Snap Shots: Democratizing Engagement Through Sharing Stories

June 18, 2016
 Snap Shots: Democratizing Engagement Through Sharing Stories
“We’re often so busy doing that we forget to tell the story of our work.”

On Tuesday I traveled over the mountains to the Wenatchee Valley to an annual conference of conservation district staff. Window Seat Media was invited as a presenter to give a workshop in the communications and education track of the conference. Our workshop focused on the power and potential of community-driven storytelling to deeply engage our communities in our work. At the end of the workshop, one of the participants commented: “We’re often so busy doing that we forget to tell the story of our work.”

Absolutely! And why is telling our story important? In the age of information overload and electronic “friendships” how can telling our stories build “audience engagement”? I’ve been noodling on this question recently. How can we provide really meaningful opportunities for people to engage and, in turn, DO something to build resilience, identity and connection in our communities? How can we democratize our engagement to build commitment across socio-economic lines to find solutions to the most challenging problems?

One of the driving principles and values of Window Seat Media is experimentation. I’ve been curious about the role that community-driven oral history can play in building engagement and bringing diverse voices to the table, and I want to experiment with that idea. Last month I traveled to Portland to attend the Vanport Mosaic Festival. The Festival is“dedicated to capturing, celebrating, and preserving the experiences of those who lived in Vanport" during the flood of 1948 that destroyed Vanport and displaced the 13,000 residents (I think) who lived there. The weekend-long festival included film screenings of community produced oral histories, a play, an academic symposium, a walking tour, an exhibit, and Vanport resident reunion events. The events were not only sold out, the attendance was also the most diverse I’ve seen of any event I’ve attended in Portland. The project clearly resonated deeply across the city. It was a beautiful expression of community engagement across lines of difference to raise awareness about the diverse experiences of the residents who lived in Vanport during the flood.

Our sense of community and cultural identity is embodied and expressed through the physical places and spaces we construct and inhabit. What happens to a community’s sense of self when those spaces and places undergo significant transformation? What role can memory, story, and artifacts play in fostering resilience, building community, and sparking creative problem-solving across lines of difference during times of transition and change? Over the past few months, Window Seat Media has been collaborating with Evergreen State College faculty, Stephen Buxbaum, who teaches at the Grays Harbor campus, to design a series of events in Grays Harbor that will explore these questions with area residents.

The events will invite residents to participate in an inquiry about the built environment that follows the curricular design of Stephen’s course: Engaging with primary resources in the fall, community-driven oral histories the winter, and exploring contemporary issues in the spring. We will bring primary source materials to life in the fall along an interactive and participatory tour of places and spaces that hold special significance to the evolution of the Harbor. In the winter, we will perform stories from the Harbor and introduce residents to the value of community-driven oral history and the growing collection of 40 plus oral histories collected by Harbor student residents through Stephen's course. In the spring, community members will be invited to participate in a community conversation to share their concerns and hopes with local leaders regarding issues around housing and homelessness. Each term, students in the Community Connections Program will be invited to participate and showcase their learning and work with their community.

We were invited to submit an application for funding through Humanities Washington and are in the final stages of the application process. Keep your fingers crossed! I’m so curious to see where this project will take us and what will emerge.

Until soon,

Elaine Vradenburgh
Founder + Curator
​Window Seat Media