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Our Story

Creating Community Through a College-based Storytelling Program:

The Storytelling Institute at South Mountain Community College by Liz Warren

Returning to teach for the Storytelling Institute would be a dream. Replicating their program in the Midwest would be a dream. My teaching changed. My life changed. My imagination changed. I am not the same person I was when I entered the program. When I tell others about the SMCC Storytelling Institute, they are amazed. What you have at South Mountain is a treasure. Storytelling Certificate Graduate, 2014

In 1994 a group of faculty and staff at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona, were awakened to the power of oral, traditional storytelling as a pedagogy and as a vehicle for personal and professional growth and community engagement. The spark for that enlightenment came from Lorraine Calbow, a faculty member on our Counseling staff, who became the first director of the SMCC Storytelling Institute.

Within a year we had attended our first National Storytelling Network Conference, hosted Fall and Spring Storytelling Festivals, plunged into our own training as storytellers, and begun writing the curriculum that would become our 30-credit Academic Certificate in Storytelling. Twenty-plus years later, we have made Storytelling a viable college discipline while simultaneously educating our community about the power and relevance of the art-form.

We have one of the few, if not the only, academic programs in storytelling based at a community college. We would like to see that change. Storytelling can and should be available as a discipline at colleges and universities around the nation. The key elements to making that happen are a dedicated and well-trained storytelling faculty, a commitment to students and the community, quality programming, strong internal and external partnerships, and a commitment to diversity.

Committed Faculty Who Are Storytellers and a System That Supports Their Development

“I think it would be great to offer more classes by, and overseen by, the great Storytelling Institute teachers not only at SMCC, but at the other Maricopa Community Colleges. Not just anyone can successfully teach a storytelling class. I think what is needed is great storytellers teaching the classes.” Storytelling Certificate Graduate, 2014.

To state it as plainly as possible, if you want a successful storytelling program, you need faculty who are passionate about the art of storytelling and who are storytellers themselves. This has been the key to our success. When Lorraine brought us together in 1994, we immediately saw the potential for a storytelling program and we understood that we needed to be storytellers to make it happen. We embraced this because those of us who went on to be the core of the institute all very much wanted to be storytellers. Lorraine Calbow describes that time:

“During those early years, there was a steady core of seven people who kept the momentum with other key folks who ebbed and flowed back in as needed. All the individuals involved were established and mature career professionals. They were successful program planners, seasoned grant writers, key administrators of numerous innovative projects, master teachers and trainers, and proven educational as well as community and organizational leaders. The physical proximity of being at the same college strengthened and allowed the storytelling program to mushroom very quickly. Having a common vision and goal caused the SMCC Storytelling Institute to explode to producing two festivals a year, establishing a program of study, creating an interactive storytelling web site, and providing storytelling training and services to the community. We did this on top of our paid responsibilities.

Jointly developing and achieving our storytelling goals, we became closer because we spent so much time together. We did storytelling training together. We practiced together. We performed together. We taught together. We planned together. We began to relate to each other differently. We learned to rely on one another’s strengths, talents, and fits. We listened to each other ideas and saw the value in incorporating and integrating each idea to strengthen our storytelling programs and events. More importantly, our love for storytelling allowed us to laugh and to have fun together.” (Lorraine Calbow, “History of the SMCC Storytelling Institute,” internal college document)

We went about developing the Storytelling Institute and pursuing our own training as storytellers very systematically. We held annual Fall and Spring Storytelling Festivals, and we chose local and national storytellers whom we knew would be a fit for our students and community, and with whom we wanted to study. We went to the National Conference every summer and to the National Storytelling Festival every October for several years. When the Mesa Storytelling Festival was established in 2004, we incorporated the tellers into our programming and faculty training.

Every storyteller we brought in made presentations to our classes, performed for students and our community, and delivered intensive training for our full-time and adjunct faculty. Over the years, we have featured storytellers who were excellent performers, skilled teachers, and represented both ethnic and stylistic diversity: Donald Davis, Don Doyle, Mary Gay Ducey, Doug Elliott, Elizabeth Ellis, Rex Ellis, Diane Ferlatte, Lyn Ford, Heather Forrest, Susan Klein, Michael Lacapa, Doug Lipman, Jim May, Margaret Read McDonald, Bobby Norfolk, Olga Loya, Jay O’Callahan, Connie Reagan-Blake, Antonio Rocha, Antonio Sacre, Jackie Torrance, Donna Washington, Liz Weir, and Emil Wolfgramm to name several. These tellers became our personal and professional guides and mentors. They shaped us as professional storytellers and as teachers of storytelling. We became storytellers.

Being part of a large, innovative, community college system has been crucial to our ability to establish, grow, and maintain a storytelling program. South Mountain Community College is part of the Maricopa Community College District in metro Phoenix, Arizona. Maricopa is the largest community college district in the nation, and SMCC is the smallest and most diverse of its colleges. We leveraged the power of our college, our college district, and our personal and professional relationships to get the training we needed to create and grow a successful program.

Our chancellor at the time, Paul Elsner, gave us several thousand dollars in seed money to get the program going. Another colleague, Naomi Story, who directed the Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction, also provided us with start-up funds. We used those funds to bring in the storytellers we wanted to work with for the first ten years of the program. When those funds began to wane, our then college president, Ken Atwater, provided us with a small annual budget to support our programming. We supplement those funds with support from college partners such as the International/Intercultural Education program, Early College, Student Life, and the Maricopa American Indian Outreach.

We also took advantage of the professional growth funds we had access to as faculty. Those funds paid for our trips to conferences and festivals. We worked with our visiting storytellers to design the workshops we needed, and then used funding from faculty professional growth to cover the fees. My colleague LynnAnn Wojciechowicz, who was the second director of the Institute, received a sabbatical to develop curriculum on biographical storytelling. I was awarded two sabbaticals: the first to develop my repertoire, and the second to complete the textbook that we use in our introductory course.

The college now supports two dedicated faculty positions in storytelling, the only ones in our community college district. Initially, LynnAnn Wojciechowicz and I had English positions. Overtime, as the storytelling classes continued to fill and succeed, we worked with the college and the district to rename the positions as storytelling. Similarly, originally the prefixes for our courses were ENG (English) and HUM (Humanities). We worked with our district to create the STO prefix, and to establish a Storytelling Instructional Council in parallel with all the other disciplines taught at our colleges. There are currently 45 STO prefix courses in the course bank, and the faculty at SMCC wrote them all.

Student-Centered Curriculum with Artistic and Academic Integrity

 “The Storytelling Institute has been a joy to me. It hasn’t been simply a place I’ve gone to take classes; it’s been a fertile field of friendships and life-changing experiences that I’ll never forget. The instructors have been more than just place holders and grade givers in a room. They have interacted with the students, encouraging, helping, supporting, training, and building confidence. In storytelling classes, the teachers remember not only your name, but your story.” Storytelling Certificate Graduate, 2014

           All the committed faculty in the world won’t get far without courses that meet student needs. We have written courses that meet the needs of three groups of students: those pursuing their Associate of Arts degrees, committed storytelling students, and people from the community who have a particular need or focus.

Degree-Seeking Students: Our two foundational courses are The Art of Storytelling and Multicultural Folktales. They both meet two graduation requirements and transfer well to the university. This makes them very attractive to degree-seeking students.

           Many students come to the Art of Storytelling on the first day expecting an easy humanities credit and that someone cozy will be reading to them. Imagine their surprise when they discover they will be doing the telling, both in and out of class, and that college-level reading and writing is expected. But for all the academic rigor of the class, it is still grounded in face-to-face, oral, traditional storytelling. Each student tells a folktale, a myth or legend, a fact-based story, and a personal story. They analyze twenty traditional stories from five culture areas and they tell three times outside of class.

It is a beautiful thing to see students learn that they can be themselves, tell a story to others without memorizing, and be accepted and often celebrated for doing so. The bountiful capacity of storytelling to create community happens again and again in our basic storytelling classes. Twenty people from diverse social, economic, and ethnic backgrounds who might otherwise never have met form a caring community and friendships that last after the class ends as they watch each other learn and grow as storytellers. I think this may be the most important work that we do as a Storytelling Institute. It simultaneously changes people’s lives and creates a deep awareness of storytelling as a viable, living art form in the community.

This semester, Spring 2016, there are twenty Art of Storytelling classes being offered throughout Maricopa, serving about 400 students. We have been averaging 300 – 400 students in the Art of Storytelling across the district every Fall and Spring semester for the last several years, with a couple hundred more in the Summer. That means that at least 1,000 people are having a significant college storytelling experience in the Phoenix metropolitan area every year. I believe this is part of the reason why Phoenix has such a vibrant storytelling scene. People in our area know what storytelling is and they like it.

Storytelling Certificate Students: The Art of Storytelling and Multicultural Folktales also serve as one of the entry points for our serious storytelling students who intend to complete the 30-credit Academic Certificate. The certificate consists of 18 hours of required courses and 12 hours of electives. The required courses are:

  • The Art of Storytelling: In the introductory course students tell a folktale, myth or legend, fact-based story, and a personal story. They also analyze world folktales, complete assigned readings, and tell outside of class.
  • Storytelling II: This course focuses on repertoire and skill development and identity as a storytelling artist.
  • Multicultural Folktales: The focus here is on folktales as a genre as students learn about traditional story structures, type and motif, and the persistent relevance of the folktale to modern culture.
  • Multicultural Folktales II: Students in this class take a deep dive into one tale type and into the folktale tradition of a particular culture or region.
  • Using Storytelling in a Variety of Settings: Students take this 3-credit class, or they can take three of the 1-credit setting classes that we offer: Using Storytelling in Business Settings, Education Settings, Advocacy Settings, Interpretive Settings, and Healing Settings.
  • Storytelling Practicum: The practicum is a 60-hour capstone experience. Students must tell in public for a total of 15 hours. The other 45 hours are spent in planning, research, and reflection on their experience. The whole 60 hours is documented in a log and summarized in a final paper.

Certificate students can choose from a range of elective courses, including: Creating and Telling Personal Stories, the Irish Storytelling Tradition, the African Storytelling Tradition, Telling Sacred Stories from Around the World, Mythology, and Children’s Literature.

           By May of 2016, 40 people will have completed the academic certificate in storytelling. The majority of our certificate holders are females, in their middle years, who already have degrees and careers. While a few tell professionally, the majority have integrated the skills into their careers, or use them in volunteer contexts.

           The institute has begun partnering with other college and district programs to reach a wider age and interest range. We have integrated storytelling into these certificates:

  • Community Development and Engagement: This 12 credit certificate is designed for people who want to become professional community organizers. Following the lead of Harvard’s Marshall Ganz, storytelling is seen as a key tool for organizers at all levels. We offer The Art of Storytelling with a set of readings specifically designed to meet the needs and interests of organizers.
  • Entrepreneurial Studies: We teach Using Storytelling in Business settings as part of this 16 credit certificate offered by our Entrepreneurial Center, and we provide story coaching for students preparing for pitch contests. Students completing the 16 credit program of study are eligible to apply for a micro-finance business loan from $500 to $2500 with MariSol Federal Credit Union, and their story/pitch skills are very relevant for this.
  • Storytelling Skills for Business: A cohort of 24 high-school students in the college’s Achieving a College Education program are participating in Storytelling Skills for Business. Led by Marilyn Torres, this 43-credit program is the 1st pathway model to be offered at SMCC and is built around the story and communication skills necessary to be a successful entrepreneur. As the program entered its second year in the summer of 2016, students performed the 1stAnnual “Perfect Pitch” concert with the audience voting as potential investors.  By the end of the 2nd year cohort students will be placed in local civic engagement internships.  This will complement their international volunteerism as Youth Ambassadors for the Storytelling Institute’s official charity “Bead for Life”, and to apply their skills in service-learning to women entrepreneurs in the country of Uganda in Central Africa. In the beginning of their 3rd and final program year in the summer of 2017, students will be placed in Internships within the/career business sectors of their interest as part of integrating them into the college’s Workforce Development initiative. Our cohort is expected to graduate as Junior ACE Scholars with their Associate Degrees in Business in the Spring of 2018 and transition to the university.
  • Storytelling Skills for Health Care Professionals: A new cohort pathway focusing on the movement to integrate the arts into the sciences (STEAM) is in the planning process. The use of storytelling skills for health care professionals in the workforce was inspired by the Storytelling Institute’s development of workshops for SMCC’s Bilingual Nursing Program Mentorship Project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to mentor incoming nurses into the profession to increase diversity in future leadership among nurses as caregivers in healthcare.

Community Interest: We offer a series of 1-credit courses specifically designed to apply to focused interests. The courses are Using Storytelling in Educational Settings, Business Settings, Advocacy Settings, Healing Settings, and Interpretive Settings. The most successful format for these classes has been two consecutive Saturdays.

Quality Programming

“The Storytelling Institute has annually brought in nationally and internationally known tellers. It has been a great privilege to hear them perform and to learn from them in the workshops. I hope this continues!” Storytelling Certificate Graduate, 2014

           Providing our students, faculty, and the community with high-quality storytelling events with the best local and national storytellers is a cornerstone of the Storytelling Institute and it serves several important purposes:

  • It provides models for what good storytelling is, what it looks and feels like.
  • It excites people, engages them, and creates interest in our classes and programs.
  • It attracts community partners to help us extend our programming.
  • It provides faculty, students, and the community with ongoing access to high-level training.

Our annual series and signature programs are rooted in traditional stories. We feel a responsibility to guard the flame of folktales, myths, and legends since so much of the storytelling in our country right now is based in personal experience. Myth-Informed in the fall and Folktales for Grownups in the spring are meant to entertain and provide an opportunity for dialogue to deepen learning. These six concerts through the year allow us to explore myth and folktale in both serious and playful ways as we provide opportunities for our faculty, professionals from the community, and advanced students to develop programming.

One of the Myth-Informed nights, the riotously fun Greek and Roman Myth Throwdown has become an annual, and very well attended, favorite in the community. Twenty-six tellers relate three-minute Greek and Roman myths from A to Z and the audience votes for their seven favorites. Those seven then go on to perform in a follow-up concert, Classic Moves.

Myth-Mob, a performance group made up of full and adjunct faculty, put together several programs on themes for Myth-Informed that allowed us to mash-up popular culture and myth, including Three Goddesses and a Guy, You Don’t Own Me, and Big Girls Who Fight. Other Myth-informed nights have featured a single myth or mythic character like Gilgamesh, Osun – Goddess of the River, the story of Sogolon Condé – the mother of Sundiata, Brynhildr from the Völsunga saga, Cupid and Psyche, and the Story of the Grail. Each program is about an hour, with time afterward for dialogue with the teller or tellers.

Folktales for Grown-ups, our spring series, usually features a specific tale type, culture area, or archetypal folktale character such as the trickster or the crone. These programs usually last about 90 minutes, always feature multiple tellers with a mix of faculty, student and community tellers, last about an hour, and also allow time afterward for discussion on both the stories and storytelling.

Our signature program is Return to the African Village, produced every February in connection with African American History Month. Full-time faculty member Marilyn Torres was inspired by her deep personal connection to African oral traditions to create and produce this annual extravaganza of story, culture, drumming, and dance. Now entering our 7th year in 2017, Return to the African Village is built on the premise that a group of faculty and students have been touring Africa. They return to their host village to share their stories and are welcomed by the residents – the elders, storytellers, and children. Marilyn’s vision is to create a sacred space through the production so that all present, on stage or in the audience, can experience the breadth, depth, and beauty of a living tradition.

During the two weeks leading up to the event, we hold our classes in Performance Hall as the stage is being built and decorated. Students received academic lectures and storytelling on the history of the movement of Africans during the “middle passage” that has resulted in a rich legacy of co-mingling of races and cultures from around the world. The week before the production, we bring in a featured teller to expand and deepen what is being learned. Connie Regan-Blake came in 2013 and introduced us to Bead for Life, which has become the Institute’s signature charity. Bobby Norfolk was our featured teller in 2014, and in 2015, we featured Lynette Ford, as we explored the connections between Native American and African traditions. In 2016, Antonio Rocha helped us celebrate the impact of Africa on Brazil. Every year we also feature a traditional dance and drumming group. For the first several years, this was a troupe based in African dance, Kawambe Omowale Drum and Dance Theatre. This year we featured Axe Capoeira of Arizona, and between them, the storytellers, and those serving as villagers there were over 40 people on the stage.

To round out our calendar, we offer several other annual events:

  • Donald Davis comes most years in the fall. In even numbered years he does a public concert and visits classes. In odd numbered years he does a weekend intensive.
  • A Faculty Concert every January that includes stories from all the faculty, and features one of the full time or adjuncts, or a professional from the community.
  • A Graduate Concert featuring stories from those who are completing their 30 credit storytelling certificate in that year.
  • Tellabration on the Friday night before Thanksgiving.
  • Student concerts as needed at the end of each semester.

Strong Internal and External Partnerships

“On Feb. 14, 2011 – one year to the day before the state’s centennial – we launched Arizona Storytellers, a project designed to connect with readers wherever they turn. We couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of the amazing team at SMCC. Arizona Storytellers was and remains a collaborative community effort supported by South Mountain Community College and their certificate program in storytelling.” Keira Nothaft, Senior Director/News Content and Product Development, The Arizona Republic, 2014.

There is high demand for Storytelling, both performance and training, from both our internal and external communities. In 2013, the full and adjunct faculty of the Storytelling Institute produced or participated in 62 events. Thirty-five of those events were internal to the college or district: The Storytelling Institute produced 21 events, and we participated or contributed to 14 other events with college or district partners. Those included the Achieving a College Education Program, the President’s office, International/Intercultural Education, the South Mountain Community Library, the Gila River Indian Community Project, Student Life/Leadership, Upward Bound, and Faculty Development.

Twenty-seven of the events in 2013 that we produced or participated in were for entities external to our college or district. Fourteen of those were for non-profit entities, and thirteen were for corporate entities, the majority being with our major media outlet, The Arizona Republic.

Our two longest and deepest partnerships are with the Mesa Arts Center and the Arizona Republic. We began partnering with the Mesa Arts Center in 2003 as part of the Mesa Storytelling Festival. We helped produce those events, along with integrating a youth storytelling component. When the festival ended in 2009, we continued to partner with the MAC to bring in national level storytellers. Partnering with the MAC allows us to leverage our resources. The national tellers we bring in can stay longer and reach more people as a result.

We have been in partnership with the Arizona Republic since 2010. Marilyn and I designed and facilitated a series of storytelling workshops to prepare people to video-record stories for the Arizona Storytellers Centennial Website in the paper’s year-long lead up to the state’s centennial in February 2012. We also co-produced, coached, and emceed the Republic’s tent at the two-day Centennial Celebration in 2012, which featured over 40 tellers and speakers.

Under the leadership of features reporter Megan Finnerty, the Republic began producing monthly nights of live storytelling in June of 2012. We worked with Megan to design those nights and have provided committed, ongoing support by coaching tellers, recruiting tellers, and telling ourselves. Arizona Storytellers has caught fire in Phoenix, selling out in venues accommodating anything from 200 to 600 people. SMCC and the Institute have been consistently included in the marketing and branding of these events in the paper and on the web. This has been a huge plus for the Storytelling Institute, and has played a major role in increasing the public’s knowledge of storytelling, the Institute, and has also raised the profile of SMCC in the community.

Commitment to Diversity

“The faculty strives to build a community founded on respect, communication, spirit and human warmth. The faculty is able to bring a diverse range of community members together with the professional skill, time, and energy spent on instilling the institute’s cultural values into their department, staff, and students.” Storytelling Certificate Graduate, 2014

Reflecting the diversity of the student body and the community around the college is the foundation of the curriculum, staffing, and event programming in the Storytelling Institute. Creating a diverse, inclusive program has been the driving vision of our program since the beginning, and one that we have pursued with conscious diligence. Phoenix is bisected on its east-west axis by the Salt River. In the earlier part of the 20th century, African Americans were forced to live south of Van Buren Street, and many settled in what was then the rural area below the river which became known as South Phoenix, along with their Mexican-American, Native-American, and Japanese-American neighbors. SMCC is located in South Phoenix, and it remains the part of town with the most ethnic and socio-economic diversity. Responding to this heritage is not just a responsibility, it is a privilege, and one that has deepened and enriched the programming of the Storytelling Institute. A Euro-centric orientation would not only have failed our community, it would have failed our philosophy of storytelling and the role that storytelling has played around the world in human life and culture at the largest level.

We have pursued our commitment to diversity in three primary ways: through our coursework and programming and through our faculty. Our required courses (The Art of Storytelling I and II, Multi-cultural Folktales I and II) by their nature include material from around the world, as well as reflect the diversity of our nation. Our elective courses (Mythology, Telling Sacred Stories from Around the World, African Storytelling Tradition, Irish Storytelling Tradition) are based in the world storytelling tradition, or explore a particular culture in depth. Genre or context based classes (Creating and Telling Personal Stories, Using Storytelling in a Variety of Settings) rely on the diversity that the participants themselves bring to the class. Similarly, our events are built to highlight diversity in both the content and the tellers, and our signature events like Return to the African Village and the new Elder Brother Native American festival specifically reflect the diversity of our community.

But diversity in our coursework and events would not mean much if our faculty was not diverse. From the beginning we have attracted and recruited a diverse faculty. Our current storytelling faculty includes members of African, Latin, Asian, Native, and European ancestry. They range in age from 30 to 60 plus, and also include members of the LGBTQ community.  This didn’t happen by accident. We specifically sought to create this diversity by recruiting, supporting and encouraging likely candidates who came to our classes, our trainings, our college and community events. We encourage them to take more storytelling classes, mentor them, integrate them into our training model, involve them in events, and eventually hire them in our classes at the college and around the district.

The Future of the Storytelling Institute

“Storytelling has enabled me to recognize the commonalities that I have with others and appreciate the differences. Storytelling has allowed me to be open minded to ideas, philosophies, and quite possibly people that I might not have been had I not gone through the institute. I believe in the power of storytelling.” Storytelling Certificate Graduate, 2014.

The initial focus of our program was the folktales, myths, and legends of the world’s oral storytelling traditions. The subsequent community need for, and interest in, personal, family, and fact-based stories has influenced our course content, our event programming, and our community outreach over time. We now have a college storytelling program that can offer the community a wide spectrum of storytelling skills training. Over the years we have developed a reputation for:

  • Well-trained, diverse faculty and continuous faculty and program improvement
  • Innovative and high-quality course offerings
  • Student success and opportunity
  • Workforce relevance and application
  • Multicultural respect and inclusivity
  • Engaging and exciting college and community events
  • Inclusive and collaborative internal partnerships
  • High impact external partnerships
  • Commitment to service and integrity

We started with a vision of the power and relevance of a storytelling program at our community college, and that vision proved to be vividly true. Storytelling as an academic discipline, as an art-form, and as a tool for building community has never been more relevant. Public interest in storytelling is at an all-time high. Now is the time to create storytelling programs in colleges and universities across our nation.