Cincy Stories is building community one story at a time

Chris Ashwell and Shawn Braley at The Woodward

Chris Ashwell and Shawn Braley of Cincy Stories at The Woodward (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)

The magic is in the listening

– By John Faherty

The most basic elements of any story are a beginning, a middle and an end.

The more nuanced elements include an introduction, interesting characters, conflict, high stakes, transformation and resolution.

By any of these measures, the story of Cincy Stories remains incomplete. The end, or resolution, is nowhere in sight. But the power of a story, in the telling and the hearing, has been plain to see.

Like a lot of good tales, this one starts with two men walking into a bar. It was actually a pizza place, but there is a bar, and the idea of two men walking into a bar makes for a better introduction. It was 2014. Chris Ashwell was tending bar at Fireside Pizza in Walnut Hills. Shawn Braley was delivering pizzas. During downtime, the two would talk about stories, and how to tell them, and why they can matter so much.

Ashwell and Braley shared an unyielding certainty that stories could create community, build empathy and nurture relationships.

“One of the inspirations for us was when we saw how segregated Cincinnati is,” Braley said. “We think stories are a way to bring people together.”

During one of those talks, they decided to host a night for people to share their tales. They didn’t know if anybody would come, and they weren’t sure if the stories would be any good. But, they figured, what could be the harm?

Their first event was in the basement of MOTR Pub on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. The room is called the Sword Room because medieval weapons hang on the wall. The space was perfect because it was free. The event filled the Sword Room, and people stood on the stairs to hear more. Ashwell and Braley were on to something.

The second event was in the main room at MOTR, and even more people attended. The one thing the storytellers held in common was exactly nothing. And this is by design. The speakers at these public events come from everywhere and are impossible to categorize. “Diversity is the most intentional thing we do,” Braley said.

The one thing the storytellers hold in common is exactly nothing. And this is by design. The speakers at these public events come from everywhere and are impossible to categorize. “Diversity is the most intentional thing we do.” – Shawn Braley, co-founder of Cincy Stories

The events have grown so large, they now occur across the street at the Woodward Theater. The last one drew more than 300 people. And the attendees are fairly representative of our city.

The story nights were only a beginning, Ashwell said, and all they were capable of at the start. But the dream was always bigger. Fortunately, foundations began to take notice and liked what they were doing. Cincy Stories became a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation and started asking for help.

The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation wrote a check. So did ArtsWave, LISC (the Local Initiatives Support Corp.) and the Uptown Consortium.

Braley became executive director and Ashwell the creative director. “We kind of needed both of those things, so I became one and he became the other,” Braley said. But it was not an accident. Of the two, Braley is more organized and Ashwell likes spending time with the big picture. Both seem a little uncomfortable with the titles.

The titles, the tax status, the donations all allowed Cincy Stories to increase what it was doing. The public storytelling events were fun, and important, but perhaps not important enough. Both men wanted more, and they knew what needed to be done. If their mission was “building community through story,” Braley and Ashwell needed to go to the communities. They began Street Stories with the goal of going into as many neighborhoods as possible to talk to residents, recording and archiving what they heard. Not to give voice, but to give a platform.

Both came naturally to respect the power of relating a personal tale through words. Braley studied English literature at the University of Cincinnati and, a natural explorer, started walking around in neighborhoods. He found that many people, particularly those in neighborhoods being gentrified, weren’t getting to know each other. He considered storytelling a perfect remedy.

Ashwell, always into filmmaking and audio production, started making short documentaries about people who were seldom listened to. The videos became powerful tools to help people understand each other – to see strengths and weaknesses, to hear common themes and unique perspectives.

These simple and elegant recordings tell the tales, in their own words, of the people who populate Cincinnati. Cecil Evans is an anti-litter advocate and 61-year resident of Avondale. Lewis Ross makes skateboards in Northside. Kenny Jones is a bartender at the Greenwich in Walnut Hills. These small and personal archives attest to the joy of being heard. And of listening.

Shawn Braley and Chris Ashwell

Shawn Braley and Chris Ashwell (Photo by Tina Gutierrez)


Things started moving quickly. In 2016, the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation offered Cincy Stories a storefront. This was a breakthrough. Now Braley and Ashwell just needed people to arrive and share. It was not easy.

“For so long, their stories had not mattered to anybody. Or it felt that way. Nobody asked them to tell their stories,” Ashwell said. “It took people a while to believe that we really wanted to hear them.”

Braley remembered people standing in front, but not entering. It was like these Walnut Hills residents wanted to believe Cincy Stories was well-intended, but they needed some persuasion. “We finally got them in with some pizza and barbecue,” Braley said. The people had plenty to say, and Braley and Ashwell were happy to listen and record.

The stories may be heard on the website. Maybe it’s creative placemaking (a phrase that appeals to intellectuals and sociologists), or maybe it’s just a new way for people to get to know each other. And a way for people to listen.

The public events remain an important part of the program, even if not all the storytellers do the best job at first. People get nervous in front of a microphone. They think a story needs a hero. Too often, the teller becomes the hero. Others become marketers, explaining how they launched their startups. And there are those who prepare a TED Talk. These types of stories can be good, or well told, but they rarely resonate. The ones that really matter are smaller and more intimate. These are what people listen to. These are what matter.

Cal Cullen, executive director of Wave Pool Gallery, spoke in February and shared her saga of an ill-fated cross-country journey, then stayed to listen to others.

“As a listener,” she said, “the stories offer me unique insights into people I either have never met or who I may only know on a professional or acquaintance level. I really appreciate how the simple act of telling a personal story can connect our city in such meaningful and heartfelt ways.”

“People are really good at telling stories,” Braley said. “We have been doing it all of our lives, and when we do it naturally, it is very good. The real magic happens when people from across the city, representing all of the diversity of the city, come and sit and listen to each other.”

The operative word is “listen.” Sometimes, it’s the best we can hope for. And sometimes, it’s what makes all the difference.

Cincy Stories

April 3, 7 p.m., Woodward Theater, Over-the-Rhine

Evening of personal storytelling: Christian Gill, Mary Delaney, Jesse Tack, Josh Sneed, Paola Garrido Estevez, Candace Janai. Repeats first Monday, every other month, with new storytellers.

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