Storytelling as a Community Engagement Tool

“Stories give shape to experience and allow us to go through life unblind. Without them, the stuff that happens would float around in some glob and none of it would mean anything. Once you have a version of what happened, all the other good stuff about being human can come into play. You can laugh, feel awe, commit a compassionate act, get mad, and want to change things.” Norman Maclean, Author

Storytelling is a powerful catalyst for connecting people to each other and places. These types of connections are essential ingredients for positive change through community and economic development. Stories are a useful lens for collectively examining and formulating the necessary steps to actualize the next generation of our neighborhoods and districts.

This last February, I led a panel discussion on this topic  for the Breakfast Dialogue Series hosted by Citizens Coordinate for Century 3. Speakers from different cities around the San Diego region shared how community stories are both informing and being transmitted through new forms of housing, parks and restored open spaces, revitalized neighborhood centers, and visual and performing arts.

During the ensuing dialogue with attendees, I began thinking about the potential for employing storytelling as a public participation tool in other areas. Instead of starting off discussions with the standard questions of vision, goals, needs and issues, we could ask people to share stories. Imagine people swapping stories about why a place is important to them, a recent event that affected their perspective or a local landmark that holds strong memories. In fact, the project launch could begin with a “Community Storyfest.” The end result could include answers to supplement the standard visioning questions. Equally important, and maybe more, would be the ensuing high level of shared understanding and empathy, which would go a long way in navigating the hard work of achieving common ground on new policy initiatives. It seems like storytelling is a new tool worth putting in your public participation toolkit. Give it a shot!