“I was born in prison. My mother had just been sentenced to 7 years. And by the time I was a freshman in high school, I was already addicted to crystal meth. People would look at me with disgust, my family in particular.”
“Life was hard for me growing up. I had no dad to look up to. I had no role model. My older brother was in and out of prison. I didn’t know what to do, so I started gang banging.”
What images come to mind about the characters making these statements?
Recently, the Not-For-Profit Network of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a storytelling workshop delivered by Barkada Circle. Does Your Mission Have a Compelling Voice? gave participants the opportunity to delve into the challenges they face in creating stories that engage their audience, especially potential donors. The overarching question was: “How do we determine who should be telling the story of our mission?”
The conversation centered around two videos about one organization’s mission. Fresh Lifelines for Youth is a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycle of violence, crime and incarceration of teens. One video was created in 2007 and the second in 2012. Both videos were done professionally. They tell the same story with overlapping characters, but they differ in how the story is told.
The first video begins with putting the teens in a negative light. The statements at the start of this blog entry are direct quotes from this video. Does this draw the audience into the narrative? It then introduces the adult staff describing the programs and their successes.
It’s clear that in this video, the organization is the voice and the hero because they are presented as the one with the ability to make change happen for the youth. “We have the answers and our programs work.” On the other hand, the youth are helpless and have lost all hope. What strikes me the most is that staffers are identified with their names and titles, but the video begins and ends with nameless teens. We are not given the opportunity to get to know them.
In its retelling, the story introduces the teens in a positive light so they appear to a wider audience as relatable characters. Then, in their own voice, they share their personal histories. We see them interacting and having real conversations with staff as they progress through the programs. We hear them contemplating their options and the consequences of their choices. We hear their aspirations. Their collective voice reflects the success of the programs.
In this version of the story, I am struck by the deeper insights shared by staff based on what they’ve learned from interacting with the teens. In my view, the adult staffers are clearly represented as the supportive structure that raises up the youth to be perceived by the audience as, in the words of Christa Gannon, Founder & Executive Director, “strong, resilient, and possess a spark of goodness that the rest of the world needs to see.”
Who is the new voice–the one with the power to move the story forward? Who now embodies the true meaning of the mission and its impact?
For more information about Fresh Lifelines for Youth, go to http://flyprogram.org. To find out more about the programs and upcoming events of the Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce Not-For-Profit Network, please contact Kara Carpenter, Programs Assistant, at (630) 544-3360 or visit the chamber’s website at www.naperville.net.
I recently had the pleasure of attending an artist talk by Lincoln Schatz,
a contemporary American artist, best known for his pioneering works that create portraits of people, places and processes utilizing video and software to collect, store, and display images. Schatz presented his latest multimedia project called The Network: Portrait Conversations where his lens focuses on the men and women who play pivotal roles shaping the daily workings of the United States. The Network is a snapshot of people, ideas, and power in Washington, D.C.
During the talk, the artist revealed to us how he designed the space in order to encourage his subjects to tell a more personal story. The set was surrounded by an entirely black background giving a great sense of depth, like being able to reach into the recesses of someone’s mind. Several cameras were set in a round, not only to capture many angles of the subject’s expression, but also to eliminate their feeling like they have to focus on the camera in front of them, or any camera for that matter. The subject can then be in the moment of the conversation.
Schatz did not ask leading questions. He was not interested in the politics and any specific aspect of it. His goal was to engage the person in a dialog that would reveal what matters to them: their legacy, their challenges and their aspirations. The artist interviewed a group of influential people, some of whom are seen in mainstream media on a regular basis, and some who almost never step into the limelight. But the common thread that weaves them together are their stories — their concerns, their values, their humanity.
Each video portrait was electronically tagged with key words based on the subject matter of the dialog in that particular video. The computer randomly selects matching key words which determines what videos are played in sequence. The sequence is never the same, making multiple connections and juxtapositions between these people of influence and the issues they talk about, therefore revealing multiple relationships and layers of relevance between their ideas, personal experiences and spheres of influence.
What I learned from the work of Lincoln Schatz sheds light on my journey to tell the story of a Chicago neighborhood that has gone through multiple transformations through the generations — a community of citizens, businesses and nonprofit organizations, a community diverse in every way, shape and form. I see an opportunity to provide an appropriate space and time for each individual to tell their own story, to not mislabel them, to not misrepresent them, to enable them to reach into their core and express who they truly are, to empower them to paint a clear picture of their legacy, challenges and aspirations so they can engage the viewer to join them in the change they envision for themselves and their community.
The Network was first presented as an installation at ConnerSmith Gallery in D.C. The installation consists of the generative video, video stills of all 89 sitters and the set on which the portraits were filmed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery which is now the installation’s permanent home.
You can find out more about The Network and other works of Lincoln Schatz at lincolnschatz.com.