The SHINE: Using Story to Imagine and Build the Community of our Dreams

What if students could co-create their learning and living environments to meet their unique needs and potential?

Photo of Angela Zusman
8 11

Written by

Founding Story: Share a story about a key experience or spark that helps the network understand why this project got started or a story about how you became inspired about the potential for this project to succeed.

A few years ago, I was leading a storytelling project with a group of African American male high school students from Oakland. We were training the youth to conduct interviews with their peers about what it's like to be a young black man in Oakland. Again and again, the youth shared how systemic bias was affecting their education, neighborhoods, and opportunities. Yet even in the face of immense hardship and trauma, these young men were hopeful, optimistic, and extremely tuned in to the world around them. They were so grateful for the chance to speak their minds and share not only the challenges, but also their solutions. I remember one young man saying, "We just want to be heard, and to be respected." His words rang like a bell inside of me. I realized that the simple act of listening was in itself revolutionary for many of these young people. And after listening to the stories of their communities, the youth interviewers became motivated to take action. As one of our team members said: "Listening to the stories of my community makes me want to take action. Before this, I was really just concerned about myself. Now, I want to be a leader to help my community." This project not only uplifts data and solutions; it builds bridges, respect, and community engagement. What better way to nurture the next generation of leaders?

Which categories describe you? (the answer will not be public)

  • White (for example: German, Irish, English, Italian, Polish, French, Caucasian)


Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your organization headquartered? [City]

Walnut Creek, CA

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [State]

  • California

Location: Where is your project primarily creating impact? [City]

Hayward, CA, Jackson, MS, Indianola, MS

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Many young people in this country, particularly young people living in low income communities, are perceived and treated as problems. These negative perceptions impact the way they are treated by teachers, healthcare professionals, law enforcement and others; it also impacts their own self-perception, behaviors and choices. These negative perceptions are especially virulent for young men of color, up to 30% of whom will end up in jail. What would our country be like if they were revered instead of reviled? When listened to, they feel valued, motivated to make positive choices, and able to persevere in the face of the harsh realities they often exist within. Youth are creative, solution-driven experts about their own communities. When seen by themselves and others as the assets they are, these young leaders, and the affirmative data and policy reform they actualize, become the solution.

It's time to listen to the voices of our young people! They are experts in their own communities, and they have the energy and vision to transform their communities as they blossom into our next generation of leaders. Too many well-meaning interventions fall short of their goals because they were created without community input. Following the ancient tradition of griots, or storytellers, this project teaches youth how to speak up and listen to their communities, and then translate community wisdom into art, data, and policies they co-create to shape the world of their dreams. Youth act as co-researchers and ambassadors for their communities, which in turn transforms perceptions - how the youth see themselves, their communities and their opportunities, as well as how they are seen by other stakeholders. This process also uplifts nuanced, culturally relevant data and community-driven solutions that galvanize action. Whether it's taking your medication, eating healthily and exercising, going to school, or any other initiative, this process helps uplift information, engage communities, motivate action, strengthen connections between youth and adult stakeholders, and promote the greatness and potential of our young people for the benefit of all, from the inside out. Want people to change their behaviors? First, you need to change perceptions. Want to support youth? First, you need to understand what they want and need. This process gives young people the skills, information and knowledge that they matter, and that they can be part of the solution. It gives them hope and a pathway to engage with and fix the systemic issues that have held them back. Anger gives way to hope; hope is the engine of perseverance. Together we CAN!

Is your model focused on any of the following traditionally underserved communities?

  • Communities of color
  • Low-income communities

Does your model work within any of the following sectors?

  • Childcare
  • Child and Family Services
  • Community Development and Empowerment
  • Criminal Justice
  • Education
  • Mental Health
  • Other

If you chose "other," please share the sector you work within here:

Public Health, Civic Engagement, Social Justice, Arts and Culture

Year Founded


Project Stage

  • Scaling (the solution has passed the previous stages, and the next step will be growing its impact on a regional or global scale)

Example: Walk the network through a specific example of what happens when a person or group engages with your solution.

We asked for, and were given, a group of "misfits" from the elementary school's afterschool program. Our 8-week project began with hearing their stories and watching them bond with each other, often across language and cultural barriers. Next, they learned how to ask questions and record interviews. Some gravitated to the technology; others wanted to be in front of the camera. There was a place for everyone. They conducted health-related interviews to help district leaders understand their health needs. The students surprised everyone with their acumen and skills, as well as the fact that safety was their top health concern. The school now has a data collection team and process, and building blocks for a safer, healthier school culture.

Impact: What was the impact of your work last year? Please also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

As pioneers in narrative change, we are creating metrics to quantify impact and build credibility for the field. Last year our work impacted thousands of youth, educators, leaders and their communities through projects, trainings, and policy change, including informing the City of Oakland Public Safety Plan, motivating the Alameda County Board of Education to advance equity as their top priority, and inspiring a youth/police reconciliation program at Oakland Police Department. This year, we will directly impact about 300 youth, and indirectly impact 50,000+ youth and their communities. In rural Mississippi, our SHINE team of 20 youth is disrupting the school to prison pipeline by informing new school discipline policies and shifting perceptions about youth of color. 100% of our project participants recommend Story For All and report increased self-esteem, communication and social skills.

Organization Type

  • nonprofit/NGO/citizen sector

Annual Budget

  • $250k - $500k

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is your solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

The coalition-building phase of the project includes joint fundraising. Community investment supports cross sector partnerships and buy-in. The process also involves professional development, so local partners are trained to lead and sustain the project and embed it in existing infrastructure and systems. Our collective impact approach also generates cross sector funding, from health to education, arts to community development.

Unique Value Proposition: How else is this problem being addressed? Are there other organizations working in the same field, and how does your project differ from these other approaches?

While other organizations promote youth voices, none of them involve training youth in oral history, assimilating the collected data and wisdom through creativity, producing high quality products, and harnessing the products to support policy change. The process combines social emotional learning, academic and career skills, artistic expression, critical thinking, and civic engagement, providing youth with the soft and hard skills - and motivation - to shift perceptions and be change agents in their communities. Our train-the-trainer model also promotes partners' capacity and sustainability.

Reflect on the Field and its Future: Stepping outside of your project, what do you see as the most important or promising shifts that can advance children’s wellbeing?

Research shows that quantitative data alone, particularly deficit-based data, does not inspire change. Stakeholders must feel connected to an issue to commit to the hard, long-term work of behavior and systems change. When youth are perceived as assets, not damaged goods, they are more likely to make positive choices and adults are more apt to believe in and invest in them. When we as a nation, individually and collectively, see our youth and especially our low income youth as the worthy, talented, essential, community members they are, we can tackle any and all of the challenges they face.

Source: How did you hear about the Children’s Wellbeing Challenge? (the answer will not be public)

  • Word of mouth

Program Design Clarity

Youth are at the core of our process and its impact. With a coalition of local stakeholders, we design the process to meet specific goals, such as disrupting the school to prison pipeline. Local partners are trained in the methodology, then are supported in training youth to collect stories, data and recommendations relevant to the project theme. With team input, we create products, such as exhibits, trainings, reports, policy recommendations, and affirmative-based data reports, to share the youth voices and influence perceptions, policies, and programs. Youth participate in all aspects.

Community Leadership

Our first step is coalition building with local stakeholders to inform, implement and sustain the work. A key part of our model is training local partners so they continue to use the methodology and increase their own capacity. Regular check-ins help partners connect this work to other local initiatives and events. Youth and partners represent the demographics of the community with an emphasis on youth of color and those who are most unheard.

Age of Children Impacted

  • Pregnancy - 0
  • 0-1.5
  • 1.5 -3
  • 3 - 5
  • 6 - 12
  • 12+

Spread Strategies

Impact occurs through both our process and our products. Trainings, accreditation and geographic spread support project replication. Products, such as books and a digital archive, create access to project data, tools, creative expressions, policy recommendations and a content pipeline for the media. We are creating a national ecosystem of affirmation where networks of youth and stakeholders collaborate around narrative change and policy reform.

Reflect on how your work helps children to thrive. How are you cultivating children’s sense of self, belonging, and purpose through your model?

For many youth, this project is the first time they have been listened to. Sharing their stories and hearing the stories of others improves empathy, self-perception, and communication. It helps our youth feel connected to their community and motivated to contribute. Our youth are inspired by the stories they hear, challenged to digest and present what they've learned, and inspired by their own power. This builds resilience, curiosity, and hope!

Leadership Story

As a white woman working primarily with young men of color, let's just say these young people have rocked my world! Listening to them, I have become aware of my privilege and gained the capacity to see how bias is poisoning our youth, our communities, and our nation. In the early days, I tended to stay out of the spotlight, but now I see that my voice matters too. These challenges must be addressed by all of us, and while it is not easy or popular for me to do so, I act as a bridge to connect people of all races and ages so that together we can heal and truly support our children to thrive.

What awards or honors has the project received? (Optional)

Public Service Education Award (Alameda County Office of Education) Vox Populi Oral History for Social Justice Award (Oral History Association) Best Books for Youth, Non-fiction, 2014 (School Library Journal) Best Books of 2014 (In the Margins Book Award)

Organization's Twitter Handle


Organization’s Facebook Page (URL)

Leader's LinkedIn Profile (URL)

Evaluation results

13 evaluations so far

1. Relevance: Does this project seem to help children (ages 0 to 12 years) develop a strong sense of self, belonging, and purpose?

5 - Yes, this is great! The project lays out a strong, compelling case for how its model nurtures children’s wellbeing. - 38.5%

4 - It seems like a good fit, and the model talks explicitly about children’s wellbeing. - 15.4%

3 - I think so. The project seems related to children’s wellbeing, but the logic is vague. - 30.8%

2 - Not sure. The project doesn’t have much to do with wellbeing, or it doesn’t give enough information. - 7.7%

1 - Nope, this project definitely doesn’t fit the challenge brief (e.g., It doesn’t help kids younger than 12, isn’t in the U.S., etc.) - 7.7%

2. Innovation: Does this project tackle children’s wellbeing from a new angle?

5 - I loved this! The project describes a novel model that addresses important cultural or systemic barriers. - 30.8%

4 - This is pretty cool. The project is addressing an important problem in a new or compelling way. - 46.2%

3 - I feel like there’s something there, but I want more details about what makes it distinctive. - 15.4%

2 - It’s a good project, but I’ve seen others like it before. - 7.7%

1 - It was confusing or hard to tell what it made it different. - 0%

3. Social Impact: What is this project’s potential for creating positive social impact?

5 - Lots of potential. This project is achieving impressive results, and it’s growing quickly. It could absolutely inspire changes in the ways we approach caring for kids nationally, across sectors (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 23.1%

4 - Pretty good potential. This project demonstrates significant positive impact so far, and it could scale regionally or nationally one day and fundamentally change how a system operates (e.g. childcare, healthcare, education). - 30.8%

3 - Budding potential. This project is creating local impact, but it would take a few adjustments before it could scale. - 30.8%

2 - Some potential. This project demonstrates some initial positive impact, but it would require major changes before it could scale. - 7.7%

1 - Limited potential. This project has great intentions, but it looks like it does not include key drivers of a shift towards children’s wellbeing. - 7.7%

4. Overall, how do you feel about this idea?

5 - This idea rocked my world. It’s awesome! - 23.1%

4 - This idea seems really exciting. With a little more polishing, it’d be among my favorites. - 38.5%

3 - I think the idea is great, but it needs some work before it moves onto the next round. - 23.1%

2 - I liked it fine but preferred others. - 7.7%

1 - It didn’t make my heart beat faster. Needs significant revisions. - 7.7%

5. Offer some feedback. Where should this participant spend some time revising?

DEFINING THE PROBLEM. Make sure to articulate the root causes or main barriers of the social issue your project addresses. (Founding Story, Problem, Solution). - 57.1%

CLARITY OF MODEL. Make sure to mention (a.) the beneficiary, b) the main activities, and c) how those activities drive social impact. Keep it streamlined! - 100%

MARKETPLACE. Make sure to research other players in this space and articulate how this project is different. I didn’t get a complete sense of how this project compares to others. - 14.3%

IMPACT POTENTIAL. Make sure to use specific numbers to describe what your project has achieved so far! And consider how you might scale the model or its insights, through partnerships, trainings, or franchising. - 71.4%

WRITING STYLE. Try to stay concise and make it vivid. Avoid jargon. - 0%

Nothing stands out! I thought it was great. - 28.6%


Join the conversation:

Photo of Margaret Root

An outstanding intervention that not only empowers the lucky participants you are working with, but also gives pause to anyone (like me) who has been wondering how and why K-12 curriculum design has left aside creative opportunities like this in favor of standardized modes of learning.  What a rich experience this is bound to be!   (And perhaps an after-school approach affords you more freedom of expression anyway...)   My best to you and your team.

Photo of Nicole Forsyth

I love the way this program uses the power of narratives, which we also use in RedRover Readers! From this description I wasn't sure if you are trying to focus on one or more dimensions of well-being/social emotional learning? Perhaps you could be more specific here, and if you are focused mostly on self-awareness/self-perception, help us understand how the program measurably impacts youth in this area?

Photo of Angela Zusman

Great questions. Our methodology is tailored to positively impact self esteem and communication skills, which we see as being very closely linked. When someone feels heard, they also feel respected. They see that their voice matters, their ideas matter, and they matter. 100% of our project and training participants have self-reported an increase in self-esteem, confidence in speaking in front of others, and increased interest in civic engagement as a result of participating in our programs. On another level, by collecting stories in their communities, we see these young people gaining an interest in their communities and wanting to be leaders. So, rather than trying to teach "leadership skills", we are coaxing the leader in each young person to emerge as they learn, share, heal and listen. To measure the impact on self-perception and confidence, we are using results-based accountability to measure skills and some elements of self efficacy, as well as the empowerment evaluation method, which the youth co-define with the evaluation team. The data and products from our projects have also impacted local policy and generated positive media. Part of our strategic plan is to collaborate with evaluators to define specific metrics for narrative change work, both at the individual level for both project participants and those who interface with our products, as well as broader impact on policy, programs, and perceptions of community members.

Photo of Nicole Forsyth

That's fantastic! Nice work!

Photo of Christine Mason

The power of story and personal narrative is unparalleled in how we live our lives.  It is all "story", and by clarifying and adjusting the stories of ourselves and our communities we can make major shifts in how we engage with others.  Best of luck with your work!

Photo of Angela Zusman

You got it! Thank you for your wise words. We are intrigued by the neuroscience of story, and how stories create meaning, connection, and healing by their very nature. By creating a space where stories can be safely shared, we create the space for healing, connection, and empathy - and therefore, change. Thank you for your interest!

Photo of Nathan M McTague, CPCC, CPDPE

I LOVE this project. What a great idea!! 

In terms of the competition, I think you could spend a little more time clarifying what you do, and the impact you see or have measured. Don't be afraid to be redundant, repeating your website, etc., in the proposal. 

Good luck!!

Photo of Angela Zusman

Thank you! Your input is very helpful. We describe our impact as a ripple effect. First, there are the youth who become members of our interview team. We have measured the impact on their self-perception, communication and career skills via pre- and post-project surveys. 100% of our project participants have reported an increase in confidence, speaking in front of others, and feeling connected to their peers and/or community, in addition to skills such as videography, conducting interviews, and critical thinking. In terms of community impact, our programs and products have been used to inform the City of Oakland's public safety plan, and our Griots of Oakland exhibit and youth presentation is directly responsible for the Alameda County Office of Education's decision to shift their primary focus to equity in 2014-15. Oakland Police Department created a youth connection program as a direct result of our Project BACK, which brought youth and police officers together to share stories and collaborate on policy reform. Our current collaboration with Kaiser Permanente, which will culminate with a jointly produced data report next month, is helping them consider new ways of collecting data and engaging their communities through storytelling and oral history, as well as motivating them to hire translators and invest in discovering the thoughts and needs of those who are hardest to reach, such as undocumented minors. We are currently working with evaluators to define metrics for measuring narrative change. In addition to measuring positive media mentions, we are also looking to measure the shift in perception of product users as well as policies that change or are informed by our work. As pioneers in the narrative change field, we are eager and excited to work with evaluation experts to refine not only our process, but the process of evaluating narrative change in general.