Does Your Community Know Its Story?

Posted by Michele Anderson, Apr 16, 2013 3 comments

Michele Anderson Michele Anderson

What is the one issue in your community that causes the most uncertainty, disagreement, or fear? The one thing that turns everyday citizens into mad-genius poets in their desire to cut through the noise and be heard?

Chances are that this issue might also be the very thing that could bring your community to the next level. But only if some time is taken right now for all community members to be invited to step back, interact, and express themselves about the issue.

Oh, and somehow, to have fun doing it. That’s important.

This is not the job of your city council, or your newspaper’s online forum. This work of imagining the possibilities, making the hard questions beautiful (and even fun), looking at the story from a distance, and then examining it in microscopic detail, is the work of artists. And the good news is that every community has them if you look for them.

For the last two years of managing Springboard for the Arts’ first satellite office in Fergus Falls, MN, I have been increasingly interested in the unique role that our region’s artists can offer to the important process of framing key issues in their communities.

While the rural communities in West Central Minnesota are grappling with many challenges, none have embodied the potential role of transformative leadership from artists more than the controversial fate of the Fergus Falls State Hospital, or “The Kirkbride Building.” 

Aerial view of the Kirkbride Building in Fergus Falls (provided by The Friends of the Kirkbride) Aerial view of the Kirkbride Building in Fergus Falls (provided by The Friends of the Kirkbride)

At 500,000 square feet and covering the span of eight football fields, surrounded by farmland and lush green lawns, the Kirkbride building is the closest that we have to a castle out here on the Minnesota prairie.

However, after shaping the landscape and the economy of this community for more than 100 years, this “castle” will be erased from our community unless something happens soon. And unfortunately, in the meantime, the question of its fate is completely dividing our community.

On the bright side, since its closure in 2009, the Kirkbride building has captivated the imaginations of Fergus Falls’ residents, with its mysterious past and uncertain future. Artists of all types are especially affectionate about the Kirkbride building, several of whom have produced photography exhibits, watercolor postcards, songs, and even a quilt to help raise awareness about the building.

Filmmakers from all over the country have used the building as a set, and the local dance school produced a haunted tour during the Halloween season. This June, Fergus Falls’ Summerfest celebration will use the front steps of the administrative tower for a stage for local bands to play on for the second year in a row.

This particular intersection of a small community on the verge of re-framing one of the most complex and visible situations it might face, and the already mobilized attention of the arts community is impossible to ignore.

I would argue that, rather than the building itself, it is this animation of voices about its past and future that is the most unique asset Fergus Falls possesses at this moment in time. People are participating. And they seem to want more opportunities to imagine and reflect together.

What if we could simply take the time to do so and worry less about finding the answers for awhile? How could this situation strengthen our social capital, and lead us to a solution that the whole city can get behind?

Last spring, local artist Naomi Schliesman and I were contemplating the question everyone asks about the Kirkbride at some point, “What can we do?”

Fergus Falls resident Gene Schmidt writes his ideas on a chalkboard silhouette of the Kirkbride Building (photo by Michele Anderson) Fergus Falls resident Gene Schmidt writes his ideas on a chalkboard silhouette of the Kirkbride Building (photo by Michele Anderson)

A week or so later, Naomi showed up at my office with a nine-foot-wide chalkboard silhouette of the building, which we titled, “What Else is Possible?”

We sent some emails and invited the community to write or draw their ideas and memories on the board. For the next few weeks, Springboard’s little artist resource center in downtown Fergus Falls transformed into a humble, but magical intersection of a think tank and a group therapy session.

There were arguments, laughter and new people meeting one another. My favorite moment was when one man who at first was intimidated about “drawing” ended up doing so for an hour, diligently, and came back several days later to show his daughter the contribution he made to the board.

The best part was that several months later, the chalkboard was more or less adopted by the community—it traveled to several venues and was even in a parade. It became a sort of communal sketchbook, an alternative mode of expression that was desperately needed in such a contentious environment.

In The Fourth Pillar of Sustainability, John Hawkes asks, “How can a community develop a conscious, symbolic and effective expression of its own values, meanings and aspirations (that is, culture) without having developed its own creative capacities (that is, art)?”

I really believe that if every community recognizes its artists’ potential as leaders, and invites them into their processes in a way that they can be responsive and knowledgeable about how to work with many perspectives, then from that will come something so beautifully simple: Stories.

We need stories because they strengthen our relationships—they help us feel recognized and they help us empathize with others. From stronger relationships, ideas become woven, and the conditions for serendipity and innovation are nurtured.

I don’t know about you, but that is what I picture when I think of a strong, homegrown economy—one that is less about jobs and money but more about the story the community tells itself, the one that sets it apart and makes people proud to live there.

3 responses for Does Your Community Know Its Story?


April 16, 2013 at 3:24 pm

Michelle, your story about the impact of stories, is a great story ;-) I love the moveable chalkboard motif. It demonstrates, tangibly, just how art can impact a decision process as well as the community: such a simple gesture, having such a large impact. The arts have a way, and an important role, in sparking dialogue.

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April 16, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Michelle, wonderful. When you think about learning, it is stories from which we learn when we are young; stories we remember as we grow up and stories we cling to as we grow old; it is stories that cross over cultures, stories that connect places and stories that co-create community. Rethinking "artists" as the leaders of story in all our communities is a powerful and important message. More important than any economic model or statistical figure. Stories are about heart. Thank you for sharing. :-)

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April 17, 2013 at 1:40 pm


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