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.
Organization’s 3 – 5 year vision: The goal of Story Stitchers is to promote a better educated, more peaceful, and more caring region through storytelling.
We are driven by the guiding principles that:
- Artists can be catalysts for social change
- Youth are the future of humanity and
- Active learning through collaborative experiences promotes thoughtful creativity.
To achieve these goals, Saint Louis Story Stitchers engages youth in educational activities including research, writing, collaborative learning with peers and adults, public speaking, presentation and discussion, writing, recording and editing, and various business skills related to building a nonprofit. These activities also provided opportunities to engage with the public in community building through art exhibitions, concerts and performances, and media interviews.
St. Louis City has consistently high rates of gun violence. The Guardian reported that only 0.1% of all census tracts in the United States experienced more than five fatal gun murders in 2015. Of just 63 census tracts that experienced higher than 0.1% true, eight were in the City of St. Louis. In 2019, there were 194 homicides in the City of St. Louis, including 14 children. July of 2020 has seen 50 homicides – the highest homicide rate in two decades.
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.
Gun violence is a pressing public health crisis that consumes the attention of the engaged youth. Youth have the opportunity to work through their pain and loss and be a force multiplier, impacting families, schools and neighborhoods. Our programs are driven by the interests of youth who are held to the standard of “no guns, no gangs, no drugs.” Youth are at the center of our work and have expressed the need for mentorship and community to support them.
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 for creative youth development through music, and is also supported with funds from local government, state and regional arts organizations, foundations including and Youthbridge Community Foundation, Arts and Education Council through PNC, Incarnate Word Foundation, and three-year grants from the Steward Family Foundation, Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, and Missouri Foundation for Health, and private philanthropists.
The City of St. Louis Public Safety Youth at Risk Crime Prevention grant of 2020 and the three-year Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grants have supported 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.
To measure and track the performance of our marketing efforts, we will utilize the following software applications: Google Analytics, YouTube Channel Insights, Facebook Insights, Instagram Insights, Spotify for Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Podbean Insights.
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 25-30 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:
1. 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.
● “Supports and enhances neighborhood and community-based organizations to re-build
social cohesion” – Story Stitchers provides 35 public community outreach activities each
● “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
● “Fosters positive interactions between community and law enforcement, courts, etc.” –
Story Stitchers will utilize youth-led podcasts and some of the guests would be police or
judges. Story Stitchers has a relationship with the City of St. Louis Juvenile Detention
Center and will request topics of interest to detained youth for some of the podcasts and
encourage them to join us after they are released. Youth can bring the finished podcasts
to the Center and add discussions with detained youth, furthering their interest level in
Story Stitchers programs.
● 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.
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.
Pick the City UP is an annual performing arts tour throughout the city that supports greater accessibility to the arts for minority and black communities, creates greater exposure to audiences for local African American artists, and builds greater understanding and hope for safer, more peaceful communities across our city.
Pick the City UP Tour presents Saint Louis Story Stitchers’ unique brand of urban storytelling, featuring live hip hop, and spoken word on public health issues St. Louis cares about including gun violence. Youth and artists plan programming and work with partners to collaborate on innovative public performances. The tour takes programming into St. Louis neighborhoods, parks, cultural institutions, and city-wide festivals. Locations included: WellsGoodfellow, Hamilton Heights, the Delmar Loop District, the City of St. Louis Juvenile Detention Center, Tillie’s Corner and Chambers Park in JeffVanderLou, Riverfront Park, Thomas Dunn Learning Center, Gregory J. Carter Park in Walnut Park, Demetrious Johnson Foundation, Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries, Fringe Fest in Grand Center, the .ZACK theatre in Grand Center, Union Station, and the Gateway Arch National Park downtown.
Public performances take place in the following areas in the city of St. Louis: 63101 and 63102 (Downtown), 63106 (JeffVanderLou and St. Louis Place), 63112 (West End), 63118 (Dutchtown), and 63120 (Walnut Park East). These neighborhoods suffer from high crime rates that affect not only residents living in the area but businesses, public and university students, and tourists – further frustrating efforts to improve conditions. According to U.S. Census data, the percentage of city residents living in the city of St. Louis poverty in 2017 was 20.3% with poverty rates highest in the city’s minority communities. Looking closer at one neighborhood: Data on United StatesZipCodes.org shows that, of the 20,368 people living in 63112 73% are Black, 19% White, and 3% Asian; 46% male, 54% female; and approximately 2,450 are between 21 and 20 years old. The West End has a medium household income of $27,383 (half of the Missouri state average) and 41% of the buildings are vacant. St. Louis Metropolitan Police crime statistics cite the West End neighborhood with a 49% increase in violent crimes against people, rising from 124 (in 2018) to 173 (in 2019) incidents of murder, rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
Through Pick the City UP, Story Stitchers youth will work with neighbors in the West End to present two block party/health resource fairs and perform twice during the grant period. Benefits to this program include greater access and participation in the arts, the development of meaningful relationships within the community, awareness of health care resources, bolstering membership and awareness of the existing programs, and greater exposure to audiences for local African Americans.
Impact is measured, documented, and evaluated.
Pick the City UP Tour
Mentoring Artists: Bobby Norfolk, KP Dennis, Reginald McNichols aka Ntegrity, Troy Anthony, Susan Colangelo
18 performances at 9 venues
27 youth and 8 adult artists collaborated
4,270 audience members
Not Another One! includes youth-led discussions with civic leaders that are then published. Through powerful conversations youth explore their community through a new lens with a focus on proactive solutions to address racial, education and economic differences. This year 5 high school assembly performances were presented to youth from five high schools in St. Louis Public School District. All students in the audiences rode school buses to Central Visual and Performing Arts High School for the
performances. Each performance was followed by a youth-led Q&A discussion with police and social service professionals.
“Not Another One!
Bobby Norfolk, Joel King, Lauron Thompson, Susan Colangelo, Cassandria White
5 performances with audience of 550 at 1 venue 13 youth and 10 adult artists collaborated
2020 Program goals and objectives:
- Increase youth contact hours from 5 to 10 hours per week
- Increase the number of community partnerships from 10 to 15
- Increase opportunities for public discussion of gun violence, including the impact on youth, community efforts to reduce gun violence, voices of civic and community leaders, and responses to community violence that promote resolution and healing
- Increase protective factors of high risk youth as measured by long term program engagement, employment outcomes, community service, and positive police encounters
- Increase public audiences from 8,600 in 2019 to 10,000 in 2020
In 2020, with support from the City of St. Louis Public Safety Department and Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund, Story Stitchers contracted with Leslie Scheuler, Ph.D. Data is gathered through audience and participant surveys and audience head counts through StitchCast Studio. This is our first attempt at a more formal evaluation process. Leslie Schueler, Ph.D. of LS Associates has worked as a consultant, trainer and researcher with nonprofit organizations, educational and arts/cultural institutions, grantmakers and businesses for more than 25 years to support them in positive impacts for clients, other stakeholders, and communities. With degrees in music, social work, and social science research, Leslie’s work has been funded by the Missouri Arts Council, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Education, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Ford Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation (among others). Leslie received her PhD in social science research as well as her MSW from the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to human services, public health and community change, Leslie’s special interests include community-based arts and outreach, arts education, and cultural exchange/arts diplomacy.