1. Beyond Participation: Community Storytelling for Self-Organization

    By Lizzie MacWillie + Nicolas Rivard

    The use of “participation” is ubiquitous across city-making disciplines – planning, policy, public art, architecture, among others – as a presumed good for public city works. To be “participatory” has meant to signal inherently egalitarian and democratized practices. But alongside the ascendance of the term, theorists have strongly criticized the capacity of these participatory practices to effect lasting structural change. How, then, can these city-making disciplines refine their practices – rhetorically and pragmatically – to more meaningfully foster communities’ capacities to self-identify and organize? In this essay, we propose a model and language of “inclusion” as an alternate form of public engagement which focuses on building community capacity to self-identify and organize. Moreover, we argue that in practice, employing storytelling in these creative structures is a particularly strong way to bolster inclusive community engagement. In order to better understand the role that narrative can play in self-organization, we’ll examine projects from three practices – Freehouse from Jeanne van Heeswijk, Neighborhood Stories from Building Community Workshop, and the Urban Investigations program from the Center for Urban Pedagogy – that incorporate narrative as an inclusive process. Finally we will consider how creative practice can go beyond inclusive storytelling to embed narrative into the built environment itself.

    Community organizer and teacher Marshall Ganz has written and lectured extensively on the importance of narrative as a practice for realizing community change. His work is a clear identification of the link between narrative and self-organization. A narrative is a means for a community to understand where it’s been, where it is, and where it wants to go. It has a plot, an arc, that is driven by emotions and values. These emotions and values are what drive people’s decisions about what is important to them.  A community story is a collective one that brings to light common values and what unites that particular community. Communities must be able to write these stories for themselves, because, as Ganz has said, “If we don’t author our story, others will. And they may tell our story in ways that we may not like.”[i] Whether intentional or not, telling someone else’s story for them can rob a community of the ability to take positive action toward transformation. Ganz has also written that “storytelling is the discursive form through which we translate our values into the motivation to act,”[ii] making it a foundational step toward physical transformation. In other words, the narratives which communities understand about their cities have real implications on the changes those communities seek to prioritize.

    As valuable as narrative can be to community change, knowing what story to tell, how to tell it, or even recognizing that there is a story there to tell, is not an obvious process. Rather, it requires cooperation, co-learning, and guidance, found in the form of the practices we are looking at here. The product of these efforts takes different forms depending on the goals of the co-producers and the intended audience. These types of cooperative processes are usually described as “participatory” projects, however here we wish to discuss them in terms of their “inclusive” qualities.

    In their text Distinguishing Participation and Inclusion, Quick & Feldman argue that the backlash against participation has resulted in a suspicion and sometimes outright rejection of the broader idea of public engagement.  Public engagement is a crucial component to creating cities that more accurately reflect and address the needs and desires of all citizens. If participation is not the universal solution to public engagement, other processes must be elaborated and employed. In the same text, Quick & Feldman also claim that although inclusion and participation are mistakenly assumed to be the same thing, inclusion is actually an alternate form of public engagement that addresses much of the criticism launched against participation. They posit that inclusion, unlike participation, is a temporally open-ended approach of co-production that engages stakeholders who have different knowledge sets and expertise. The authors describe a number of policy related examples of inclusion. However, what inclusive engagement might look like in creative practice is less evident and is what we will explore here. We have specifically identified the processes of writing, speaking and representing narrative as particularly powerful, recurring examples.

                Community storytelling incorporates three criteria of inclusion:

    (1) Engaging multiple ways of knowing - a single knowledge set is not adequate for putting together a well-balanced and legible narrative. Different professional, social, cultural backgrounds have different ways of interpreting the world, and more ways of knowing means more ways of seeing. Unique knowledge sets means more ways of representing and ultimately more ways of appealing to a range of audiences.

    (2) Co-production of content and process - while a community narrative contains the voices of individuals; it is more than the collection of many individual stories. Rather, it is out of the intersection of these individual stories that the collective narrative is co-produced.

    (3)Temporal openness - narratives change. Once a value is translated into action another issue might arise, shifting a community’s story to a new common value.

                The following case studies examine different ways in which narrative is used as an inclusive tool for self-organizing. The approaches of these initiatives range from helping communities tell their own stories to creating tools that enable communities to understand the story of their cities at it currently exists. In each case, the use of narrative fosters the conditions for self-organization.


    a. Freehouse

    For many cities, the “creative city” has become an idealized brand. The process of achieving this ideal is one of re-writing the urban story to fit the desired image. An unfortunately narrow definition of what constitutes creativity results in the erasure of neighborhoods that fail to conform to the perceived ideal but actually contain rich creative communities.  This erasure often comes in the form of urban renewal or gentrification. This reality was the impetus for the beginning of Freehouse in the Afriakeenderwijk neighborhood. Freehouse brings together neighborhood residents to tell a community narrative instead of waiting for it to be rewritten by somebody else.

    Quick and Feldman wrote, “Inclusion practices entail continuously creating a community involved in co-producing processes, policies, and programs for defining and addressing public issues.”[iii] The interventions of Freehouse identified a community of skilled, local entrepeneurs, reframing the city’s narrow definition of “creative” to include such residents. This fall, the main room of Freehouse was filled with goods produced in the neighborhood. Accompanying each item was a description of the work and the individual or group who made it. Graphics on the wall described the economic ecology of the neighborhood - charting the different flows of capital depending on whether a locally purchased good is produced in or outside of the neighborhood. Together these artifacts paint a rich depiction of a vibrant community of talented entrepreneurs.

    In her text Radicalizing the Local: Inclusive Urbanism Strategies, Jeanne van Heeswijk wrote that “Co-producers are stakeholders and interested parties who connect—formally or informally—with others and, in the process, create public space.”[iv] Freehouse is such a space, and the fact that it is has been a physical space, one that has been co-produced, is key. Not only has Freehouse provided a place for debating and organizing, but it has been a place for celebration. Of celebration, Ganz wrote that “if we do our deliberative work in meetings, we do our storytelling in celebrations… A celebration is not a party. It is a way members of a community come together to honor who they are, what they have done, where they are going …. Celebrations provide rituals that allow us to join in enacting a vision of our community….”[v] Celebrations, like this conference, mark new beginnings; they are a step between creating the story of who we want to be and enacting that vision.


    b. Neighborhood Stories

    Drawing from the research and representation skills sets of planning, community organizing, and documentary arts, Neighborhood Stories gathers and presents the narratives of a diverse set of neighborhoods across the city of Dallas, Texas. Started in 2012 by Dallas based community design center Building Community Workshop, Neighborhood Stories is part of a decidedly neighborhood focused-initiative called People Organizing Place (POP) which aims to create community experts. The goal is to empower residents to identify and address problems and potential in their own neighborhoods. Each Neighborhood Stories project focuses on a single neighborhood for period of research and culminates in a public celebration and presentation of the work.

    Project content is co-produced with BC and community stakeholders, neighborhood groups, and individuals. Maps of the area at pivotal moments of development and archival research are collected, and together they depict how building, infrastructure and urban fabric have changed over time. In addition to telling a history, the resulting material – a booklet filled with text, maps, and photographs – visualizes the impact planning decisions have in the long term. Video recorded oral histories from residents, both long term and recent arrivals, document personal experiences. These accounts depict the positive – memorable celebrations, a thriving local business from their childhood, an important local figure – and the negative – the closing of the neighborhood church, or the destruction of historically significant building. Together the two types of research provide examples, potential blueprints, inspiration - reminders of what was tried, what was successful, and what failed.

    A final event held in a local public space is an opportunity to present the work – the neighborhood documentary is aired, an exhibit displays the research material, and the neighborhood is celebrated. It is a chance for all of those involved to see the products of their efforts, and for all of the stakeholders to gather in one spot, perhaps for the first time. Again, celebration here marks a beginning, creates a precedent. “Beginnings are when storytelling is at its most powerful… The way we interpret these moments of great uncertainty – about the future, about each other, about what we’re doing – establish the norms, create the expectations, and shape patterns of behavior that influence all subsequent development of our group, organization, or movement.”[vi]  In contrast to the conference for Freehouse where self-organization has already begun to manifest itself and translate into action, the Neighborhood Stories events are the beginning of self-organization.  


    c. Cities Studies

    The Center for Urban Pedagogy is an educational non-profit that uses “design and art to improve civic engagement.”[vii] The Urban Investigation program partners a teaching artist with high school students to investigate how a particular aspect of the city works, for instance looking into “Where does garbage go in New York City?” Students go out into the city to learn about their topic through conducting interviews, taking field notes and visual documentation, becoming urban detectives. Once the research is conducted, students become teachers by creating a teaching tool in the form of a visual or multimedia narrative which explains the answer to the initial question of investigation.

    In 2008’s Bodega Down Bronx CUP worked with high school students to look at food markets in the Bronx. Students met with health experts, food suppliers, bodega owners, local politicians and community advocates to understand the ins and out of the food chain that ends with the bodega – the most prevalent point of access to food in that part of New York City. They considered what food was available in their neighborhood, how it got there, and why the bodega, not the supermarket, is so common in the Bronx. Rather than just the story of a supply chain Bodega Down Bronx weaves together a neighborhood story that draws connections between health, income, planning, politics, and food access. Constructing and telling a clear story requires mental and technical skills. Raw information and thoughts need to be solicited, ordered and edited, often translated into visualizations or media. The skills acquired during this process remain beyond the duration of the project and contribute to a new way of thinking about and seeing the city, of understanding how things have come to be as they are, and the potential to change how things might be.

    As urban designers seeking effective tools for promoting equality through our work, we see a great potential in the development of community narrative is a form of inclusion that sets the stage for self-organization. Designers, artists and planners have unique knowledge and skill sets that are particularly well suited to understanding and depicting urban conditions, helpful assets to developing community narrative. We encourage those involved in city-making to consider other ways in which narrative and celebration can be incorporated into their practice, either directly or by making it easier for others to develop their own narrative. An example of direct incorporation is the physical manifestation of narrative in the built environment - as in the recently opened Newark Riverfront Park where the visual depiction of community narrative has been incorporated into the park’s signage. A potentially valuable guide communities to use in order to develop their narrative is Interboro Partners’ Arsenal of Exclusion/Inclusion, a dictionary of ways in which urban elements make a city more open or closed,.  By initiating work such as this, city design will move away from a set of practices that seek homogenous city brands, toward practices that, through the promotion of self-organization, embrace and find value in the unique character of our cities’ neighborhoods.

    * For more information about the projects and practices discussed here, please check out their websites:




    And a few of the many other projects that have inspired us:





    CUP: About http://welcometocup.org/About (accessed January 6, 2014).

    Ganz, Marshall. “Organizing Course: Motivation, Story and Celebration.” Course packet, Harvard Universiy, 2006.

    Ganz, Marhsall. “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power.” In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Intertia to Public Action, by Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee, 273-289. Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2011.

    Quick, Kathryn, and Martha Feldman. “Distinguishing Participation and Inclusion.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 31, no. 3 (2011): 272-290.

    Van Heeswijk, Jeanne. “Radicalizing the Local: Inclusive Urban Strategies”. Rotterdam, 2013.

    [i] Ganz, Marhsall. “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power.” In Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Intertia to Public Action, by Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee, (Washington, DC: The World Bank, 2011), 284.

    [ii] Ganz, “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power,” 280.

    [iii] Quick, Kathryn, and Martha Feldman. “Distinguishing Participation and Inclusion.” Journal of Planning Education and Research 31, no. 3 (2011): 272.

    [iv] Van Heeswijk, Jeanne. “Radicalizing the Local: Inclusive Urban Strategies”. Rotterdam, 2013: 2.

    [v] Ganz, “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power,” 288.

    [vi] Ganz, Marshall. “Organizing Course: Motivation, Story and Celebration.” Course packet, Harvard Universiy, 2006. 21

    [vii] CUP: About http://welcometocup.org/About (accessed January 6, 2014).