NEH Impact: Bringing Underrepresented Histories to the Forefront Through Storytelling

This year’s sweeping challenges have made the need to make sense of our histories even more clear, and cultural organizations are undertaking this crucial work in a variety of creative ways. The International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee’s new Freedom Stories project offers virtual discussions about African American heritage and Appalachian history with Black scholars, storytellers, thought leaders, and community experts. Each event features a live storytelling performance followed by a panel discussion on African American and Appalachian history, as well as life in the region in the present day.

Through our NEH for All initiative, we are partnering with the International Storytelling Center to document the impact of these programs, which foreground the human connection through storytelling while also integrating rich scholarly research on historically underrepresented or suppressed histories. Initial survey results from the Freedom Stories series demonstrate that participants are engaging history in ways that shed light on our current moment and inspire action moving forward. 

Ninety-three percent of survey respondents agreed they “have a better sense of the stories that are missing from our popular depictions of Appalachia,” and a “better understand[ing of] Appalachia’s place in the American story” after participating in a Freedom Stories event. One participant wrote, “I learned about the diverse nature of Appalachian culture: racial, cultural, economic, etc. [The] strongest message for me was the importance of recognizing that no group is monolithic.” 

Participants also made connections between the past and current events. Ninety-five percent of respondents agreed they were “able to see connections between themes explored in this program and contemporary issues in our society.” When asked what contemporary issues they were able to better understand, a participant wrote about the ways the program shed a light on the past to make more clear the nature of systemic racism: “I think that there are huge racial divides in our country right now because many people have not been properly educated on the brutalities of slavery & racism in America & Appalachia. We are still dealing with the repercussions of that time in history within our culture today due to that lack of education & willingness to learn about a topic that is so painful & complex.” In forward-looking measures, 83 percent of respondents were motivated to “learn more about racial justice in Appalachia.” Some respondents also wrote about how these stories brought to life examples of intragroup coalitions that are models for today: “We need more inspiration for how working together, we can connect with one another across our differences and really change things.”

We will continue to document the impact of this program, with a special eye toward how Freedom Stories is providing a space for connection and making sense of our current moment during a time of physical distancing and social reckonings around history, identity, injustice, and inequality. The virtual programs are ongoing—visit the Freedom Stories website to take part in future events.


Photo Credit

Thumbnail image: Photo courtesy of the International Storytelling Center.

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Social and Racial Justice