Written by Tyler French, Innovation and Partnerships Director of Story Tapestries
On October 5, 2019, a group of family, friends, new acquaintances, and strangers gathered at the Strathmore Mansion. We were there to share in poetry, storytelling, and conversations about race, difference, and connection. Holding together this constellation is the Amplify US! Initiative, a collaboration between Story Tapestries, Arts on the Block and Impact Silver Spring to unite the voices of the past with those of our future in a dynamic series of workshops, performances and community dialogue. Amplify US! is committed to furthering racial equity in Montgomery County by amplifying underrepresented voices, creating platforms for advocacy and connection, and bringing together community members for necessary conversations.
Amplify US! is a community-led initiative and, as such, is difficult to describe to anyone who hasn’t attended. It’s difficult to capture in words the feeling of the room. The conversations were not necessarily easy or without discomfort, but all were warm and caring. They felt urgent and necessary. Every person who showed up was meant to be there. People lingered longer than usual, already late for a Saturday evening. The performances and conversation created a kind of gravitational force and held us there.
Regie Cabico, Story Tapestries Master Teaching Artist, spoken word poet and performer, MCed the evening. He shared the stage with two professional performers, Jenny Lares and Dwyane B. and Story Tapestries youth and community members, Charles Stokes, Glory Egedigwe, Karina Gorham, and Mimi Hassanein. Each read poems or shared stories ranging in topics from immigration to our education system, the legacy of slavery in the United States, and spaces for finding joy and resilience. It was particularly striking to witness Glory’s excitement when she realized Jenny had performed for her when she was younger. Michelle Faulkner-Forson shared an excerpt from an in-process film project about Amplify US!, documenting the impact of these spaces for storytelling and listening.
The second half of an Amplify US! event flips the script, asking audience members to join in by having facilitated conversations with each other. Carolyn Lowery of Impact Silver Spring facilitated the conversations, asking audience members to share with each other answers to questions about racial identity, moments of discomfort or disconnect, and moments of connection. Primed by the performances, audience members leapt into conversation with each other, discussing aspects of their lives rarely shared with strangers. The conversations engaged intergenerational connections across race and nationality and the event spilled over its end time as audience members were reluctant to end their conversations.
Why this urgent need for dialogue?
In 2017, Montgomery County’s Police reported an 26% increase in bias incidents compared to the prior year. Of the incidents reported, roughly half were motivated by bias toward religion and half were motivated by bias toward a race or ethnicity. Story Tapestries took this report as a call to action and collaborated with other local organizations, including the Strathmore and Impact Silver Spring, to call upon our wide networks of concerned individuals to begin meeting and form a Task Force. These community meetings led to the design of what we now call the Amplify US! Initiative.
The statistics highlighted in the Montgomery County Police Department report not only guide the Amplify US! initiative but also filter into our programming across the county. We choose artists in whom youth can see themselves – so we’ve increased the number of male artists involved in these programs to serve as role models and mentors. We’ve also collaborated with organizations that serve the demographics most frequently involved in bias incidents – for example partnering with Latin American Youth Center and their GED program and with the Correctional Facility. Our artistic and administrative staff have been trained to lead dialogue circles and use conflict resolution techniques to support their ability to infuse this aspect into every program we lead and into how we operate and collaborate.
The October 5 performance kicked-off this year’s Amplify US! season. Starting in January, Amplify US! will offer free workshops in communities across Montgomery County. Participants in those workshops will work with artists in multiple art forms and a facilitator to cultivate and share their stories. Similar to the community members described above, those who wish to will have an opportunity to perform in free public performances alongside professional artists after this season’s workshops conclude in Spring 2020.
We want the texture of your voice and your experience to enrich our next conversations. To find out more about upcoming events for Amplify US! and Story Tapestries, please visit our website storytapestries.org – or reach out directly to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The October 5 workshop and performance event were made possible by funding from:
Poets & Writers