Storytelling has the ability to foster empathy and strengthen one's sense of community. That sentiment is evidenced through the work of Cincy Stories, which will soon celebrate its fifth year as an organization.
Since its debut in 2015, the org has racked up nine Emmys for their documentary films and has hosted live storytelling events at venues across the city. These initiatives have given a platform not only to well-known locals — including Anthony Munoz, Bob Herzog, Molly Wellmann, Yvette Simpson, Chris Seelbach and Josh Sneed — but also to regular Cincinnatians hailing from neighborhoods throughout the Queen City and Northern Kentucky.
An upcoming event this Friday, Feb. 7 at Woodward Theater (1404 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, woodwardtheater.com) will celebrate Cincy Stories' fifth anniversary by bringing back speakers from years past to share their stories once again. Included in the lineup: mixologist/restauranteur Molly Wellmann; Deogracias Lerma, co-founder of Polly Magazine; poet/advocate Scott Holzman; artist/activist Rachel Byrd; Rod Hinton, community engagement director at Children's Home; and Glenn Ison, a transgender rights activist.
Hip Hop group Patterns of Chaos will be on hand with some music and attendees can stick around for an afterparty featuring indie rockers Blossom Hall.
The project's executive director Shawn Braley says the event will mark the first time the series has ever had repeat storytellers.
"It definitely feels surreal because it feels like we just started (Cincy Stories)," Braley tells me when asked about their anniversary. "But it also feels like we've been doing it forever… We've gone in directions that we maybe didn't plan originally and we've done some of the things we've dreamt of doing when we first started."
Braley says that they have intentionally tried to curate their live events to showcase storytellers from differing backgrounds. Their hope, he says, is that by doing so they also attract diverse audiences.
"It's been some really cool stuff that we've been able to see — where empathy is actually built across social and cultural barriers," Braley says. In their documentary work and their "Story Gallery" — pop-up spaces in which residents could share their own stories — he says the empathy they've witnessed has been even more powerful. Case in point: George Smith, a former minor league baseball player who had hopes of starting his own little league in Walnut Hills. When Jacob Trevino, founder of Gorilla Cinema — the brand behind Video Archive, Tokyo Kitty and Overlook Lodge — saw his story, he decided to help make the league happen.
As for the future of Cincy Stories, Braley tells me that their first feature-length documentary is in the works. Over the next year, they plan to follow the West End's Q-KIDZ Dance Team. Founded by Marquicia Jones-Woods to give neighborhood kids a safe and productive after-school extracurricular activity, Cincy Stories published a short video in October chronicling the group's performance at 2019's BLINK festival. But there's more to come.
"They just have an amazing story and the founder is a fascinating person," Braley says. "And so we hope to continue to expand our impact in that kind of way — making bigger stories, broadening our scope of how we tell stories."
In the end, Cincy Stories' work seeks to create space for stories to not only be heard, but for the people behind them to be seen and, hopefully, understood.
The five-year anniversary party begins at 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.) at Over-the-Rhine's Woodward Theater; the afterparty commences at 9:30 p.m. For more info: cincystories.net.