by Jan Bateman, Jules Corriere, and Peggy Holman, with contributions from Vicki Lein
The Yarn Exchange Radio Program, in its seventh year, shares stories that cultivate a more cohesive community by drawing from its multigenerational and multicultural landscape. The ensemble cast, composed of community members, performs a monthly radio show on themes chosen by the cast, including Courageous Heroes, Strong Women, Veterans, Affrilachian Poets, and Unlikely Friendships. Farmers’ Lives is in development. Each radio show is recorded at a live performance held at the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The programs then are aired on our local public radio station, WETS-FM (89.5) and WETS-HD1, which extends the program’s reach from the 4,500 people in the town to 55,000 monthly listeners. The productions comprise the work of volunteer story gatherers, writers and editors who craft the shows. A core group, which has grown from about 10 to more than 100, supports and participates in Yarn Exchange. Stakeholders feel a sense of ownership, providing resources, both financial and physical. We’ve become a connector when local media is seeking diverse perspectives for a story.
Project Goals: Our stories have intrinsic value. We use the past as a reflective tool to connect with the present and the future. This is our own making-of-history — designed to restore the humanity that our culture has been giving up. Our goal is to bring people together across barriers and to build a stronger community through our shared stories and our understanding of each other. We strive to instill in our youth and in all others a sense of belonging.
Tools & Technology: Live performances are recorded by a sound engineer using a Mac computer, appropriate microphones and an old-fashioned foley for sound effects. The recording is sent to our public radio station where the live show of about 1:15 is edited to one hour for broadcast. The program airs the last Wednesday of each month on East Tennessee State University’s public radio station WETS-FM (89.5) and WETS-HD1, and can also be heard at www.wets.org streaming. On the live show, musicians play two sets (trimmed to one set for radio). To avoid copyright issues, we encourage musicians to play original music. Eventually our work will be produced in an archived format to facilitate downloadable podcasts. Story gatherers use digital audio recorders for their interviews. After recorders are returned, files are downloaded, duplicated and sent to a transcriptionist. The live performances play to 1,000 patrons a year and the broadcasts reach an audience of 55,000 monthly. Jonesborough’s population is 5,000. We provide press releases to local newspapers and radio stations. For each show, we appear in a live television interview. The Yarn Exchange previews and reviews shows on Facebook. We make four posts for each show — introducing the theme, the music, a photo story, and a final call for tickets. With testimonials and descriptions on Facebook, we invite the community to participate on stage, behind the scenes, as story gathers and as our audience.
- Developing community pride and intergenerational/multicultural engagement has been our major impact. We have successfully reached beyond differences and barriers. An insight from Jules: “You can argue with opinions and be divided by them. You can share stories and be united by them.”
- People discover things they didn’t know about their neighbors which increases empathy for each other. Young people have told us they’re no longer afraid to talk with adults. In fact, the young people who get involved in the storytelling are notably more verbal than their peers. Our radio show is considered an important example of highlighting diversity in the region.
- When local media need people from diverse backgrounds, they often turn to us. We are naturals at suggesting a variety of folks to appear in print, broadcast, or live venues.
- The Washington County Heritage Alliance has embraced Yarn Exchange and will house and archive our materials, providing public access for research. Some of our stories will be made into books and archival collections.
- We have created a story-based app for visitors. This tour experience surpasses the usual historical dates and facts. As they venture through downtown, they hear stories about local folks and what life was like from the 1700’s up to 1940’s.
- In May 2018, at the Northeast Tennessee Tourism Association Awards, the Yarn Exchange won two Pinnacle Awards — Best Event or Festival (Under $50,000) and Best Advertising/Promotion-Rack Card.
Organization Background: The Yarn Exchange is part of the Mary B. Martin Program and is a branch of the Jonesborough Parks and Recreation Department. The radio station got involved when I – Jules – invited the station manager, Wayne Winkler to come to a rehearsal and performance. When he got a grasp of what it was, he personally committed to editing it. He saw the power of sharing challenging ideas through personal narrative. He made it his personal project because he believed in the work. He even got his kids involved. Seven years later, he’s still at the helm. He comes to the live show to understand the spirit of the message we hope to put out into the community and edits it so that it comes through. For some topics, the radio station even organizes its programing so that different shows speak to each other. For example, when student journalists worked on a story that explored women’s issues, their news stories ran on the same day as Yarn Exchange. It creates a connection between the news programs and complementary personal narratives.
Project Resources: Town government and its administrator have championed Yarn Exchange and its outreach, providing marketing for the program and the salary of the writer/director who works full time at the McKinney Center. The Tennessee Arts Commission provided a grant of $4,500 to support Yarn Exchange, funding the sound engineer, stage manager, musicians and editor/writer. Ballad Hospital Group (formerly Mountain States Health Alliance) has created its own story bridge calling it, “It’s your story, we’re listening.” They have featured stories about Yarn Exchange in their publications. Ballad funded a film studio ($14,000) and supports a film-making program for children.
Here’s How it Happened
The project grew from an original play, created and performed in 2011 in Jonesborough, the Storytelling Capital of the World. Storytellers from “the outside” had been performing their tales in Jonesborough for years. Yet the stories of Jonesborough itself had remained largely untold. For the 40th anniversary of the National Storytelling Festival and the International Storytelling Center, the leaders turned to Story Bridge (formerly Community Performance International), hiring storytelling experts Richard Geer and Jules Corriere to uncover and present the story of Jonesborough. Their gleanings became the play “I Am Home,” a celebration of the area’s culture and heritage. The play was performed at the McKinney Center when it was only a shell of a building. Officially opening in November 2013, the McKinney Center is operated by the town of Jonesborough and offers programming through the Mary B. Martin Program for the Arts. “I Am Home” generated a solid, sustaining outcome—participants, determined to continue their work, held a six-month series of conversations, using the World Cafe, a process that fosters deep, authentic dialogue and supports the collective intelligence of a group to emerge.
After cast members spent an investigatory weekend working with experts in community-based arts and dialogue, Yarn Exchange evolved. Among the changes, was the radio show, which provided a more economical way to catalyze bringing people together. Area residents loved it. We remounted “I Am Home” in February-March 2018—a successful enterprise, that generated involvement among new people, as well as those previously working on the radio show. The shows, while entertaining, contain important messages for the community. For example, egalitarian treatment of different groups of people. We want the community to hear when there’s been a struggle, like the women in the women’s march. It was important to hear the human story. Not just a political story. Real human beings, women in our community, who had experienced unequal and unfair treatment. Two of the women we featured are now running for office. The radio show may not have been a direct contributor, but by exploring their narratives and looking for solutions, instead of waiting for someone else to fix it, they acted. We find exploring personal narratives often leads to action.
Here’s What Worked
1. The community participates
Our design was to bring local people on stage to tell Jonesborough’s stories. The ensemble now has more than 100 cast members with about 25 working on each show. With a radio show format, we have been able to attract a multigenerational group including students and working folks. This structure has not required them to memorize lines, create costumes or build sets. Within one week, the cast gets scripts, rehearses on Sunday, performs on Monday and their radio show is broadcast on Wednesday.
2. WETS is there for us
The support from WETS makes a difference. They show up. That’s one of the most important things an organization can do. We don’t feel orphaned. They come to the live show. And they take great care in putting the program together and promoting it. They sometimes offer suggestions for themes but never demand we use them.
3. Including a diversity of voices
We attribute much of our success to including as many voices and perspectives as we can. We have become known as people who are open to include the voices of the many rather than just voices of the majority.
4. Being willing to tackle sensitive topics
There has occasionally been backlash when we covered sensitive stories. When asked, “Why did you want to talk about that?” the answer is, “because someone wanted to talk about it.” Our job is not to squash voices that make us feel uncomfortable. Our job is to help others hear those voices so that awareness is brought. We don’t need to hide things in the corner.
One of the touchier shows was about quilting. Wrapped in it was a story of domestic violence. Says Jules: “I heard nothing against the show. I had so many women that I wouldn’t have expected call me or come up and say, ‘Thank you. That story was my story. I’m glad people heard it.’ It chokes me up still. It’s why I do the work. Being at the receiving end of often difficult or tragic stories can be hard. What I get out of it is the opportunity to provide a place for their narrative to take place so that they’re not voiceless anymore. I help others embody those voices. Then, it is not only owned by the teller, it is embraced by a whole community. As it is embraced, it is accepted. As it is accepted, it is talked about. Yarn Exchange provides an opportunity to be witnessed and find solutions. The person is no longer in isolation. I feel a big responsibility to care for these precious stories that have been entrusted to me. I’ve had to learn ways to process them through. They used to hang on me. Holocaust stories, lost boys of Sudan.”
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
While not much could have been done better, here are a few challenges Yarn Exchange faced (and how we overcame them):
1. Building relationships and trust
Building relationships and trust has been a challenge joyfully undertaken. All storytellers need to feel safe to share their stories. Particularly in our quickly-growing Latino community, there is fear of unpredictable consequences of their sharing. In this political climate we need to look at issues with understanding.
We train our story gatherers to be good listeners and to resist interjecting and breaking the flow. They learn to stay focused on the gift of story from the source.
2. Handle controversial issues by not taking sides
We’ve also learned to handle controversial issues by not taking sides. Instead, we present multiple perspectives. For example, we did a series of veteran stories. Covering Viet Nam, we had people who had protested standing in the shoes of veterans. Vets were in the audience. Long after the performance ended, people were in the auditorium still talking. Among the conversation, someone, saying, “I protested the war. I want to hear more. What made you go even when you thought it was wrong?” It makes our community stronger when people engage in difficult conversations. A year later, this conversation continues to reverberate.
3. Take on today’s stories through historical parallels
As in this example, we’ve learned to take on today’s stories through historical parallels. Storytelling and story listening make you think differently. For example, we had a person who played a school teacher. The actor was a heroin addict. When she became a school teacher, advocating for education, the audience experienced a double voice, including the distance this woman had to travel to bring this representation with passion and truth. It deepened everything. Authentic story from community, being voiced by someone whose own life experience weighs in. Humans are performers. It saves our lives everyday.
4. Cultivate strong, authentic, caring partnerships
A virtuous cycle of trust has grown between Yarn Exchange and the radio station. They depend on us to create an authentic narrative landscape. We depend on them to create a trusted space for the stories to happen. We put our faith in each other and rely on each other to be authentic in the presentation of both news and narrative story. Using local narratives on this trusted radio platform to speak about current issues creates a safer space to listen to stories that are often dangerous. Because it’s in narrative form and a trusted space, it allows us to think more broadly about these personal narratives. Instead of having an opinion told to us, it helps us form our own opinion. The show is of, by, and for our community.
Here’s What Else You Should Know
These testimonials speak volumes.
- “A platform like this gives everybody an opportunity to have a voice and to participate and grow.”
- “We got into the story and we felt we were a part of the story.” “It’s great for the entire community — we all come together.”
- “It gave us a greater history of Jonesborough and all of the different people who have actually helped build the foundation of this great community.”
- And finally through the smile of a little girl — “It makes me feel warm and happy.”
The evolution of the McKinney Center is a story to share.
Originally, the Booker T. Washington School, the building was completed in 1939 by the WPA. It opened in 1940 as a school for African American children. The school operated until integration in 1965 and then sat dormant until 2010 when Jonesborough decided to restore it. The McKinney Center is named to honor the McKinney family, who made great contributions to the town, and who is dedicated to continuing the McKinney’s legacy of service to the area.
Ernest L. McKinney served as principal of Booker T. Washington School and became the first African American alderman of Jonesborough. He was voted into office on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated. Also, he was a Washington County school board member and chairman. His wife Marion served for two decades as a social worker in the county and was a high school guidance counselor. Their son, Kevin McKinney, was elected the first African American mayor of Jonesborough.
If you are considering undertaking a project like this, know that every project manifests differently. So consider adapting, not replicating, this work. Explore the talents and energy within your community and settle on a project that you can develop. You may generate a photo exhibit, a play, a book of poetry, a carousel, or even a sculpture garden — the key is to start with stories – personal narratives. If your organization wants to do this, begin by creating a core group. You need to attract, among your stakeholders, an organization with some community power and assets — a benefactor, a school, a financial institution, or a business enterprise. You must have authentic stakeholders who feel a sense of ownership. To establish your base, you’ve got to be bold. Search and access the diversity in your population — politically, culturally, and economically. (Among our participants are wheelchair bound people and a young woman with Down Syndrome.)
Examine your community demographics and engage all segments — whether their numbers are large or small, their contributions are vital. While only three percent of our population is African American, in Yarn Exchange, 30 percent are African Americans. Not every show has to be scripted. Some communities have visited to see what we’re doing. Because they didn’t have the resources, they use improvisation. What’s key is that it’s coming from the people. Not writing an opinion. They come from a real place. Also, the shows don’t have to be monthly. Some places do them quarterly or once a year. Look at your resource base and establish a rhythm that is right for your community. Finally, the show became more effective when we began to wind the stories around a theme. That builds a gravitational field that draws in others with similar stories and experiences. Then you can get a conversation going. Think of it as a deeper meditation on an idea. Lots of different perspectives on a theme. Our audiences grew, our base of support grew when we started constructing each show around a specific theme.
To learn more about Yarn Exchange, email Jules Corriere. To view photos and videos from our shows, you can check us out on Facebook and Twitter. You can also find some of our shows on the Town of Jonesborough website.