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Recap: NEA Big Read Sharing Stories Webinar

The National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest hosted a special one-hour presentation about the new direction of the NEA Big Read program on Thursday, November 12, 2020. Watch the full webinar, and take in some key takeaways from past NEA Big Read grantees below.

Presentation downloads

Grantee Story: Friends of the Homer Public Library

In 2013, the Friends of the Homer Public Library in Homer, Alaska (population 5,500) held an NEA Big Read on the book The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Former coordinator Erin Hollowell spoke about her approach to bringing her community into the story.

We decided that instead of making the Vietnam War the focus of our NEA Big Read events, we would instead make the focus about the power of story itself. To that end, we wanted to bring the public into the storytelling process.

We set up a partnership with our local public radio station. We used some of the funds from the NEA to pay for half of the cost, and then the staff donated half of their time for the production and engineering.

We publicized the project by saying that community members are welcome to record a two and a half to three-minute true-life story that they would like to preserve. The story could be about any significant experience, not exclusively a war experience. Elders in the community were particularly sought, with the goal of memorializing the early stories of Homer.

There were hurdles that we had to overcome:

  • We had to repeatedly clarify that these did not need to be war stories.
  • We had to make sure that the participants came with a story written down that was approximately 300 to 500 words. Those that just came in with a story to tell off the top of their heads often spilled over the time allotment and became distorted and digressed, meaning that they needed to be edited by the engineers for time.
  • We didn’t get as many volunteers as we thought, so I had to actively solicit stories from individuals that I knew would do a good job. This required a pretty deep involvement with the community,
  • Writing a script was pretty intimidating for some people, so I ended up going and sitting with people and taking dictation and helping them write outlines.

Here are some of the successes that made the project incredibly worthwhile:

  • Several of the storytellers were older people who ended up doing the project because younger members encourage them and assisted them. They came in with them to the radio studio, and sat with them and helped them work on their stories, so there was a lot of family interaction.
  • We brought in new voices because the public radio and the local newspaper advertised the project. We had folks participate who were not even registered library patrons. Once they participated, they felt a lot more comfortable coming into the library.
  • Because this entire NEA Big Read focused on stories, it sparked a lot of opportunity for individuals to connect through their stories. Sometimes those stories didn’t get shared any further than the dinner table, but because we were telling people that their stories were important, they got shared.

It was time-consuming, but really worth it. When the projects were finished, the stories were mastered by the radio station. They played throughout the weeks during the NEA Big Read and following it, and for some time afterwards, they were available on the Friends of the Homer Public Library website.


Grantee Story: Malden Reads

In 2020, Malden Reads, a community reading program in Malden, Massachusetts (population 61,036) held an NEA Big Read on the book Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. Co-founders Jodie Zalk and Anne D’Urso-Rose spoke about their approach to adapting their programming during COVID-19.

We really feel that partnerships have been integral to our success. In 11 years of doing Malden Reads, we find it’s all about the organizations that we connect with. That is at the core, we think, of a community-wide program. This year, we created a menu of digital offerings, some of which have been planned pre-COVID. We wanted to cast a wide net to spark ideas for a diverse audience through partnerships.

Photos submitted during the virtual Malden Mass Memories Road Show

Malden Mass Memories Road Show

  • The Mass Memories Road Show is a photo-sharing project tied with sharing community stories, made possible through a partnership with the University of Massachusetts at Boston. It’s a statewide, event-based, participatory archiving project that documents people, places, and events in MA history through family photographs and stories.
  • This was planned to be an in-person event, but when COVID-19 hit, all of a sudden it wasn’t possible to have 300 people gathered together, so we pivoted to a “stuck at home edition.”
  • Usually, the Boston team will come on-site. For the stuck at home addition, their US team collected photos and digitized photos in an online archive. As part of that online archive, there is an opportunity to share stories – it’s really about telling oral histories.
  • The tie-in here for the NEA Big Read grant was Fahrenheit 451. In that story, protagonist Guy Montage and his dissidents are preserving stories and collecting memories. We were able to do this with our community through a stuck-at home edition of the road show.

Malden Reads Podcast Series

  • We would really recommend considering doing a Podcast featuring your book. Podcasts are really big right now, and it’s kind of a social distancing way of discussing a book, where you also get to model talking about a book.
  • We had conversations with different people in the community as guests. We dived into the book, and used it as a point of departure to talk about how the book relates to what is happening today.
  • We made 4 episodes. Our very first guest was the Deputy Fire Chief. If you know Fahrenheit 451, you know the main character is a fireman. We also had our Mayor, and a graphic designer.
  • Our final guest was a minister who loves science fiction, so we used that as a jumping-off point. When we did that interview, it was at the very beginning of the pandemic, and so we talked a lot about the dystopic times we were entering.
  • We had planned a lot more episodes, but quite frankly, when the pandemic hit, the book and this content was almost too dystopia for people. And so we pivoted our programming a bit.

“I’m From” Poem Workshop

  • We set up a virtual workshop with a local writer and a spoken word artist to help people create I’m From poems.
  • These are poems that have a template to them. They are not only about where someone is from geographically, but the sites and the smells and the sounds and the experiences of what makes a person who they are.
  • Each of the participants wrote their own “I’m From” poem, and we’re doing a virtual presentation of the poems.
  • We also asked the participants to submit photos or illustrations for a slide show that will show at the beginning of the virtual event that tie in with their poems.

In addition to these projects, we also worked with our local public access channel on a Filmbuilding workshop, and set up a Digital Social wall for our community.


Apply for the 2021-22 NEA Big Read

Are you part of an organization looking for support to bring your community together, share the joy of a good book, and find inspiration in new stories and ideas? Arts Midwest is now inviting applications for the 2021-2022 National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program.

Learn More and Apply