South End Stories Helps Youth of Color Build Storytelling Skills

by Vivian Hua 華婷婷

Two years ago, amid shifting trends towards standardized, “one-size-fits-all” approaches to testing and curriculum development, parents, students, and staff at Orca K-8 School brainstormed and launched a program called South End Stories. A dynamic and multi-faceted experience, South End Stories (SES) works within Seattle Public Schools to create safe spaces for students to share their own stories through film, dance, writing and performance. 

“We believe in storytelling. It’s not just for stage; it’s not just for film. It’s for survival — and understanding that we need to have that storytelling in order to understand … our past, in order to better understand the future,” says program director Donté Felder, a former Orca K-8 educator. “Once students have that infrastructure … then we can run.”

Using a trauma-informed, culturally-responsive curriculum heavily inspired by the work of writer and educator Zaretta Hammond, SES challenges entrenched white supremacy by addressing shortcomings of the education system, especially as they pertain to youth of color. Its focus on the unique needs, interests, and strengths of each student helps validate their individual experiences and guide them into society.

“How can history be talked about in a culturally-responsive and relevant way that’s going to allow them to navigate their worlds, their spaces, their communities, to enhance the work of tomorrow?” asks Felder. “That’s definitely missing in education. We’re preparing our students for tests and not a tomorrow. Like, a real tomorrow.”

In 2018, SES piloted its first year at Orca K-8 with grant funding from King County’s Best Start for Kids initiative, programmatic support from Naomi True, and partnerships with a number of local arts organizations. Due to positive reception, the initiative has since expanded to six schools, with successes that include a social justice film festival, films by students of all ages, and conversations about equitable representation within theater productions. SES also champions professional development, student-informed curriculum development, and intergenerational events for the whole community.

“Parents trust that projects from SES will bring authentic learning opportunities to their children that a school wouldn’t otherwise be able to provide,” explains Raven Wilcox, a first-grade teacher at Orca K-8. “SES brings truly unique experiences to each class after meeting with teachers and hearing what their needs are in that moment, with those specific kids.”

The health of the entire arts ecosystem is important for SES, and their recent move to become a program under their long-time partner, Intiman Theater, is one such indicator. As Intiman’s artistic director Jennifer Zeyl explains, Intiman’s financial instabilities at the end of 2019 led the organization to go through a deep period of self-reflection and reckoning, especially around its current mission, which “wrestles with American inequities.”

Following this, Intiman decided to suspend their fully-produced theater productions for 2020 and have refocused their energy on expanding their educational offerings instead. This includes their Emerging Artist Program, which trains theater artists of all kinds, and Starfish Project, their free after-school technical theater training program, which had previously partnered with South End Stories. Because all the programs have similar goals, placing them under the shared Intiman umbrella helps consolidate resources as well as create organizational stability for SES. It also ensures that the programs they offer, in Zeyl’s words, are “not just a summer program for kids, but a pathway to a career as a storyteller.”

Cece Chan, a Seattle native and student activist, first connected with SES two years ago, after becoming Nathan Hale High School’s representative for the Washington State NAACP Youth Council (N-YC). In collaboration with SES, she created a feature film entitled For the Culture: An Ethnic Stories Documentary, which interviews educators and students about the importance of ethnic studies programs.

“[The current educational system] perpetuates racism and uplifts white supremacy by centering Eurocentric representation, narratives, perspectives and values,” says Chan, who credits SES and N-YC for expanding her understanding of activism. “Ethnic Studies are important because it builds the confidence of students of color for them to know their identities are beautiful, worthy, and valuable … ”

Kenyatta Johnson, the mother of 14-year-old SES alumnus Xavier Mitchell, agrees that SES helps build confidence in students of color, by offering “a platform, a voice and a safe place.” 

“[SES] encouraged these students to speak hard truths and to be able to work amongst themselves and teachers to find solutions, without overlooking the student,” Johnson explains. She adds that Mitchell now thrives in public speaking and regularly advocates for others. “He was really shy and quiet before, outside of sports … Now, not so much.”

“I’ve become more open-minded, and aware,” Mitchell offers. “I’ve learned that setting boundaries is a part of positive growth, both mentally and physically. I’ve also learned that it is okay to be wrong and make mistakes, as long as you learn from them, acknowledge them, and apply what you’ve learned so that you don’t make the same mistake over and over. It’s about personal growth.”

The work of SES facilitates personal growth in students, as well as transformational opportunities for entire communities to experience camaraderie and joy.

“SES’s main goal has always been to meet kids wherever they’re at and ask, ‘How can we bring joy to this situation? This classroom? This curriculum?’ I think joy is more important now than ever, and kids need creative outlets to express what they’re going through,” says Wilcox.

In the time of COVID-19, SES has been working to adapt their curriculum as a hybrid online-offline model, so they can continue serving their role as a liaison between home and school without compromising their ability to deliver an enriched educational experience. 

“We’re prepared to teach remotely [or] go into the spaces once it’s safe to go back to the schools,” says Felder, who has been working with current and former students, such as Cece Chan and current program manager Naomi True, to develop and implement the hybrid curriculum.

“SES can serve as a beacon of hope to our community,” Wilcox notes enthusiastically. “A lot of teachers are feeling pressured to deliver content as if we were still physically in the classroom, but SES has the freedom to deliver what students really need to take care of each other and themselves emotionally.”

Whatever the storytelling medium — be it podcasts, film, theater or dance — SES will supply youth with equipment and teaching artists throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As always, they plan to meet their students where they are. 

“Besides providing resources, we’re building for tomorrow,” says Felder. “We’re building curriculum [with] college students, high school students, middle school students, and educators who believe we can do better and believe that we can develop culturally-responsive teaching.”

“As we move forward, teachers are going to need collaboration with teaching artists to integrate academics and arts into everything we teach if we want to meet children where they’re at on all levels … ” adds Wilcox. “We can’t go back to ‘normal’ after this pandemic. Our systems need to pay attention and consider the trauma many of our students are experiencing and how the arts can help us all to begin healing.”

South End Stories began remote education on May 24 and will present new virtual lessons every one or two weeks. Parents with students enrolled at Seattle Center School, Pathfinder, Orca K-8, Ballard High School, Franklin High School, and Chief Sealth High School are eligible and have already been contacted. Learn more about South End Stories via their website or Intiman’s site.

Vivian Hua (華婷婷) is a writer, filmmaker, and organizer with semi-nomadic tendencies. As the Executive Director of Northwest Film Forum in Seattle and Editor-in-Chief of the interdisciplinary arts publication, REDEFINE, much of her work unifies her metaphysical interests with her belief that art can positively transform the self and society. She regularly shares stories of observations through her storytelling newsletter, RAMBLIN’ WITH VEE! and is a Co-Founder of the civil rights film series, The Seventh Art Stand. In 2018, she released her narrative short film, Searching Skies–which touches on the controversial topic of Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States–and in 2020, she will begin production on a comedic Asian-American series entitled Reckless Spirits. She is passionate about researching efforts to preserve cultural space and finding ways to covertly and overtly disrupt oppressive structures.

Featured image: art installation by SES first-graders with writer/activist/photographer, Sharon H. Chang, who led a unit on social-emotional expression and photography. “ … they were able to take photos of people and places that made them feel safe and loved. They decided they wanted to organize their photos into a collage shaped like an orca,said teacher Raven Wilcox. They called their collaborative project ‘Orca Love,’ (Photo: Sharon H. Chang)