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Storytelling through Creative Expression

Artist Jane Golden felt like an anthropologist when she led the effort to help solve Philadelphia’s growing graffiti problem. That was in 1984.

Today, the Mural Arts program that started as part of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network helps around 2,000 young people each year, many of whom live in communities ravaged by crime and drugs. North Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, a troubled area in the “heart of the opioid crisis,” Golden said, is one example.

There are more than 3,800 pieces of public art thanks to Golden’s leadership and passion for the program as Mural Arts’ founder and executive director.

“We started to deliver art as a city service,” Golden said. “Murals make art accessible to everyone. When you hear Mural Arts, I want you to think not about art, but about equity, access, opportunity, and potential.”

The murals are museum-quality, Golden said, but the larger value is that the murals foster a sense of pride in the communities and instill a sense of self-worth in individuals who pick up paint brushes to tell their stories.

Students share their Cleveland stories

Seven high school students from Lincoln-West High School tell their stories in Somewhere in Cleveland: The Cleveland Fed Scholars Story Project. The project gave them the opportunity not only to write, but also to gain work experience, personal finance and public speaking skills, and confidence to help prepare them for their lives beyond high school.

“It was important to create an environment of trust,” said Jennifer Ransom, who manages the Cleveland Fed’s Education and Museum Outreach Department. These students come from communities where crime is common and poverty is persistent. Their stories are filled with hard truths, yet the stories also contain their dreams and hopes for Cleveland—the city and its people.

Dialogues over dinners

“Storytelling is an opportunity to be surprised,” said Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant of the Minneapolis Health Department. The best stories start with the “power of a good question,” she said. “How would you describe a good meal?” is one question the health department’s project VOICE, or Valuing Our Individual Cultures through Engagement, asks.

VOICE finds the connections among culture, food, and health by going straight into communities. Musicant takes her team into the American Indian, African American, Latino, Hmong, and Somali communities of Minneapolis to share a meal and start a conversation.

Musicant praised the “tremendous power” of storytelling and how it helps people change their behaviors. Many improved their cooking and eating habits, for example.

In her view, the next step is to extend the conversation in the community and think of new ways to apply storytelling to different topics and to create programs and policies.


Quotable:

“The thing about storytelling and the arts is affirming our humanity. No matter where we come from, we want to be seen as having equal worth and equal value,” said Derrick Darby, a University of Michigan professor teaching and writing about social and political philosophy, who spoke during the conference.

“We can build bicycle paths and change the food in stores, but we need to really tap into the wisdom in the community,” said Musicant of the Minneapolis Health Department.

“I see at least 3 people every day standing up to stop the violence that goes on around here. I feel, know, and believe Cleveland will be great again because, if it comes down to it, I’ll be the difference maker in this world filled with violence,” writes Francis, one of 7 high school students who authored a book through the Cleveland Fed Scholars program.

“New dream, new city. I came here with the hope to do something big,” another student, Deepak, shares in his chapter of the book. Deepak, who was raised in Nepal, is new to Cleveland, and his dreams include majoring in accounting in college.

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Post-event Q&A

Some questions posed by audience members didn’t get answered during the Policy Summit. Here, they do get answered.

Regarding the power of a good question in storytelling, is there one question you never fail to ask?

Gretchen Musicant

Gretchen Musicant, Health Commissioner, Minneapolis Health Department: I try to ask a question that has a lot of room in it for different kinds of answers. This is an approach that is most likely to generate some kind of surprise answer—which is a good thing. For example, when we asked people to “tell me about a good meal,” I got answers that included descriptions of food, and I also got answers about who was present at a meal that made it a good meal.

What methods do you use to get individuals to trust your organization and the process enough to share their stories?

Musicant: Trust is a very important component of this work. One starts to build trust by showing up and then showing up again. Self-disclosure and transparency are also helpful.

Are there enough inspirational leaders to run such programs countrywide? The panelists seem to be very special people.

Musicant: Being involved in efforts that connect deeply with communities is in itself inspirational. I think we can build more interest in this type of work by inviting new folks to accompany those who are doing the work now so that they, too, can become inspired.