The Arizona Storyteller’s Project showcases diverse, engaged community

By Tess Homan

Three and a half years into the Arizona Storyteller’s Project, the events have created a community.

The project brings people from across Sun Valley together about once a month for a night of storytelling, where people from the community share something about their lives.

Forty percent of the people who come to the events are regulars, one of the main goals of the project, said Megan Finnerty, a journalist for the Arizona Republic who founded the project as a part of Republic Media. She believes oral storytelling and journalism have the same goals and tries to create a place where people can connect in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise.

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(Photo by David Seibert / The Arizona Republic)

The idea for the project was born in 2011 when Finnerty approached The Moth, a nonprofit focused on storytelling and live events, about coming to Phoenix. After finding out about the group’s cost, she decided she could pull off her own event for less and hosted the first event that June.

Each night is centered around a different theme. On Nov. 19, speakers shared stories about eight to 10 minutes long about rock and roll. On Nov. 7, the night focused on “Modern Native Stories,” with young American Indians from Arizona talking about their lives.

Charly Edsitty, one of the storytellers that night and a journalist for 12 News in Phoenix, had never done anything like it before. As the nerves started to set in, she kept telling herself, “At least it’s not a live shot.” Once Edsitty got on the stage and felt the energy and response from the crowd, the nerves disappeared.

And that’s something Finnerty tries to stress when she opens each storytelling night. The audience is just as important as the speaker, she said. It’s a two-way conversation and having an audience that is actively engaged makes all the difference, Finnerty said.

The events are designed to reach people in different ways than traditional platforms for media can. Finnerty hopes hearing different perspectives and stories will prompt people to see Phoenix differently.

At the same time, she holds her storytellers to the same set of journalistic standards as reporters. Finnerty doesn’t approve every story pitch she receives, she said. The stories that do get chosen are carefully workshopped beforehand.

Edsitty said Finnerty sat down with her for two hours to talk about what she would share. Finnerty was able to see through the layers and into the heart of the stories she wanted to tell, Edsitty said. They eventually landed on a story Edsitty would not have thought of off the top of her head.

Tickets for the storytelling nights cost $10 and usually attract more than 100 people. The events now have a corporate sponsor and generate revenue for the Republic. The events move to different venues around the Phoenix metropolitan area to draw a variety of people, and Finnerty chooses venues that can attract a younger audience.

The project provides a way to connect differently with community as well as an opportunity to strengthen the Republic brand. Finnerty said she isn’t shy about “connecting the dots” for people who attend and tells her audience at each event to support the Republic and buy subscriptions. Although she doesn’t track how many of those who attend events end up subscribing, anecdotally Finnerty said she has seen an effect.

But most of all, Finnerty hopes the Arizona Storytellers Project will help people make sense of their community and connect with ideas and people they would not have before.

Finnerty said in an email, “I believe in the idea that oral storytelling and journalism are dedicated to the same goals: creating and deepening understanding among community members, as well as reflecting and serving the communities they’re a part of.”

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