Rejecting the Single Story: How a Partnership is Bridging Community Voices and Local History
“Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize…When we reject the single story, when we realize there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”
—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story
Engaging with, and raising up, the diverse stories of our community here in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is one central goal of the partnership between two local institutions, the Minnesota Historical Society and the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation. Together, these institutions have partnered to deliver the Neighborhood Leadership Program (NLP), which engages existing and emerging leaders from diverse backgrounds to take informed action on important issues facing Saint Paul and Minnesota.
Though NLP has been in existence for the past 20 years with nearly 800 alumni – focusing on awareness of self, working effectively with others, and taking meaningful action – the partnership with MNHS brought a key historical element to the curriculum, expanding participants’ ability to take historically informed action in their communities.
NLP participants are now able to engage firsthand with exhibits and other resources at the Minnesota History Center, discussing with their cohort members how local history has impacted the communities with which they belong, as well as learning how to take informed action to influence systems and engage others in their neighborhoods.
"Knowledge is power and now that I have some historical context of things that have happened [i.e. I-94 separating the Rondo community], I can work to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again. I have a context in which I can question why things happen the way they do."
In addition to bringing historical resources to the community, the partnership with NLP has been of great value to the Minnesota Historical Society by reaching communities it has historically struggled to engage – especially communities of color. In recent years, the Minnesota Historical Society began taking purposeful steps toward becoming more inclusive of the diverse communities it aims to serve.
Through the partnership with the Neighborhood Leadership Program, MNHS has been able to engage participants diverse in age, culture, experience and socio-economic background with their resources and local history. Furthermore, by building trust with the community, MNHS is working to ensure the inclusion of more diverse voices in the stories they tell through their work. In the words of a 2015 NLP graduate, “Community voices are so important [in] knowing how to effectively engage community to ensure that processes have been inclusive and will work for communities.
The Neighborhood Leadership Program serves as a bridge between community and one of the oldest institutions in Minnesota – bringing more historical knowledge into the community and equipping the community to take informed action to address important issues in Saint Paul and Minnesota.
As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds us, “When we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.” Thus, when our communities have greater access to historical resources, and more diverse stories are being brought into our collective history, we are rejecting the danger of a single story. Together we are bridging voices and building stronger capacity to affect positive change in our communities.
Angie Brown is the Program Associate for the Wilder Center for Communities, serving as co-facilitator for the Neighborhood Leadership Program and supporting other leadership programs of the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation.