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Empowering Communities Through Storytelling

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"The Air We Breathe" was a collaborative performance about the impact of air quality in Long Beach

 

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The Power of Stories is an archive of projects submitted every year to Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Statewide Convening. It showcases work created throughout California highlighting the power of individual and collective efforts to promote health and demonstrates how stories have the power to re-imagine and transform our communities. Produced in partnership with the California Endowment.

"Three years later, I still bring fresh tulips to his grave. I still ponder unanswered questions -- why does this always happen in Richmond? Why do we live to die? Why do we waste away on street corners, letting our bodies be abused as if we had no worth?" Teen poet Sukari Wright posed this question to the audience, standing at the mic, confident in her words. Wright's poem was reflective of her personal experience with violence in Richmond, California, and showed her hopes that others would rise up to transform the community from the ground up.

Wright was just one of the speakers who took part in the art and film festival at the 2014 Annual Statewide Convening hosted by The California Endowment's Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative. Held at the Wellness Center at The Historic General Hospital in Boyle Heights on October 11, the festival centered on the theme "The Power of Our Stories." The program aimed to showcase how stories have the power to help individuals and groups re-imagine and transform the narratives about their communities.

Building Healthy Communities is a 10-year initiative that focuses on supporting the development of communities where "children are healthy, safe and ready to learn." These communities include areas such as Del Norte County in Northern California, City Heights in San Diego, totaling 14 sites all across the state.

BHC South Kern's submission 'Sewing Change Together'
BHC South Kern's submission 'Sewing Change Together'
Arts and Culture panel discussion included playwright Josefina Lopez
Arts and Culture panel discussion included playwright Josefina Lopez

"People said if we're going to work with our communities in a meaningful and authentic way, if we're going to bring people across culture, across race, across class, across gender, across sexual orientation, we have to actually appeal to that thing that motivates us all as humans -- that shared humanity that we have in our expressions, how we talk about our history, how we talk about our experiences together," said Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president for healthy communities at The California Endowment, who made opening remarks at the event. "That's what we're celebrating today -- is how do we build that shared truth, how do we build that shared humanity and we're particularly excited about the energy of our young people."

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The morning began with a panel on art and culture's role in promoting health and resident-led community transformations. The panel, moderated by community arts and culture leader Maria Rosario Jackson, included Elena Serrano, program director for Oakland's Eastside Arts Alliance and Josefina Lopez, playwright best known for co-writing the film "Real Women Have Curves." Lopez and other panelists emphasized how stories could help promote healing and enhance collaboration among community members. "Storytellers are so important and we have to tell our stories now," said Lopez, who described the empowerment she felt in putting pen to paper to author stories about her own experiences growing up in Boyle Heights. "Art is about taking all the broken pieces and making you whole again."

Building Healthy Communities has identified 10 outcomes for boosting community health, including mobilizing youth as leaders and change agents, creating alternatives to violence, and emphasizing preventative health care. These goals were seen in the various film presentations, live performances of spoken word pieces, and photo displays.

Video submissions were screened via the KCET website
Video submissions were screened via the KCET website
Baktun 12 performed their Bilingual Theater piece on school to prison pipeline
Baktun 12 performed their Bilingual Theater piece on school to prison pipeline

The work at the festival featured a variety of styles, ranging from illustrations and animation to documentary and music. In "Invisible to Invincible," a video project submitted by Jovenes, Inc. in Boyle Heights, used stop motion animation to demonstrate homelessness faced by youth in Los Angeles. Another video, from BHC Richmond, "Street Literature," featured students rapping about young people of color dying too early and the piece was inspired by the shootings of individuals like Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. While music was an element in "Street Literature," "Eastside Arts Alliance -- Guerilla Theater" utilized snippets of live theater and interviews to weave a cohesive narrative; the project was submitted by Eastside Arts Alliance, working with BHC East Oakland.

Along with varying styles of storytelling, the theme of youth leadership was another thread in the various pieces shown at the festival. The short film, "Game Changers: Every Student Matters," detailed student activism and young leaders tackling issues like the school to prison pipeline. It was submitted by Every Student Matters, a youth-led policy advocacy campaign organized by BHC Long Beach. Similarly, a video from BHC Del Norte County, "Fish Kill 2014. Yurok Youth Seek Answers," documented the environmental changes occurring in the Yurok community and explored solutions that could prevent or lessen the mass dying of fish in the nearby Klamath River.

"We get to share with everybody here and we get to hear their stories, we get to share where we come from as well and build a community," said Kiran Mehta, a 17-year-old student from Scripps Ranch High School in San Diego, whose photo work with AjA's Youth Media Project was shown at the festival. "We can give a youth perspective of what our communities are like and how to make a positive expression of our community."

AjA's Youth presented their photo documentary series
AjA's Youth presented their photo documentary series
Bollywood Dance warm up activity was led by Downtown Dance
Bollywood Dance warm up activity was led by Downtown Dance

Photos courtesy of The California Endowment

 

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