How Storytelling Creates Understanding

An interview with storytelling thought leader Shanai Matteson of Water Bar & Public Studio, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Tell us about yourself. How did you find yourself as a storytelling ambassador?

Shanai Matteson of Minneapolis
Shanai Matteson of Minneapolis

“I’m an artist, a cultural organizer, a writer, a mom. I live in northeast Minneapolis, which is a neighborhood (like all of Minneapolis) that is close to the Mississippi River, and in the Mississippi Watershed. I grew-up in a very small town, population of about 100, also on the Mississippi River. My mom was a farm girl who never really left the town where she was born, and my dad was a musician and artist who traveled a lot in his youth, touring with bands. I think the push and pull between the two of them had a big part in shaping my own inclinations as a storyteller, and a reluctant city-dweller. I love living where I live now, but I grew-up in a place and with people who lived a lot closer to land and water. They weren’t necessarily environmentally conscious, but they understood that their lives were intimately shaped by nature, and as a kid I spent a lot of time outside. When I moved to the city, I used to get very nervous when there were storms, because I couldn’t see the horizon line or which way the clouds were moving. My introduction to storytelling came early. I had a big family that told stories around kitchen tables and bonfires and a dad who wrote and performed music, and was always coming and going with stories from tour, or from something he’d heard along the way. When I think about storytelling, I think about its common origins and purposes. We tell stories to understand and communicate.”

How is storytelling bringing people together in Minneapolis?

“What I’ve been most interested in, lately, are those places and people and projects that are creating space for storytelling to happen as a means of building more equitable and resilient communities, by encouraging storytelling for and about essential aspects of life. There’s a local artist I really admire, for example, named Amoke Kubat. She started an organization called Yo Mama! Mothering Mothers Institute, and she leads a series of Yo Mama! get-togethers for women that she calls the “art of mothering” workshops. There are always an art activity, and women of all ages can come and go – it’s very informal, and always welcoming and real. What happens in that space that Amoke and the other women create together is a lot of storytelling – while they work on creative projects. And because it’s women, and what connects them is this broad theme of mothering, the stories and conversations are very personal and always get to the heart of what’s on everyone’s minds: How do we sustain ourselves, our children, and our communities in dark and often violent times? These kinds of projects give me hope, because they are not just projects. They’re living examples of new (but very old) ways of relating to each other and living in place and community.”

What role do artists, musicians, and cultural organizations play in connecting people?

“I think more than anything, artists and musicians  – the good ones – remind people that culture is essential to all of our lives. We tell stories, and we make music because it’s how we explore the complex and common relationships we all have to place, to people, to the lives before our own, and to the futures we hope and fear. It’s not a boutique experience only for the wealthy ‘arts patrons’ – It’s not even only for people who call themselves artists. Many indigenous cultures don’t even have a word for ‘art’ – it’s just what people do. I’ve come to think of it as a kind of transmission that moves between us, across place and time, like a river – and those of us who are alive at this moment get to dip our toes in, swim, make waves . . .”

It seems like there’s a lot of real-world problems affecting people in the U.S. Is there really a need for storytelling right now?

“Absolutely. I think a lot of people (myself included) are searching for the stories that will help us to understand and find purpose in this moment in time. In some ways, the stories many of us know the best are failing to sustain us. For example: Stories about things like land, and water – what it means to be human, or to live among other people. A lot of us have grown up hearing stories that glorify individualism and control over nature. Many of the big problems that people talk about stem from these kinds of stories, and the way that we relate to land, water, and each other as a result. We have to think and act collectively now more than ever, and we need to accept and learn to love our interdependence. So yes, I think we need to be telling stories, and we also need to be asking ourselves and each other why stories matter. What are the stories we tell, and what other stories could we be telling?”

What advice can you give to people who are trying to make a difference right now in their communities?

“‘To change everything, start anywhere.’ I’ve got a postcard on my fridge that says this, and when I feel overwhelmed – like I’m not doing enough, or the right things – I remember that meaningful change happens slowly, and it can start anywhere, including very close to home. It can start with the way you relate to yourself and to the people around you. Many of us feel disconnected from the the places where we live, because we don’t really know our place, or because so many of our relationships are transactional: We give money, get food; We give money, water comes out a tap; We give money, get an education, etc. Making a difference can start with questioning the stories we’ve been told about how we’re connected to things like food, water, place, culture. To me, that’s what it means to be engaged – to look and listen and feel, to question and to continually create. There are formal mechanisms of political organizing and action – getting involved in local government and advocacy for example – and it’s never too late to do that too! But I suspect that what really keeps us committed to the places and things we care about, is how well we know those places, and whether or not we recognize that our lives depend upon things like land, and water, place, culture.”

What long-term outcomes do you imagine might come out of projects like Be Here: Main Street

“One of the things that is difficult about this kind of work is that a lot of the impacts are personal, or ripple outward in ways that are difficult to track. People tell a story, or they hear a story, and it changes their perception. How that will impact the decisions they make over time, or how they relate to place, is impossible to measure. My hope in all of this work is that we are encouraging people to see the importance of relationships – to other people, to the land and water on which they depend, to the cultural histories and future of the places they live and love – and to get involved in telling the stories that will shape the future. Over time, my bigger hope is that this relational way of being becomes the norm, and more people live as if their very lives depended on things like clean water, air you can breathe, the well-being of their neighbors. I think a lot can happen when we change the stories we tell about ourselves and our places. The future isn’t written.” [Be Here: Main Street is a storytelling partnership with MuseWeb Foundation and the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street program.]

What current projects are you working on?

“I’m working on a lot of things that I hope are all connected. I’m helping to develop Water Bar & Public Studio as a space for artists and others to connect, create, collaborate – all to serve water, in many ways and forms. I’m also working with MuseWeb on the Be Here: Main Street project, which I love, because it is getting me outside of Minneapolis and into conversation with people around Minnesota. I love hearing stories about the connections people have to place and water. When I hear those stories, I feel a sense that we are all in this together, which isn’t a feeling I get anymore reading the newspaper. As an artist, I’m trying to carve out more time for creative writing and printmaking, which are things I do in order to connect with my own stories. It’s not a project, but I’m also raising two young kids, and they definitely impact the way I see myself in the world, and the choices I make about what I do with my time in community.”


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