SF Urban Film Fest
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SF Urban Film Fest

Storytelling Workshops Galvanize Community To Address Housing Crisis

Photo: Austin Blackwell

SF Urban Film Fest, which hosts its annual film festival on February 2–9 2020, was founded because we believe that stories are the best way to engage the public in the creation of just and equitable cities. We’ve started to take that idea one step further with storytelling workshops, specifically around issues of transit justice and affordable housing. These workshops come in two parts. First, we bring filmmakers and community members together to study the principles of storytelling. Then we apply these principles to solve a real-world problem as defined by a local organization. So far, we’ve been fortunate to partner with the San Francisco County Transportation Authority (SFCTA) and Young Community Developers (YCD).

Through the storytelling workshop journey, our participants develop storylines that result in short videos, marketing campaigns, film screenings and community discussions. As a result of these workshops, we hope that our partner organizations come away with a suite of community organizing and engagement strategies using storytelling.

This article will focus on our most recent workshop with YCD, which was funded by the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC) with a matching contribution from YCD. YCD developed its own goals for the storytelling workshop: to galvanize the project “100 Black Homeowners in the Bayview,” which is central to addressing the immediate affordable housing crisis its community faces.

Learning about storytelling

Photo: Shantré Pinkney

Part one of our workshops is a lesson from a storytelling expert. We’ve been honored to work with Bay Area Video Coalition’s Keith Battle, a writer, filmmaker, and educator. Keith teaches the four pillars of storytelling: story, audience, message, and style (SAMS, as a mnemonic). Here are a few of his insights:

  • Story: Most of us inherently know the difference between a story and, say, a grocery list. But what actually makes a story a story? The answer is that a story has a beginning, middle, and end — and the end should be different from where we started, with a turning point coming somewhere in the middle.
  • Audience: It’s critical to understand your audience, because who they are will affect every other element of your storytelling. Also think about where they are — the platforms your audience uses to consume your story (consider TV vs. social media) will almost certainly determine how you tell it.
Photo: Shantré Pinkney
  • Message: While the story is the sequence of events, the message is the meaning embedded in the story. For example, Aesop’s famous story of the tortoise and the hare illustrates the message that “slow and steady wins the race.”
  • Style: The same story can be told any number of different ways — that’s where style comes in. But style isn’t just window-dressing: it affects the tone of the story, how the audience will perceive it, and even what message they will take away when it’s over.

To look at how the four pillars work in practice, participants watch a few short films and discuss the story, audience, message, and style of each.

Developing stories

In the second part of our workshop, the newly minted storytellers break into small groups, each led by an experienced local filmmaker, and apply the principles to a need or strategy defined by our partner organization.

This December, we worked with YCD, whose goal was to engage current and potential homeowners and create a network of 100 Black Homeowners in the Bayview. The need to support middle income African Americans in homeownership addresses housing justice, as the history of redlining continues to impact this community’s access to homeownership, for example in the form of predatory lending and housing discrimination.

Photo: Shantré Pinkney

One exciting side-effect of these workshops is that participants naturally start sharing their own stories. Elders from the District 10 / Bayview community talked about growing up in a tight-knit community and being part of grassroots civil rights movements. They spoke about the changes they’ve witnessed as the African American population in San Francisco has declined considerably. Younger participants shared how the legacy of the Bayview inspired them to put roots down in the city, and how they’d learned to navigate the various financial and legal hurdles to homeownership that nobody teaches in school.

The pitch

Photo: Austin Blackwell

At the end of the workshop, we ask each group to pitch their story idea. YCD was looking for a storyline to use in a short video that would kick off the 100 Black Homeowners campaign. One group focused on legacy, telling the story of a house passing down through generations. Another visualized forking pathways to homeownership; their message was that although the process is not the same for everyone, it is navigable with the right resources. And a third group framed homeownership as a story of homecoming. Their video would share the history of the Bayview and ask the audience to write the next chapter of that story; it would be part of a broader campaign culminating in a parade to celebrate the regrowth of the African American community.

Photo: Shantré Pinkney

YCD hopes the storylines developed through the workshop will galvanize a much bigger, multi-faceted movement to reach the goal of 100 Black Homeowners. We are entering the third phase of the storytelling workshop journey in which local filmmaker Shantré Pinkney, who has been videotaping the kick off and the workshop, will create a 2–3 minute video using one or more of themes developed in the small groups.

And at SFUFF, we continue to explore ways to expand our storytelling workshops and bring even more value to participants and partner organizations. For 2020, we are looking for more funding to enable us to host storytelling workshops for another year. If you are interested in collaborating on or sponsoring a future workshop, please contact us.

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