Everyone has a story to tell. Everyone’s history matters.
Over the past year, two projects in different parts of Pennsylvania have built on that idea. With funding from PA Humanities’ PA SHARP (Sustaining the Humanities through the American Rescue Plan) grants, COSACOSA art at large, Inc.’s Kin/Folk/Lore project gathered stories from people across Philadelphia, while 100 miles to the west, DreamWrights Center for Community Arts did the same with residents of York. Through these two initiatives, individuals grappled with their role in something greater, and neighbors saw themselves reflected in one another in meaningful ways.
“I think everyone really loved that it was a community effort,” says GVGK Tang, program manager at COSACOSA who developed and implemented Kin/Folk/Lore. “I got so many comments marveling at that aspect because folks go their whole lives feeling like their stories don’t matter. I think our personal stories aren’t what we see in textbooks or museums or movies. I think that the idea that the ordinary is extraordinary was just validating and deeply moving for folks.”
COSACOSA has been developing humanities programs by, for, and about marginalized communities in Philadelphia since 1990. Kin/Folk/Lore, which they started planning in 2019 to celebrate their 30th anniversary, was designed to center everyday histories and personal stories, reflecting Philadelphians’ experiences, hopes, dreams and reflections on community. Thanks to the constraints of the Covid-19 pandemic, it ended up being their first large-scale digital humanities project.
People from across the city submitted stories in writing using prompts, which included questions about what they love in their communities, what they don’t, who makes up the community, what it needs, and what they see when they look at it. The organization spread the word through their existing networks, including neighborhood and other grassroots coalitions, healthcare centers, and schools. More than 600 people from 30-plus neighborhoods responded.
For the next phase of the project, participants swapped stories anonymously and recorded the responses. Tang took those audio files and created an oral history database on the Kin/Folk/Lore website. He also combined them to construct a narrative and in April COSACOSA released the first segment of a digital album.
“You end up noticing what are the most common and similar responses, and what are some of the most unique and divergent responses — what are those patterns?” explains Tang. “Taken together, they’re really just the story of Philadelphia, whether that’s the good or the bad, the shared values, the conflicting experiences. It’s really been moving.”
On the first track, people respond to the prompt, “My community is.” Answers include North Philadelphia, African American, urban, crazy, peaceful, OK now but used to be much better, unique, family, struggling, unsafe, violent, on the uprise, dangerous, complicated, people of color, Latinx and indigenous, LGBTQ, vibrant, going unnoticed, and changing all of a sudden. And that’s just the first prompt.
I think that this project shows us that we can come together, that we’re not as alone as we think we are. There’s somebody down the block, or across the city, who sees what you see and wants to help make a change just as badly.GVGK Tang, COSACOSA
The next two volumes will explore the themes of unity, sharing and conflict, power, leadership and character, purpose, life and placemaking, and change, agency and culture.
COSACOSA hopes this is just the beginning.
“I think our city is just as culture-rich and messy and beautiful as we always say it is,” adds Tang. “I think these stories make that feel real. We often talk about things like translocal organization and this really feels like the epitome of that — that people across cultures and generations and neighborhoods can read and reflect on each others’ stories, find meaning in that, and make these unlikely connections. It’s shown me that we each have great spiritual and political power within us, more than we realize.”
Meanwhile, 100 miles away in York, Gregory DeCandia was taking the helm as artistic director at DreamWrights Center for Community Arts. New to the city, he wanted to get to know his home.
*This story is a companion piece to the podcast series We Are Here, created in partnership with PA Humanities. Listen now to the latest episode, which features an interview with Gregory DeCandia and JJ Sheffer of enroot.*
With a background in documentary theater, he decided to gather local stories via in-person interviews, creating shareable audio files to pair with photographs and murals. DeCandia dubbed the project, “If Your Knew York.” He also wanted to launch a verbatim theater production in which community members would get to portray people very different from themselves.
Initially, DeCandia recorded these stories at DreamWrights but, seeking a more diverse set of voices, the team took a mobile studio to markets, schools, parks, coffee shops and other public places.
They eventually selected 25 individuals to represent York in a medley of monologues that reinforce the importance of human connection.
“Overall, and especially since the pandemic, we’ve lost a lot of empathy,” says DeCandia. “Nothing can evoke empathy more than sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers listening to someone else’s story. It’s age-old — it’s never going to go away.”
Nothing can evoke empathy more than sitting in a room with a bunch of strangers listening to someone else’s story.Gregory DeCandia, DreamWrights Center for Community Arts
Tang also emphasizes empathy, and how it can resonate out into a community.
“I think that this project shows us that we can come together, that we’re not as alone as we think we are,” he says. “There’s somebody down the block, or across the city, who sees what you see and wants to help make a change just as badly. One of the interview questions was, ‘If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would that be?’ and I think that you might think of your fellow Philadelphian as that younger self, or that older self, and those words of affirmation aren’t hypothetical. They’re not going to waste, because somebody’s reading them and finding solace in them right now.”
Funding for “We Are Here” comes from PA Humanities and its federal partner, the National Endowment for the Humanities, as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
LEAD IMAGE: A party celebrating COSACOSA art at large, Inc.’s Kin/Folk/Lore project.