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From the Gun violence in Missouri: ‘There’s no war going on, but if you count up the body count … you might think there was’ series
Notes on Program Impact
Susan Colangelo, Executive Director, Saint Louis Story Stitchers
Saint Louis Story Stitchers uses nonviolent collective action and creative youth development to create systemic social change.
Story Stitchers uses a collaborative model to create social justice art. Story Stitchers’ Studio is a living laboratory where youth lead and build the nonprofit organization alongside adult mentors.
Youth bring raw experiences and are supported by regionally and nationally recognized black artists and scholars who work alongside the young activists through collaborative learning experiences inviting dialogue and generating raw, authentic works of art. Story Stitchers use music, spoken word, photography, videography, and dialogue to highlight stories related to trauma such as gun violence, life transitions, and mental health. The work promotes mutual respect for diverse backgrounds and lived experiences, and fosters understanding across the racial, socioeconomic, and age divisions of our region.
A common theme that appears across our community conversations is a mistrust of police. Violence in black neighborhoods is often the result of interpersonal conflict. Without trust in police, there is nowhere to turn for de-escalation, often resulting in violence. Black youth in St. Louis City experience high rates of gun violence: They are victims, know victims, and know perpetrators of gun violence. Every year, Story Stitchers youth choose gun violence as the most pressing concern in their community. Story Stitchers is committed to social change and youth have determined year after year that the focus of their work must be on gun violence. Story Stitchers is successful at attracting, engaging and retaining at-risk youth who are in search of recognition, self-expression, and a safe, stable environment. The collaborative studio and community service aspects of Story Stitchers provide a way to fulfill these needs. Story Stitchers also partners with Cure Violence to help extend the network of support for youth.
Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artists Collective (“Story Stitchers”) was founded by volunteer Executive Director, Susan Colangelo, and seven additional artists to combat gun violence. Incorporated in 2014, Story Stitchers creates a platform for community engagement through an artistic lens to shift perceptions and inspire hope for the Saint Louis community. The organization brings together professional artists and minority youth ages 16-24 to create social change, with a focus on gun violence prevention.
Through a unique form of “urban storytelling,” professional artists and African American youth collect the stories of Saint Louis, reframe and retell them through original work, and promote understanding, civic pride, and intergenerational relationships.
Story Stitchers is committed to placing youth at the center of the work both in identifying topics for exploration as well as the methods for engagement. This approach builds a community of youth and professional artists who respect one another. Gun violence continues to be a pressing public health crisis that consumes the attention of the engaged youth, and artistic expression helps youth work through the pain and loss they have experienced.
As a young organization, Story Stitchers is proud that over the last five years, the organization has increased public performances from 15 public presentations with audiences of 2,500 to 27 public presentations with audiences of 8,600, strengthened partnerships with many neighborhoods, and more than doubled the organization’s operating budget, including an Innovations grant from the Mid-America Arts Alliance. The growth in our programs is a result of strong community partnerships, high quality programming, and a focus on topics that youth desire to explore. Most recently, Story Stitchers was recognized as a recipient of the Lewis Prize for Music Covid-19 Community Response Fund, a national competition creative youth development through music.
Saint Louis Story Stitchers partners with and has also received support from Lush Corporation’s The Charity Pot, Starbucks Foundation’s Neighborhood Grant, Mid-America Arts Alliance through National Endowment for the Arts, Missouri Arts Council, Missouri Humanities Council through National Endowment for the Humanities and through the CARES Act. In addition locally, Story Stitchers partner and receive support from Spirit of St Louis Women’s Fund, Steward Family Foundation, and Missouri Foundation for Health through 3-year grants, the City of Saint Louis Public Safety Youth at Risk, the Circuit Attorney’s Office, the St. Louis Violence Prevention Commission, St. Louis Mental Health Board, and the Incarnate Word Foundation, Regional Arts Commission, Arts and Education Council PNC, and Youthbridge Community Foundation. Washington University in St. Louis and Kranzberg Arts Foundation serve as institutional partners.
Saint Louis Story Stitchers develops and maintains collaborative partnerships with local community organizations with whom they create block parties and work on the ground level including St. Louis Public School District, St. Louis Alliance of Community Organizations, Tillie’s Corner Historical Project in JeffVanderLou, Thomas Dunn Learning Center in Dutchtown, Wellston Loop Community Development Corporation, the Greater Pentecostal Church of God in Walnut Park, Delmar Loop Business District, Grand Center, Inc, and with parks including Gateway Arch National Park, Missouri Botanical Garden’s Shaw Nature Reserve, Laumeier Sculpture Park, and with Missouri Prairie Foundation, and is very appreciative of our network of private philanthropists.
The City of St. Louis Public Safety Youth at Risk Crime Prevention grant of 2020, the three-year Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, and Lush Corporation’s The Charity Pot grants support Story Stitchers launch of its new youth-led podcast program, StitchCast Studio. This unique program dives deep into the economically depressed neighborhoods with a majority of black residents and high crime rates to draw out youth who join small groups to explore topics of their own choice. After learning about podcasts and preparing for recorded final discussion, the audio is edited and published on major podcast platforms. Topics include homelessness, compounding issues, gun violence, domestic violence, mental health, being a teenager, laws of attraction, social justice and art, food insecurity, unemployment, affects of Covid-19 and solutions. Listen to the most recent episode, “Painting For The People”, in which youth leaders discuss the mural pictured in the St. Louis Post Dispatch article.
Story Stitchers fills a large gap in St. Louis’s youth service programs for at-risk minority youth in late adolescence transitioning to adulthood. Youth in the program go through significant trials, self-reporting depression, assault, robbery, transient living, hunger, anxiety, sexual abuse, domestic violence, grief from loss of loved ones due to violence or natural causes all of which may cause trauma and toxic levels of stress, adversely effecting healthy brain development and healthy bodies. The program engages 50-80 youth participants per year, 50% of whom are male and 100% of whom are people of color, 98% black. “Boys and men of color are at higher risk of trauma due to multiple factors including higher rates of incarceration and more exposure to violence” (OJP Diagnostic Center). Through its unique program focused on excellence in the arts, youth leadership, and outreach through community service, Story Stitchers is building a program that also effectively represents evidence-based practices in youth violence prevention.
These practices include:
- Spaces that strengthen social relationships
2. Programs that strengthen youth skills
3. Connecting youth to caring, culturally relevant adult mentors and activities
4. Creating protective community environments
5. Stability and trust
6. Ownership over the program
7. Sense of extended family
8. Collaborations with community partners and local organizations
9. Leadership opportunities
“The best single antidote for trauma and toxic stress is relationships. Healthy, consistent, confirming relationships promote healthy brain development, social skills and resiliency.” —Community Advisory Board Presentation: Vulnerable Children in the St. Louis Area Toxic Stress and Health, Susan Fliesher RN, DNP, 2/2/2017
Reducing likelihood of youth involvement in criminal activity:
Story Stitchers activities build and strengthen youth leadership, peer-to-peer education, adult-youth mentoring, youth resiliency and pro-social behaviors such as civic responsibility.
Story Stitchers is a member organization of the St. Louis Area Violence Prevention Commission (STLVPC). STLVPC is a regional, cross-sector collaboration working to reduce violence crime in the region by promoting and advocating for policies that support a well-resourced support system for individuals and families most at risk of violence crime.
Story Stitchers programs meet their recommendations for preventing gun violence as presented to members of the Public Safety Committee of the Board of Alderman by the STLVPC on September 17, 2019:
- “Increases the availability and accessibility of safe spaces and positive connections for youth” – Story Stitchers expands space, hours, recruitment and programs. (Watch clips from the recent Dance Battles, shown in the St. Louis Post Dispatch article)
- “Supports and enhances neighborhood and community-based organizations to re-build social cohesion” – Story Stitchers provides 35 public community outreach activities each year (Community Partners through the Lou!)
- “Advocates for better coordination of city, nonprofit, university and volunteer efforts to improve neighborhood conditions” – Story Stitchers will build-out community partnerships and work towards stronger collaborative efforts and sustainable infrastructure
- “Fosters positive interactions between community and law enforcement, courts, etc.” – Story Stitchers will utilize youth-led podcasts and some of the guests may include police or judges, as decided by participating youth.
- Implements a sustainability framework for youth violence prevention: “Leadership is a vital component for sustainable outcomes and real impact” – Story Stitchers is building a coalition of youth leaders within the target area and giving them a platform from which they can be heard by peers. (Watch youth leaders in JeffVanderLou!)
Youth involved in the program rarely have negative involvement with law enforcement. They build friendships, a sense of belonging, a safety net and learn to think of themselves as leaders in the community.
To learn more, visit storystitchers.org.