Constelación de Historias: Community Storytelling in East Boston

Zumix Walk and Talk

NEFA Award Recipient

East Boston, MA

Contact Name
Brittany Thomas
Project Dates
July 2018 to present.
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Municipal government and planning, Social action and justice, Placemaking/placekeeping
Constelación de Historias is a community storytelling project about life and housing in East Boston. During a time of rapid housing development in the neighborhood, Constelación de Historias brings neighbors together to create a locally produced narrative about the people that bring Eastie to life and their hopes for its future. Through creative practice, we hope to open a window for more inclusive participation in our neighborhood's master planning process. The project is led 94.9FM ZUMIX Radio, a community radio station powered by youth.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
ZUMIX Radio keeps a good pulse on the topics of concern in East Boston. For the past year, the issue of displacement has been central in the radio studio's conversation. We continually heard a couple common points. First, gentrification is often discussed and covered in media as an inevitable, unsolvable national trend. And second, this type of narrative in a changing neighborhood results in feelings of insecurity and anxiety among tenants at risk of displacement. Through this project, we hope to open space for live events where neighbors can share and listen to stories that are more nuanced and personal than the singular 'gentrification narrative.' We want neighbors to be able to learn about the grassroots efforts responding to the issue of displacement, feel solidarity with others by sharing time and stories, and realize some of their power to participate in and influence city planning for the future of the neighborhood.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
Throughout the project, we've been following the City of Boston's implementation of Plan East Boston -- the city planning process that will define the neighborhood's vision for the future of housing, open space, mobility and climate adaptation in the coming years. When the Boston Planning & Development Agency announced a call for nominations for an Advisory Group to advise the process, the Constelación de Historias events seemed like a good opportunity to connect more residents to city planning. Planners from the BPDA attended two of our events and were able to collect nominations and feedback from neighbors who didn't attend their official public hearings. We began to see an additional positive outcome in our creative events' potential to reach different residents with information that is critical to ensure a community-driven, participatory planning process.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
Constelación de Historias has two organizational partners: Stand for Democracy and the Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity (CCDS).

Stand for Democracy is a group of volunteers that formed in 2013 to work alongside the faith community in East Boston in resistance to a proposed casino at Suffolk Downs. Today, they continue working with local congregations to determine the future of that same piece of land -- which was most recently on the shortlist for Amazon's second national headquarters -- asking for more transparency and a more democratic process in the redevelopment of the parcel. Stand for Democracy hosts a weekly radio show on ZUMIX Radio, and collaborated in the outreach and facilitation of live events for Constelación de Historias.

The Center for Cooperative Development and Solidarity is a grassroots community group that provides popular education training in the formation of worker-owned cooperatives. The group formed in 2015 in response to a wall collapse that displaced several families down the street from ZUMIX. Neighbors began meeting in the basement of the East Boston Lutheran Church to realize their economic power and find ways to remain in the neighborhood, despite rising rent prices and the poor conditions of the affordable housing stock. CCDS collaborated on Constelación de Historias, assisting in the facilitation of the live events. CCDS' digital video and design cooperative produced video documentation for three of the events to support outreach for the project.

ZUMIX Radio youth journalists used their audio production skills to record voiceovers, produce audio documentaries for our Sound Walk, and develop PSAs for community outreach. Youth also facilitated our Audio Challenge, a community workshop that taught community members to record their own personal audio stories about places of significance to them in the neighborhood.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
The City of Boston has initiated Plan East Boston in response to development that has largely grown outside of the neighborhood's current zoning ordinances. It is apparent that granting variances to so many large-scale developments has resulted in a new neighborhood fabric that doesn't represent residents' priorities around affordability, open space, and preservation. This project wishes to bring neighbors together in communal space, provide chances to realize shared solidarity and power to shape the future of the neighborhood, and bolster the city's outreach efforts through creative and fun practices. We think that future planning requires flexible, expansive thinking, a type of mind frame that comes when we are sharing stories and making art. We hope that Plan East Boston will outline a long-term strategy for neighborhood development that is reflective of residents' desires, because of our collective commitment to increase participation in the planning process.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
In dreaming up plans for this project, we drew inspiration from the street journalism of the Listening Post Collective, a New Orleans-based project that solicited residents' opinions on a range of open questions posted on telephone poles around town. We are inspired by transformative media organizing practices that shift the framing of stories into the hands of people most affected by a community issue. In addition, we look to other community-based organizations like City Bureau in Chicago, which actively trains neighbors to produce journalism that offers a new perspective from the dominant narratives coming out of larger news outlets. City Bureau is a motivating example of journalism and data storytelling working to hold government accountable.
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
July: We started meeting with our collaborators to discuss the questions we were most interested in asking neighbors. We led circle processes to hear from each other what we wanted to learn more about housing, displacement and planning. We devised an outreach plan for how to connect with neighbors who might not be at traditional community meetings.

August: We held our first event in the series, the Audio Challenge. Facilitated by ZUMIX youth, this event taught neighbors the different elements of an audio story, opened conversation about hope, transformation and love in the neighborhood, and provided space for teams of youth and adults to walk to some of their favorite places in the neighborhood to conduct short interviews and record personal stories.

September: The 3rd Annual ZUMIX Radio Block Party featured boom box installations, offering attendees the chance to listen back to some of the neighbor-produced stories from the August Audio Challenge. Listeners were invited to record their own reflections on transformation, evolution, friendship and more. Our collaborators invited more folks to attend the future Constelación events in October and November.

October: Our Constelación de Historias Sound Walk invited residents to follow a sidewalk map to different locations around East Boston to hear youth and neighbor-produced stories about the people who bring those places to life and the community groups working for a more stable housing environment. Participants' maps brought them to Cactus Grill for a taco on us, music by ZUMIX alumni, Omar Sosa, and his band, Pangea, an interactive sound painting offering sneak previews of stories on the map, and a table staffed by the BPDA planners soliciting residents for the Plan East Boston Advisory Group.

November: The final live event in the fall series, the Constelación de Historias Story Loft, brought neighbors together for a night of live storytelling. The night opened with a performance by ZUMIX's youth Latin Ensemble, followed by zine making and open response questions wallpapering the room. Neighborhood resident, organizer and ZUMIX alumni, Gloribell Mota, shared a long-form story about her life, followed by a lively Q&A with audience members. The night was simultaneously interpreted into Spanish and live broadcast via our radio station 94.9FM ZUMIX Radio. We closed the month of November with a dinner for all of the collaborators of the Constelación project to share reflections and feedback about our past work together and plan for how to carry the project forward.
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
The implementation of the project fulfilled our desired targets. We were hoping to have more of a digital presence for the work to support the live events, but found that this became less of a priority due to people power capacity. In this next phase, we want to focus on archiving and sharing the work that was produced in the past months to amplify its impact. We also hope to creatively cover and report on the ongoing meetings of the planning process through a youth perspective.
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
For a project in which the participation of many neighbors is highly valued, we have continued to strive to improve our outreach practices. We've utilized the local English and Spanish print news, our radio station, our relationships with other community based organizations and their constituents, and larger scale public media to spread the word. We found that there is a section of Eastie residents who are already highly engaged in community efforts, and many more for whom the demands of work and family life make attending community events difficult. Our goal has been to try to increase the participation of new residents by merging creativity, language accessibility and education about the roots of displacement in an event series that builds momentum.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Strong relationships were central to including more residents in the project. We distributed the outreach efforts among our collaborators, to encourage people in their circles to invite others. We were able to welcome new attendees at each of the events, because participants had a positive experience and showed up at the next event in the series with a friend.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
Value your team and democratic processes in planning. The impact of the project is just as much about the relationships strengthened between the core group of collaborators, as it is about the ripples they create in the community.

Start modestly and aggressively incorporate feedback into future work. Starting a participatory project takes a whole lot of patience and commitment to the vision.

Celebrate small moments, because that's what its all about.
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
Rapid development and the displacement of the Latino community has social, cultural and economic implications in the neighborhood. Families are facing the stress of uncertainty on a broad scale. On a community level, the high demand for housing in the neighborhood has lessened landlords' incentive to appropriately update and repair apartments, knowing that their tenants are hard pressed to find an alternative at a similar price. Families and young people are experiencing new stressors with other social implications, like students' ability to focus in school and neighbors' sense of agency in creating community. Culturally, the business landscape has begun to change from many of the small stores and restaurants with Central American roots to newer businesses catering to more economically advantaged clients. Residents now notice a marked difference between who walks to the left at Maverick Square, towards the waterfront buildings, and who walks to the right, towards the buses to Revere and Chelsea. Economically, East Boston now has a large income disparity between those living in new buildings and those living sometimes just across the street in public housing or older triple deckers. We need policies and planning that helps maintain a racially and economically diverse neighborhood in the midst of market pressures.

This project hopes to highlight some of these issues, framing them through the work of community groups who have realized their agency and are working for solutions. None of these social, cultural or economic impacts is inevitable. However, they do demand active participation from more people, to counter the business interests encouraging this type of upscale development suited for high income residents. Constelación de Historias lives at the intersection of community documentation and engagement, and hopes to strengthen our participatory city planning process.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
It is difficult to sum up a project's impact when part of the goal involves perspective shifting. We haven't been able to measure if neighbors are feeling more hopeful about the future of East Boston, or if they decided to attend a certain community meeting because of something they listened to at a Constelación event. We do know that we built very strong and durable relationships between the team of about thirty people who helped organize the series. We do know that we reached new people who hadn't before attended zoning or planning meetings. We do know that the BPDA collected several nominations for residents to join the Advisory Group at our events. And we heard from our young people that they had learned about cooperative work from older neighbors, and from older neighbors that they were inspired to keep working because of the young people in the room.

Some of the feedback we received from the Story Loft includes: "There's hope if we work in community;" "Reciprocity is key to a wholesome community;" "It's so rare for people to slow down and spend time with each other sharing stories. It is also unusual for people to hang with folks different than themselves. Tonight was a strong example of community and cohesion. I loved it!" "Many thoughts about continuing the work and not abandoning the fight." This type of feedback gave us confidence that the kind of programming we produced was fulfilling the goals we have for the project.
How did you measure this success or progress?
We tracked our progress in terms of both outputs and new paid opportunities for youth and local artists. We produced four events, reaching approximately 200 active attendees. We paid 12 young people for their work producing audio, playing music and facilitating events. We paid 15 local artists for their work designing outreach materials, producing video documentation, playing music, and staffing events. We paid two organizational collaborators for outreach support. We also were able to share our work via local public radio station WBUR, coverage that increased the visibility of our work and provided a ripple effect in the increased awareness of a larger audience.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
We had a lot of fun, and we connected even more deeply to our community. This was a new chapter for ZUMIX Radio to envision new forms of live storytelling and new uses for our radio station as a community resource. There is an important space to fill in locally produced journalism around issues of great relevance to neighbors, and we are filled with inspiration for future work that will grow from this project. This was perhaps an expected, but auxiliary impact.
CCX Workshop Handout

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