Developing storytellers strengthens community

Developing storytellers strengthens community

Originally published on The Columbia Daily Tribune website

Journalism should strengthen the communities it serves and help the members of those communities lead better lives.

Journalists believe an informed citizenry leads to a stronger democracy, that they should speak truth to power, give voice to the voiceless, stand up for the average man and woman, uncover wrongdoing and shine a light in dark places. Journalists do this in many ways: newspapers, television, websites, mobile, words, pictures, video, audio, interactive graphics, data journalism/visualization, documentaries and books. But these are actualizations of the substance: storytelling. Journalists use all of the above to create powerful story experiences, but they are typically of modest value without a compelling story.

Many stories come from journalists and their editors, but many of the best stories come from members of our communities — often told through and by a journalist.

It is in the best interest of journalism to encourage and empower more storytellers from our communities, especially from those segments of our communities that traditionally struggle to provide opportunities to develop those skills and share their stories. We need more journalists, not fewer; we need storytellers from places the rest of us might not be familiar with. Think deeper, richer. Every community has neighborhoods, not all alike. Every community has multiple communities of interest: religion, sports, art, culture, education, music, books, gardening and more.

This brings me to Talk Story, Write Story. Many successful people, recognizing they’ve had a good life — likely with the help of mentors and family — decide to give back to the communities they love. That’s where Tad Bartimus and Dean Wariner come in. They didn’t have to do any of this. But 18 years ago, starting with one struggling student, they happened onto something they quickly realized gave sustenance to both the giver and the receiver. Since then, they have worked with more than 300 students in three states, trying to help all of them write their way into college and earn scholarships to pay for it.

Imagine if even a few of these 10 Talk Story, Write Story students at Hickman High School go on to successful careers and lives. Might they, too, someday find a desire to give back to the community from which they came? Might they someday help Columbia — or at least segments of Columbia — become a better place and help the people in that community live better lives? Might this create a virtuous circle of continually strengthening our community? And isn’t this doable in any city or town?

Talk Story, Write Story fits my perception of what journalism should be: strengthening community and helping its people live better lives. That should fit nicely into the vision of local news media across the country. It provides the added benefit of building bridges and connections into underserved segments of a community. Trust is a key element, and often a challenge, for journalists today. A program like Talk Story, Write story delivers on this as evidenced by the comments of the 10 Columbia students elsewhere in these pages.

I hope other local news organizations consider adopting the Talk Story, Write Story program. It is a volunteer project with little expense or cash outlay. That’s why I joined the other members of the Reynolds Journalism Institute fellowship committee in inviting Tad and Dean to Mizzou this year. It was seven-days-a-week work for them from Sept. 1 until April 30, when the fellowship ended. It also was a ton of work for the volunteer mentors and the Columbia Public Schools partners — especially Hickman counselor Todd Maher — but I believe we all feel the possibilities for these students and our communities are well worth it.

Top photo Nate Brown / RJI. Student Tameka Stennis, left, with her mentor, Annelle Whitt.


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