Storytelling and Community Planning

Guest Blogger: Casey Mathern, Curator of Objects and Exhibits at the Goodhue County Historical Society, a small regional museum located in Red Wing, Minnesota, on the edge of the Driftless Area.

“Be Here: Main Street came to Red Wing shortly after the museum hosted Water/Ways, the Smithsonian Museum On Main Street exhibition and engagement initiative. I served as the project manager, and my colleague James Clinton and I worked closely with the Minnesota Humanities Center during the 16-month-long planning and development phase of our local hosting initiative.

A group of people from Red Wing, Minnesota, gather around a table to watch a video and chat.At one planning retreat held at the Humanities Center, we experienced a water tasting presented by Water Bar, the water quality and storytelling project conceived by Shanai Matteson and her partner, known collectively as Works Progress Studio. The experience was fortuitous, as Shanai became the state coordinator for Be Here: Main Street in Minnesota. Shanai reached out to us and other Water/Ways host communities to launch the next phase of the pilot project. Organizing our first workshop as the Local Storytelling Coordinator (LPC) reunited me with Water/Ways partners, collaborators, and introduced me to new faces.

We gathered on a lunch hour in May at the Red Wing Ignite building, a collaborative workspace and community center. After Shanai and I briefly introduced ourselves and the project we gave attendees the floor to introduce themselves and share the possibilities they envisioned for cultural storytelling in Red Wing. Valuable feedback was offered about which platforms and applications would work best for Red Wing. Using an interface that story gatherers are familiar with minimizes the learning curve. After we shared the nation-wide story map from the Be Here website, attendees felt that creating a local “hub” to host Red Wing stories was a better fit for the community’s needs.

Apart from technology and hosting concerns, the biggest question on attendees’ minds–and my own–was how the stories could be used. One attendee reminded us of a series of professionally-produced short films about Red Wing’s architectural landmarks that were created by the local historic preservation commission and hosted on YouTube. The short films illustrated to them how online storytelling can be well done but underutilized–if not forgotten–by residents and visitors alike. In turn, the group agreed that in order for Be Here to be relevant and sustainable to Red Wing, it would need to help address local needs or supplement the work that organizations were already doing.

Hispanic Outreach has an immediate application for Be Here and a pressing community need to get immigrants’ stories recorded and heard.

Members of the organization have been visiting area congregations and sharing their experiences face-to-face in order to build empathy with members of the non-Hispanic majority population of Red Wing. I followed up with staff members who attended the workshop, and they were adamant about storytellers’ confidentiality and the possibility of sharing anonymous stories from the most vulnerable members of the community. Providing English translations will be imperative since many listeners who need to hear stories the most don’t speak Spanish. Students and volunteers already involved with Hispanic Outreach programs will be invited to attend future workshops and gather stories at upcoming community events.

The organization Live Healthy Red Wing also has an immediate application for Be Here as a means of collecting qualitative feedback during the planning process of the Red Wing 2040 initiative, a twenty-year community plan that incorporates residents’ feedback. Live Healthy is involved in this process in order to discover barriers to access in the community.

To celebrate National Night Out on August 1, Live Healthy has already organized volunteer delegates to gather feedback in each of the city’s wards and neighborhoods. They have agreed to partner with Be Here to use this event as an opportunity for story collection. Beyond gathering feedback, staff believe Be Here has potential as a tool for streamlining community planning and for placemaking initiatives with its location-aware capabilities.

Story collection has the potential to enhance the mission-related work that so many Red Wing institutions already do.

Organizations who serve the public as keepers of Red Wing’s cultural heritage and as storytellers themselves–the Goodhue County Historical Society, the Pottery Museum of Red Wing, the Visitor and Convention Bureau, the Sheldon Theatre–host thousands of annual visitors. These visitors in turn share their own reflections and information about the area with staff, but without a means of immediately capturing those stories, this intangible culture cannot be widely shared or materially preserved. Representatives from these organizations, especially volunteers and front desk staff who work with the public the most, could be trained to use the technology in order to gather spontaneous conversations, impressions, and anecdotes. An educator from the Red Wing Environmental Learning Center shared how she could apply digital storytelling as a way for students to record what they’re learning and doing for parents to listen to, and to use as a promotional tool for the center’s programs that would complement existing word of mouth advertising.

The Red Wing Ignite building in Minnesota, a small community building.
The Red Wing Ignite building in Minnesota.

Since the first workshop, Shanai and I have had productive check-ins and I have followed-up with staff from Live Healthy Red Wing and Hispanic Outreach. We agreed that attendees were enthusiastic that the next step needs to be a technology-oriented training workshop that will get at the nuts and bolts of recording stories and making them available online. Our second workshop will be held July 27th at the Red Wing Ignite building, and our priorities will be training participants how to use their smartphones to record and post stories, introducing the SoundCloud page, and learning more about each other’s projects.

Shanai asked me to identify upcoming community and cultural events where we could have a presence and gather stories ourselves. Red Wing hosts annual events like River City Days in August and the Festival of the Arts in October. I learned through Hispanic Outreach that they are organizing the local Hispanic Heritage Festival, approaching on September 17. This event would be a great opportunity for story collection, and organization members were enthusiastic about having a stationary storytelling booth, provided we could organize one in time. We agreed to set up a SoundCloud “hub” that would aggregate stories from partner’s social media accounts using a hashtag. I will likely maintain and curate this account in the short term as the LPC, though I’m interested in co-curation as the project progresses and in the interests of inclusion, sustainability, and succession.”

Connecting Business and Culture: Part II

What if cultural organizations and local businesses promoted each other and worked together to bring in patrons?

Part of our Be Here program philosophy is the idea that cultural organizations should not hesitate reach out to local businesses and engage them in a way that is mutually beneficial to both. That can sometimes be difficult for small museum staff if resources are scarce and time is even more precious. But, there are some strategies to make the process less time consuming. Afterall, there is nothing to lose, and incredible partnerships to gain.

We know the local businesses we want to target, but to whom should we speak?

Start with connections. Go down the list and ask people in your own organization if anyone has a connection with that company. Warm introductions are the best place to start. Outside of those personal connections, determine:

  • If the company has a Community Engagement Officer or a Foundation? This is often the best point of contact for your “discovery” meeting.
  • If not, would someone in the marketing department be willing to take a 15- minute meeting with you?
  • Your Chamber of Commerce may have a good sense of the current business ecosystem. Best to approach them after you have already begun meetings with companies, so as to demonstrate progress.

How do we make the initial “pitch”?

In making the request, align your project’s values and their company values: positive community impact.Practice the description of the Be Here: Main Street project (or other program) so that you can concisely describe it in 90 seconds or less. Time it! This is your elevator pitch (or in business speak, your “value proposition” in terms of how you impact the community.)

  • State that you are scheduling meetings with the businesses in your community as your “discovery process” in forming corporate partners and corporate sponsorships.
  • State that “you and your company were recommended because of (x, y, z).” Be sure to include any connections you made by going through the above process.

> Read part 1 of “Connecting Business and Culture”  . . .

How and Where Do We Get Them Talking?

Shanai Matteson (right) sits at the Water Bar at the MW17 Conference in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Be Here: Main Street initiative has been rolling in Minnesota for a few months now. Our partners at Water Bar & Public Studio are working with people in small-town communities to record personal perspectives about local places and waterways, happenings, and natural resources–all in an effort to balance out who’s perspectives matter. We often hear that history is written by the victors, and until the dawn of the digital age, that was largely true. But now, armed with smartphones and access to platforms where millions (even billions) of people could be listening, we all have the ability to publish our versions of what happened and why it was meaningful.

Equally as important with this project, is the acknowledgement that voices of small-town, rural residents are as valuable as those of people living in large metropolitan areas–that no matter where you live, what your economic status or level of education, your story can help enrich the collective understand of a time or place.

With this in mind, the question our team often grapples with is HOW to get people talking.

In many places, particularly those where “outsiders” are seen as just that–as unwanted transplants who may try to impose their agendas on an unwilling community–the most critical step is to build trust.

That trust starts with a lot of listening, no judgement, and the idea that the team is there to learn. Our Minnesota state coordinator for the project, Shanai Matteson of Water Bar & Public Studio, is the right gal for the job. She’s a consummate listener and knows how to get people to open up.

One lesson she’s learned is that people have to see themselves as potential storytellers. If they don’t think their stories have value, they won’t contribute. Therefore, Shanai emphasizes the importance of lived experiences and personal perspectives, not just historical dates, names, and events. She reminds people that they don’t have to have a degree or letters behind their names to have an opinion, to be observant or share something poignant.

The second thing that we’ve discovered is that where you’re asking them to tell their story matters. What type of social space are you in? Are you in the museum or out in the community? Are you in a formal space, like an office building or are you in a casual spot? Frequently, Shanai travels to the storyteller’s home turf, where they’re comfortable. In some cases, she’s made a pilgrimage to meet people in the place that the story is about–that provides a real sense of context and draws out details that might otherwise be missed.

Shanai has found that people were more reluctant (and even a little antagonistic) in formal spaces that evoked process, bureaucracy, manners, and an established paradigm for proper behavior.

Those spaces might be an office or government building, an art museum, etc. It’s no surprise really. Would you let your guard down at the office or in a space where there are guards watching you?

So, what worked? The team held workshops in sort of neutral zone, a community center where they actually made a meal together and talked. The food helps. Making a meal helps. In it’s own right, there’s a sense of democratization there–everyone is part of the process. Nobody is being served.

Twitter post showing the words "Here in Lanesboro's living room, talking water and stories."

Shanai found that in this communal space, people just wanted to riff. They wanted to eat first, but they did want to talk. The stories just came.

Interestingly, churches (or other places of worship) are spaces that might be betwixt and between the formal and the casual. These are places that tend to nurture cultural and spiritual life. More so, they are familiar and safe to the people who may already be part of a community there. “We have been convening the group in Lanesboro, Minnesota, in the church basement, which is where people gather to eat and visit after church, and that has been a good space for this work to live,” says Shanai.

Whatever space you choose, get out into the community. Be among the people, not above the people or even beside them. Create a space where talking and opening up is natural, not forced. Only then, can the story collector begin to think about building trust and turning on the recorder.

Shanai mused that some of the most fascinating stories (not yet recorded) happened at the pub later on. Two gentleman came in and said, “We just delivered a calf! We need a beer.”

Are pubs the next great collaborative partners for cultural organizations looking to build crowdsourced content? Let’s just say, the notion is brewing with possibilities.

Here are some other possible ways to get out in the community, build trust, and plant the seeds for collecting stories:

  • Convene a regular meeting group at a local bar, restaurant, bookstore, or community-oriented business.
  • Host a trivia night at a local bar or restaurant.
  • Have a regular booth / table at a farmer’s market or festival.
  • Be present at sporting events or community art shows.
  • Start a walking group where members can decide routes based on landmarks or experiences.
  • Participate in a local parade.
  • Within the museum or cultural organization, offer communal spaces where people can meet, use the Internet, eat or drink.