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Issue 3: Education for Community Building

Drawing courtesy of MTSTV

Telling It Like It Was: Neighbors Share Stories of Rebuilding the Bronx

Lyn Pyle, Colleen Halsburg Wiessner, and Jim Morgan

It is 1974. The Bronx is burning. Buildings go vacant overnight. People are moving to the suburbs in droves. Bankers "redline" and make no new investment in the community. Landlords collect rents without making repairs, while properties disintegrate around tenants. On major thoroughfares the city covers windows of abandoned buildings, painting flowerpots and curtains as if people lived there so that passersby don't have to deal with the reality of displaced lives.

Photos courtesy of MTSTV

Fast forward to 1998. Banks, insurance companies, and New York City government have reinvested in the Northwest Bronx. Children play on ball fields where garbage dumps as high as second-story windows once stood. Some tenants own their own apartments, others participate in running their buildings through community-based management corporations, and landlords are held accountable for repairs and services by private citizens, tenant associations, and even public officials. "Drugs Out" campaigns create safer streets and parks. Community gardens flower, and parents struggle to improve education for children by addressing public school over-crowding.

It is also time for members of the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC) to prepare to celebrate 25 years of collaborative work. NWBCCC is a coalition of eleven neighborhood organizations that represent roughly one-quarter of the Bronx's total area, from the Cross-Bronx Expressway north to the city line at Yonkers.

Enter Lyn Pyle: community organizer, and artistic co-director of Mass Transit Street Theater and Video (MTSTV) who proposes a storytelling project to celebrate the Coalition's Silver Anniversary. The project is called Passin' It On.

Storytelling Preparation Process

Once approved by NWBCCC, a coordinating team of three people met regularly and guided the project through its various stages. Lois Haar represented the Coalition. As a person who grew up in the Bronx and was involved in the Coalition from its beginning, Lois provided an internal perspective on what happened. Making her home in the NW Bronx since 1972, Lyn Pyle also lived the story. Lyn framed questions to elicit stories and designed a process to engage all. The third team coordinator was story facilitator, Karen Wilson, who, although a newer resident of the Bronx, was equally committed to the issues involved.

Through outreach to the public and a careful interview process, thirteen "storytellers" were selected. Five Saturday Story Circles and three rehearsal sessions were scheduled prior to the first community performance. One of the biggest challenges participants faced was learning to tell a two- to three-minute story. Initial recounting of experiences in the revitalization of their neighborhoods included extraneous details and was often unfocused. The purpose of the story sometimes was not clear. After a number of sessions, however, the unscripted stories that at first seemed too complicated to tell in five minutes were more effectively told in under three minutes.

Using art/performance to assist their organizing was new to the Coalition. Short on resources, with little money and not enough time—and always focused on the next action to deal with current neighborhood issues, crises, and campaigns—organization leaders panicked when they saw how much time the project was taking. They had anticipated gathering a group of people to tell their stories as a simple process, not one that required so much preparation. Those who worried about its value at this early stage, however, later asked for a second season of performances.

Live Storytelling Performances in Neighborhoods

Five community performances were scheduled, leading up to the Coalition's anniversary celebration. They took place in community centers, churches, and school auditoriums, spaces where people already gathered. Advertising was done throughout the NW Bronx and public officials were also encouraged to participate.

"Smoke, ashes, broken glass, confusion..." so begins one introduction that was born out of a sound jam exercise in the preparatory Story Circles. A sound jam connects storytellers to their original experiences. As they relived old sights, sounds, smells, and feelings, the sound jam was also what began to connect separate individuals as a group and ultimately set them on the path to collaborative storytelling.

Passin' It On was effective in helping people identify with the Coalition in a way that they hadn't before. Many had experienced the past twenty-five years on individual terms—their own building, their own neighborhood organization. But this was the first time they realized they were part of a larger history of shared effort and transformation. The project helped shape a community identity: "This is who we are."

Although they aimed to present the larger story of how the NW Bronx stopped burning, performances all concluded by naming new concerns and the on-going need for action. The message was clear: "The work goes on. Join us!"

At the end of each performance the audience was invited into a dialogue. Storytellers went to the front of the stage and asked audience members to talk with the person next to them (even better if you didn't know that person!). "What struck you most about what you just saw? What was most important or interesting to you?" Then, "Does someone want to share what you said to the person next to you?" These simple questions produced an outpouring of audience members' stories of what they had experienced in the NW Bronx.

The Video Project

The final phase of the project was turning hours of recording into a 36-minute video. Each preparatory Story Circle, as well as every performance, had been taped. In addition, several storytellers had been interviewed individually in their neighborhoods. Historical footage provided a picture of "before," and new neighborhood footage was included to give a picture of the NW Bronx as it is today.

The final edited video, Passin' It On is a tool for collaborative action in the NW Bronx and beyond. The Coalition uses it to introduce new community members and organizers to its work, as well as to train new activists. The video captures transformative learning in the voices of the people who experienced it and were empowered by it. It shows people learning to express themselves in new ways and to critically reflect on their experiences. One participant who originally spoke her stories in a near whisper learned to be "outrageous" and "take the spotlight." Later she used that same new ability to speak out on issues in public meetings. Another woman learned to focus on the point she needed to make in order to get officials to listen. Lifetimes of commitment to social action were put into perspective and celebrated.

For further information or to order the video contact Lyn Pyle—MTSTV, Box 347, The Bronx, NY 10468-0347, or on the web at: www.binc.org/mtstv/htm/aboutus.htm.

This article has been adapted from "Passin' it On: Transformative Learning Through Community Organizing and Storytelling," a paper by Lyn Pyle and Colleen Halsburg Wiessner, from the proceedings of the Third International Transformative Learning Conference.

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