Thursday, December 07, 2017

Guest Post by Jasper Visser: Storytelling for Social Cohesion at Story House Belvédère

I first read about Story House Belvédère on Jasper Visser’s excellent blog, The Museum of the Future. This small, startup cultural project in Rotterdam works directly and intimately with community members to share their stories. It is a platform for social bridging and cultural exchange. Jasper enhanced his original post to share with you here. I hope you’ll be as charmed and inspired by Story House Belvédère as I am.

Story House Belvédère in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, is a magical place. On a beautiful location in a former jazz-era night club, a committed team works on storytelling activities to bring different communities in the city together, and contribute to a happier, more engaged city. They do so by making the stories of individuals and communities visible, and encouraging new encounters. In its short existence (it opened in 2013), the place has made a name for itself as a successful community-driven, innovative cultural initiative.

I visited Story House Belvédère as part of the new Intangible Cultural Heritage and Museum Projects I am involved in. I had heard a lot about Belvédère before my visit, so my expectations were high. The place surpassed them. I spoke with some of the people working there, especially founder Linda Malherbe.

What makes Story House Belvédère so special?

It is rooted in its diverse neighborhood and the people who live there.

Story House Belvédère is in Katendrecht, in southern Rotterdam. Katendrecht is a part of town that for over 125 years has been a home for migrants and newcomers to the city. The neighborhood is a mix of people and communities by design and has a rich social history. Currently, the neighborhood is being gentrified and its development, which tells a wider story about the city, is ongoing. The team found the current home of Belvédère almost by chance when they were looking for a temporary working space. But the location proved perfect. According to Linda, the project could not have been imagined and developed anywhere else in the city. A diversity of people and stories is the reason it exists.

It started as a community project rooted in relationship-building.

Before there was a house, the team behind Belvédère organised a community-focused social photography exhibition outdoors on one of the quais in the south of Rotterdam. It was an exhibition of group portraits of the many communities in the area. City officials doubted the idea of an exhibition in the public space in a part of town they considered dangerous. They said, "you will get shot at, and in two weeks everything will be destroyed." But they were wrong. The exhibition was up for a year and a half. When it ended, the portrayed communities took their portraits home, starting relationships with Belvédère which in some cases still persist.

After the photography show, the team was encouraged to continue their work. They focused on one of the key events in Rotterdam history: the bombing of the city at the beginning of the Second World War. Inspired by Story Corps, they toured the neighborhood with a mobile recording studio and captured memories of the bombing. They created storytelling events and shows, which prompted other communities to start telling their own stories. As Linda says, “Every story inspires a new story.”

The success of the storytelling events encouraged the team to look for a permanent location. They found it in the old jazz club/boxing gym/neighborhood museum Belvédère, a building which dates back to 1894. Together with the communities they had worked with before, they are now renovating the building. In 2018 it will officially reopen. But currently you can visit when the door is unlocked - which is almost daily. After the formal reopening, they still expect to evolve. As Linda says, the process will never be finished, as people will always continue to add and make changes to the building to reflect new stories and ideas.

The community values of the team permeate the space and their projects.

Already you can feel Story House Belvédère is a special place. You feel it the moment you step into their warm and welcoming space. It feels like a living room, where everybody can be a friend. Even the coffee cups and the cookies are in style. The magic, of course, goes beyond aesthetics and is deeply embedded in the organization.

A small team is the driving force behind all projects. It is a committed, dynamic group of freelancers who care about the mission and magic of the place. The place they created is warm and welcoming, and yet it is their energy and enthusiasm that stuck with me most after my visit. I asked Linda to describe what defines the team, and received over a dozen characteristics:
  • A shared love for people 
  • They are good listeners 
  • Positively curious, and always asking new questions 
  • Actively looking for (a diversity of) people 
  • Etc. etc.
The approach the team takes to connect with communities and then connecting communities is straightforward. In projects, they build a profound relationship with one specific community, such as the Chinese, Bulgarians, or football hooligans. This relationship is based on a genuine interest and includes a long-term commitment to stay involved with each other. When I visited, a community member had made our delicious Bulgarian lunch. Such profound ties make it possible that when a new project focuses on another community, the team can personally invite people from other communities to join. In that way, they build bridges between communities. Everything starts with listening and being curious about the other, and then inviting people, as guests, to take part.

This approach permeates all activities of Story House Belvédère. If you rent the place for a private event such as a wedding, some spots at the event are reserved for people from other communities. So, if you’re interested in joining a Syrian wedding or Jewish Bar Mitzvah, you can. The reason this works is because of the personal ties between the team and the communities. The aim of Linda and her team is to create relationships with people that are everlasting.

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