Friday, December 12, 2014

The Folkloric Key to Telling a Community’s Story

My former field of community marketing is storytelling that involves weaving the history and culture as well as the inherent and distinctive traits and values of a place into a coherent narrative.

The objective is to safeguard a community’s unique sense of place by giving it prominence while helping prospective visitors, which includes more than 8-in-10 newcomers and relocating executives decide if it is a good fit for them while secretly shopping a community.

The trick is not just to be appealing but appealing to the right prospects.  There are several reasons a grasp of folklore comes in handy.

Folklore involves much more than legends and myths.  It begins orally but a good deal of folklore eventually makes it into news stories and sometimes even contaminates any official record before being re-injected back into folklore once again.

This process may be the result of our need as humans to, adapting the words of journalist Bill Moyer, harmonize or re-harmonize our lives from time to time with our stories.

Shaping a community’s story requires not only understanding this process but then relentlessly drilling down through layers of modifications and contemporized revisions to get at the most authentic roots of the story of a particular place, an almost temporal strain.

At about 10 p.m. on October 27th, a mutual friend emailed me with the news that former Durham City Council member, Chuck Grubb, had passed away unexpectedly a few hours earlier.

Chuck and I were only eight months apart in age in 1989 when he was elected to office a few months after I came here to jump start the community’s official marketing organization.

We continued to work on projects from time to time for another two decades during which he repeatedly made me promise that one day I would tell the real story of how Durham saved the Bulls.  More recently, our contact was via social media.

I could never find a time that was right but it will have to come soon.

Now there are only two of us left who really know how much that narrative has been truncated over the years, who know the full story first hand.

Over the years, It always gnawed at him when accounts including those in news reports would neglect to mention this essential piece of the story or when some who were only later involved would have so much to say.

But we also knew that, in part, we were to blame.

Once the turnaround had been achieved, the three of us agreed that first and foremost, it was vital to moving forward for us to help people save face.

Each of the three of us took an assigned role and mine was to absorb any fallout or retribution but we didn’t realize that wouldn’t be entirely possible or how long those resentments would last.

Keeping my promise to Chuck is for another essay.

Patti Sanchez, who graduated from college about that same time, has spent the last 25 years helping organizations such as Apple, Adobe and Oracle tell their stories.

Last summer, she blogged on Harvard Business Review that like the storytelling organizations I led on behalf of three different communities, all businesses and organizations need a designated folklorist on staff.

She describes folklore “in a cultural sense” as “the sum total of anecdotes, artifacts, and rituals that unite a group of people – the common language that creates shared meaning.”

As you can tell, I am not much of a storyteller myself but during my now-concluded career, I led organizations officially tasked with that mission and I had a knack for how to ferret out a community’s story.

In January of 1972, I took an upper level English course in folkloric research at BYU where I studied, in depth, and documented a specific seven month period in 1969 and 1970 and how variations of a story had flowed through a society in the west, even migrating into news reports and back again.

It also works the other way around.  When editors establish a premise before assigning a reporter, even when the facts don’t seem to fit, the story and subsequent headline will still echo the original premise leaving only the few consumers who read in-depth to ferret out the full story.

When I studied folklore, I had my sights on being a lawyer, but it is a course I would highly recommend for anyone who by intent or serendipity finds themselves in a career in community marketing as I did.

There are many ways an understanding of folklore is useful in that career besides finding the common threads that tie contemporary community traits back to their distinctive roots.

One example where understanding folklore came in handy in Durham was unwrapping image issues driven by word of mouth in rival communities or water-cooler myths dispensed by commuters.

These people were literally hijacking Durham’s story and holding it hostage.

A decade before I took that course, a folklore researcher named William Hugh Jansen coined the term “Esoteric-Exoteric” factor.

Esoteric refers to the mystical, subjective conception we have of ourselves [or our community] vs. the exoteric or objective, external conception we have of others.

Another influence in that class were some writings by Joseph Campbell who was just then retiring from Sarah Lawrence College and would continue until his death the year before I came to Durham to write about mythology, the human impulse to create stories.

By the way, last summer Sanchez posted a series of interviews with Christopher Vogler, the author of The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers and Memo from the Story Dept.

He is a Hollywood veteran and disciple of Campbell who lectures and consults on organizational stories.  The videos are approximately 2 to 6 minutes each and a great introduction to consistent elements in folklore.

Sanchez would probably point to a documentary commemorating the 10th anniversary of the adaptive re-use of the old Lucky Strike Factory in Durham, which aired last week on the Raleigh TV station owned by the same company.

It is an excellent example of a firm that fully understands the importance of folklore.

I am amused now from the vantage point of retirement as I read or hear of things that happened long before being repurposed and attributed to contemporary actors, events or developments.

It is very natural for people to reweave narratives to fit current perceptions.  An example is when the story of Yankee soldiers writing back for resupplies of the tobacco they had used while waiting for the culmination of the surrender here that effectively ended the Civil War.

The story about the letters was later rewoven into the story of a person who later came to prominence.  That is an example of one generation reweaving a legend to give contemporary meaning to events and people.

The era we’re in now isn’t the first time this has happened during the course of Durham’s history, nor will it be the last.  But I remember how confusing it could make distilling the community’s narrative.

Maybe that’s why, occasionally with these essays, I try to leave “bread crumbs” for future Durham generations trying to drill down through these conflicting narratives for a longer view.

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