Treasure, time, trust and thought to be Talk of the Town

April 30, 2020

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by Lauren Pennycook, Senior Policy and Development Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

On #NationalTellAStoryDay earlier this week, social media users took the opportunity to highlight their favourite books from around the world. From Great Expectations to The Gruffalo, stories were credited with the ability to unite, support and inspire. But what if there is a powerful story closer to home? What if you live alongside the characters and have the power to influence the plot? What if the story was not commissioned by a publisher, but is the story of your place?

We tend to think of stories as narratives we are told by others, or contained within books that we can pick up, or can’t put down. But stories are more than this; we have more agency than this. Stories are an embodiment of who we are, and aspire to be. Applied to the places that we live, they confirm to ourselves, and explain to others, what we stand for. Who are we? We’re a community that does food shopping for those who are shielding during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re a Fair Trade Town. We seek to pay the Living Wage here. We aspire to be kinder.

The Carnegie UK Trust’s international research has demonstrated the power of stories in places around the world – in America, New Zealand, and Australia – to bring communities together in a common purpose, to facilitate a shared understanding of their history, and to form their future. But could the methodology be applied in the UK, and in particular, to towns – as the geography where two in five of us live, but which have traditionally fallen between the policy planes?

To find out, our Talk of the Town project offered professional support to citizens across England and Wales to plan, articulate and present the story of their town. After an open call for applications and extensive interest, we chose to support Scarborough and Treorchy with storytelling expertise. Why these towns? Because supported together, they could generate extensive learning for two different types of towns – large coastal towns in the North of England, and small towns in the Welsh Valleys. Because their difference – economically, socially and geographically, and with different groups at the forefront of developing their stories – could be their strength. Because their stories – to be a listening town, and to have the title of the best high street in Britain – can tell us much about how to improve community wellbeing by coming together.

So what did we learn from providing two towns with storytelling expertise from sounddelivery and Lucidity? What reflections can we pass on other policymakers, practitioners and funders interested in supporting place-based storytelling, in supporting communities to develop and articulate the golden thread from their past experiences, present reality, and future aspirations?

Firstly, the need for treasure – a small pot of funding or the provision of direct support – to unlock capacity to full and active participation; to cover costs; and to deliver creative outputs to continue the conversation. And where support is provided through storytelling expertise, using the skills of an organisation outwith the community can provide the confidence, independence and impartiality that some members of the community crave.

But money can’t buy time. Bringing members of the community together to develop the story of their place is a long-term, iterative process of empowerment, engagement and editing. Using opportunities at which the community is already coming together, routinely or in crisis, can support the process by using pre-existing relationships and networks to full effect.

This is why trust is key. That is, trust between the members of the community involved in crafting the story, and trust between the funder and community. The willingness to co-produce; the convening power to carry the community on the journey; and the use of spaces considered to be safe, neutral and kind, all help to facilitate trust and good working relationships.

And finally securing a diversity of thought – those across different streets, spaces and sectors must be represented in discussions on the town’s story. The absence of full representation of the town’s demographics, of its economic and social structures, will result in the absence of legitimacy.  Residents must be able see themselves in the town’s story – in what the story relays as the town’s past, its current conditions, and its future goals. An intergenerational approach ensures that the story does not live in the past; is not owned entirely by those in the present; and takes into account the needs and aspirations of future generations.

We’re living in a moment of historical significance. Years from now we will tell stories about how we helped or received help; decorated our windows with rainbows; and placed teddies in plain sight for children to go on a bear hunt. But these will be chapters in the stories of our places, started long before the COVID-19 pandemic and continuing long into the future. We believe that these stories should be convened, collected and, above all, used, to shape the future of our towns. Because understanding what makes them unique, and who their citizens are, is to understand what they need. And to understand what they need is to help them to flourish.