It’s the dull, tragic hum of our society – the quiet, persistent background noise everyone notices, but most have learned to ignore.
Next on Headline News at 9 p.m., two teenagers shot and killed in the 400 block of nameless street. . . .
But the street isn’t nameless, nor are the victims and their families.They have stories to tell, and so do the people who live next door and down the street.
They have stories about growing up in St. Louis’ toughest neighborhoods, about their heritage, and their community.
When there are stories to be told, The Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artists Collective, a 2017 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee, is there to listen.
Story Stitchers believes by collecting stories, reframing the narratives, and retelling them through art, they can inspire positive change.
Story Stitchers with Moms Demand Action at Tower Grove Park for Pick the City UP National Gun Violence Awareness Day with Mayor Krewson.
The night the idea for Story Stitchers was born, two girls were shot on their front porch in University City.
One sister died and two brothers were arrested for the crime.
Susan Colangelo, a lifelong artist and mother of three, knew she had to do something more.
Colangelo had long been embroidering stories from the headlines, creating art that represented social justice issues. But that no longer felt like enough.
That night, she reflected on the power of stitching throughout history – the Aids quilt and the quilts of the Underground Railroad. She knew then she wanted to use her talent for the arts to create change.
In August 2013, Colangelo and seven other artists gathered in Old North St. Louis and founded The Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artists Collective, a group of professional artists and minority youth ages 15-24 working together to create social change with a focus on gun violence prevention.
Though the youth are always at the forefront of the projects, Story Stitchers’ artists educate, inspire and guide them.
Story Stitchers are artists-in-residence at Kranzberg Arts Foundation in Grand Center and run a Storefront Studio at 616 North Skinker Boulevard in the Loop District.
Some artists also create or perform their own original work that aligns with the organization’s mission of promoting understanding, civic pride, literacy and intergenerational relationships.
“The SOS funding supports the artists who will perform in the schools,” Colangelo said. “The artists that we’re working with are not able to sustain volunteering at the level that we want them to work here with us. SOS funds allow this work to happen, turning hope into reality.”
As the artists and youth collect, reframe and retell stories from various St. Louis neighborhoods, they develop multi-year projects and platforms to share them in the community, from fashion shows and videos to live spoken word performances and published books.
“We listen to what young people are telling us, and we develop programming around that,” Colangelo said.
For instance, after Michael Brown was shot in 2014, the youth wondered why no one bothered to ask them their opinion, Colangelo said.
“When everything was happening in Ferguson, we had a lot of boys in here,” Colangelo said.”They’re watching all this on the TV, and they asked ‘why aren’t they asking us what we think?’ All these national reporters were asking questions and no one was asking them what it was like to be Michael Brown.”
To engage and inspire more involvement, they created a widely-popular youth art and writing contest that drew stories from youth throughout St. Louis city and county.
Out of the contest, Story Stitchers developed “Curating Teen Voices: Coming of Age in St. Louis,” a portfolio of writing pieces and art that serves as a time capsule for that period of time in St. Louis.
The portfolio has been acquired by Olin Library Rare Books at Washington University and can be viewed at Bruno David Gallery.
“We also started ‘Perception Isn’t Always Reality’ and over the course of three years invited artists and photographers to send us anything they wanted on the theme of implicit bias,” Colangelo said.
Story Stitchers developed “Not Another One!,” a youth-led discussion that opens communication and identifies commonality, greater understanding, and ways to cooperate and collaborate between city police and teenage youth as both work to lower the high rates of gun violence in St. Louis.
With help from a local artist, Story Stitchers youth wrote a hip hop song by the same name. “Not Another One!” was further developed and published into a book, and was later staged into a play.
Now, with help from the SOS funding, Story Stitchers is working with Bobby Norfolk, a three-time Emmy award-winning master storyteller to turn the play into a school assembly.
“We hope to go into the schools and present a different way to be,” Colangelo said. “By using older youth that are on message, we hope to change and save young lives.”
This summer, Story Stitchers youth and adults have been touring different parts of the city doing performances of another project called Pick the City UP.
The Pick the City UP Tour features Story Stitchers’ unique brand of urban storytelling with live hip hop and spoken word on public health issues and gun violence.
The youth chose the neighborhoods where the group is performing Pick the City UP, typically focusing on areas with the highest incidences of gun violence.
“We’re trying to pull in more teens in our generation to get them to drop the gun and keep the peace to show them that they are not in it alone,” said Kelsey, a Story Stichers intern.”To show them that there are teens that are doing the right thing, that they can make a change,” Kelsey continued. “We’re trying to help them become better people and be that positive outlook for them.”
The youth agree that while not everyone they encounter is immediately responsive to their message, they can sense that many people are listening.
Several said they get messages on social media from people in their community who support their positive influence.
“I think it’s making some people think before they react,”said Rachael, a founding Story Stitchers Teen Council member. “It lets the kids know that there’s another way of doing things. Because no matter what we say, it’s up to them whether they’re going to change or not. But it seems like they’re getting the message.”
They say Story Stitchers gives them a chance to do something they’ve never been able to do before – talk openly about what is happening in their communities, and find ways to let their peers know there are positive choices within their reach.
“If you haven’t been through certain struggles, you’re on the outside looking in,” said Shana, a Story Stitchers intern. “So you only do what you think is helping. Youth in this organization, we’re still going through the same things as the people in the neighborhoods so they’re comfortable opening up and talking to us about it.”
For the youth and artists, the Stitchers Storefront Studio in the Loop is a place where they are free to express themselves through art, writing, spoken word or music.
These cards are part of the Wish Box Project, led by Story Stitchers artist in residence Anna Maria Tucker for the Pick the City UP tour.
Narrative developed and written for Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative. Some photos provided by Story Stitchers; others photographed by Dallis Jackson.