A legacy of community stories and storytellers

Headshots of Daniel Coleman and Lorraine York

Daniel Coleman (left) and Lorraine York are stepping back from their roles as co-directors of the Centre for Community-Engaged Narrative Arts.

At any Long Table event held by McMaster’s Centre for Community-Engaged Narrative Arts (CCENA), you might hear from a poet, a playwright, a digital storyteller or an artist, sharing their experiences with their CCENA-supported project, several of which take place throughout each year.

The most recent Long Table was a little different, though: Multiple years’ worth of participants and partners came together to say goodbye to CCENA’s founding co-directors, Daniel Coleman and Lorraine York, as both step back from their roles after seven years and 40-ish projects.

“It’s hard to imagine a future for CCENA without Daniel and Lorraine because, well, when you think of CCENA you think of Daniel and Lorraine,” Amber Dean, a professor in the department of English and Cultural Studies and CCENA’s incoming director, said in her remarks to the group.

“They have always been concerned with shaking up the typical dynamic of ‘Who tells and who listens?’ People at the university are not usually like these two.”

Coleman and York, also professors in English and Cultural Studies, founded CCENA with the idea of working with storytellers of all kinds within the Hamilton community — providing a platform and support for narrative work already being done, and letting participants tell their stories in ways that were meaningful to them.

Long tables, open doors

“We were inspired by [former McMaster president] Patrick Deane’s letter, Forward With Integrity, which said that community engagement must never be an add-on or nice-to-have — it must be at the centre of what we do,” explains York.

“A guiding principle for us, especially in thinking about partnership with community artists and groups, was not proceeding from the university as a centre, but rather from the centre of what people and groups were already doing.”

That meant starting out, not with easily quantifiable objectives and outcomes, but with a lot of listening and a willingness to let CCENA reflect the needs of the community — not the other way around.

“Things may have seemed a little vague or opaque at the beginning, but because we didn’t over-define what we were trying to accomplish, we learned what we could and took the lead from community folks,” says Coleman.

“I think we’ve learned how to support public storytelling in ways that let the storytellers tell their story their way.”

A key part of supporting those stories was the Long Table series, where not only did participants share their projects, but also made connections with each other.

It was through the Long Tables that the full scope of what storytelling could mean became apparent, remembers long-time advisory board member Elizabeth Gray.

“CCENA is unusually open to alternate forms of narrative and storytelling – and that opens the door to things we couldn’t imagine before,” says Gray, who is an active community volunteer and the Indigenous counsellor at Mohawk College.

“There were things that we funded that I saw and heard and enjoyed – ways I never thought of telling stories. They were so open to ideas – they work with no walls, and invite in voices we might not otherwise find.”

One of those storytellers is Ashley Marshall, a McMaster graduate, artist, and communications professor at Durham College, who has been involved with CCENA since 2019.

Her first project, Home x Work, drew on the idea of the flâneur — one who engages with their world while strolling — in order to explore her story as a first-generation Black Canadian and the experience of being “Black x femme” in Hamilton.

Marshall worked on a second project, called Homegirl, in 2022, and also contributed to the development of the Hamilton Black History Council and Database. Recently, she was guest editor of the Fall 2023 issue of Hamilton Arts and Letters Magazine.

“The Black mundane is radical, and I will say that throughout all of my work,” Marshall says.

“I was guided, with understanding and compassion, that CCENA was trying to undo as much damage as possible that is inflicted by ‘Ivory Towers’ and give people voice, opportunity, visibility, and whatever funding they could.”

“They have always provided safety for my tender story to be shared, heard, seen, celebrated and reverberate.”

Ongoing legacy of publicly engaged work

While CCENA is a research centre within McMaster’s Faculty of Humanities, its research isn’t exactly typical university research — nor is it meant to be.

“We don’t feel like research is something we have to own,” explains Coleman.

“You could say that CCENA provides the energy or fuel so that people can generate information, knowledge, narrative or art form that we commonly recognize as research, and we get the joy of participating in that.

“It’s a way of participating in and generating research throughout the community beyond the containers usually has for that kind of work.”

Several projects have had measurable policy or “real-world” outcomes. One, the 2017 Brightside Neighbourhood Project, helped bring to life recollections of a once-thriving worker’s neighbourhood in the northeast of Hamilton that had been largely demolished in the 1960s for industrial expansion.

Working with interviews with former and current residents, the project included visual documentation, such as a collaborative map, and screen-printed portraits and landscapes.

That project, along with other research into the area, helped ignite a new interest in commemorating the Brightside neighbourhood in Hamilton.

Now, the City of Hamilton is planning to develop a new park called “Brightside Park” in the area, and Brightside was chosen as the subject of a Hamilton 175 virtual museum project in 2021.

Through conferences and other platforms, York and Coleman have also been able to share their methodology with others doing similar types of work.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’ve contributed to the scholarship of publicly engaged work,” says York. “We’ve actually developed a distinct and original contribution to the thinking about how universities do this kind of work.”

That work — and the methodology behind it — will continue, says incoming director Dean, who, along with CCENA’s advisory board, will be reviewing 2024 proposal projects shortly.

“It has been a humbling honour and an incredible privilege for me to have had these years to learn from your modelling of such a different approach,” she said to Coleman and York at the farewell Long Table.

“You have both made relationships, connectivity, friendship, community, uniting across differences and that very deliberate redistribution of the university’s many resources central to what you both do.”

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