By Vivian Shinall
At a time when many throughout our community are coming together to spotlight and bear witness to the experiences of marginalized groups, one key part of the story may often go unheard: the voices of youth.
Since 2015, Stillwater nonprofit StoryArk has highlighted the powerful and diverse voices of the younger generation. This summer camp asks students in grades 6–12 “What’s your story?” and encourages them to express their experiences through different creative mediums.
“What’s really cool about this is that through this creative process they connect and collaborate with each other and also create original stories that impact the audience that hears them and really allows the audience to gain … empathy for the student experience,” says founder and Woodbury High School alum Stephani Atkins.
From the beginning, StoryArk was driven by student enthusiasm for creative expression. What began as Atkins substitute teaching a two-week creative writing course at a middle school transitioned into summer writing classes, initially including courses on how to write a novel, graphic novel and poetry.
“Student enthusiasm was so great that we created a youth executive board and said, ‘Okay, what do you want to do?’ And that really began our student-initiated, student-led process. From the beginning, we’ve been all about empowering youth to create an environment that feels safe to them, that is creative and vibrant, and empowering,” Atkins says.
What began as creative writing courses quickly blossomed into further forays into different mediums, which currently include podcasts, short films and a literary magazine, with the recent addition of songwriting courses. “Within just this last month actually, we connected with the band NUNNABOVE which has been a part of summer programming and will be a part of our festival, and [we hired] two of the members of the band … So that we can have storytelling through song and music, because that’s something a lot of kids have expressed interest in,” says Atkins.
While COVID-19 restrictions posed a serious obstacle for some organizations, StoryArk took the circumstances as an opportunity to foster a new type of creative space. One of the first actions the program took was to hire StoryArk alumni to be part of their “pre-professionals.” Atkins says, “Who better to determine how to build a vibrant virtual world than the students who [have been in it]?”
This new virtual approach allowed StoryArk to dream big, even connecting with industry professionals who agreed to advise and teach the students. Pre-professionals were the driving force behind selecting these professionals. For example, students in the film camp worked with Charles Carpenter, a TV actor and writer, Ski-ter Jones, who has been in 100 nationally syndicated commercials, and Emmy award-winning writer of Cheers, Frasier and The Simpsons, Ken Levine. “That just would not have happened in person. There’s no way we could have made that happen. But it’s so cool,” Atkins says.
Through the years, StoryArk participants have produced some incredible content that speaks to their unique experiences. One notable example is Carnation, a podcast that received Cultural Jambalaya’s 2019 Diversity Award. Developed by a group of Latinx students, the first episode features a narrative about a 17-year-old American girl, whose father was deported to Mexico. Because the father was the breadwinner, the remaining family members are plunged into poverty as a result of his deportation.
“That particular podcast … was empowering for the students who wrote it and produced it and acted in it. We played it for the families at the Cimarron Mobile Development and a couple of the parents were crying because as one of them said, ‘Nobody has shared a story of ours before,’” says Atkins.
In this vein, it’s clear that in the process of sharing experiences, a community is established that focuses on mutual understanding, inclusion and a deep desire to learn about the lived experience of peers. Former participants uphold a common sentiment in their testimonials: that StoryArk feels like a family. “It's like my second home. I love the chance to explore my own creative ideas and to help others share their stories as well,” says StoryArk alumni E. Nahkala.
This year, pre-professionals and participants alike grappled with the murder of George Floyd. In the wake of his death, and the resulting rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, StoryArk’s leadership fostered discussions about allyship. These discussions led to the creation of a page on their website dedicated to allyship and how to effectively support marginalized groups as a white person. Further, several students were inspired to create a short film, called Raise Your Voice, which highlights the importance of story in the context of the current moment.
“Storytelling is powerful because that’s what makes a difference in the world. If we don’t get our story across, don’t get our message across, nothing will evolve, nothing will change. We’ll be stuck in the past and all of our issues will stay issues and will never be resolved,” says pre-professional Emily Tamrat in the video.
Each year, participants share their final products with the community at the annual StoryArk Festival. Due to COVID-19, this year’s festival will be taking place online over Zoom on August 16th at 4 p.m. Admission is free, and viewers will enjoy original podcast episodes, short films and slam poetry featuring the band NUNNABOVE, comedian and alumni Peyton Zignego and Minneapolis actress Austene Van. “It’s going to be a very fun, interactive experience that I think will be very different from people’s usual experience over Zoom,” Atkins says.
For more information on the festival, or to see student work, visit storyark.org.
By the Numbers
100% of Podcast Camp participants are *BIPOC
50% of Film Camp participants are BIPOC
50% Creative Writing registrants are BIPOC
*BIPOC: Black, Indigenous and people of color