Grown Folks Stories

Grown Folks

Barbara Epstein
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The GSD student who stood in front of the crowd was visibly nervous. She said she was from China and was not really good at English, which had made her very worried about coming here. She was still afraid of being laughed at. Nonetheless when she heard about story night, she wanted to do something she’d never done before. By the time she finished her story–which by the way was great–people came up and hugged her, and you could see her feeling so good at what she accomplished. Her story was about telling the story as a way to overcome her fears, and she was so happy to be here to tell it.

Loeb Fellow Eric Williams created Real Talk story night at the GSD as a response to the pressure and isolation he hears about from students. It’s a model he’s road tested for 8 years as Grown Folks Stories at the Silver Room, his store and community gathering place in Chicago.

The Silver Room just celebrated its 20th anniversary–in a busy commercial neighborhood in the Hyde Park section of Chicago, Williams has created a haven at the intersection of fashion, music, and art. It’s a store in the daytime and it hosts a range of events in the evenings which Williams curates with the aim of strengthening community and fueling economic impact. The Silver Room produces events at all scales, from small, like Grown Folks Stories, to the Sound System Block Party, which attracts more than 30,000 people. Willams also collaborates with the University of Chicago to produce the 3-day CONNECT Hyde Park Arts Festival.

He’s a true believer in empowerment through entrepreneurship, and in his personal mission against disenfranchisement, inequity, and marginalization, Williams mentors beginning and aspiring entrepreneurs to make sure they have the tools to be successful and grow. He’s a little perplexed by all the intense discussions about community engagement at the GSD. “Just talk to people, talk with the people around you. Find out about them,” he advises. Community engagement is about being part of community and listening.

Williams kicked off Real Talk with an event in the fall, and at the second event in February, the audience had grown by 50 percent and drew people from the Ed School, the Kennedy School, and Harvard Business School. There’s an emcee named Phoenix Soul, a yoga teacher from Cambridge, “a friend of a friend,” who is funny, lively, and herself a good storyteller. “There are a lot of different kinds of storytelling programs,” says Williams. “But ours isn’t judged, there’s no award, it isn’t themed; it’s simply about people having a chance to share their stories with one another and laugh or cry and have conversations. The topics are very diverse. We’ve had stories about abuse, and about people getting lost on their vacation, so they’re all over the place. I saw the magic that Story Night meant to a lot of people, because stories bring this common thread of humanity.”

Gund Hall is about to host the 3rd Real talk at the GSD, on April 18. The African American Student Union cosponsors and promotes the events, but the most effective PR has happened through word of mouth.

The rules: keep to 5 minutes, phones off, pay full attention, listen. It’s not poetry, not reading, not rehearsed or theatrical; people tell their stories as if they’re talking to their friends. With no theme and no prize, every story is a winner. Williams estimates, “If we get 15 stories in a two hour period, five of them are going to be not that great, 3 or 4 are going be great, and one or two will be told by someone who is just so cute or winning or funny as a person.”

Williams believes everybody has a story. It’s not about talent. At the first Story Night he set the pace of the evening by telling a story of his own.

It was about me being mistaken for Don Cheadle when I was in Montreal and somebody bought my meal. I was treating myself to a really fancy dinner; I had wine and several courses. And I asked for the bill, and the maître d’ said, “Oh monsieur, it’s all paid for.” And I said, “What do you mean? I don’t know anybody here.” And he pointed to a table nearby. “They said you’re their favorite actor; they loved you in Ocean’s Eleven.” And I just smiled and nodded to the table, and I walked out.

Williams didn’t sound rehearsed, and he’s not even the best story teller. “But that’s the point,” he says. “This is an antidote to the striving for perfection that students do at the GSD. Now it’s time for imperfection; come tell a story.”

The next Real Talk will be on April 18 from 6:30-8:30 PM
Location: Harvard Graduate School of Design, Gund Hall, Room 123
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Photo by Donald Taylor-Patterson