Story by Belo Miguel Cipriani
In early 2015, Stephani Atkins was subbing for someone on maternity leave at Liberty Classical Academy in the Twin Cities metro area. As part of her duties, she taught a unit in creative writing — which ultimately put her on the school’s map.
“Students and parents,” she shared, “wanted more. They wanted me to continue with the course; they wanted more opportunities to share stories.”
But while the response to the creative writing unit was positive, Atkins was unsure if she was the right person to continue with the project.
“I told them that there were other people with more experience,” she said, laughing. “I said that I wasn’t the right person.”
Eventually though, Atkins changed her mind, and in the summer of 2015, launched the literary magazine The Shire as an arts project.
“We were an instant hit with students because we let them lead. We would ask: What story do you want to share, instead of a more guided approach,” she said.
After the successful launch of The Shire, it was clear to Atkins there was a big need for a safe place for middle and high school students to tell their stories. It was then that she took the next step and filed the paperwork to become a nonprofit. At this time, she also changed the name of the organization from The Shire to StoryArk, and setup shop in Stillwater.
“[The Shire] was a J.R.R. Tolkein reference,” she explained. “That seemed best to abandon when we became a nonprofit, because we didn’t want to get in trouble with the Tolkein family. StoryArk was more descriptive of what we did and was a play on words of the traditional ‘story arc’ and story ‘ark’ that sought to uplift all stories.”
Atkins discovered that while changing the organization’s name was a clear process, as a new arts administrator, she needed some guidance when it came to marketing. Through MRAC’s Management Consulting Fund, she was able to receive a grant that made it possible for her to hire a marketing consultant.
She said, “The first time we received the Management Consulting Grant, we were able to hire someone to help us with our branding. StoryArk has received this grant a few times, and it’s been very useful in helping us grow.”
And grow they have indeed. StoryArk has expanded from just a literary magazine, to a nonprofit that makes it possible for middle and high school age students to tell their stories through a podcast, a film, or through the written word. They share their content on their website, www.storyark.org, and through their mobile app.
Atkins credits StoryArk’s student initiated and led approach with its popularity with youth. She said, “They come in with great ideas and brainstorm as a group. Sometimes, there is conflict, and it’s great to see them negotiate difficult conversations and come up with a solution everyone is happy with.”
“It’s through conflict,” Atkins continued, “that students learn about each other and about themselves.”
In addition to providing students with opportunities to tell their stories through different mediums, StoryArk also makes it possible for students to work with artists from different disciplines. Past resident artists have included individuals from the Twin Cities, to as far as Columbia and Italy.
“We have eight professional writing and film mentors who work weekly with the students. We also bring in an additional 15 to 20 guest artists over the course of the year, for our summer film and podcast camps, and creative writing intensive,” she said.
While artists share their talents with the students through presentations and talks, Atkins points out that when it comes to production, students do the directing — often assigning roles and tasks to the visiting artists. As a result, the teens get to gain valuable skills in leadership, which they can apply to any future career.
Atkins said, “Many of our students have gone on to college and come back to work as artists for StoryArk. We’ve also had a past program participant who moved to L.A and is now working in production.”
Although StoryArk has expanded its services and now works with around 100 students per academic year, and has been able to secure several grants from MRAC to support its programs, Atkins is quick to point out that StoryArk has faced some problems around diversity.
“When we first started out,” Atkins said, “our students were primarily white. I knew this was an issue and began to network with the local school district to attract students from other backgrounds.”
Atkins’ outreach efforts brought about a partnership among StoryArk, FamilyMeans’ Cimarron Teen Program, Stillwater Area Public Schools, and ArtReach St. Croix’s NEA Big Read. The collaboration produced the podcast, Carnation, which primarily tells the stories of Latinx youth, and is based on student experience as inspired by the novel Into the Beautiful North, written by Luis Alberto Urrea.
The Twin Cities-based photography nonprofit Cultural Jambalaya gave Carnation the 2019 Cultural Jambalaya Diversity Award.
“It was so exciting to get the award. Yet, we recognize that we still have more work to do to increase access,” said Atkins. “We are actively seeking artists of color as staff and always appreciate recommendations.”
To learn more about StoryArk, or to check out their content, please visit www.storyark.org. To learn more about Management Consulting Fund grants which offer $2000 to arts organizations to pay a consultant to help address a management challenge, visit https://mrac.org/grants/managing-consulting-fund/. These grants have a monthly deadline and groups may receive two per MRAC’s fiscal year.
Belo Miguel Cipriani is a media entrepreneur, an award-winning author, a prize-winning journalist, and a teacher, nationally recognized for his contributions to the advocacy, employment diversity, and disability fields. He is the CEO and founder of Oleb Media – an ADA compliance firm – and the publishing house Oleb Books. He, along with writer Anitra Budd, is talking with MRAC groups to hear and share their stories in the monthly series.