Strengthening Community and Connection through Storytelling

Conversations with the 2022 Community Storytelling Fellows

People of Color Outdoors (POCO) during a community hike at Oxbow Regional Park. Photo by Juan Kis. 

Oregon Humanities' Community Storytelling Fellowship is awarded annually to Oregonians who belong to communities that are underrepresented in Oregon media. In 2022, we awarded three Community Storytelling Fellowships to Hector Flores (Talent), Bruce Poinsette (Tigard), and Jennifer Perrine (Portland). At the end of 2022, we spoke with Bruce and Jennifer about their fellowship experiences and perspectives on community storytelling. These conversations have been condensed and edited for publication.


Describe the project you worked on during the fellowship, and why you were interested in telling these stories.

Bruce Poinsette: The project was basically essays and a podcast episode designed around season two of a series I've been doing called The Blacktastic Adventure, which is, at its core, an interview series trying to showcase the various Black stories throughout Oregon. And the reason that I would say that was very important to tell is just because I think, especially outside of Oregon, there's this perception that—well, not perception. Obviously there’s not a huge Black population here, but with that comes this sort of assumption of almost, I don’t want to say invisibility, but yeah, effectively you kind of become invisible, or else there are only a few stories highlighted.

Especially to the outside world, they think about Black people in Oregon, you know, they're thinking about the Blazers, or they're thinking about the Ducks, or maybe they’re thinking of the tragic stories that make the news. So I think it's really important to highlight the various stories that are here. And not just the stories, but also the work that people are doing provides—I don't want to say provides a different narrative—but just really provides a narrative that especially is driven not just by spotlighting the different Black people that make up Black Oregon, but also the fact that it is done by Black creators.

Jennifer Perrine: The project I worked on explored the ways in which people of color in Oregon are (re)connecting with the more-than-human world—also known in some circles as “nature” or “wilderness.” I learned about and shared in writing the practices of recreational affinity groups, as well as individuals and organizations working at the intersection of environmental justice and racial justice.

During the period of the pandemic when many of us were isolated from one another, I began attending outdoor events through People of Color Outdoors (POCO). I noticed how different walks in the forest, bird noticing, and other nature-based experiences felt when I was with other people of color. I felt safe and understood and respected in ways I often hadn’t in previous experiences with outdoor groups. I delighted in those outings with POCO, and yet I also lamented that I had been living in Oregon for nearly five years before I discovered that affinity groups like this existed. The project felt like an opportunity to help other people of color find that comfort and kinship more quickly.

Bruce Poinsette, center, talks with Mac Smiff, right, for a story on Black Muslim community leadership. Photo by Intisar Abioto.

What do you hope audiences will experience or take away from this work?

Bruce: I hope a level of inspiration. I look at the episode we did on Black Muslim community leadership, for example, and I hope people take some inspiration from these stories. I also hope people see the importance of community building, and I think we tried to model that a little bit in the filming. It can be a hard thing to depict or film or take pictures of sometimes, at least in a way that really puts the story behind it for people. But we really wanted to model the importance of community, just give people a picture of a Black creative team at work, a Black creative team interacting with both the project we're doing, but then also, like with the Eastern Oregon story, interacting with the geography of the state and with each other, and creating more images of that.

Jennifer: I hope people of color who read the pieces will find more people and organizations in their communities with which they want to connect, or that they’ll feel inspired to develop or recommit to their own ways of being with and stewarding the more-than-human world. I hope White readers will advocate for integrating the values and practices shared by the groups I interviewed into spaces where they don’t yet exist.

In their stories, Jennifer Perrine, second from left, featured numerous organizations working to create access to recreation for Oregonians of color, including People of Color Outdoors (POCO). Photo by Juan Kis. 

What was most challenging about this project?

Jennifer: One of my biggest challenges was having to choose from among the wealth of wisdom shared by the people I interviewed. For each of the pieces, I had no shortage of brilliant comments, nuanced perspectives, and practical information, and I had to leave so much out to shape the pieces into a manageable story for audiences. The project definitely challenged me to further refine my editorial skills, which I thought were already well honed!

Bruce: The challenge, I think, is going in, you have an idea of what you need or what you think you need or what the scope of the project can be. And then as you're doing it, just trying to navigate the logistics and understanding that I'm trying to tell the story. It involves a lot of travel and trying to tell these stories that involve various different people and realizing, okay, there's what I thought I needed versus what I might need to take this to the next level. 

Maybe some of the challenges that came were a part of trying to make it such a collaborative effort, which I guess is my own thing. But at the same time, part of this is [about] being community-driven work and all that. So I feel like it was also an important part of the project to do.

How do you approach telling stories that are about or centered within a community?

Bruce: Just being involved, whether it be with the community groups or just in certain spheres and networks. Obviously I have certain ideas in my head, certain stories or angles that I'm particularly interested in telling. But trying to really make sure that it's coming from something that’s not just me, but coming from the community, coming from things people are talking about, that people are concerned about, and trying to make it really responsive to what’s happening. 

It kind of [comes from] a combination of spaces I already occupy and some level of responsibility I feel to make it responsive and authentic, while also still bringing my unique perspective and eyes, as the creator, to it. 

Jennifer: In the piece, “We Know What We’ve Experienced,” several of the interviewees talked about the importance of choice when people from BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities engage in outdoor recreation. I try to take a similar approach when I tell stories about the communities I’m part of. I have questions in mind, but I try to follow the lead of the people who are sharing their stories and let what they choose to contribute guide what I write. Because these are communities that continue to be marginalized in so many spaces, I want to take care that when I collaborate with them, they feel heard, understood, and centered in the stories I tell. Ideally, I’m there to give the stories a structure that will help readers make connections, but I try to honor that the stories aren’t mine—I’m just the vehicle for bringing them to another audience. 

What advice do you have for new storytellers interested in doing community-driven work? 

Jennifer: Follow your curiosity. What do you want to learn? Who’s doing something that you’re excited by and want to know more about? If your experience is anything like mine, once you start reaching out, you’ll find so many people who are generous with their time and their insights. Chances are, whatever you learn in the course of those conversations will be something that other folks will want to learn about, too.

Bruce: Make sure whatever story you're trying to tell, whatever community, you're trying to cover or spotlight—make sure you're plugged in. With this work, I think it’s important to really take that time to actually build that community and sometimes that means it's gonna take a long time. 

Again, it’s just being plugged in, involved, and coming from a real place of caring about the well-being of people and looking at something not just to tell a story about it. I think just so much community-driven work in general is about, you know, community uplift, of taking care of the wellbeing of people, with each other. And I think storytelling should have an element, and it doesn’t have to be preachy, but I think there should be some basis for using storytelling for something more than just the sake of telling a story.

Bruce Poinsette, right, facilitates a discussion for an episode of The Blacktastic Adventure, exploring the relationships between Black Oregon natives and recent transplants. Photo by Nate Ilebode.

How do you identify what it means to be in community?

Bruce: When I think about community, I think of having a real connection, even though it’s hard to define what that is. It’s going to sound so fluffy, but just collectively being, whatever that looks like. Like actually having a real investment in the stakes, having a real investment in each other. We’re as interconnected as ever digitally and everyone has the ability to talk at each other, but I feel like community is really about being in connection with people—not just for the positives and not just for the things that are the spectacles. But a lot of that in-between stuff, the things that probably are not gonna go into a story or make the cut. I guess it really just comes back down to having a real investment in the wellbeing of people you're with. What community looks like, at least my idea of it, is when you are actually both materially, spiritually—whatever—invested In the wellbeing of those around you and those you’re with. I think that's as close as I can get to an answer.

Jennifer: Community, more and more, feels like a close cousin to solidarity. When I try to identify my communities, I ask myself: Who has both the capacity and desire to share some joy, some beauty, some delight with me while also holding space for my sorrows, my angers, my disappointments? Who brings me peace and hope in both their intentions and their actions? When I try to cultivate community, I ask the companion questions: How can I practice bringing more nuance, more care, more love to the environments I’m part of? How can I find ways for all of us to thrive?

Jennifer Perrine is the author of four books of poetry: Again, The Body Is No MachineIn the Human Zoo, and No Confession, No Mass. Perrine’s recent poems, stories, and essays appear in The Missouri Review, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, Cutbank, New Letters, Buckman Journal, and Harpur Palate. A resident of Portland, Perrine co-hosts the Incite: Queer Writers Read series, teaches creative writing, and serves as a wilderness guide. Perrine is a 2022 Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellow.

Bruce Poinsette is a writer, educator, and community organizer whose work is primarily based in the Portland Metro Area. He hosts "The Bruce Poinsette Show" on 96.7 The Numberz FM and the YouTube series “The Blacktastic Adventure: A Virtual Exploration of Oregon’s Black Diaspora.” A former reporter for the Skanner News Group, his work has also appeared in the OregonianStreet RootsOregon Humanities, and We Out Here Magazine, as well as projects such as the Mercatus Collective and the Urban League of Portland’s State of Black Oregon 2015. Poinsette also contracts with the University of Oregon Equity and Inclusion Office and numerous Oregon nonprofits and teaches journalism and creative nonfiction with Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program. In addition to his professional writing work, Poinsette volunteers with Respond to Racism LO, a grassroots antiracism organization in his hometown of Lake Oswego.