Connecting real people, diverse communities through storytelling

A week after the shooting in Charleston, SC, journalist Lillian Dunlap and professional singer and director Jaye Sheldon launched a remarkable four-part series about diversity and community connection titled, “This is my city: St. Pete Stories.” 

“The timing just happened that way,” says Dunlap. “But as I looked at what happened in Charleston, I thought, ‘People there are walking around afraid of one another because they don’t know each other. There’s where storytelling can help. There is real healing power in storytelling. And that’s what we are trying to do here.” 

St. Pete Stories showcases the personal stories of 30 different St. Petersburg residents, chosen for the diversity they represent.  

“We all experience our city based on where we live and who we are,” says Dunlap. “But it takes all of our voices to tell the whole story of our city.”

An affiliate member at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg and former resident faculty there in Diversity and Leadership, Dunlap is the CEO of Communication Research Enterprises. She is also a former professor of broadcast news at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and understands the power of storytelling to build awareness, lower barriers and effect change.

“Storytelling is a gift from God,” says Dunlap, who earned a Ph.D. in communications from Indiana University. “It is our hope to get people in a room where the lights are dim, they are comfortable and they don’t have to say anything, just listen to other peoples’ stories. Then when the lights come on, the audience can reflect on what’s been said. It’s a collective experience that resonates because a human connection has been made.”

St. Pete Stories is a production of Your Real Stories, a nonprofit organization Dunlap founded in 2011. She and Sheldon are co-artistic directors.

Their first project, “Decades of Day Work,” was inspired by the movie, “The Help.”

“When the movie came out it was pretty clear that we could not let that pass,” says Dunlap. “We were sure that there were real domestic day workers in our community. We just needed to go find them and present their story in the right context.”

Using theatre, music, spoken word and audience discussion, the two were able to weave the actual stories of African-American women who worked as domestic day workers, the people who hired them and the relationships that ensued, often over decades.  

Decades of Day Work has been so successful that version six will be presented next March at St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theater.   

More stories to tell

To create “St. Pete Stories,” Dunlap and Sheldon conducted lengthy one-on-one interviews with each person, then narrowed down the stories to a short script that could be delivered in a theater setting by a professional actor.

Sheldon calls it “theatrical journalism.”  

“Theater is designed to make you think,” she says. “If you feel connected to something you heard at one of our performances, then we have accomplished our job. We’re giving the audience a sense of what the individual felt, what their life was like, what they could and could not do. Then their story becomes very real.”

At the inaugural event in June at the St. Petersburg College Allstate Center, actors portrayed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, Bishop Preston Leonard of Christ Gospel Church and Candi Purdue, who married Delores, her partner of 21 years, in January.

Mayor Kriseman’s story, “It’s a Journey,” reflected his experience growing up Jewish in Detroit, MI, yet having close family friends who were Catholic. “We helped decorate their tree and they came to our house to celebrate our holidays,” says Kriseman through actor Christopher Rutherford.  

In the 1970s, when his parents moved the family to St. Petersburg, he had a similar cross-cultural experience. It was the era of race riots, but as a trainer on the basketball team at Boca Ciega High School, he was good friends with all of the players, who were predominantly African-American.  

“My experience has always been that people are uncomfortable with something that they’re not familiar,” says Kriseman through the actor. “It’s all about understanding each other and walking a mile in their shoes.”

For Deputy Mayor Tomalin, who grew up in St. Petersburg with a large extended African-American family, childhood was idyllic. “I had a sorority of cousins and a great support system. I felt I could accomplish anything,” says Tomalin through actor Andrida Hosey.

As a reporter at the then-St. Petersburg Times,  she felt an instant connection to another reporter, even though he was white and 15 years older than her. “I just recognized him immediately as a soul mate,” says Tomalin, who earned a Ph.D. in law and policy at Northwestern University. “I said that’s my future husband.”

When she sent him a message and he came by her desk to see who she was, his first reaction was to shake his head. But three years later, they were married.

“My family had to get used to the idea,” says Tomalin through the actor. “They wanted to protect me from unnecessary conflict. But now my children feel like the entire world is open to them. It’s time to seamlessly integrate and become one city. But for it to be sustainable, it has to happen organically. Barriers are breaking up because of opportunity and exposure.”

Overcoming adversity

Bishop Preston Leonard has been a pastor at Christ Gospel Church in St. Petersburg for 57 years, the longest tenure of any minister in the city.  

His story, “Still Being Punished,” reflects the city’s historic racial divide before integration and civil rights.  

“I worked for the Pinellas Lumber Company for $1.35 an hour,” says Leonard through actor Bob Devin Jones of St. Petersburg’s [email protected]. “I trained three white managers. When the big people downtown wanted information, they called the warehouse and asked for me. But when I asked for a raise, they said no, I was already the highest paid black man there.  

“After I retired, I went for Social Security. I was aware that the white men I trained made twice my salary. And now their share of Social Security was twice as much as mine. I’m still being punished.  They’ll have enough to leave a legacy for their kids and I can’t. And that’s just another reality in life.”

A few hours after gay marriage became legal in Florida, Candi and Delores Purdue tied the knot.  

“We’ve been together a long time, but now it’s legal rather than just between us,” says Candi through actor Roxane Fay. “Having the backing of the state feels different. Now we have the same rights as other couples, including being able to visit each other if one of us in the hospital. I feel like we finally fit in and that is a really big thing.”

“These are individuals who have overcome differences that may have stopped other people,” says Dunlap. “The more we can share stories like this, the more capable we are of building an inclusive community. “

“These are individuals who have overcome differences that may have stopped other people,” says Dunlap. “The more we can share stories like this, the more capable we are of building an inclusive community.“

Additional stories will be shared at future events to be held on July 21 at the J.W. Cate Recreation Center; August 27 at Lake Vista Recreation Center and October 13 at Sunken Gardens.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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