What Denver’s ‘chief storyteller’ can teach you about listening

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In local government, communications is often about getting City Hall’s message out — using the media, social channels, speeches, and other means to reach residents and talk to them.

Denver’s Rowena Alegría is flipping that around. She thinks City Hall communications can be much more about listening — especially when it comes to residents whose voices have been ignored in the past. As the city’s newly appointed “chief storyteller,” her role is to find those people and help them get their message out.

The result, a multimedia project called “I Am Denver,” is as much an experiment in resident engagement as it is a pipeline of Instagram-ready content. Alegría partners with community organizations to host “storytelling labs” where she and her team of three multimedia journalists coach small groups of residents to identify stories to share and polish their delivery. Residents can record them on video or audio if they wish, or write a few lines to go along with a portrait.

The stories so far lean heavily on childhood memories of Denver. Occasionally, storytellers veer into hot topics like the high cost of housing; one story talked about the experience of being homeless in Denver through a comic book. A future series will look at the history of drag in Denver.

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The eclectic mix is the point, said Alegría, a former Denver Post editor and one-time communications director for Mayor Michael Hancock. “People surprise us pretty much every time we do one of these labs, with what they want to talk about,” Alegría said. “We’re taking an entirely different approach, a real direct approach to reach these folks in a way that we haven’t reached them before. And to hear them, instead of them having to hear us.”

Bloomberg Cities talked with Alegría about what inspired Denver to launch an Office of Storytelling and what the city aims to achieve with it.

Rowena Alegría: I work for a mayor who has devised lots of programs and pays a lot of attention to areas of the city and populations that were traditionally ignored by City Hall. And it’s really difficult to reach the folks even though they often would benefit the most from city programs. It used to be that if a press release came from the mayor’s office, it got into one or both of the daily papers, it was on the TV news, and you reached everybody. Now, people choose what they want to see, or they can see none of the above.

The mayor charged me specifically with a role of reaching underserved populations. One of the most successful things we did was Denver Talks, where we invited the city to read Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric.” It’s a fabulous book about race and justice. We not only asked residents to read the book, but we invited them to come and join one of 66 facilitated conversations around race and justice through the book, including one with the author and the mayor at Boettcher Concert Hall in November 2017. In total, we wound up reaching 25,000 people, and there were some really tough conversations about personal bias, race, and justice.

[Read: How Detroit’s ‘chief storyteller’ is crafting a new narrative for his city]

Going into these conversation, we thought it would take time before people were comfortable telling their stories. But that wasn’t the case. A lot of these folks showed up, they had stories to tell, and they wanted to tell them. The problem was that nobody was hearing them.

I’m a big fan of the Humans of New York project, and had wanted to do something like that here in Denver. I realized that a means of community engagement we hadn’t tried was actually listening to residents. We ask them to listen to us, but we haven’t given them an opportunity to tell their stories. This, it seemed, was a chance to for us to develop real relationships in a way that we hadn’t done before.

We piloted I Am Denver last fall, using the Denver Talks model to invite people in, and then used a few prompts to help them find and share their stories, which we helped them record. Some got personal. Others wanted to talk about their neighborhoods. Still others others wanted to share problems they’ve had with the city.

Then we asked a group of these storytellers to present before a crowd of 60 people, including the mayor. Everybody stayed and they laughed and they cried and they shared. And it really felt like a community-building exercise, where we were creating empathy. Whether you were an immigrant or a longtime Denver resident, whether you lived in this or that neighborhood, you felt a sense of shared humanity. It sort of blew me away.

We officially launched in March, meaning the website, and the social media campaign #IAmDenver.

If you look at the website, you can see it’s kind of all over the map — what their vision of Denver is, what their experience of Denver is. People surprise us pretty much every time we do one of these labs.

[Read: 4 strategies that are defining the future of city communications]

A young couple, Alex and Ryan, talked about the challenges they’ve experienced trying to buy a home. Sadly, it’s not an uncommon story, but it shows one of the reasons we do this project: We’re allowing folks to tell us something that we may know, but in their own words. It’s not always something government wants to hear — because we feel like we’re responsible or we’re being blamed. But connecting with these folks also gives us the opportunity to offer some of the resources we’ve built to address their needs.

We set up the Office of Storytelling, and I took the title of Chief Storyteller. I have three other storytellers who work with me, all of whom are multimedia journalists who have worked in everything from social media to newspapers to TV news to filmmaking. We’re full-time city employees, and have a budget of $300,000.

We have a city-wide marketing and media services division, and they are helping us with production — they have a lot of the equipment and are helping us do the social media campaign and some of the marketing. We’re based in the agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships, which is focused on community engagement and giving voice to underrepresented populations. It’s where you have the Office on Aging, the Office on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, the Office of Disability Rights — the folks we’re trying to reach.

People come in and spend about an hour getting prompts that help them find and focus in on a specific story. Then, if they want, they have a chance to write their stories, record them in video, audio, or photographs. Or, if they want to just share them with people in the room, that’s OK, too. One of the values of the project is just giving voice. And we’re happy for that.

We work with a number of partners, including Lighthouse Writers Workshop, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, the Denver Public Library, and Metropolitan State University, where we’ve held labs. As we move forward, a lot of these partnerships will help us focus on specific audiences. For example, we are about to work with Kavod Senior Life, a nonprofit that provides services to older adults, to capture the stories of people who live Denver Housing Authority properties.

The website is a primary way. Social media another one. We also have Denver 8, which is our city TV channel, where some of the stories will appear. We’re also working with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts to create a live presentation for the community.

My role now is far closer to what I did as a journalist than to what I did in the mayor’s office. In the mayor’s office, it really was telling stories from the city’s perspective. Definitely trying to shine the city in a positive light, trying to shine the mayor in a positive light. And in this role, we will sometimes talk about tough subjects and let people complain or express what they’re living in this city. That to me feels a whole lot more like journalism than PR.

The other element of this job — community engagement and relationship building — is different from either of my previous roles. I feel a tremendous responsibility to the residents of the city to hear from them and be able to honor them in a way that neither of those earlier positions really asked me to do.

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