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Talk of the Town: Supporting place based storytelling

June 17th 2020

Lauren Pennycook reflects on the power of storytelling to help shape the future of towns

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. Stories are an embodiment of who we are, and aspire to be. Applied to the places 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.

Our international research has demonstrated the power of stories – 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 this apply to UK 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 supported Scarborough and Treorchy with storytelling expertise. Why these towns? Because 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 well-being by coming together.

So what did we learn?

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 process of empowerment, engagement and editing. Using opportunities where communities are already coming together -routinely or in crisis -can build on 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 safe, neural spaces to help to facilitate trust and good working relationships.

And finally, 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, makes it less legitimate.  Residents must be able see themselves in the town’s story. 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.

Lauren Pennycook is Senior Policy and Development Officer at Carnegie UK Trust

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