February 6, 2023
Photo: Holly Craiger, Karen Downing, Lori Young, and JJ Kapur
When Lori Young was seven years old, she joined Corinthian Baptist Church, fully understanding the commitment she was making to God. That was fifty two years ago. Lori is still a member. Her family spans three generations of Corinthians.
“Corinthian is home to me. I’ve done everything in that church you could do. I've been an usher, I sang in the church’s youth choir, now I’m in the adult choir, I do special projects, I manage the communications ministry, and I write the church newsletter,” Lori recounts.
In all the time that Lori has been a member at Corinthian, she only remembers a handful of white members who joined her congregation. According to Lori, “The most segregated day in America is Sunday. Black churches are just that, they’re Black. White churches are just that, they’re white. We don’t cross those lines.”
When Karen Downing was three years old, she joined Plymouth Congregational Church. That was fifty four years ago. Plymouth was where Karen attended preschool. Karen is still a member of Plymouth Congregational. Today, she serves on Plymouth’s Anti-Racism Committee, which seeks to provide educational opportunities that will help Plymouth members understand the historical impact of racial discrimination and how it continues to affect our society today.
In the five decades Lori and Karen were practicing in their respective Christian churches, their paths never crossed. That is, until Plymouth’s Anti-Racism Committee hosted “The 1619 project,” an ongoing initiative from The New York Times Magazine to reclaim the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the center of the national narrative.
Plymouth had done two iterations of the 1619 project. One was virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other was in-person. Both iterations were well attended, engaging, and informative. One of the break-out sessions at the most recent 1619 Project was led by Lori. Lori was representing Just Voices Iowa, a non-profit organization she works with that is dedicated to ending racial profiling in Des Moines. Lori brought life to Just Voices Iowa after working nearly thirty years as a Diversity Trainer at Principal Financial Group.
Karen was moved by Lori’s presentation and inspired by how well attended, engaging, and informative the 1619 Project was. However, Karen didn’t feel like her personal mission was fulfilled. She felt that there was more work that needed to be done. Karen was further inspired when a consultant once mentioned to Plymouth’s ARC, “You need to stop doing the head work and start doing some of the heart work.”
In her thirty years of classroom experience as an English teacher at Valley High School, Karen knew that storytelling could serve as a means of connection and empathy building, as a tool for understanding complex human lives, and as a key to unlocking the heart work she felt could build upon the groundwork of the 1619 Project. As CultureALL’s Special Projects Consultant, Karen saw no better way of uplifting people’s stories than through an Open Book experience.
“What I always loved about teaching literature in the classroom is that—of course I loved the literature—but I liked what the literature could do for the reader. This is no different in Open Book. It’s just that the literature is animate, it’s alive, and it’s embodied in that person’s story.”
After Karen reached out to Corinthian Baptist Church to co-host an Open Book event, Pastor Jonathan Whitfield was eager to get involved. Soon, Lori learned about the invitation: “When Pastor Whitfield asked me if I would work with Karen on this Open Book project, I thought it was very exciting. Karen reached out and we had some coffee. I love the concept of storytelling. When Karen talked with me about ‘human books’, I thought that was a very cool idea!”
Modeled after The Human Library, Open Book is a CultureALL program where intriguing Iowans share their stories, functioning as “Books.” Open Book celebrates the power of storytelling as a means of understanding others, and in turn, understanding ourselves. Open Books are not just trained storytellers, they are also trained facilitators. After sharing their stories, Open Books facilitate a conversation with readers. The questions might include: What surprised you about my story? Were you able to see yourself in my story? What was challenging about what you heard? This gives readers the opportunity to practice an essential skill in relationship building: listening to others with curiosity and without judgment. Just like library patrons, readers are told to place a book back on the shelf in the same condition that they found it. In other words, readers will bear witness to an Open Book’s story without attempting to fix a person or resolve issues presented in the story.
On October 2 at Corinthian Baptist Church, 70 people filed into Fellowship Hall gathered for a CultureALL Open Book program. First, members of Corinthian and members of Plymouth sat side by side as they ate lunch. Next, participants experienced a Culture Jolt—a quick icebreaker activity designed to bring a heightened awareness to cultural differences. Afterwards, the participants were split up into seven rooms in the Corinthian church basement, each with an Open Book inside. Participants heard stories about risk and losing control, about overcoming odds as a refugee, about creating a business model drawing upon lessons learned from street culture and McDonalds, about re-defining heroes and villains, about owning sexual orientation, about growing up in rural Iowa, and about the power of teachers.
The Books showed messy and complex lives. They revealed vulnerability and humanity. They modeled exactly what it takes to bring CultureALL’s mission to life: using storytelling to elevate individuals' behaviors and attitudes to a higher level of acceptance. While this mission has come to life in a number of different environments, from classrooms to companies, CultureALL’s Open Book project just experienced a first by being in a church. And it’s all thanks to two women and their shared desire to build relationships across racial, cultural, and ideological lines.
Where do you want to see an Open Book event in your community? Do you know anyone with a meaningful story we can add to our Open Book library? Are YOU our next Open Book? You can let me know by sending me a message at email@example.com.