Storytelling to Capture Community Cohesion
Sense of place can be difficult to define and express. It’s subjective, political, aesthetic, poetic. You can feel it when you’re there, but everyone will feel differently based on their personal histories and experiences.
Daphne Xu, filmmaker and urban planner
When the MAPC team started a small business plan for the City of Quincy in 2019, we turned first to the familiar tools of our practice. We examined demographic data, learning that between 1990 and 2016, Greater Boston’s Asian American population grew by 350,000, much of that in Quincy. We conducted surveys and interviews with small-business owners. This data fed into economic development strategy recommendations.
Our approach, however, felt incomplete. We’d heard stories in the course of our work: how Quincy’s Asian American business community as a whole had come to thrive, but how individual immigrants’ personal paths had held extra challenges. We wanted to reveal the lived experience of this burgeoning community, and we felt renewed urgency to do so in the face of pandemic-related scapegoating of Asian Americans.
Storytelling and art, we thought, could help us document, measure, understand, and share this experience. We engaged the filmmaker, urban planner, and anthropologist Daphne Xu, who promptly challenged our assumptions and approach.
“Stories and ‘art’” she wrote to us, “are often spoken of as tools in the planning context. Economic development, civic dialogue, and evoked empathy are some of its benefits. But I am more interested in art as open-ended expression, creation, and exploration. What does it mean to be in a position of influence within the often-bureaucratic planning realm, and to discuss the built environment artfully, with true curiosity and compassion?”
Xu, who currently works with several community-based organizations in Boston’s Chinatown, assumed artistic leadership on the project. With the help of those organizations, she explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives of three Chinese American entrepreneurs: Jim, Lorraine, and Chris. Through distanced conversations and self-recorded footage, Xu directed three ten-minute films that depict the granular details of a day in the life of a small-business owner, and the struggle to survive without adequate financial relief amid a state-mandated occupancy and operating restriction.
The films feature a regional tourism agency operator pivoting her business to grocery delivery; a Kung Fu and dance academy owner worried about the cultural relevance of traditional lion dance; and a salon owner following public health restrictions in the solitude of his workplace on a quiet street in Quincy.
The stories reveal the many layers of community. They illuminate the history, identity, and challenges facing the Asian American community – as well as their strength, ingenuity, and resiliency – with a complexity well beyond what could be summarized in our report.
As planners, we too often cherry-pick, process, and condense narratives of lived experiences to make sense in a report. We feed the words and experiences of those whose lives we aim to improve through a machine of our own making. These strategies often result in an incomplete, flattened perspective.
Xu’s videos are far from unshaped, as they’re the result of an artist and her process. They do, however, put front and center direct expressions that planners have not interpreted, filtered, or synthesized – the kinds of words we often tuck into footnotes. The videos bring to light what is said and how it was said.
This kind of subtlety doesn’t replace traditional data, but it helps us see it in new ways. It can influence how we think about policy. With the help of artists like Xu, who seek and capture these organic nuances, planners can deepen our understanding of communities and expand our traditional norms of practice.
For that to happen, though, artists must be considered partners and be given room to create and lead. The process must be iterative. It must prioritize feedback. And we as planners must be open to their vision of the final product.
Storytelling offers us a whole new way to learn – a way that doesn’t demand we turn what we hear into strategies and solutions. It allows us to empathize and shift our understanding of the world around us. It allows room for the familiar and the unfamiliar.
Artists, given the reins, can transcend our assumptions. They can get us beyond what we think we know; they can teach us to listen.
Written by MAPC Economic Development Planner Jenn Kaplan and MAPC's Arts and Culture team.