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Community members gather for Finding Home: A Story Circle on Nov. 30. Jenny Holden/The Discourse Cowichan

Sharing stories is key to our shared future

At a recent event, I was reminded that listening to each other is critical to building strong, connected communities

On a recent Saturday morning, 18 people, mostly strangers, gathered in a room in the Cowichan Community Centre for a Story Circle. Despite barely knowing one another, we sat in a circle and told deep and personal stories. We talked about our personal experiences with housing. We shared our struggles with community and belonging.

It was an act of journalism unlike any I’ve ever participated in. But journalism it was.

Normally, reporters select a story or topic to look into, go out and interview some people and then write the story in isolation. That story, told completely through the lens of the reporter, gets published to be consumed by individual audience members, usually read also in isolation.

This event was different. Finding Home: A Story Circle was hosted by The Discourse Cowichan and facilitated by Jenny Holden with support from myself and David Minkow. Those present bravely made themselves vulnerable through storytelling, all in service of community connection.

“Happy to share a little piece of me with my community. I take away a sense of connection,” one participant wrote on a feedback form. 

“I feel enlightened, encouraged and re-invigorated to witness the hearts and wisdom of those sharing today,” someone else wrote. “I feel reconnected and more in balance in this shared energy!”

When we’re connected, we’re rarely truly homeless

Here’s my biggest takeaway: sharing our stories is absolutely critical to building strong, connected communities. And connection is key to our individual health, too.

One story in particular drove that point home. It was about how a community of support made the difference between being without a home in Toronto and being truly homeless on the streets of Toronto.

Community, connection and belonging are issues not often tackled by journalists in a serious way. And that’s a shame. Not only because these issues are important, but because journalists have an important role to play in them. 

There’s a wealth of evidence that local news and storytelling builds healthier communities and healthier democracies. I’ve also found that to be true in my own life — my storytelling work for The Discourse Cowichan has been my vehicle for connection to the people and communities of the Cowichan Valley. 

But the Story Circle participants taught me this lesson again, and that part came to me as a surprise. When we got to the part of the discussion about where to go next, several of the comments focused on the role that media can play in continuing the conversation. We talked about the importance of community participation in local media. We talked about the potential for media as a vehicle for asking what the community needs, and connecting people with the things they need. 

“This could be the beginning of change,” one participant wrote, “a start of a bigger discourse.”

Here’s how Cowichan locals want to connect

David Minkow, reporter for The Discourse Cowichan, takes notes as story circle participants share ideas. Jenny Holden/The Discourse

During the circle, I asked participants what our message to the wider Cowichan Valley community — what our manifesto — should be. Here’s some of what I heard:

  • Break down barriers
  • Get involved
  • Build connections
  • Listen
  • Listen especially to the voices of Quw’utsun people
  • Learn about the Indigenous history of this place; learn the Hul’qumi’num place names
  • Gather in circle
  • Share stories
  • Embrace diversity
  • Think outside the box
  • Invite newcomers to Cowichan to participate in the community
  • Come together in the face of hardship
  • Embrace new cultural guidelines, like those shared at the Story Circle
  • Embrace economic systems based on gifts and sharing

“I feel good about being part of this well-intentioned, short-term ‘community,’” a participant wrote. “I will take away that I’ve met a group who want change and will assume if there are this many people, there must be a lot more.”

Journalism as a platform for connection

Here’s what I take away: The Discourse Cowichan has an important role in the future of this community, and it goes beyond the traditional boundaries of journalistic practice. We can be more than storytellers. We can be a resource, a network, a platform for connection.

Several participants shared specific actions they plan to take as a result of the Story Circle. 

“I will try to connect with a couple of events and organizations that have been on my radar. I have a better sense of how to approach, now.”

“I will be taking time to process the stories, the implications and my next steps in my personal journey to be part of a solution or many solutions to increase belonging, love, acceptance and health in my community.”

“This discourse has also gotten me thinking about reaching out socially to more people, as I have often wished they would would reach out to me. It’s all about ‘Be the change you want to see.’”

My promise to you in 2020

Here’s what I promise to do:

  • Imagine new ways to invite more people to contribute to The Discourse Cowichan, and to local information and story sharing more broadly
  • Invite feedback on how The Discourse Cowichan can be a resource for Cowichan communities
  • Listen first. Let the community guide the conversation
  • Make the effort to lift up Indigenous and diverse voices
  • Be a vehicle for sharing stories that connect people across Cowichan’s many communities
  • Offer further opportunities for people to meet, connect and share stories in person

I’ll give the last word to one of the Story Circle participants, since I cannot say it better:

“I am leaving with some focused ideas and connection to pursue — some do-able action items. I met and heard from people I’ve never met and that is a big and humbling gift.”