How ivoh’s Restorative Narrative Fellowship restored a reporter’s faith in storytelling
From left: Fellow Alex Tizon, fellow Jake Harper, story coach Jacqui Banaszynski, fellow Elissa Yancey, fellow Ben Montgomery, ivoh founding director Judy Rodgers, ivoh managing director Mallary Tenore, ivoh project and event coordinator Vanessa Rhinesmith, and fellow Rochelle Riley.
Elissa is an ivoh Restorative Narrative Fellow, an associate professor in the journalism department at the University of Cincinnati, and a contributor at WCPO-TV Digital.
When I attended my first Images and Voices of Hope Summit last summer, I didn’t know what to expect. I loved the pastoral setting of Peace Village in the Catskills and soaked up the contemplative time the long summer weekend offered.
But it was during the varied sessions about storytelling designed to restore rather than simply inform that I felt the deepest connection. I wanted to know more about this notion of Restorative Narrative and the capacity of richly reported stories to build connections and empathy. I wanted to figure out how reporting might not only help shed some light on my city’s 50-plus percent childhood poverty rate, but foster understanding and inspire sustained action.
I returned to Cincinnati inspired to put what I’d learned to use, both in my reporting and in my teaching. When I received an inaugural ivoh Restorative Narrative fellowship in fall 2014, I set out to find a subject that would allow me to explore the possibilities of Restorative Narrative while sparking a community’s conversation around the human toll of economic justice.
Turns out that I didn’t find the right opportunity. It found me.
During fall semester at the University of Cincinnati, I’d been visiting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s offices in Cincinnati’s inner-city West End neighborhood with a group of students in my reporting class. I’d made several weekly visits there before I met LaMonica Sherman. But a week didn’t go by without someone telling me about her. Employees and volunteers dropped her name so often it was clear that she was legend at the nonprofit.
“Have you met LaMonica?” they’d ask. “You really need to meet her. She’s got a great story.” But I wasn’t there as a reporter, I told them. I was there as a professor.
On my third visit, I met Liz Carter, who was executive director of St. Vincent’s at the time. A former journalist herself, she was excited about my students’ projects, but immediately mentioned a new book club that St. Vincent’s was sponsoring in Winton Terrace, a notorious local housing project.
Carter explained that a group of nearly all women were reading “Tattoos on the Heart,” a nonfiction account of Los Angeles gang members’ rocky journeys to redemption. She told me about the connections Winton Terrace residents had made between the book and their lives in the city’s oldest subsidized housing development. And she told me about the woman who started not only the club, but also St. Vincent’s operations in the community.
Her name was LaMonica Sherman.
Then, the next Saturday at Bank Street, I met LaMonica. She was, as I describe in “A Prayer for Winton Terrace,” a bright blur of color and energy. And I knew, at that moment, that I had my fellowship subject.
Everything about LaMonica’s story led me back to key restorative themes: her resilience, the strength of her convictions and her faith. Her struggle to overcome the dark cloud of poverty continued, but she had already climbed out of the depths and was actively pulling others out behind her.
Still, in order to make the project work, I knew I needed more. I needed access. I needed time. I needed context.
LaMonica made the access part easy. Whether I was spending Valentine’s Day at a meeting of the Sister Circle or crammed in the backseat of her white sedan as I traveled with her family to Easter Sunday services, LaMonica welcomed questions. Even the uncomfortable ones. What kind of fights did she get into in high school? Why did she stop going to church? How did she deal with the death of her son’s father?
When I didn’t check in on LaMonica, she checked in on me, seeming to sense when I’d had a bad day or faced a particularly tough deadline. We talked about the concept of Restorative Narrative. We talked about facing hard truths. We talked about shining light into dark places of hopelessness and despair. As we pieced together the patchwork of her life, I began to see LaMonica as a partner in, as well as the subject of, this restorative journey.
The ivoh fellowship gave me time. Six months of conversations, interviews, research, writing, and editing transformed the story from a traditional feature into something richer, something deeper. I was there when LaMonica helped her daughter move into her college dorm, a very tangible break from a multi-generation cycle of poverty. I sorted through family pictures and stories with her mother. I watched her minister in and out of churches.
But still, I had a full-time job to maintain. So, I fit reporting in on weekends and evenings. I made phone calls during lunch hours. I showed up in Winton Terrace for scheduled events and interviews and dropped by whenever windows of opportunity opened. Neither of us knew for sure what the finished product would look like, but LaMonica seemed to sense what else I needed to know. She connected me to family members, to friends, to neighbors, to clients. When she was honored with a Martin Luther King Jr. award for “keeping the dream alive,” she made sure I had a front-row seat.
What I learned from LaMonica and from my time in Winton Terrace helped shape the data I started to collect. I needed to add context so that readers outside of Winton Terrace could understand what I could see so clearly in meetings of the community support groups LaMonica had started.
The Census data showed so much. WCPO Digital’s data reporter Mark Nichols sifted through the latest U.S. Census data and found that not only was half of the population of Winton Terrace 18 or younger, but all of the young people lived in single-mother led homes with an average household income of about $8,000 a year.
Comparing the income levels, the education levels, and the living situations of Winton Terrace residents with those in the rest of the city’s population helped paint a stark backdrop to LaMonica’s work. And it made her bright blur of color and energy all the more compelling. As I wrote and re-wrote, edited and re-edited the five-part multi-media series about LaMonica and Winton Terrace, I kept considering what elements made her story restorative. That restorative lens informed how I shaped the narrative, how I chose details and quotes. It offered me a framework upon which to hang the story of LaMonica’s life.
The response to its publication has been overwhelming, both in Winton Terrace and in the Greater Cincinnati community. Readers have told me they’ve been inspired by the stories, that they feel empowered by LaMonica and her work, that the narrative gives them hope.
But what is the measure of success of restorative narrative? For me, it’s about more than the response to my fellowship series. It’s about shifting my work as a storyteller and as a journalist. It’s about using restorative tools—like looking for access, pushing for time, and emphasizing context—on an as-needed basis, whether it’s in a tweet or a 6,000-word multi-media series.