Have you ever taken a chance and gone to an event without really knowing if you would feel comfortable there? Maybe you worried that you wouldn't know anyone, or feared you'd be out of place? In a city as segregated as Milwaukee, where neighborhoods can feel a world apart, it can be hard to break out and try new things.
From the beginning, Milwaukee-based Ex Fabula was built on the belief that stories are an invitation to engage, as well as a means to break through perceived barriers, create shared knowledge, and foster community. Their lively events began connecting people across the city through the art of true, personal storytelling in 2009, and they have increased their staff size, reach, and vision in the years since. A growing menu of storytelling workshops, StorySlams, and Community Collaborations very deliberately extends and expands the invitation to people who may not have felt welcome before.
Earlier this year, Ex Fabula applied for and was awarded a WH Major Grant for a new collaboration with HYFIN, a media project of Radio Milwaukee. The project, called “AfterDark: For The Culture," pooled the collective talents of both groups to create an intentional BIPOC affinity space where people could listen to each other and feel heard, all while having a good time.
We caught up with Alea McHatten, program director at Ex Fabula, and Kim Shine, production manager at HYFIN (sister station to 88.9FM and part of Radio Milwaukee) after the first of the affinity storytelling workshops and public events. Here is an excerpt from that conversation:
WH: How did the partnership between Ex Fabula and HYFIN come about for this project, AfterDark: For The Culture?
Kim: I'm a coach and volunteer with Ex Fabula. I also work for HYFIN, a new station under Radio Milwaukee, and our focus is Black culture, Black Milwaukee, Black music, and storytelling. Getting Black and Brown voices on stage was a goal. We partnered to make that happen.
Alea: Ex Fabula's mission is to connect people through true personal stories and HYFIN's mission is to connect people to the culture. They do that through music and the radio, but also through community collaborations, much like Ex Fabula.
Ex Fabula is always dedicated to creating not only equitable solutions for community members, but also having a really good time whenever we get together. That's what it really means to connect people through true personal stories - to create a space where people can be their authentic selves and take the brave step of sharing a piece of themselves in that space.
AfterDark: For The Culture is a specialized StorySlam in that we are collaborating with HYFIN, but even more so, we're highlighting the creative community that's already here in Milwaukee. We're creating another opportunity to pay Black and Brown artists and celebrate their voices and then amplify them by recording the stories and having them air on a radio show on WUWM called “"Real Stories MKE" (an Ex Fabula podcast).” It's just a win, win, win all the way around.
WH: For someone who's never been to an Ex Fabula event, what could they expect? How could you describe it?
Alea: All Ex Fabula events are live storytelling events by and for community members. and we're able to highlight particular voices, conversations, and issues by having an array of themes that speak to people in different ways. A theme might be “Forbidden Fruit or “Reimagining Milwaukee.” They are themes that people can latch on and say, "I've got a story about that." At the event, you can put your name in a hat to share your story. The MC shakes the hat and picks names out of it randomly so that we get a wide range of stories. Community members have five minutes to tell that story. For folks who don't want to get on stage, they can write an UltraShort, which is two to five lines to be read on stage by the MC of the night between the longer stories.
Sometimes we're celebrating things. Sometimes people are able to pull out joyous stories or really funny stories. Ex Fabula is also a great space for you to be vulnerable so you can talk about a story that may not be so joyous, that may highlight a different part or aspect of life. People can have a deeper perspective on what the plethora of the human experience actually is. And we’re trying to make sure that everybody feels welcome and has access to that space. We make sure the venue is ADA compliant and that we have interpreters available if someone is Deaf and uses ASL. Whatever the case might be, we're always trying to figure out how we can make this as accessible so that we all get to get a chance to learn and be in community, but also have a good time. Every single person that enters the space participates in that vibe. Being in community is what creates that richness of the event.
We have a Brave Space Workshop that happens right before the event. That's an extra special part that we throw in there so that people can practice before they take that big step of getting on stage. Or maybe they even discover something about themselves just by being in the audience. Black, Indigenous, or people of color can come to the Brave Space Workshop where they do not have to assimilate or code switch. It's another layer to creating real community where people are able feel welcome and then take that confidence into larger spaces where there's more of a mixed audience and they can still feel like they're sharing their story the way that they want to share it and be heard the way that they want to be heard. It helps reduce stigma and helps people learn from each other.
Kim: That’s what we really want to continue to do in Milwaukee, we want to make sure that we create brave spaces so that even if folks don't ever come to an Ex Fabula event again, or they don't come to one of our collaborative events again, they at least know that there are spaces for them to be open and share their experiences with folks.
WH: Can you share some of the impacts, whether in that moment or afterward, from the AfterDark: For The Culture event.
Kim: Our audience was diverse. We made clear that people were going to see and hear Black and Brown folks, but that we did not turn away folks. We want people who are friends, people who are family, people who understand that the world is colorful and it doesn't really matter. What matters is the fact that we all go through things, we all live life and it's the experiences that bond us, and so that's really what happened in the room.
And what was really amazing was that people were constantly putting their names in the hat. And that was great to see for me because this was our first partnership and I'm like, "Oh man, they might love the curated speakers, but they might not put their names in the hat," but that was not an issue. And after the event, a lot of folks came up to me and to ask, "When's the next one? When are you guys going to do this again? How can I be involved?" And that right there was great.
Alea: There is a local creative named Santana Coleman in Milwaukee who told us she came to an Ex Fabula event six or seven years ago, before I was on staff, before we had the capacity we have now. And she was like, "Well, I'm not sure how I'm going to feel in that space as a young Black woman, I'm not sure." But then she heard about this event and thought, "Okay, I'll give it another go." And she brought her husband and he ended up putting his name in the hat and he shared on stage. We had this great conversation afterwards about how they were so glad that they came back, that this felt like home for them. They agreed that it was a great space and community to be in.
WH: How did WH funding help you have a more successful project?
Alea: There's so many things, honestly. There's the staff time in general that this takes to put on. It takes a lot of love for your community. It takes a lot of emails and phone calls and showing up and being present in the community to have an event like this. In order to make sure that we were celebrating Black and Brown voices, we wanted to semi-curate the first event with folks that we knew had strong stories, had a strong background in art or in poetry, and also who really enjoyed this craft and sharing community. Kim and I thought hard about who we would ask, and the WH money enabled us to pay them.
By being able to pay for those artists, pay for a videographer and a photographer, we're able to further amplify those stories. We're able to share those videos with HYFIN and place them on their platforms, on YouTube, Vimeo, and all the other places so that people can see themselves up on stage. The storytellers can now say, "Here is something I did that represents my work, and now I can get more work because I have this representation." It's not just one small investment into the community. The inspiration continues.
And we will have three more events thanks to WH. We're able to not just do this one time, but people now know that this is a place to build community and grow, and that was one of our biggest goals. Our first one proved that it does work.
WH: How can people support your work?
Alea: You can follow HYFIN and Ex Fabula on social media and donate whenever you can. Even the smallest donation goes a long way. If you want to support equity in your city, support events like this one and support local artists. They're going to continue to make the world go round.
We invite you to learn more about Wisconsin Humanities grant program here!