult conversations. “I think Unprisoned opens the conversation to a lot of things people aren’t always willing to believe or talk about,” said Asha Lane, a New Orleans teen who collaborated with lead producer Abrams on an Unprisoned story. “I do believe that America turns a blind eye to racial inequality, in believing that racism no longer exists. Unprisoned discusses things, such as race, that prove that those beliefs just aren’t true.”
How to “repose”: Get to know a new community before you report on it
The Finding America producers were encouraged to take time at the start of their assignment to “observe and absorb” for an extended period of time. If the goal was to subvert the traditional approach to capturing the story of a place, it was important they begin, simply, as a human being … curious, respectful, discerning, and humble.
- Let go of assumptions. When entering a community, especially one where you don’t necessarily look like the people living there or don’t speak the same language, put aside what you think you know about that place or those people and be open to surprises. Making yourself a learner, without putting up walls, will help you build trust in a community. That trust is critical to getting to know a community and capturing authentic stories about it.
- Be intentional about where you situate yourself. Where are people spending their time? Why are they there? Where are the gathering places? Community centers, libraries, churches, and parks are all places to explore. If you’re choosing an area where you’ve lived or worked before, visit a part of town that you don’t typically frequent.
- Put aside familiar tools. You’ll be tempted to bring your camera, laptop, phone, and microphone, but don’t. They can create a barrier and can be an impediment to building trust, particularly for those who don’t feel comfortable being interviewed by people they don’t know. Leave your equipment at home and enter the community with your whole, undistracted self.
- Embrace your inner anthropologist. Embed yourself in the community with open eyes and ears and a healthy dose of curiosity so that you can get to know the ebbs and flows of the place. Dig for what’s hidden in a community and, like an anthropologist, seek people and draw out their stories of the past and present to help you make better sense of the context.
- Find a good transition point. When reposing, it’s important to determine when to put aside your anthropologist hat and don your storyteller hat. After you spend time in a place, patterns will emerge. This is your clue to move from observing to creating.
How to turn sources into storytellers
Journalists rely on sources to be able to write or produce a story. What happens when you change up the sort of dialogue you’re able to have with your source? What happens when you let go of the things you’re used to controlling and put your “source” in the lead?
- Address potential challenges early on. Make sure you and your manager are on the same page about your desire to give people who would otherwise be sources the power to tell their own stories. Be transparent about the fact that the stories they produce may be more conversational and less polished than traditional public media stories, but will ultimately be rich and authentic. A lack of support from upper management will make it difficult to pursue and sustain people-powered journalism.
- Identify people who have deep ties to the community. Or, in the words of Edison Research, figure out who is “turned on and tuned in.” Shadow them and witness them in action. Are they good storytellers and listeners? Will they help pull back the curtain on parts of the community that are misunderstood or misrepresented? Do they want to tell their story and the stories of others in the community? If the answer to these questions is yes, gauge their interest in collaborating.
- Be humble. If you truly want to involve community members in the storytelling process, be aware of the control you wield as a journalist, and be willing to surrender it. From the stories you pursue, to the sources you select, to the way you tell the story, be open to sharing the process of determining which stories get told, how, and by whom.
- Be fair. Be generous. If you’re asking community members to help you tell stories, provide them with payment, good equipment, and whatever else they might need to produce stories. Furthermore, invest in their success by giving them constructive feedback early and often. Extending this fairness and generosity may make you feel like you’re paying sources (an ethical challenge), so talk with your manager about how to best approach this and how to clearly establish that these are collaborators, not sources.
- Give them a stage to celebrate. Create a live event where your community collaborators share their stories in front of a live audience. This audience may be composed of their neighbors, or there may be an opportunity to bring together disparate and divided parts of the community into an integrated whole.
How to produce an effective live event around community stories
As they became more deeply involved, producers became familiar with the places that held greatest meaning to people living in the community and incorporated them in the production. These live events were creative new platforms for public media story-making and distribution. They were also celebrations and, in some cases, a means for bringing disparate groups together for the first time.
- Bring together divided parts of the community around an urgent and common concern. Finding America events in Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Anacostia brought together disparate parts of the community — public media listeners alongside ex-cons, homeless people, people forced out of their homes, inner-city children whose family members and friends have been murdered. Their partnering stations used the airwaves to draw in a core audience of public media listeners, while the producers used their community collaborator networks to draw in people from the community. The result was a series of emotionally charged events that created a new model for diversifying public media’s audience and relevance.
- Empower youth to share their stories. In New Orleans, lead producer Abrams — who’s also a teacher — found teens to share stories around a central theme: When the Young Feel Old. The idea for the event originated with a story she told about Jahi Salaam, an 18-year-old poet who had been kicked out of several schools and ended up in the juvenile court system. The story featured a rap from Salaam, who said he was much older than his age because of all he had gone through. The Precious Lives: Beyond the Gunshots team in Milwaukee brought together youth around the topic of gun violence. Teens who had lost family members and friends to gun violence were invited to share their stories on stage in front of hundreds of audience members. “There’s this catharsis about sharing your own story, and the thing about doing it in front of a live audience is you’re in communion with the audience, and making that connection has a tangible value for people on both sides because you feel understood and heard,” said filmmaker Lichtenstein, one of the principal producers of the project.
- Use audio to transport people to a different time and place. Transport listeners to places they don’t have easy access to by taking them on a “soundwalk” — an event that’s similar to a museum tour but takes place outside. Frontier of Change lead producers Isaac Kestenbaum and Josie Holtzman created one that transported people to Shaktoolik — a remote Alaskan village that’s at risk of being swept into the sea due to climate change — through sound-rich audio stories. The soundwalk, which took place outside the Anchorage Museum, lasted 30 minutes — the amount of time it would take to walk the length of Shaktoolik.
- Create conditions that give new meaning to familiar geography. Invite community members to take a bike ride to places of historical significance hidden in plain sight. Invisible Nations’ Allison Herrera created a bike ride in Tulsa with tour guides who included a historic and cultural preservation specialist, Creek citizens, and the descendent of a prominent Creek family. Herrera picked all the stops and interviewed the tour guides, who shared stories of cultural significance. A forthcoming podcast based on their stories and the overall tour will be released this fall. Herrera collaborated with a local organization, Tulsa Hub, which sponsored the event, designed the tour route, and provided bikes (for a small donation) for those who needed them.
- Tap into community social spaces to reach new listeners. Invite people to step on stage and share their stories at a place that is familiar, fun-filled, and inviting. Homefront: Fort Drum had success with this at a local drive-in theater, where military families helped shed a new light on the Army’s most deployed base. For many attendees, this was their first exposure to public media. The audience, said NCPR’s Sommerstein, was “full of different faces. It was a different socioeconomic profile; it was not the typical public radio profile. This was definitely a cohort that didn’t know about us or wasn’t regularly listening to us.” In Baltimore, The Rise of Charm City’s Stacia Brown organized a party in a part of town that public media typically doesn’t reach, and gave people a chance to celebrate their community. Her skate party at Shake and Bake Family Fun Center — a West Baltimore institution that’s been around for more than 30 years — attracted people who might not otherwise come together to celebrate, Brown said: “Some listeners have expressed to us that their minds have been changed about visiting places they had previously prejudged, like Shake and Bake. We’re reinforcing community pride.”
Identifying and sustaining a “green shoot” of innovation
Central to the pact between AIR, its lead producers, and station partners was to create something that would endure beyond the incubation phase of the work. Being intentional at the start is essential if you want to avoid a “one-off” experiment. The other key component is to be laser-focused on what’s working along the way, feed those things, stitch them into the larger structure or operation, and follow where they take you.
- Know what’s working and what’s not. Focus on what is life-giving about a project, and put your energy there. Make a list of the strongest aspects of the project, the resources they took, and the impact and/or reach they had. If you’re working with a newsroom, think about how and whether they align with its goals, strategy, and mission. This is a good thinking exercise that will help you make a stronger case for sustaining it.
- Identify pockets of continuity. To sustain a project, you don’t have to necessarily continue it in its entirety. As an alternative and perhaps more practical approach, determine which aspects of it were the strongest and most successful and consider how you will continue cultivating them. This may mean sustaining a relationship, or continuing to have a presence at a particular location in the community. Ask yourself questions such as: What will it take? What would success look like? And what’s reasonable, given our capacity as an organization?
- Expect predictable excuses. It’s easy to say: “We can only keep this project going if we hire someone to work on it.” It’s harder to seek creative alternatives to sustainability. Figure out how the green shoots align with the work you’re already doing so that you can more easily incorporate them into your workload without feeling pressured to add more items to your already busy to-do list.
- Determine what success looks like. Find an organized way of executing your project. Once you’ve identified the green shoots you want to cultivate — and how you’ll do it — create a growth chart with corresponding goals. What does success look like, and how will you measure it over time? After six months, for instance, what will have changed as a result of the cultivation? Having the answers to these questions will help you make a stronger case for continuing the project.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate. Create a plan to hold yourself and your newsroom accountable. Have monthly check-ins with your manager or community collaborators to assess what’s working (and what’s not working) and to troubleshoot potential challenges. Invite other colleagues into the dialogue and ask for suggestions, ideas, and feedback. Identifying and sustaining green shoots is an iterative process that takes time, buy-in, and commitment. When done well, the cultivation of these green shoots can create a newsroom culture of innovation — one that paves the way for enduring change.