Story telling circle


Story circle is about telling a personal story with an object and using that object as a starting point to tell a story about how they want their community to change for the better. I know that a lot of people tend to think that we will ask them to tell the stories about their hardships and their traumas, because a lot of personal storytelling is about that, but the stories from Transforming Stories are different. The stories we ask for are intended to be both personal and public. It’s how the personal transitions into the public and ends with the changes you want to see you in the realm of the public.

— Melanie Skene, Transforming Stories


We had a great first meeting of our new performance group last week! The participants were recruited because of their knowledge of the difficulties of holding on to decent rental accommodations in a rapidly changing Hamilton. But we didn’t start by talking about housing problems. As always in the Transforming Stories process, we started with a story circle.

In the week before the workshop, we asked all the participants, including the researchers, to imagine Hamilton ten years from now as a much better city. We asked: “What do you imagine life might be like for people with experiences like yours in that much better Hamilton?” Each person then chose an object to bring to the workshop that would help them tell a brief story about how the person they imagined might experience that new Hamilton.

The collection of objects people brought were as varied as the experiences of the group members:

  • a “worry bird” with a broken wing (pictured)
  • a paint brush
  • a Tim Horton’s Canada 150 coffee mug (pictured)
  • a Presto card
  • a photograph of the night skyline of a large, modern city (pictured)
  • a fridge magnet
  • a rose corps bracelet
  • a large ceramic tea mug
  • a Canadian nickel placed beaver side up

After getting to know each other a little bit over sandwiches and salad, we moved to sit in a circle around a low table on which each of us placed our object. One by one, we picked up our object and told a story about what life would be like in a much better Hamilton. After each person spoke, they passed their object to the person next to them. That person shared their reaction to the story by telling the group what colour they imagined the story to be and what their emotional reaction to it was. The listener then summarized what the story meant to them through a sentence that started with “This is the story of a person who…” After the story object had passed through the hands of all the listeners, the storyteller answered the same questions to share their sense of what their story was about.

It was an amazing feeling to come together around what we dream, and not just around the problems we need to solve. Some people remarked that sharing stories in this way was a deeper emotional process than they had expected. Others felt that the fact of actually handling each other’s objects created a special kind of attention (This is something we also heard from some participants in the pilot project that led to Transforming Stories, Driving Change. Definitely something to think more about…).

By the end of the evening, we had started to weave our individual visions into a collective story:

A story about people who…

have dreams and aspirations

make better change

are dreamers

want to make connections

care about their communities

co-exist with nature, care about each other

walk different walks in life

have the freedom to come and go in safety

In a city where…

things need to be done

change was needed

there is great potential

everyone has a home to call their own

everyone is welcome

we build each other up

people respect each other

people are helpful to each other

Katherine Kalinowski

Our in conversation with … series of posts introduces readers to the people behind the Transforming Stories, Driving Change project. These are the artists, researchers, and community participants who desire Transforming Stories to make a substantive contribution to civic engagement in the city of Hamilton. Here, we’re delighted to be speaking with Katherine Kalinowski, Assistant Executive Director, Programs at Good Shepherd Centres in Hamilton.


Transforming Stories, Driving Change reminds me that there are other ways to look at what’s wrong with the system and how to fix it.”



How did you get involved on Transforming Stories, Katherine?

I connected with Chris Sinding [co-Principal Investigator of Transforming Stories, Driving Change] from McMaster. She was working on a project that would allow people whose voices are often not heard in our community to participate in a theatre-based project that would give voice to the matters that concern them. I’ve long struggled as a social service provider who has some responsibility around fundraising, with how the voices and stories of the folks we serve are used in very particular ways. I love the idea of groups of folks coming together and sharing their stories and creating something really meaningful, educational and invigorating without having to personally reveal the most painful pieces of their past.

I chair the Women’s Housing Planning Collaborative here in Hamilton, and we have an advisory group of women with lived experience who advise us on how to build better services for women who were experiencing housing precarity or homelessness. They expressed interest in the project and became one of the first groups to participate. It was amazing to see what this project meant to the women. It was transformative for many of them and allowed them to claim their voices in new ways.

In your opinion, how was Transforming Stories transformative for the women who participated?

Certainly, they could speak to that far better than I can. But from what I’ve observed, it created a space in which women who don’t necessarily get heard can be heard. And collective action is very powerful. Poverty, homelessness and oppression of all types thrive on isolation. So, when you can breach that isolation and get disparate people together and find their commonalities that is transformative for individuals but also for the community. It’s also the audience that is transformed. The audience, who may think that they are quite knowledgeable about an issue, is challenged to question assumptions and create new understandings of really complex, really difficult issues.

Have you participated in any of the activities that they call performance-as-research?

A couple of weeks ago I participated in a morning workshop where I and some of the other people involved in this project were invited to try some of the exercises and activities that result in the creation of performance pieces. It was very interesting. I can’t say I was surprised by the kinds of activities, but it really pushed me out of my comfort zone to have to interact in a group in that way, to share in that way, to use my body and my voice in different ways than I normally do. While I wasn’t entirely comfortable with every aspect of it, it was an incredibly supportive environment infused with intelligence and humour. I came away feeling far more connected to the project because I could understand how the creative process would unfold, which allowed me to endorse and support the project in a more meaningful way.

What difference do you think the project has made on a broader level in terms of your work as a social service provider?

Watching a pilot performance that was presented to a group of McMaster students, largely social work students, hearing their reactions and their “aha” moments after watching the performance, I was struck by the value of this type of exchange. You can learn lots from books, lectures and placement opportunities, but to sit and be present with people as they speak their truth, in a place where the people speaking have more power than they would in typical social work kinds of transactions, that is meaningful. That it can change how some of these students will go out into our community, how they will approach their work, and the kind of contribution they make, that is powerful.

What pieces of advice would you give a social service provider who is interested in being on this project, or endorsing Transforming Stories?

I would say that it’s easy to be too busy to participate in a project like this, especially in a time where human service providers are dealing with increasing demand and static resources.

These persistent pressures can limit our openness to creative community engagement. I would encourage other providers to take the time to find creative people in their communities and support and endorse their work. And learn from the work they do. Doing this can change our work for the better. Transforming Stories reminds me that there are other ways to look at what’s wrong with the system and how to fix the system.

I also think it is important that we continue to strengthen the relationship between community agencies and academia. I don’t think we are always effective as providers and as academia in connecting in meaningful ways or recognizing the more direct connections between our different streams of work and how they can be leveraged for the greater good.

I’m excited to see what comes out of this. I’m excited to hear from people who participate in it, and I am really grateful for the interesting and amazing people I am meeting through the process.


Welcome to the Transforming Stories, Driving Change blog!

Welcome to our blog. We envision this blog as a space to share our group’s experiences of creating community-engaged performance and of imagining a Hamilton transformed. We are glad that you dropped by.

We are a collaborative of educators, artists, social service providers, researchers, social planners and community self-advocates in Hamilton, Ontario.

Our project is about performance. In this project we use performance to understand the world, and also to imagine ways that it might be different. That means bringing members of our community together to create stories and make theatre about how Hamilton can become a better and more inviting place to live. We use performance to explore, and then show, how social exclusion affects particular communities in our city, and how these communities are responding.

Over the next few weeks, Transforming Stories, Driving Change will collaboratively develop a short community-based performance rooted in the lived experiences of members of our community who know the risk of losing housing due to the rapid development of our city. Together, the art that we create will help to envision a better Hamilton for all.

In staging these stories, we hope to contribute to conversations happening all across the city about how Hamilton can become a place where everyone feels welcome and recognized.

We invite you to follow our blog to see posts from our researchers, our community partners, and our participants. We hope that this blog gets you thinking about the stories that animate the everyday hustle and bustle of our rapidly changing city.

But wait! Before you go… We don’t just want you to read what we have to say. We actually want you to be a part of the conversation! So we encourage you leave a comment about anything you see on this blog.

We hope that you feel free to share your thoughts with us. We look forward to hearing from you!

To learn more about the project, please visit our website.