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Kentucky writing program amplifies unheard voices through the power of publishing
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Amna Nawaz: Ordinary people with extraordinary stories. That is the ethos behind the Louisville Story Program, which is celebrating 10 years of amplifying unheard voices and untold stories.
Jeffrey Brown went to Kentucky to see the power of writing one's own story.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: The beauty, the power, the precision of thoroughbreds on the racetrack, familiar images of Churchill Downs.
But there's another side to life at the home of the Kentucky Derby, the so-called backside. That's the term for where 22-year-old Merlin Cano Hernandez has been working since she was 11, alongside family members who've come over the years from Guatemala.
Merlin Cano Hernandez, Contributor, "Better Lucky Than Good": A lot of people don't know about what goes on here, all of the different roles everyone plays back here and how that it's, like, the most important one for what happens at the front.
Jeffrey Brown: For many workers on the backside, work can start as early as 4:00 a.m., sometimes seven days a week, grooming, training, walking the horses.
Merlin Cano Hernandez: There's like so many people that I think like I can't count them with my hands right now.
Jeffrey Brown: Yes.
Merlin Cano Hernandez: For me, it was really important and really amazing to be able to tell, like, the readers a little bit of how it is to work back here.
Jeffrey Brown: Cano Hernandez is one of 31 contributors to the book "Better Lucky Than Good: Tall Tales and Straight Talk from the Backside of the Track." It was published in 2019 by the nonprofit Louisville Story Program and distributed to readers here and around the country.
The program was created to tell stories by and about its community, among them, "In Heaven Everyone Will Shake Your Hand," which features the work of self-taught artist Julie Baldyga, "The Fights We Fought Have Brought Us Here" from 10 young writers from the high school Muhammad Ali attended, and "No Single Sparrow Makes a Summer," the stories of young Louisville women who collectively speak nine languages and have lived in seven countries.
Ravon Churchill helped write "I Said Bang! A History of the Dirt Bowl," the crown jewel of what locals call the most basketball-obsessed city in America. It details the annual summer basketball tournament held in West Louisville since 1969.
There was much lore from the early days, including one tournament in particular that attracted thousands, but Churchill says:
Ravon Churchill, Contributor, "I Said Bang!": There's no pictures. I mean, there's no video. There's no way to document it. So we wanted to be able to for the next generation of Dirt Bowlers and people who enjoy Louisville basketball in the summer to able to go back and look and be like, hey, this is where I started and so, because there's not a lot of people I know sit down and read books these days.
So I didn't really know what to expect. But the response that we got was overwhelming.
Darcy Thompson, Executive Director, Louisville Story Program: This is a shot from the 1950s from The Louisville Defender.
Jeffrey Brown: Behind these efforts is a small team led by Darcy Thompson, executive director of the Louisville Story Program, who on this day was literally sifting through history to tell the story of Louisville's 20th century Black photographers whose work has been hidden unprotected in basements and garages, inaccessible to the public.
Darcy Thompson: We link arms with folks like that who want to tell the stories of their communities. We want to offer those stories, and we accompany them in the process of developing nonfiction, like documentary, books, radio stories, exhibits, in which they document the richness and vividness of their communities from the inside.
Jeffrey Brown: And it really becomes about voice, right, individual voice...
Darcy Thompson: Yes.
Jeffrey Brown: ... which somehow you have to help bring out. What's the key to that?
Darcy Thompson: That's a great question, because we -- someone who is a little newer to this kind of process, they develop writing in school and often have been sort of told to write in ways, certain ways, that may not be their voice.
And we will basically encourage them, you don't have to worry about the sort of formal things. Just kind of let it out. We try to be sensitive and not push them away from their voice, you know?
Jeffrey Brown: Operating in this small basement office of Spalding University, the team works to curate the past.
Deputy Director Joe Manning was taking old recordings of gospel music gone missing, hidden in closets and attics, and digitizing them as part of I'm Glad About It: Louisville Gospel Restoration Project.
In the mid-20th century, the city was a hotbed of gospel producing and recording. Manning took us to see fifth-generation gospel singer Wilma Clayborn, who ran a record label called Grace Gospel and a record store by the same name in the 1970s and 1980s. She was rehearsing with her grandson, recording and performing artist Jason Clayborn, and spoke of the history she wants to put into the book.
Wilma Clayborn, Contributor, "I'm Glad About It": The talent in Louisville was so powerful.
We moved to a store. It was owned by a church. And we rented the -- it was two or three rooms, and we set up the records. And I said, well, we got -- this is records. We've got to have gospel music in here.
So that's what started the gospel music industry in Louisville for me. There were no other stores that were selling gospel music.
That was taken here in Louisville after a program.
If you don't write the history or tell somebody the history, the history is lost. And I found that the history of gospel music has been lost, pretty much.
Jeffrey Brown: Another story being worked on, the incarceration of Cheketa Tinsley and others for a book in process titled "Tracing Grout Lines in Cinder Blocks."
Cheketa Tinsley, Contributor, "Tracing Grout Lines in Cinder Blocks": Louisville Story Program allowed me to kick the door off the hinges.
Jeffrey Brown: Tinsley grew emotional at the realization she would be recognized as a published author.
Cheketa Tinsley: It makes me say that I am one, because I have so many journals that I have written in private, and because I was afraid to share my writings with people.
Darcy Thompson: It helps our city know itself.
Jeffrey Brown: Know itself?
Darcy Thompson: Yes, really know. And then our role is also to shout from the rooftops, you need to listen to this. You need to read this -- what this person wrote. You need to understand all this.
Jeffrey Brown: Darcy Thompson ended this day gathering material from another generations-strong gospel family, the Pimpleton Singers, known for carrying on the gospel quartet tradition, one more part of this city's history now being preserved.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Louisville, Kentucky.