A new sense of belonging

City of Detroit's Chief Storyteller, Aaron Foley, weaves a tale of urban revival and the changing fortunes of the motor city.

Aaron Foley

Detroit. The motor city whose fortunes were inexorably tied to the rise and fall of the United States’ heavy industries has reversed its waning fortune by tapping into its rich history of entrepreneurship, small business and tight-knit community spirit.

Just ask City of Detroit’s Chief Storyteller, Aaron Foley, who shares in on the city’s renaissance, and the importance of a sense of place and belonging in today's world.

The Where the World’s Moving podcast is a BBC Storyworks Commercial Production, presented by OFX.  It explores our ever-changing world, and how technological and social shifts are enabling collaboration, contribution, and human progress.

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Podcast Transcript 

Ross Dawson: Hello. And welcome. I'm Ross Dawson. A futurist, speaker, and author, hosting the Where the World’s Moving podcast series. Presented by OFX, the global money transfer specialist from where the world is moving. Through this podcast series, we explore our fast moving, ever changing world. And some of the extraordinary technological and social shifts that are shaping business and society, driving collaboration and globalization, and supporting human progress. To find out more about the exciting ideas in this podcast, and the rest of the OFX series, go to wheretheworldsmoving.com.

Ross Dawson: We live in a world of change. We move increasingly frequently between cities and countries with now 3% of the world's population living outside their country of birth. The places we live are changing around us, often dramatically. Technology allows us to communicate with our friends and loved ones around the world, and find like-minded people wherever they live. But we still have a desire for a sense of belonging, of connection to the place where we live. So, how can we foster that connection, and the increasingly diverse and fast changing cities where we live? Who better to give us insights into this than Aaron Foley, who's the Chief Storyteller of Detroit, a wonderful and diverse city with a deep and rich history. Welcome to the program, Aaron.

Aaron Foley: Thanks for having me.

Ross Dawson: To begin, you have a most wonderful title, Chief Storyteller for a city. Can you tell us, in a nutshell, how did this role come about?

Aaron Foley: The mayor of Detroit wanted someone on staff to work in our media services department that would connect all of the different neighborhoods in Detroit on a media platform. There was already people who go out into communities, working in the mayor's office, who help out black clubs and help sign them up for events and things like that. But there needed to be a place where people can share their ideas, people can learn about different neighborhoods, and people can be seen on a different platform. So, he reached out to me. I was trying to figure out how best to describe what I wanted to do. He had an idea of what he wanted to do. I had my own ideas as to what the position could become. And I thought to myself, "Well, if you want me to go out, and with a team that I've built, to tell stories about Detroit. And have them all live on this one platform. Then why not anoint me, or appoint me, as the Storyteller of Detroit." And so, that's how the job title came about. That's how the position came about.

Aaron Foley: A year and a half later, being in this role, I manage a team. I have two writers, two videographers, and a photographer. And we go out and do exactly that. We film people, we write about people, we produce something new on our website every day. We produce video for our cable channel. And it's all about trying to educate people about things going on in Detroit, through the voices of the people that live here.

Ross Dawson: So, really, just over a decade now that we've seen social networks grow. And smartphones become mainstream. So we can be connected very easily to our family and friends, wherever they are. So, what's your experience in how that changes our sense of connection to place, about where we live in our neighborhood?

Aaron Foley: I never really thought about the impact of how smartphones affect our sense of connectivity. Because I always thought of smartphones as being something that enhanced our sense of connectivity, as far as using different apps to connect with people, and maintain different connections, depending on how you want to connect with that person. Here in Detroit, though, we run the risk of isolating ourselves if we don't go out and see what the entire city is made of. So, part of the reason why I do what I do, as far as the storytelling, is that I want to encourage people to get out of their comfort zones. And to go explore different restaurants in different neighborhoods. Because too often, we get trapped in our own bubbles, and never want to leave the intersections that we grew up on.

Aaron Foley: Here in Detroit, for example, if you grew up on the east side of Detroit, you know the east side of Detroit. And you're just not going over to the west side. Vice versa. But we live in a time where we should be breaking down some of those barriers. We're all in one Detroit. But then, we put up these barriers sometimes, as far as, "Oh, I'm growing up on the east side. I'm never going over to the west side." I guess, how that relates to smartphones is, what if I am checking out Instagram, and I'm seeing that, "Oh. There's a party over here." Or, "Look at this thing that's going on on the other side of town. Maybe I should check that out some time."

Aaron Foley: The smartphones can help us explore a little bit more. Because if I see a good plate of food somewhere, and it's outside my neighborhood, I've gotta drive down to get it. I'm gonna try it. There's one, exactly on place in the city where they do what's called rolled ice cream. It's a tradition that started in Thailand, of all places. And someone brought this tradition over to Detroit. And it's in a hole-in-the-wall place, way down in a deep corner of Detroit. But they built their following through Instagram. And this is how we found out about them. So when we found out about this place, I immediately sent one of my team members down there. I said, " Go get a video of this place. Go taste the ice cream. And let's feature this place."

Aaron Foley: But they had built this Instagram following, and people are like, "I drove all the way from so and so just to get to this place." Or, "I drove all the way from over here. And I didn't even know the rest of this stuff was over here when I got there." And we put the video out there, and next thing you know, they're getting a boost of business. I had people saying, "Oh, I saw this on the city of Detroit's site." Or, "I saw this video that the city did. I came down here to check it out." This is how we build these connections. We introduce people to different neighborhoods. We introduce people to different places in town that they should check out. Because Detroit is so full of unique things, it's one of those things where you can use your smartphone to look at it. But you should also be experiencing it in real time, in person.

Aaron Foley: Once we get those real life connections, this is gonna sound kind of weird. But it brings us back to a Detroit that a lot of the old timers know. A lot of the old timers recognize a Detroit where everybody knew each other, everybody was only six degrees away. But now, you have a lot of people who do live on their phones, and don't leave their own bubbles. How do we get that to a sense of that? Where it's comfortable to know people in other neighborhoods, it's comfortable to know businesses on the other side of town, and whatnot.

Ross Dawson: Sounds fantastic. So, we'll come back in a little to, I suppose, the role of those stories. And weaving the threads of the city together. But this is obviously in a very specific place, which is Detroit. Detroit has been on a roller coaster ride over the last decades, with the changing fates of the automotive industry. So as many long standing residents have experienced massive change. And now, with somewhat of the revival in the city, we've got newcomers coming back to the city. In changing times, how can stories, or what is it that we can do to help people feel connected to a city, or to a neighborhood?

Aaron Foley: One of the things that has happened in the last few years is that a lot of media attention has been paid to the new parts of Detroit. As far as the new people moving downtown, the new businesses that are opening up. And then, you had a lot of people ... The majority of the population, who were starting to speak up, and say, "Hey, are we part of this narrative? As Detroit is making its comeback, or its Renaissance, or whatever you may want to call it, are we part of this, too?" People can feel physically a part of it if they own a home, or if they rent a home, and if they are participating in block club. Or if they go to church every Sunday. Or they go to work in the city, or they have their kids in school here.

Aaron Foley: But if they're not seeing themselves somewhere, they're not having some sort of device where they can go to a website, or if they're not picking up some sort of publication. And they're not seeing themselves. And they're only seeing a certain part of Detroit. What does that mean for them, emotionally? So, what these stories do, in my opinion, is help people feel seen. We try to talk to the older people that have lived here for years. We try to talk to the small business owners that hustle it out for a long time. And the church elders. And the artists. And some of the born and raised Detroiters, who are a part of that new wave of moving to the city. But may not necessarily be moving downtown. They've been born and raised in one neighborhood. And now they're striking out on their own in a different neighborhood.

Aaron Foley: All of this, again, to help people feel that emotional connection to Detroit, just as much as the physical one.

Ross Dawson: One of the points there is around being able to see yourself. So part of the role of the stories, I suppose, is to be able to see those you know, to be able to see that others can see that. But part of also to bridge to be able to see other people's stories. So, is this about identity of yourselves, or seeing the other people's stories? What's the relationship between those?

Aaron Foley: I think it's identity of self. Detroiters here, we have a very strong unique Detroit culture. It's uniquely Detroit. As far as the way we carry ourselves, the way we dress, the way we talk, the way we hang out, the dialect that we use. But sometimes we get ... It gets lost in the larger narrative. Because if you read a newspaper, you watch a TV special or something like that. It's very by the book. But when we put people on video, or we put people on a podcast, or something like that, you can hear their voice. When we photograph people in their natural environment, we can see where they live.

Aaron Foley: Sometimes the pictures aren't always, they're not always pretty, I guess. We did a video where we've got this young boxer, and he's 13 years old, and he's training for a boxing match. But he lives in a pretty battered neighborhood. He lives in the 48205 zip code. And there's a lot of abandoned houses, and things like that. And when he's training, when he's jogging through the neighborhood, you see abandoned houses. You see empty fields. We can't cover that up. Being city government, we can't hide these types of things. But, at the same time, we can't ignore these neighborhoods. We can't ignore these people because of where they live. Because they are part of Detroit, too.

Ross Dawson: Absolutely. So, does this help bridge between, as you said, the old and the new? Between being able to see each other?

Aaron Foley: I would hope so. I think the new residents, if you're a new resident at any city, New York, or Sydney, or anything like that, you don't know, necessarily, every single thing about where you live. You may know your immediate surroundings. You may know your new co-workers, or whatever brought you to the city. But here in Detroit, because we have such a diverse population, we have such a large population. And we have such a large land mass to cover. There is not enough that you could learn about Detroit. So, I hope new residents ... Well, it's the goal, definitely, of what we're doing. For new residents to learn about different neighborhoods, to learn about how different cultures here in Detroit, different people that live here. And continue to make their home here. It builds the connection between new and old residents. Because new residents have to understand that these are their neighbors now. These are not just the Detroiters you might have heard about, and read about, from afar. We are all here in Detroit now, we need to have some connection.

Ross Dawson: That brings us back to this idea of the sense of belonging. You can say, "Well, I live in Detroit. Or in New York, or in Prague," or whatever it may be. But I suppose part of the point is the sense of belonging, is it in a city? Or is it a neighborhood? Or a suburb? Or a block? Or a street? So, where do you think that sense of belonging resides? And I suppose, how is it that we can extend that sense of belonging so that it's broader? Rather than just to a narrow place?

Aaron Foley: I think there's two ways of looking at it. One, in belonging to the city. Detroit is making such huge strides, and huge amounts of progress, that there's a legitimate fear among people that a lot of different entities are trying to address. City government, non-profits, the business community, what have you. There's a legitimate fear among residents that they're gonna be left behind as Detroit moves forward. And nobody wants anybody to be left behind. We can learn the lessons of other cities that have left residents behind, that have allowed development to happen without preserving existing residents and neighborhoods.

Aaron Foley: We can learn from those lessons, and make sure that no one is left behind. But if people just have one more piece to feel part of Detroit. And again, that's seeing themselves, seeing themselves in the nice portrait. Seeing themselves, or hearing their voice, on a podcast. Or seeing their imagery on video. That, I think, can help people feel a stronger identity with the city.

Aaron Foley: But, at the same time, Detroiters are all about neighborhoods. There are 209 different neighborhoods in Detroit. Each with its own individual flavor. Each with its own individual culture. Far too often, people look at Detroit as being a big land mass. And try to paint it with one broad stroke. You have downtown, and the rest of the neighborhoods. But every neighborhood has a different story. Every neighborhood has something different about it. So, and that's how we are in Detroit. People identify themselves by what intersection they grew up on. Or what major street they grew up near. Or what high school they went to. Or what element ... Even in some cases, what elementary school they went to, if it's a neighborhood elementary school.

Aaron Foley: And it all ties back to the strength, and the familial ties that people have in these different neighborhoods. So we try to respect that, as well. Ross Dawson: Part of what draw these neighborhoods together may be other cultural influences. People coming from different countries, or cultures, or parts of North America. So, is that sense of belonging, then about not just where they are physically, in terms of a neighborhood. But also, their connection to another culture?

Aaron Foley: It speaks to how Detroit has always been. As far as, we've always been a city of immigrants. A lot of European countries are represented here. Then over the course of time, it started to be represented by the Southern United States, as far as the African American migration. But it's all Detroit. If you go back, there's people talk about Old Irish Detroit, or Old Mexican Detroit, or French Detroit, things like that.

Aaron Foley: Now, we're living in a time where it's just Detroit. It doesn't matter if you're black, if you're Bangladeshi, if you're Mexican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, Nicaraguan, Jamaican. All of these different cultures that live in Detroit. It all adds to what Detroit is. There's not a time where we are unwelcoming to any of these different people. Because the city was, at one point, two million people lived here. Now there's less than 700,000 people living here. But if you look at who's here. And look at what they're each contributing to the city, as far as the Bangladeshi population, with these beautiful gardens that they do. And they brought that over as a tradition from Southern India.

Aaron Foley: Or the Jamaicans, with the number of Jamaican restaurants we have, and the food that they cook. Putting those on a different kind of pedestal. Saying, "Look how special this community is. Look how special these people are." And of course, being careful not to treat them as an anomaly. But treating them as, this is what Detroit is. These are all the things that make Detroit what it is.

Ross Dawson: If you're enjoying this episode, listen to the rest of the OFX series at wheretheworldsmoving.com.

Ross Dawson: What you're experiencing in Detroit is happening all over the world. Where many immigrants, or people coming from different cultures. And they come, as you said, being able to get ... To coalesce in bringing the neighborhoods together, in bringing the cultures together. Have a sense of identity of Detroit. But also, being able to maintain their ties to the original cultures. Is it possible for these cultures, within the broader city, to maintain the richness of their old cultures? Or do the lessons I suppose you're seeing, in terms of that rich culture which they've brought to the city, and their ability to have that cohesive culture within that city?

Aaron Foley: We don't want people to assimilate, right? We want people to ... Any city, but especially here in Detroit, we welcome people bringing their own cultural norms and customs and traditions here. Because it shows that we're open to this, we're welcoming. For so long, I think people held Detroit in negative regard, because they only looked at us as being a majority African American city. Therefore, that's all we had to offer. But I want to be clear when I say that us being majority African American city is not a bad thing. We created so much African American culture nationwide that we've made this indelible mark on worldwide culture. You know, Motown, in Gospel, and all of these other musical genres. And even to a certain extent, the food that people consume all over the world can be tied back to Detroit somehow.

Aaron Foley: But because people look at us as being just a black city, they don't see that we have other immigrant communities, as well. We have a very large Latino population. And we have a growing Arab American population. And we have those growing South Asian population. And just as much as us black people, we've created and maintained our own culture here, in a city that was not originally ours. So, too, can all of the rest of these cultures. So, if you look at where the Latinos live, you go down in Southwest Detroit, you see people flying a Mexican flag, or a Puerto Rican flag, or any of the flags of their countries.

Aaron Foley: They are speaking Spanish. They are not speaking English. Some of the younger generations are bi-lingual. But it's a mostly Spanish speaking community. The signs are in Spanish. The menus are in Spanish. The music that you hear, they're listening to Ranchero music, and things like that. You feel like, that they have maintained their culture and created its own. And it's just a part of Detroit. But it's still one Detroit, regardless.

Ross Dawson: Stories is the center ... You are the Chief Storyteller. You have your team telling stories to be able to make these bridges. And you pointed to this power of storytelling to bring community together. Is there also a role for teaching storytelling? And to be able to give people the power to tell their own stories, to weave these threads of the city?

Aaron Foley: It's something I would love to do, absolutely. We are still getting this project off the ground. It'll be exactly a year, on August 29th, when we would've launched. And so far, the storytelling has largely been in our hands. We've let people tell our stories. But we broadcast it to the world from our hands. What I like to do is, okay, how do we ... Can we just, instead of us being the translators, or the gatekeepers, what if we just gave people a microphone? What if we just gave people a camera? What if we gave people that ability to just upload their story? Or tell their story scot free? No strings attached. That is something that we could show people how to do. Because it's our belief that, in the city of Detroit, everybody has a story. So, how do we get more of those?

Ross Dawson: Would you say that so far the experiment is a success? Are you demonstrating the power of storytelling as a way to weave the threads of the city together?

Aaron Foley: I would say so. I'm personally modest. And I'm cautious to measure success, because I don't know exactly what success looks like. Does success mean that we win awards? Well, it can. We've won awards for what we've done. We've won an Emmy award for one of our videos. And we were nominated for another one. But I think success could also mean, what are residents saying? What are the neighbors saying? And so, when people come up to either my writers, or my visual artists, and they say, "Hey, I really like what you've done with this." Or if I go out to a community meeting, and they say, "Oh, you're the Neighborhoods guy." Or, "You're the storyteller." And they know about what we've been doing. And they say, "Oh, I learned about this through what you're doing. Thank you."

Aaron Foley: Or even just giving that small boost to someone we've covered. If a small business gets more business attraction because we've written about them, those are the ways that I measure success. And we've had that. We had a huge convention in town last week of other media and communication, and connection professionals. And one of my writers came back to me. And she's just like, "People love what we're doing. People know about the things that we're doing. And they can't stop talking about it." And I'm just like, "Yes. It's working. It's happening."

Ross Dawson: Let's say that your storytelling ventures in Detroit continue, and other cities take the lead. And we start to see more storytelling within government, within cities. What impact do you think that will have?

Aaron Foley: One, it makes cities into preservations of information, and preservations of culture and knowledge. We're banking everything that we do. We're banking all of the audio, and the video, and all of the writing, in that generations from now, this will be preserved so that people can know what it was like here, in Detroit, at this moment in time. Other city governments can be in that place, as well. Sometimes, we rely on libraries, or other institutions, to be the keeper of that information. But I think cities can also be the documentarians of that information, as well. And could help be a beacon of preservation, I guess.

Aaron Foley: To me, it's all about connection, and making sure that residents are connected across borders. I think you can go into any city, and people will just stick to their borough, stick to their neighborhood, stick to their province, or what have you. And stick to what they know. But what can we learn, if we learn more about each other? And if we learn more about each other, can we have more civic pride? Can we have more pride in the place that we live in, if we just knew more about the people on the other side of the town? Or people in the next neighborhood over?

Aaron Foley: This is where cities can not just do the things that they're supposed to do, as far as picking up trash on time, and making sure the buses run on time. But how can cities just inspire people to be proud of where they live? And people to be totally knowledgeable about the places that they live. This is where cities can step in, and say, be an educator. Be a provider. Or be an encourager of these different types of connections.

Ross Dawson: You're certainly doing an enormous amount to be able to cross those boundaries. To be able to connect people. And so, perhaps to pull all this together, what is the world that you would like to live in? What are you working towards? What would you like to see? Not just in Detroit, but around the world, as a vision for who we can become?

Aaron Foley: I think I'm working to a world where we are knowledgeable. This all goes back to being knowledgeable about your place. We all have a sense of place. We all have a place where we belong. But your place is part of a larger place. What do you know about the larger place? One thing we've noticed in Detroit, and I'm sure is the case everywhere, is that there is all these different information gaps on what people actually know about Detroit. There was a lot of people that don't know the year the city was founded. There was a lot of people that don't know the origins of how Detroit became the Motor City, and whatnot. There's a lot of people who like to wear Detroit t-shirts, but maybe not a lot of people who know what it means to wear those Detroit t-shirts.

Aaron Foley: If we live in a world where people are fully knowledgeable about their place, and how they fit into that place, as well. We all have a place. And we all fit into it somehow. How did we end up here? What brought us to this point? what attracted us to the place that we are in? Or what, if we were born into this place, why were we born here? Understanding all of that around us. This is what I'm working towards. It's the type of information, and the type of knowledge, I go crazy for. Personally, I want everybody else to be just as crazy about it as I am.

Ross Dawson: So, today, I suppose this conversation is around this idea of the sense of belonging, and community, and connection of place. And I think what you're doing is absolutely extraordinary example of taking action to be able to do that. Bringing a city together, and a city which is so diverse. It's really quite an extraordinary story.

Aaron Foley: The term storytelling is popping up in a lot of different places. It's popping up more and more in job descriptions. It's popping up more in how organizations put things into practice, and whatnot. But I think the one thing we can't forget is, what are we doing as storytellers? Are we just throwing this term around? Or are we actually performing a public service? What I'm trying to do is a public service. I'm really trying to remind everyone that every single person has a voice. Every single person has a story to tell. Once we realize, and put the values in those stories, and put the values in the people that have those stories, then only then, can we understand who we are. And where we're going. And again, what it means to be in this place.

Ross Dawson: Absolutely. So thank you, Aaron, for your time. It's been absolutely fascinating conversation. So, I wish you good luck with taking this forward, to be able to take your storytelling beyond. And to, in what you're doing to inspire others around the world to use stories to bring cities together.

Aaron Foley: Absolutely. Thank you, again, for having me.

Ross Dawson: To find out more about how OFX is helping their customers move money around the world, go to ofx.com. This podcast is presented by OFX, and is a BBC Storyworks commercial production.

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