Cincinnati Neighborhoods Cross Cultural Divides With Storytelling

Cincy Stories gives people a platform to share their stories and build connections.
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From left to right, Chris Ashwell, Antonio White, and Shawn Braley discuss Cincy Stories’ work in the Avondale neighborhood at WVXU public radio station in downtown Cincinnati.

Photo from Chris Ashwell.

Most ballet dancers get started as young children, while their bodies and minds are most pliable for learning the discipline. But Antonio White, 21, didn’t step foot in a dance studio until well into his teenage years.

“I saw it on TV a long time ago, and I always wanted to do it,” he said about his aspirations to become a dancer, adding that he discussed it with everybody he knew.

But given White’s economic circumstances, paying expensive tuition and buying pricey dance wear wasn’t an option. He and his mother were evicted from their Cincinnati apartment when he was 15 years old, and they spent many months moving between homeless shelters and the homes of family and friends.

Things changed for White at age 16. He met a family, the Nugents, in the church he attended regularly. They took him in, and their daughter, who danced ballet, helped him get enrolled in classes at the Cincinnati Ballet, where he danced on a merit-based scholarship until he was 18.

Antonio White after an advance ballet class at De La Dance Center, where he dances six days out of the week. Photo by Liz Brazile.

Today, White spends an average of six days per week perfecting his art at De La Dance Center, and as a result has sacrificed making a steady income along the way. But the joy of pursuing his passion outweighs his financial obstacles.

White now lives with his younger sister, her partner, and his 1-year-old nephew in a one-bedroom apartment in Cincinnati’s Avondale neighborhood, where the median household income is about $18,000.

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“I don’t feel like I’m struggling,” he said. “Last year I felt like I was struggling because I had to get used to not having money. But as someone was just telling me the other day, that $20 [per hour] job is always going to be there, but your career of dancing and you being young is not going to be forever.”

In August, White was out and about in the neighborhood and wandered into Avondale Story Gallery. He met co-founders of the multimedia storytelling platform Cincy Stories, Chris Ashwell and Shawn Braley. The two have since produced a short documentary highlighting White’s life experiences as part of their “Street Stories: Avondale” series of films.

Cincy Stories, which has been around since 2015, focuses on sharing stories that originate from neighborhoods experiencing change and development, and where the greatest socioeconomic and racial divides exist. In 2015, financial news and analysis company 24/7 Wall Street ranked Cincinnati the fifth most-segregated city in the nation, with 48.6 percent of the population living in segregated areas. Ashwell and Braley say the creation of Cincy Stories wasn’t directly inspired by the 2016 presidential race, but many of the issues they are addressing feed into the sociopolitical tensions dividing the nation.

“The political climate is wrapped up into this whole problem that we have as human beings, it seems, of being able to see ourselves in other people that don’t instantly remind us of [ourselves],” Ashwell said. “The equation that we kind of came up with is that community is based on relationships and [that] relationships are based on stories. So if you think of any relationship with a person that you develop, it happens when you start sharing your personal experiences with each other, whether it’s talking about the weather or where you grew up.”

The organization doesn’t have an operating budget and relies on project-based funding, which it secures through private and public grants awarded by foundations and community development corporations. It hosts live storytelling events every quarter with smaller gatherings occurring in between. Those events were Cincy Stories’ first platform because, although it lacked funding, its founders were still able to get people into a room to listen to one another.

“Community is based on relationships and relationships are based on stories.” 

“When we first started this, we were giving people a microphone and saying, ‘You have 15 minutes to tell whatever story you want,’” Ashwell said. But he and Braley soon found that this approach led to people talking at length about their careers and businesses, or speaking as though they were giving an inspirational speech—something he says isn’t really conducive to bridge-building.

“Now we kind of ask people to try and tell something that would be relatable to anybody, because before you want to get to discussions about what defines you as a person, you want to make sure that people see themselves in you,” Ashwell added.

But notwithstanding the popularity of the live events, the overall impact is limited. 

Antonio White practices barre work at De La Dance Center. Photo by Liz Brazile.

“We knew in that space, you’re only able to impact so many people,” Braley said. “If you have 200 people at an event, you’re impacting those 200 people and hoping that they go out and are change-makers wherever they are, and that they’ll listen to and care for people and be empathetic. But all we know is this tangible thing is happening on this one night, once a quarter.”

On that account, in 2016 Ashwell and Braley decided to add a digital component to Cincy Stories. “We started just by creating documentaries about seemingly random people that we connected to and found to be interesting,” Braley said. “We did like five or six of those videos, and outside of just telling stories about Cincinnati, there wasn’t really a point to them just yet.”

“We wanted to create a space where the whole community comes and feels comfortable.”

Since starting the documentaries, Ashwell and Braley have won three regional Emmy Awards, founded three brick-and-mortar story galleries, and launched numerous video and audio projects. They are also spending a year embedded in various communities, getting to know residents. The plan is to produce approximately 20 multimedia stories from each. Anybody can visit their free-entry galleries, which are located in the Avondale, Walnut Hills, and Price Hill neighborhoods of Cincinnati, to listen to or share digitally archived stories and participate in storytelling activities with others. People are also welcome to stop by for free refreshments, to use the Wi-Fi, or simply unwind.

“We realize that in so many neighborhoods, especially developing or low-income neighborhoods like Walnut Hills or Avondale, there aren’t spaces that everybody can go into,” Braley said. “There are cost barriers and typically very segregated places. So we wanted to create a space where the whole community comes and feels comfortable.”

Ensuring that Cincy Stories is replicable has also been a big consideration for Ashwell and Braley as they’ve expanded. Program developers from cities such as Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, have shown an interest in adopting similar models in their own communities.

“Our goal is not to stop in Cincinnati,” Ashwell said. “There’s no reason this could only work in Cincinnati. It’s taken some mistakes and failures to figure out what works and what doesn’t, but we believe that every community across the country could do something like this.”

But Cincy Stories’ work doesn’t just stop at relaying people’s stories. Ashwell and Braley hold storytelling workshops to help budding raconteurs refine their craft, and work with teens on a podcast called Young Voices of Cincinnati. They hope to turn the project eventually into a nonprofit media school for youth. The two also successfully lobbied business owners in Walnut Hills to sponsor a resident’s campaign to bring Little League Baseball back to the neighborhood and launched a fundraising initiative for White to be able to purchase dance attire.

That will help White, but working with Cincy Stories was an uplifting experience. “I felt so happy,” he said, “the fact that they wanted to videotape me was just like a privilege—that they chose me to do this.”

Meanwhile, White plans to let his spirituality and commitment to dancing guide his course.

“Honestly, I’m riding on pure faith right now,” he said. “I’m going to just keep working as hard as I can, and in about a year, I’m going to go audition for a [dance] company somewhere.”