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Philanthropy Thought Leadership

The Power of Community Storytelling

By: Kim Addie, Senior Director, Place-Based Initiatives, United Way of Greater Atlanta
Mariann Martin, Community Engagement Director, Canopy Atlanta

The section under race on my mother’s birth certificate says white. That struck me because although my mom is fair skinned and probably could pass for a white woman, she was far from white. In fact, my mother is a third-generation Latino woman whose parents, my grandparents, migrated from Puerto Rico. If anyone were to pull race statistics from the 1940s to better understand demographic shifts related to something like housing policy or healthcare utilization, the numbers would be skewed. My mom relayed that during that time, the option to select “Puerto Rican” was not a possibility. Digging deeper, we discussed our culture and the experiences my grandmother had as a Hispanic woman navigating an environment that failed to recognize us as a people. Too inconsequential to be categorized on one of the most important documents you first encounter in life. As you can imagine, there was many layers to this story – some painful, and some laughed through to mask the shame of being invisible. Her story and her experiences, navigating her proximity to whiteness and how she felt about the erasure of our existence would never make it into anyone’s headline. 

In my role as a leader at United Way of Greater Atlanta, I have been working to ensure that the voices and stories of community are an integral part of what informs our work and thinking around neighborhood change efforts. Resident stories are utilized as a tool to shape and drive solutions to many complex issues. And if we are to ensure the well-being of communities, we must consider each other’s lives and find ways to humanize its complexities. Otherwise, our failure to do so will create a power dynamic that reinforces what Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiek, calls “the danger of a single story”. She tells us how deeply power is embedded in the act of storytelling. From “how they are told, who tells them, when they are told, to how many stories are told. How do we increase the opportunities that communities have to tell their stories? What do we miss when we leave out the experiences of whole populations? These are all important questions that should trigger us to persistently think about who gets to tell the story and who is missing. To address this gap in understanding, we partner with organizations like Canopy Atlanta who focus on resident storytelling.

Our investment in Canopy Atlanta is designed to help us achieve collective community change by scaling efforts that center community voice and create continuous learning exchanges between residents, community stakeholders and our philanthropic peers. United Way’s Brighter Future strategy, Resident Leadership and Learning is designed to uncover solutions through deep and empathetic listening and documentation of lived resident experiences. This has helped us in gaining an understanding of how our political and social systems at a pragmatic level, simply do not work for everyone. The bureaucracy imposed in the name of accountability or process misses the mark of who these services are intended to serve or frankly, designed to exclude. A community with deficient and lackluster social, political and economic systems will prevent us from reaching our goal to improve child well-being. 

In true partner fashion, Mariann Martin with Canopy Atlanta will discuss how her organization’s work intersects with United Ways vison to expand and strengthen resident storytelling. 

The importance of diverse voices and nuanced perspectives is what informs community engagement work at Canopy Atlanta. We believe story telling begins with people and their own voices. As we worked in Clayton County, we listened to the stories of Vietnamese immigrants putting down deep roots in Forest Park and the Hispanic population advocating for a more equitable policing approach. We heard from many voices – Black, brown, white, and immigrant – how they wanted a more transparent government and better food options. Each of these voices helped to tell the broader story of Forest Park. 

 In addition to listening, at Canopy Atlanta we equip communities to tell their own stories. We provide journalism training for community members and pair them to work with more experienced story tellers. What emerges out of this process is complex and nuanced and sometimes messy and beautiful. It is a picture of a community as they see themselves, not as they are seen. This process also allows residents to view their own communities differently. They are more aware of what is happening down the street, and sometimes they begin to attend neighborhood meetings or continue to write and work in their communities. Many times, the relationships that happen throughout the process are more important than even the story telling. As Darryl Holliday, cofounder at Chicago’s City Bureau notes, “Journalism isn’t just a career path, or a business, or a ‘pillar of democracy’; it’s the best tool we have to shape civic infrastructure and fuel the equitable revitalization of our communities.”


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