How Engaging With Stories Can Help Us Reclaim Local Power

The Problem With Engagement

I’ve been hosting neighborhood gatherings for about 16 years, sometimes in paid engagement work, more often as a volunteer. The central focus in traditional community engagement is usually asking residents what they want. But people are often too busy to have given the question much thought. They save their visionary thinking for their kids or their work. Consequently, the trend has been to ask where people struggle—with housing, transportation and getting needs met. But we Americans are a proud people. We generally do not acknowledge our deepest struggles, even to ourselves. And we certainly aren’t ready to share them with a stranger.

A screenshot of Ramsey County’s Purple Line engagement map, illustrating the racism and classism that dominates traditional modes of engagement. The first comment I clicked on read, “End it right here, ain’t nobody past this point want the crime to go further!” In other words, “keep ‘those people’ who use transit out of our precious suburb.” Not merely unactionable, but prejudicial, uninformed, and unwelcoming to those who might seek to participate in this kind of faceless engagement practice.

When they do offer a survey response or a reply to a door-knock, community members are best at sharing gripes. After all, gripes are artifacts of lived experience; they demonstrate our authority over a place. Sometimes gripes can inspire change, but more often they’re worse than useless. With increased polarization in our body politic, gripes have increasingly become laced with racism, classism, homophobia, misogyny and ageism. Too often, public engagement data is just not actionable because it’s laced with conjecture, abstractions, misinformation, misunderstandings and even lies. When people are poked by strangers for opinions and given little time to think, they repeat talking points that oversimplify incredibly complex situations.

The Problem With Expertise

A group of people at a public meeting, looking at photos and written material hung on the walls of a gym.
People like transparency, yet they often struggle to make time to fully understand complex factors around decisions that impact their daily lives; but that doesn’t mean formal experts know better, either. Navigating that tension poorly can kill a lot of good projects. Photo courtesy of Summit Hill Association.

Because of this tendency toward negative, simplistic, unactionable community feedack, there’s a temptation for experts and urbanists to enforce an “informed” worldview on everyone else. We try to find and apply best practices that don’t always meet the needs of a particular neighborhood. But this kind of thinking means we miss crucial feedback from informal experts and erase marginalized voices.

I remember trying to have a conversation with a single mother worried about a proposed change to her street. By the book, it would improve mobility across all modes. Her lease only provided on-street parking, and the planned change had her worried. But I’d just come back from researching best practices to reduce car dependency. I peppered her with facts instead of engaging in dialogue. Not my finest hour.

If I’d been curious, I might have asked her about her daily life using that street. I might have learned something that would have helped me understand what it’s like for a single mom to take multiple kids to school, appointments, activities — not to mention her own work or errands. I might have learned how to improve the proposal or mitigate construction impacts that she’d feel more deeply than me. Her story might even have changed my stance. I might have been inspired to change not just the street, but the whole system. My questions shift after hearing a personal story. If we do change this street, how are we also changing the system? Why can’t a single mom afford to live in a more walkable place with good schools, jobs and medical care?

Working With Stories

The author sitting on her sofa, reading Cynthia Kurtz' Working with Stories.
Kurtz’s work on story-based engagement—or Participatory Narrative Inquiry—has captivated me for years. How can we be guided by the values and local expertise within neighborhoods while leveraging formal expertise? Photo courtesy of Maxie Johnson.

I’ve always believed in the adage, “Nothing about us, without us.” The last few years, I’ve been trying to find ways to document people’s lived experience, rather than ask for opinions. Our society is burdened by stressed-out bodies, information overload and no time to think. We need to find collaborative processes that increase trust across difference, cut through the noise, build relationships and provide thinking time.

Why not ask a slew of neighborhood volunteers to sit in a public area to observe and document people’s struggles? Then, we could look at data together and send a collective interpretation to decision-makers. But a “consensus” interpretation of data is nearly impossible to achieve in this polarized age. Likewise, free time is precious and easier to obtain from upper-class people, whose voices rarely have a problem getting heard.

But then I heard about Participatory Narrative Inquiry (PNI). An offshoot of narrative ethnography, this field of engagement was founded by Cynthia Kurtz, a biologist who pioneered the application of ordinary human stories to improve decision-making at the IBM Institute for Knowledge Management. According to Kurtz, “Unique among our forms of communication, stories do not force unity but preserve conflict and contrast at all scales.”

In other words, asking for people’s stories—especially when they can provide their own voice in interpretation—allows a community to find multiple truths and identify many possible paths. Consensus waters down or silences the stories of people who can’t make meetings. PNI lifts them up as distinctive points of interest. Stories inspire with ideas rooted in a place; they motivate with empathy, rather than divide with opinion. Stories don’t waste people’s time trying to come to consensus where it doesn’t exist, and they don’t erase important differences.

Reviving Stories From a Pre-Pandemic Task Force

Three people working together at a Grand Avenue Task Force meeting.
Three Grand Avenue Task Force members contemplate what to advocate for during our final workshop in 2019. From left to right, Bridget Ales, Martha Sewall and Alisa Lein. Photo courtesy of Megan Ryan.

In 2019, I co-chaired a Task Force on Grand Avenue, St. Paul’s once-thriving mixed-use corridor. Everywhere I looked in my Twin Cities, most corridors of this type had been declining. I’d long studied what it takes to build more sustainable, locally focused economies. If we could make sense of the decline of St. Paul’s fancy-schmanciest shopping street, maybe it would inform work elsewhere. 

The Task Force studied factors around high commercial vacancies for about nine months, with representation from three organizations: the Grand Avenue Business Association (GABA), the Summit Hill Association (SHA) and the Macalester-Groveland Community Council. We looked at history and trends. We interviewed business owners. We collected 110 responses to a PNI pilot assessment. We came to some hard-won consensus and published an open letter and report to the St. Paul City Council in February 2020.

Of course, that was a month before the world changed. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a few of us tried different things here and there on Grand Avenue. GABA recovered from a near-death experience. To inform their neighborhood plan, SHA commissioned a market study. Some SHA board members walked the avenue to reassess the task force’s efforts. 695 Grand got redeveloped, despite a clash that sharply divided the community. In the aftermath, frustrated neighbors reorganized as the Save Our Street campaign alongside the Summit Avenue Residential Preservation Association.

A ‘Good Enough’ Event

A group of six participants in the Grand Avenue stories event alongside the author. They hold up three flipchart thinking spaces with stories on sticky notes, in front of a larger thinking space hung on the wall.
Pictured left to right: Simon Taghioff, Maggie Wenger, Zack Farrell, Brian Wagner, Cole Trace, James Slegers and author & facilitator Sherry Johnson.

But those 110 stories? The raw data sat in a Google Drive after its proprietary software became too expensive for me to access. The pandemic crushed my dream of gathering to process them, and the will to improve Grand Avenue dispersed into multiple, detached efforts.

Ideally, looking at PNI data would have meant gathering 30-40 people, most of whom had contributed a story; multiple hours prepping reports with the feature-laden software I’d lost access to; big room rentals; nourishing food; multi-page printing… All of it required a lot of money and time I didn’t have. Plus, I knew the original three Task Force organizations were now busy with their own work. But the community deserved to have their stories back. Even more, it would be nice if respondents knew someone read them, cared about them and perhaps even used them.

I wasn’t about to let perfection be the enemy of the good. I decided to host a low-key event at my house with folks who had dedicated time to Grand Avenue, then freely share the results. I made bread and soup and invited as many people as I could fit in my dining room. The gathering felt like a reunion—warm and hopeful. We looked at 36 representative stories across three different story prompts. We worked individually, in small groups and as a full group, exploring the data for patterns, possibilities and important differences.

General Findings

Close up of a thinking space flipchart  with stories on sticky notes, plotted along two dimensions: Human Connection and Engagement with the Environment.
A flipchart visualization created by one small group at the gathering. Using the thinking space allowed them to delve into deeper discussions, see patterns, and recognize important connections in the qualitative nature of the stories.

In general, respondents tended to express impressionistic, formative memories and nostalgic feelings in their stories about Grand Avenue. They described errands, often with long lists of shops and former shops and restaurants. Purchases and meals were rarely mentioned. Instead, shopkeepers and walking companions, human and canine, made respondents feel connected and safe.

Neighbors liked having walkable options right outside their door, but they yearned for more third places to linger in public. Younger respondents were upset that these spaces didn’t exist on late nights and weekends. Many yearned for past Grand Avenue staples like Hungry Mind and Creative Kidstuff, and the community had no space to grieve their loss.

The stories illustrated that it isn’t one big thing that discourages those who would spend time on Grand; it’s an accumulation of little things, often rooted in design and civic disinvestment. Bothers and hassles—snow-covered walks, insufficient street plowing and poor signage—turn people off. The stories, the group’s collective interpretation and conventional data like the market study agreed: Getting over small hassles and getting out to shop takes anchor establishments. In other words, businesses need to be walkable to grocery and convenience retail. While it does have two great hardware stores, Grand’s sole grocery store is on a sleepy block with poor design for walking and rolling. In terms of convenience retail, Grand has four gas stations—great for gas stops, but terrible for walkability.

Key Patterns

A screenshot of's narrative data analysis software.
A screenshot of the gorgeous user interface for, a costly sensemaking platform that we could no longer afford to keep. Instead, we read the patterns with human intuition, on a scale we could handle: two hours over a simple meal.

The group named a few key patterns. First was Grand Avenue’s need for busier nodes, in walkable distances from one another. Brian Wagner, a realtor, GABA board member and former Task Force Co-Chair, said, “If there’s not another center of action within a walkable distance, you’ll leave.”

Zack Farrell, a Sustain Saint Paul board member and Grand Avenue zoning study participant agreed, citing the frustration of a typical Grand Old Day experience. Walking Grand Avenue emphasizes its long stretches of little to no street action. There’s no public facility to anchor most blocks; no green space to offer rest; no signage to assist people in the mental mapping we all need to budget our energy as we use active transportation. It’s no wonder cars rule Grand Avenue; its walkability is confined to tiny stretches of activity.

Another key pattern was that respondents didn’t seem to have updated their memories of Grand Avenue. Most of the stories were quite dated. SHA Vice President Cole Trace felt like this was the opposite mentality conveyed in a recent tour he took of Chicago. He liked the tour guide’s insistence that Chicago was “always evolving, never permanent.” SHA Secretary Maggie Wenger agreed, adding that there’s “a place and a memory of a place.” She was concerned that Grand was increasingly being subsumed by the memory of itself, thereby stunting its growth.

National Pressures

The third pattern in the stories celebrated the role of local ownership in cultivating places where people can be known and can come to know others. Friendly commercial and residential property owners with deep community ties—as well as friendly shopkeepers, landlords, and retail workers—were recurring characters in positive stories. Places that welcome and cater to small children and pets were celebrated, as were community message boards and personal referrals.

But Grand has a big problem: A commercially zoned, historic streetcar corridor running through an affluent neighborhood attracts outside investment. That comes with high leasing rates for commercial spaces, coupled with high property tax burdens. Despite the price point, many of those spaces have obsolete interiors. Redevelopment is constrained on the eastern half of Grand by the East Grand Avenue Overlay District, which limits building footprint, size, and height. When you add the stories’ patterns of “bothers and hassles” and a dearth of anchor buildings to market trends—national brands closing brick-and-mortar stores and the domination of online retail—it’s a recipe for vacancy.

Despite renewed organizing and some positive signs in the brick-and-mortar market, there’s no quick fix. Grand’s many mixed-use investment properties means that distant landlords and holding companies won’t make time to negotiate with start-up and mid-career entrepreneurs. Even if they did, banks often require those with lending agreements to sit on vacant properties until they can find a tenant who can pay inflated rents. Without systemic change, national brands will continue to be the only ones who can afford to set up shop in places like Grand Avenue and Uptown. And positive stories about Grand Avenue were rarely about national brands.

Glimmers of Possibility

Four participants in the Grand Avenue stories event stand talking in the author's foyer.
No event in your home can avoid the long, Minnesota-nice goodbye. Here, Brian Wagner, Zack Farrell, Simon Taghioff and James Slegers may keep me from going to bed on time, but this is the relational stuff that keeps volunteers going when there’s a lot at stake.

People fear national brand encroachment on service and retail sectors because those brands can’t cultivate community or a sense of place like local owners. A few stories talked about the need for small business owners to collaborate better. Several stories decried the market saturation of a particular service or feature, such as beauty salons; others called out personal attacks among competing local business owners. One or two outlier stories highlighted the need for more agile municipal processes for business startups.

If local businesses can find the right balance between competition and cooperation, they can embody the best stories. People yearn for mindfully designed retail spaces and high-quality food and liquor establishments that create memorable experiences. They want clusters of varied amenities within walking distance or connected by frequent, reliable transit or trolleys. When they do use a car, many storytellers were frustrated by inflexible permit parking, a dearth of metered parking and insufficient parking enforcement.

Above all, our commercial corridors offer us crucial neighborhood amenities. When they’re working as they should, they host retail options that coax people out of their houses in ways that reward multiple visits. Despite its GABA-sponsored holiday events, many retailers and city policies disregard seasonal rhythms in the ways we use land. For example, in the warm season, parking could be reduced to accommodate active transportation, patios and parklets. In the winter, street plowing and sidewalk clearing are currently insufficient to support a thriving commercial scene.

A renewed Grand Avenue Working Group has arisen. According to SHA President Simon Taghioff, “To revitalize Grand Avenue, we need a grand partnership.” Unlike previous efforts, the city is part of this conversation. “Summit Hill Association is bringing together neighbors, businesses, community groups, nonprofits and the city for the first time to make our main street into a vibrant, active and welcoming space for our community and everyone in St. Paul.” I’m hoping the stories we collected will inspire them, along with their hints at where meaningful change might emerge. In the link, you’ll find stories the Grand Ave group wanted more or fewer of, which I mined for possibilities. The group also used a thinking space to discover stories that stand out, which may reveal what others miss.

Where We Are Now

Beautiful architectural features are worth saving along the eastern end of Grand Avenue, but less dense, historic-appearing newer brick buildings built during the auto boom are arguably less worthy of saving. The East Grand Avenue Overlay District, however, is likely stifling solutions that could meet the desire to retain brick, neighborhood-scale storefronts while providing modern commercial spaces and housing. Photo courtesy of Summit Hill Association.

Right now, the southwest corner building on Grand’s busiest node at Victoria Street will become completely vacant this January, with the impending closure of Pottery Barn. Its northeast corner is in foreclosure proceedings. Another large commercial building at Dale Street is changing hands. Multiple commercial business owners are considering nonrenewal of their leases. A massive number of multi-family homes are for sale. A St. Paul study on the East Grand Avenue Overlay District is going before the Planning Commission in early 2024.

Without substantial local efforts, we’re about to see what unchecked, national-scale players can imagine for this beloved mixed-use corridor. With the right policy expertise, local small-business advocates must choose solidarity over infighting. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance offers regular blogs, white papers, podcasts, and technical assistance for communities ready to unify. Residents would do well to lobby their state and national officials to rebalance a system that has long favored corporate interests and big-money real estate firms who sit on properties to the detriment of communities. The Ohio Teacher’s Union’s flagrantly vacant properties at the Grand-Victoria node are best viewed from their management company’s recent commercial properties brochure. Note the vacancies, especially at Milton Mall, where Salut is not renewing their lease. Abandoned public spaces like these should be a wake-up call that local leadership is not enough.

The next 12 months will be key in determining whether local interests can spur a renewal. Ideas are plentiful: healthy design constraints to preserve and multiply beloved architectural features while increasing density; local ownership incentives; REITs & land trusts; pop-up shops; and the land value tax. Whatever happens, we should keep an eye on preserving a surprising number of affordable rentals along Grand. We might look to stories to stoke the kind of economic development that will keep dollars in the community.

Meanwhile, watch for a podcast in early 2024 about the results of the East Grand Avenue Overlay District Zoning Study, and join me on Bluesky for a conversation using the hashtag #StreetsMN.

About Sherry Johnson

Pronouns: she/her/hers

Sherry Johnson gets feisty about sustainability and localism. A complexity coach, adaptive strategist, and amplifier of counter-narratives, Sherry supports civic and nonprofit leaders as Principal Guide at Cultivate Strategy.