IMPACT

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.

Based in the City of St. Louis, Missouri and incorporated in 2014, Story Stitchers places black youth at the center of the work in identifying topics for exploration and guiding methods for community engagement. Gun violence is a pressing public health crisis that consumes the attention of the engaged youth; artistic expression helps youth work through the pain and loss they experience. Thirty in-person public presentations each year plus 50 podcast, music and video publications aid the community with important health and safety messages from its youth leaders.

Accomplishments include in-person audiences of 8,200 (2019), increased online presence to 6,700 followers and 998,000 social media views (2021), strengthened partnerships with neighborhoods (with 70-95% black residents), and growth in the operating budget ($378,600 in 2021), including $30,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts,  a $73,000 grant from the CDC Foundation to boost vaccine confidence, and a $500,000 5-year Accelerator Grant from the Lewis Prize for Music in 2021.

The organization is supported with funds from local government including three consecutive grants (2020-22) from the City of St. Louis Public Safety Department for Youth at Risk Crime Prevention totaling $195,000, state and regional arts organizations, and private philanthropists. Growth in programs is a result of strong community partnerships, high quality programming, and a focus on topics that black youth desire to explore. In all programs to-date, 549 youth ages 16-24-years-old and 98% black, have registered and participated since 2014, with an average of 100 per year in 2020 and 2021; 21,000 residents (60% black) have seen 500 live performances or presentations; 780 training sessions conducted, and 50 community collaborators engaged.

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.

The vision for Story Stitchers is to create a large welcoming center with large and small learning spaces, workshops, and studios stocked with state-of-the-art technology and equipment to support for creativity, learning, collaboration, community meals, performances, rehearsals, and sharing. Performance and practice spaces would feature music, hip-hop dance, spoken word poetry, open mics, video and film screenings, and youth-led discussions.

A recording studio would support the creation of music and podcasts. A green room would support video productions. Like all Story Stitchers’ efforts, the space would be informed by and designed with youth. To build upon existing collaborations with other organizations, the space would also have a resource center where youth would have access to partner providers’ resources such as referrals, behavioral health interventions, and health resources. 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.

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 100 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 year

  • “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 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.

Program goals and objectives: Increase youth contact hours from 5 to 10 hours per week; increase the number of community partnerships from 20 to 30; 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; and increase protective factors of high risk youth as measured by long term program engagement, employment outcomes, community service, and positive police encounters.

Story Stitchers Youth Council Meeting at 616 N Skinker, Stitchers Storefront Studio. Image credit Saint Louis Story Stitchers.IMG_8986

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 presents public performances that 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 UnitedStatesZipCodes.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 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 black artists.

Not Another One! include a youth-led discussion with civic leaders that are then published. The discussion was held during 2015 when protests filled St. Louis streets after Michael Brown’s murder. Through powerful conversations youth explore their community through a new lens with a focus on proactive solutions to address racial, education and economic differences.

 

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Not Another One! the play was staged 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.

A book will be published in 2022 providing all the resources needed for an educator to stage the play at their school, detention center, university, church, or cultural venue.

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