An interview with Narrative Arts director Nick Szuberla
Narrative Arts’ executive director and co-founder Nick Szuberla talked with Lisa Dent of Creative Capital about using cultural strategies for community organizing. The full interview is here; in the excerpts below, Nick talks about his background, and using stories to challenge mass incarceration in the U.S., through Narrative Arts’ project Nation Inside.
Nick Szuberla: When I moved from my hometown of Toledo, OH and into the Appalachian coalfields in 1998, I was interested in learning more about the impact that prisons, as a form of economic development, were having on the Appalachian community. I made contact with local prisoners after I began a weekly radio program, “Holler to the Hood,” that became popular with them. I was playing hip-hop in a sea of bluegrass. The prisoners I spoke with cued me in to the human rights abuses taking place at two supermax prisons near my home. Among the numerous tragedies I learned about, two ended in the death of an inmate. My goal in applying to Creative Capital was to quickly scale up my efforts to deal with the situation through a multimedia project… I hoped to work with the community to build enough cultural and political power in our tiny rural corner of the world to put forward a counter-narrative that would change public opinion and state policy. To varying degrees, that goal was met.
Since I received the grant in 2006 we have created a network that encompasses over 50,000 individuals, stakeholders who are slowly but successfully making changes to the U.S. criminal justice system. That all started with the scrappy upstart radio program I mentioned, so I’m amazed at how this whole thing has grown. Not to be too boastful, but a lot has been accomplished in the interim. With a team of collaborators, I’ve produced a documentary film and theater program on prisons, aired 612 radio broadcasts of prisoner family calls, initiated a prison storyline that has recorded close to 3,000 stories, and done criminal justice residency and community engagement projects in almost every state. What’s incredible is how much still needs to be done.
When I talk with folks concerned about mass incarceration, my basic questions are, “What’s your experience?” and “What do you want to change?” I’m interested in hearing a person’s story, pulling back from it and figuring out how we can connect their story and their passion to a broader movement to change the criminal justice system in this country. That process gives us a space to play together and explore. With my latest project, Nation Inside, I’m helping campaign organizers utilize data and storytelling. I want to see a story-driven campaign in every state and a network of over 100,000 by the end of this year.