Highlights from the DC Storytelling System

From 2018-2020, the DC Storytelling System has been collecting local neighborhood stories directly from members of the community. Over the past two years, we’ve collected dozens of recordings that capture the history of DC and what it’s like to live in this city. Today, we would like to take a moment to share a couple favorites.

Clip #1: Phil Muse, Architect

Listen to Phil Muse, who works as an architect in Chinatown, and who saw the exhibition in person.

One simple goal of our system was to offer a means for gathering reflections on the show. We also posted callers’ stories to the hotline alongside excerpts from “A Right to the City” that were chosen by the show’s curators.

Clip #2: Godson of a Film Legend

This story was recorded at the Adams Morgan Day Festival.

The caller reveals he is the godson of legendary DC film producer  “Topper” Carew (who was the creator of the hit TV series “Martin” starring Martin Lawrence, and behind hits like “DC Cab”). The caller shares memories of living, participating and playing music in the Adams Morgan community. The story was recorded live at the annual Adams Morgan Day Festival (where we brought a payphone!).

Topper Carew had already been featured in the Smithsonian show. However, the godson’s story revealed new details of how the family had persisted, and how the legend was being retold — including at street festivals and in ordinary conversation. In practice, our storytelling system simultaneously elevates some of the museum exhibition’s core stories to broader distribution, even as it makes for a more participatory process of hearing feedback on the stories and understanding some of their impact.

Clip #3: Shepherds of Shaw

Knowing the local neighborhood history can create a sense of place and collective identity. For D.C. resident John E. Richardson, Jr., his local church community in Shaw created a connection and identity that has made a lasting impact on his life.

The caller introduces the Shepherds of Shaw, a group of African American pastors in the Shaw neighborhood who played a pivotal role in providing affordable housing to their congregation and the wider community. The recording is a good example of how our system provides residents with a way to add their own frame to local history, and in their own voices. Such callers bring their own analysis of how local church leaders participated in creating a better community through community and housing development.

Clip #4: Linda Horton on Chinatown (and falling in love)

In this story, the love of a city and a specific person connect Linda Horton to D.C. — and Chinatown.

The story is a reminder of the many layers of connection and identity that are bound to neighborhoods, family, and identity. Callers who see their own family in the exhibition may be particularly motivated, and their reflections in turn bring new networks of interest. We see the storytelling system as a way of making more of these ties explicit by continuing to listen after the exhibition opens, and across institutions (like our listening stations at the front desk of DC libraries).

Clip #5: Betty B. of Brookland on 50 years of change

In this story, longtime D.C. Resident Betty Barksdale shares her story of Brookland as a changing neighborhood identity over 50 years.

Gentrification shifts the physical and mental landscape of a community. In this call, Betty describes how she moved to Brookland in 1964 and some of how it has changed due to urban renewal, as well as reminders of how modern institutions like Providence Hospital were once farmland. Local stories like Betty are important for historical preservation and creating community-led narratives.

Clip #6: Mt. Pleasant Library

We were proud to install storytelling phones in the DC Public Library. In this story, a library patron shares how one library (the Mt. Pleasant branch) created a sense of belonging for her, tracing back to the the 1980s.

Libraries were just one of our “hubs” for storytelling. Taken as a group, we see the storytelling system as a kind of infrastructure for listening and sharing — to help situate history more immediately in community life across civic institutions.

Thank you to everyone that has called into the hotline and shared their stories.

This project was made possible thanks to our incredible collaborators. Thank you to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, DC Public Library, the Leimert Phone Company, the Smithsonian Women’s Committee, American University’s School of Communication, the AU Humanities Truck, and the AU Playful City Lab.

New voices? Counting photos? Reflections from Adams Morgan Day 2019

A primary hope for our storytelling system is to reach new audiences beyond museum and library walls. Did we do it? How many people participated? One of our researchers shares a few observations from our big outreach at Adams Morgan Day last month.

A quick panorama of our tent, Humanities Truck with exhibition content, and the stage we powered with the truck.

On the beautiful Sunday day afternoon, I walked the Adams Morgan Day festival speaking with the community about the Smithsonian “Right to the City” exhibition — and our storytelling system.

Our approach and the idea of the exhibition were well received. The average person on the street seemed amazed and pleased to hear that such an exhibition exists that tells the stories of the city while also providing a platform for ordinary residents to share their stories.

Most had not been to the museum for the exhibition. Nearly 90% had not visited the museum in the prior two years (88% of the 112 people surveyed). To avoid listening to the choir, we primarily spoke with attendees away from the booth, who I spoke to while walking the festival.

One resident felt ashamed of not visiting but seemed relieved to hear about the upcoming re-opening scheduled for later this month.

A significantly higher percentage of attendees had been to a neighborhood library in the same time period (60%). This affirms our hope that the satellite exhibitions in a handful of libraries were a good idea.

Overall, awareness of the exhibition — including from press, the museum and libraries — was still only at 81% of attendees.

Several residents left testimonies during the event. (We had listening stations in several places in the neighborhood.) What did they sound like? Here is one excerpt:

“….I am from DC and have lived here my whole life. I am Ethiopian, African American and African muslim. Many people don’t know about this culture that comes with our people… and the making of this Chocolate City…”

– A local resident’s story, left during Adams Morgan Day

We were excited to spread history photos to attendees — by text message. (Each photo was chosen by the Smithsonian’s curator for the exhibition to help tell a key story in the neighborhood’s history that relates to its identity today.) Between our history map and raffle, more than 210 people requested history photos during the event. Some repeatedly asked the automated hotline to send them another (and we hope they shared them with friends). After the event, one benefit of the digital system was that we could follow-up with everyone that engaged and provide a link to the exhibition, and instructions on how to request more photos.

Much of our research is focused on the circulation of stories, but as these basic metrics show, our presence at street events does reach a new audience for the exhibition — and a good number of residents left with a history photo on their cell phone as a calling card to learn more.

Photo: Tambra Raye Stevenson

This post was contributed by Tambra Raye Stevenson, who is a Ph.D. student and research assistant at American University School of Communication in Washington, DC, with feedback from the team at The Playful City Lab.