“No more violence / put down the gun / we will not be silenced / it’s time for a revolution.”
As She’Kinah Taylor sings the lyrics to “Who’s Ready” with her fellow Saint Louis Story Stitchers, it’s impossible to not feel their passion and sense the empowerment they’ve found together in the youth artist collective, where they work to erase real and perceived divisions through cultural exploration and art practice. Their goal is to promote a better-educated, more peaceful and more caring region through story-telling.
“We start every project with collecting stories,” says Susan Colangelo, founding president and executive director. “We open our recording booth. We teach young people how to interview people. Then we take those stories and think about what our topic is. And we reframe and retell them through art, through videography, spoken word, music, whatever we think we need to use, that’s what we use.”
Susan Colangelo founded Saint Louis Story Stitchers in 2013 after learning of two sisters who were shot and killed while sitting on their front porch in University City. As a visual artist, she thought about how to make gun violence visible in a different way, to create change. Colangelo brought together friends to start the artists collective with that goal in mind.
“Our theory is that we can engage youth in ways through the arts,” says Colangelo, “and that will help them to build resiliency against trauma and against becoming hurt or involved in violent behavior.”
As Story Stitchers member Shawn Taylor sings: “Who’s ready / We ready / we ready for the violence to stop.”
While Story Stitchers was established as a performance artist collective — putting on dance shows, poetry readings and other events — it’s now grown into a much larger organization and movement that promotes understanding, civic pride, intergenerational relationships and literacy within St. Louis’ BIPOC communities.
The collective opens its doors to St. Louisans aged 16 to 24 years old as a safe space, aiming to give these young people the tools to build resiliency against trauma — with the ultimate goal of breaking the cycle of gun violence in city neighborhoods most affected by crime.
“The youth program is at the center of Story Stitchers,” says Coleangelo. “That’s why we love what we do, because they are so hungry to learn and hungry to have a chance at living healthy, normal lives.”
It wasn’t until after Emeara Burns found her home with Story Stitchers at the age of 16 that she felt she could confidently call herself a poet.
Now in her early 20s, the Story Stitchers youth program director beams with pride in describing her many accomplishments as a performing artist, poet, rapper, instrumentalist, podcast host and published author.
“When I first came to Story Stitchers, I just saw myself as a guitarist and a poet, kind of. But now I can sit here and confidently and say ‘yes, I do all these things.’,” says Burns. “That speaks to the organization and the mentors we have, just instilling that confidence and giving us that push to go out and be those things and pursue those things.”
Burns’ first poem for Story Stitchers was inspired by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson. She recalls the response she received after performing it at a Story Stitchers open audition: “They loved it and they loved me and I loved them — just being welcomed into the family, it just felt really good and ever since that day, I’ve just been here doing my thing and creating.”
The artist collective has not only empowered her to see and sharpen her gifts, but it has also given her the push she needed to inspire other people in similar situations. As the youth program director, she helps program participants cope with trauma and understand they’re not alone. Processing her own experiences and sharing them through her poetry and music is one coping mechanism that she demonstrates to them.
“It is very rewarding, especially if the poem is coming from somewhere dark, from a point of pain or trauma,” Burns said of her art. “It makes you feel like that experience wasn’t in vain, and going through that situation had a greater purpose.”
Branden Lewis found Story Stitchers during his senior year of high school when he came to a show to support a friend. He now serves as co-chair of the Story Stitchers Youth Council and as a StitchCast Studio podcast host, interviewing guests from critical care surgeon and trauma expert Dr. LJ Punch to Emmy award-winning storyteller Bobby Norfolk. Hearing their perspectives shapes his outlook.
“To me, it’s beautiful, because it’s always a reminder that there are people out there that are trying to make the world a better place,” says Lewis. “It’s been really hard especially with the pandemic. A lot of people are suffering right now. And so to be reminded that there are a bunch of people that are still trying to inject positivity into the world and make the world better, and trying to take care of problems that we’ve been trying to get rid of since long before the pandemic started — It gives you a sense of hope.”
Most recently, Lewis hosted a podcast series titled “The D/vided C/ty,” where he, along with co-hosts and guests, delved into issues such as the ramifications of childhood trauma, mental health maintenance and the history of the city’s segregated neighborhoods.
Burns believes the podcasts resonate because Story Stitchers youth choose the topics, expressing that they want to learn more about trauma, mental health and sex education.
“I think it’s powerful that we are aware of what we need, and that Story Stitchers is able to provide the support to answer these questions and have these conversations, like a safe space,” she said. “And to get the youth comfortable enough to not only have this conversation, but to publish it and let the world hear it, is a great thing.”
In addition to “The D/vided C/ty,” the Story Stitchers Stitch Cast Studio has produced episodes on the COVID-19 vaccine, protests, policing and decoding racism. Another series they’ve produced, “The WHY of MY City,” explores the past and future of parts of the region like Ferguson, the Ville and the Delmar Loop through conversations with local politicians, authors and historians, as well as area youth.
While the Story Stitchers have increased their outreach through podcasting, they continue to participate in community improvement efforts throughout the region, like the Shelter Project. A collaboration between the collective and the Wellston Loop Community Development Corporation, the Shelter Project goes beyond a much-needed ADA-compliant bus shelter and bench by pairing it with a hygiene cupboard containing free soap and cleaning products, a rainwater collection system for nearby gardens and a 90-foot mural on the fence behind the shelter.
The Story Stitchers youth collaborated with internationally renowned, St. Louis-based artist Katherine Bernhardt on the bright, bold mural design, which includes the words “Black excellence” painted next to a portrait of American civil rights activist and former football quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“We wanted to uplift the community … especially if you live in a community where there are abandoned buildings everywhere and it just looks like nobody cares about it, and then you turn to the right and you see ‘Black excellence,’ that’s going to make you stop and kind of think for a minute,” says Burns.
Black excellence is exactly what Story Stitchers performers demonstrate when they take the stage, because members not only support and uplift one another, but they instill in each other a sense of accountability and expectation the members may not find in other areas of their life.
“And I think that’s what makes the collective so strong is because we’ve instilled value in every individual so that when we come together as a whole, it’s this magical thing that happens,” Burns said. “That’s why when we’re on stage, you can feel it — because we’ve worked hard, not just together, but individually. We’ve put in this time because we care about each other and we don’t want the next person to look bad on stage so we’re going to make sure we got our stuff together so that when we come together, it can be an amazing thing.”
Even with all of this going on, the Story Stitchers youth have their sights on another, much larger project: establishing an arts and technology center dedicated to their work as artists and social activists.
“The center we’re hoping to build is to provide opportunities and resources to youth that they don’t believe exist,” Lewis said. “And we’re hoping that by doing so we can bring down crime levels because they won’t see gang violence and gun violence as their only options to getting food and money to take care of their families.”
Plans for the center include a recording studio and resources like internet and device access for young people to not only work on Story Stitchers projects, but also do things outside of that like submit job and college applications.
For now, Burns and Lewis — along with the rest of the youth in the art collective — will continue to create art and work to reduce violent crimes in their neighborhoods through community engagement and inclusion.
“In the future for Story Stitchers, I just want to see generations come, generations of leaders. I don’t want it to just stop with me and Brandon or everyone else who’s in this circle right now,” says Burns. “I want to see more youth take the baton and just dash off with it, even if they run faster than we do. That’s even better.“
“I want to see Story Stitchers to continue to be a pillar in the communities in the St. Louis region,” Burns continues. “And if we become something that is replicable all over the nation, then so be it, but it always starts at home. So just us being able to make a difference here, I believe will help make a difference everywhere.”