Finding the Story in the Middle: A Conversation with Denise Johnson and Lee Boot

Lee Boot and Denise Johnson have collaborated on several community-based projects in Baltimore in which storytelling has played a key role. Lee is director of UMBC’s Imaging Research Center and approaches story work from the perspective of a documentary filmmaker. Denise is president of the Arch Social Community Network  and has extensive experience as a community organizer. Their most recent collaboration is the “Art of Transformation” project.  In this conversation they discuss the impact of storytelling and the significance of storytelling in their work.

(LB) We make films [with] people telling their stories in a variety of different ways as a way to ground the other research that we’re doing. … Listening to people tell their stories guides projects where we’re trying to develop new media forms or media technologies or approaches to content. Because at the end of the day, if it isn’t a better way to carry human stories, what are we doing?

(DJ) I’ve been working with people most of my adult life facilitating conversations. I did a lot of heavy work in my past working with women, overcoming some of their challenges and in doing that I learned to ask them to dig deeper into their life or the lives of their parents. I’ve learned from asking those kinds of questions and that developed into more of a practice of storytelling to get to know people better, one;  two, to be able to share knowledge with one another; and three, to better understand people’s values, which for me is a method that I personally use to be able to have the most positive communications with people. So that’s kinda how I understand stories, use stories, and now use it as a practice in my work as a cultural organizer.


Agency and Voice: Taking Control of your Story

(DJ)  I think sometimes as humans, we’re not compassionate enough or empathetic enough.  When people are very emotional and they haven’t taken control of their story and see the value in this story, it can be very, very emotional. And if you’re not ready for that,  you may not want to hear it because it can be overwhelming. But I do believe that the practice or informing people of the value of that story can be very empowering. And then when you use the practice in a story circle, the revealing part I believe also is that people will realize that some of the things that have happened to them or some of the beliefs that they had, other people had those beliefs and had those similar experiences too. It opens up a new world of fellowship and connections around just being human and having similar experiences. However, the interpretation of your experiences could always be different. But it does allow for bonding in a fellowship and maybe a new community to start interacting with one another. So that’s how I see agency and voice of stories.

Story Circle from a Filmmaker’s Perspective 

(LB) When I became a filmmaker, I got used to doing interviews. Documentarians tend to do interviews, right? … But there are subtleties of how an interview is framed versus just saying to somebody “go tell your story.”   To do that in a social context of a story circle, those framings are all very different. I find that an interview is bracketed in a way by the question and by the circumstance of a larger film or whatever, that it doesn’t quite have the same. It’s not as human because I feel in a way it’s not as authentic. You’re kind of directing it, even if you’re trying not to. We have something called a non-structured interviewer, semi-structured interview.  It’s still an interview, right? When someone is given permission and a structure … to just tell their story, it’s a different thing. You’re getting to things that they didn’t even know they were going to say often. You’re getting to things that are the narrative of who they are. Maybe just one dimension of that, but it’s different. I’m amazed at how rich and powerful it is. 

Prepare to Handle Emotions

(DJ) The amazing part about the a story circle is that you’re going to be impacted some kind of way. The other piece that I think is really nice is that it equals the playing field. It takes away all perceived power. Everybody becomes a human being, and once a person starts, you have to listen. But it allows other people to begin to share something that they want other people to know. I’ve participated in circles where it has gotten truly emotional because folks needed to just say something that was really profound, whether they was holding it in, whether they had never shared it, whether it was triggered by what someone else saying in the group.

I think a big piece of using that practice is the facilitator being ready to handle the possible emotions that could come from what people are going to expose, along with laughter or feeling of empowerment or connection. You get that too. You don’t always get bright, strong emotional feelings, but it gets really interesting. 

(LB) The thing is that the circles, at least that I’ve been in with you, people can share that. But they also might just have something they want to tell, right? That they really think needs to be said. So there’s advocating, there’s just expressing a real point of view and then there’s the full range of the personal.  But when there’s no bracket, forcing it into a subject, … the range is amazing of people who need to tell, need to shout, need to really reflect on how something hits them. It’s an amazing thing.

“Preserve the Baltimore Uprising” 

“Preserve the Baltimore Uprising”  is a digital repository that seeks to preserve and make accessible original content that was captured and created by individual community members, grassroots organizations, and witnesses to the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray on April 19, 2015. Gray died from injuries sustained while in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland.  The project is a collaboration between UMBC history professor Denise Meringolo and the Maryland Historical Society. As part of the project, Lee and Denise conducted story circles in the communities affected by the uprising.

(LB) For those who don’t know, following Freddie Gray’s death … the justice department under Obama saw fit to say Baltimore has to have a consent decree and citizen monitoring. So as part our project, and as part of your work with Denise Meringolo, the public historian in a project called “Preserving the Uprising,” we had a story circle.  

(DJ) Great circles. Very intentional  to galvanize people, to be able to talk about their reflections of the Baltimore 2015 uprising and just for people to be able to express. I think it was great work. April of this year is the fifth anniversary of the uprising so we’re looking at ways to be able to use the information in the videos… because the things that people said was so powerful. 

Another piece that is important to me, the session with the community marketing team, one of the lead individuals made a point of saying that this is important, meaning that it was being filmed and it will go down in history. So for folks in the community to see value in recording of their stories, that was a learning piece for me in terms of folks really appreciating having the resource and gathering people up to share.

“Art of Transformation” – Recording a Story Circle without Harm.

(LB) We did imagining America, together, and then the meetings that followed [that] gave birth to “Art of Transformation,” which is a long-term project. We have all kinds of lofty goals that have to do with rethinking how media functions. But at the beginning, and still in many ways, it’s about  recording people’s stories in every possible way. And this opportunity for us working together on that project has really helped our lab. This is example of what I was talking about before. Focus on what’s important here and how you record a story circle in a way that doesn’t hurt it.

(DJ) And I think that’s a good term, in a way that doesn’t hurt it.

Story Circle

(DJ) Going back to the the story circle in terms of shaping it, the circle representing something that never ends, it goes around and around and around and it stays closed. When people are expressing whatever they are expressing, the whole circle has to carry what is expressed. And one of the rules is to listen. You have to absolutely listen. You have to not judge anybody’s story. …  So the act of listening and the circle carrying everything that is going to be said by everybody in the group is the reason why it has to be closed and the reason why you get impacted.

The Story in the Middle 

(DJ) In the south during the 60s groups were being activated and there were activists around civil rights. With the race piece, you had groups not communicating with one another. So Appalshop, which is a 50 year-old organization and Dudley Cocke and June Bug  Productions … got together and created a story circle methodology. One of the beautiful things about that methodology is that in the circle as people are talking and listening to one another, you end up with a whole new story. And if the new story is based on what others have shared, they intentionally worked on that for a long period of time because they needed to find a way to communicate with one another as opposed to hating or one another, being dismissive of  one another because of race relations. With the methodology that they developed, they found the story in the middle that allowed them to communicate.  And I think that’s another piece of the strength of the story circle that could be built on in terms of using this practice. … Listen intently and, finding that story in the middle. That way people have something else to communicate to one another about.  It’s almost like a new narrative. So that’s another powerful piece of using a story circle methodology is that we’re in the middle of the story … The story is going to get created, but you have to listen for it.

(LB) This idea of the story in middle, in other words, if you come together with your agenda and I bring my agenda, we might together come up with something that addresses our challenges, right?  … And it may be something that neither of us ever thought of in our entire lives. How about the magic of that?

The University in the Community

As a reflexive component of “Art of Transformation,” Lee and Denise held a story circle made up of previous community participants. The goal was to create a snapshot of the AoT project and to think about how the methodology was working.

(LB) One of the things that I heard in that story circle … was the idea that the university is not sharing who it is, right?  … So we’re going to go in and listen, but that’s like the person in the story circle who takes a pass, you know? And what does that mean? I think that for universities and communities to work together it may seem like a non-sequitur. It doesn’t relate for a university student, professor, researcher to kind of share their story…. It’s about understanding each other,  about knowledge sharing. It’s about hearing one another.. They like the foundation stuff, but that’s really not where [I go] into this community and tell my story of being a university researcher. Like who would want to listen to that? 

(DJ) One of the cool things I like about about community is that folks have a tendency to check you because they are community people, you know? They deal human-to-human all the time. And so checking,  meaning that it’s like, “okay, what do you think you are “ and so forth. It’s like a swag about community that speaks to how much they respect their own selves, not necessarily being concerned about how outsiders respect them. And to me, that’s a level of power that the community brings.  Also that just makes me smile. It makes sense. 

Interview by Bev Bickel,  edited by Bill Shewbridge,  camera & sound  Carlye Brooks, Leah Iannuzzi, Nahom Nega