Detroit's storytellers on why the medium brings people closer together

Satori Shakoor has a distinct memory of the first time she truly felt the power of storytelling. 

She wasn't a stranger to performing, having played instruments since she was a child and been an actor and theater director as an adult. Nor was she a stranger to stories, which, as she describes it, was the language of her childhood. 

"People in my community told stories for different purposes. Sometimes to entertain us kids or to scold or teach lessons. Or just because that's the way they communicated," she says. "If you grow up speaking Spanish, you speak Spanish. If grow up telling stories, you tell stories."

Storytelling came naturally to her. So it's no wonder that she when she started telling them, people listened. She came in second place at the Moth Detroit GrandSLAM, got asked to host the Moth Slam in Ann Arbor, told a story for the Moth Radio Hour, and even shared a stage with Garrison Keillor, Adam Gopnik, and Richard Price at a Moth Ball fundraiser in New York City. 

Despite all that time spent with stories, Shakoor still didn't truly appreciate the medium's power until 2012 when she was on stage before 900 people in Boston relating the story of the nine-month period when her mother died to ovarian cancer, her son died after complications from an automobile accident, and she lost all her savings in the 2008 stock market crash. She'd told the story live two times before, but something magical happened that night. 

"This time it wasn't painful, I could get through it," she says. "I felt freedom, I felt love, I felt everything you could possibly feel. I'd never been heard to this degree before, listened to so profoundly. And it occurred to me that everyone should have this experience."

And in 2013, she gave others the opportunity to have those experiences when she created The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers. Helped by a $30,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant, the Secret Society is now a monthly event held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History where anybody, "children to people in wheelchairs, poet laureates, George Clinton, and everybody in between," according to Shakoor, can come and tell their story in front of a live audience. 

Spreading stories

Cornetta Lane is one of the many people who's told a story at a Secret Society event. 

She had been estranged from her father for several years, but had dinner plans to hopefully reconnect, when she learned that he was shot and killed. In the process of journaling about her feelings some time later, she thought she could honor him by telling his story. She reached out to Shakoor, who helped her craft the story and gave her a slot at a Secret Society event. 

It was a life-changing experience for Lane. "Through that process, I began to develop a new image of my father that was beautiful and loving and compassionate. It really helped me get out of that state of depression," she says. "If storytelling can do that for me, surely it can do that for lots of people—by that I mean heal, transform."

Cornetta Lane speaks at an event at Submerge Records in the North End

Shakoor became more than inspiration to Lane, but even a kind of storytelling mentor. She let Lane observe workshops and showed her the process of crafting a story and teaching the art. 

"Sometimes with a gift like that, people are less likely to share. But with her, she was just an open book," says Lane. "I truly do believe that Satori sees storytelling as a way to liberate people. That the more people who can understand storytelling and tell their story more effectively, the more they can get liberated."

Since then, Lane has gone on to create several successful storytelling platforms through her organization Stories & (__). First came Pedal to Porch, a bike ride through a Detroit neighborhood where attendees stop at porches of residents and listen to their stories. The series has gone through several neighborhoods, including Southwest Detroit and the Mack Avenue Corridor. 

More recently, she started Dinner for 30, a monthly event where a cook prepares a dish for 30 guests and tells a story about its significance. The first dinner, which took place last year, featured Shakoor as the chef. 

She also worked with Model D as engagement editor on the most recent On the Ground in the North End. The series, which places a journalist in a Detroit neighborhood for weekly coverage, tries to actively engage the community. Lane organized a "Potluck and Stories" event where attendees brought a dish and had the opportunity to tell a story on an theme for the evening. 

At one event, a local resident came forward and spoke about her personal difficulties, and that she was currently squatting in a home but trying to remain hopeful. Another attendee at the potluck saw her sometimes in the neighborhood, but never knew her struggles. 

"The major thing I learned," says Lane, "something that confirmed my belief in storytelling, is that you could see someone every single day and not know what they're going through."

Shakoor describes storytelling as unifying—perhaps even a way to bring the disparate parts of Detroit together. "If we knew each other's stories and had the privilege of understanding one another's stories, we'd be a more empowered society," she says. "We wouldn't be threatened by each other."

Startup Story Night

On Friday, Feb. 16, Model D and the New Economy Initiative are holding the second Startup Story Night, where four local entrepreneurs share the challenges and triumphs of growing their business. The event, which is hosted by Shakoor, will feature:

Alex Clark, founder of Bon Bon Bon, a Hamtramck chocolatier, spoke at last year's Startup Story Night. She says the experience of crafting her story—with Glynn Washington, host of WNYC's Snap Judgment—was an enlightening experience. 

"I could tell you in my sleep about why I started Bon Bon Bon and why I wanted to be chocolatier and what it's like to be female entrepreneur," says Clark, "but it's hard to describe what it was like emotionally or personally for you. That part was really challenging."

Clark got a lot of positive feedback from her story, but none more so than from her fellow entrepreneurs and storytellers. "It was amazing to be with other people who've gone through the same experience. It's easy to connect and not feel judged," she says. "Things that were emotional for you, the other entrepreneurs could all relate to it."

She says that her and the other storytellers became good friends and still stay in touch. 

Startup Story Night will take place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History on Friday, Feb. 16. You can purchase tickets here

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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