Who tells the story of a place?

All over the country, local foundations are trying to help residents identify and deal with the challenges communities face — school achievement gaps, the digital divide, desires to establish sustainable food networks, you name it. Many of these efforts have been in place for years, including the Initiative Foundation program that MPR News has become a partner of this year.

But in the past couple years, those foundations have been getting a harder and harder push by the Knight Foundation to think about providing information about their communities as a key activity if they want democracy to flourish locally. The “information ecosystem” has changed and Knight has been providing millions of dollars for experiments around the country.

I spent a couple days this week at a conference Knight sponsored to keep shining a light on those efforts and to encourage foundations to figure out ways to provide residents the information they need.

Foundation CEO and president Alberto Ibarguen:

“The flow of local news is as important as the flow of jobs, or the flow of traffic, or electricity. It is a resource essential to a properly functioning community – a resource we can no longer take for granted.”

There was a lot of talk about new technology tools, of course. But what struck me most is how the nature of a place’s storytelling and who gets to provide it is changing.

A foundation in Colorado produced a slick magazine full of data and a narrative pointing readers to the persistent gap between Hispanic and non-Hispanic students. One in Florida created a forum for residents and got a big response from residents after the Haiti earthquake. These are new ventures that take the foundations to places they haven’t been before.

Residents telling their own stories, or at least joining in the conversation over what stories should be told, is getting more important. Citizens and non-traditional media are getting into the act.

But even the people running experiments that seem promising worry about sustaining the effort.

This Ground Level project falls right into the middle of that conversation. We want to hold up a mirror where a place’s residents are trying to figure out their future. We want to help residents determine and tell their stories. By connecting with the Initiative Foundation, we’ve been able to settle on Baldwin Township and Todd County as two places to focus for now, and the stories are robust.

Looking ahead, we want to enlarge our view — to other communities, other organizations, other means of getting people involved in the storytelling. If you have ideas, let us know.

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