First, there was a hush, despite the packed room. Then there were gasps, laughter, and even a few sniffles and eyes brimming with tears during the Ypsi Storytelling Night event hosted by Concentrate and On the Ground Ypsilanti at Riverside Arts Center's Off Center venue on Dec. 5.
Nine storytellers gathered to tell tales that all centered around Ypsilanti, Ypsilanti Township, and what the communities mean to those who live there.
The night kicked off with a ghostly love story by Heather Neff, a professor of literature at Eastern Michigan University (EMU) and the author of eight books. Neff's story started with her spotting a man reading a book while doing leg presses at the gym and culminated with the feeling that her house might just be haunted.
Other stories focused on the sense of community and surprising acts of kindness from neighbors and other Ypsi residents, including Keith Jason's tale about his neighbor's house burning down. Jason's neighbors, friends, and colleagues responded with so much concern and support that when he sold his house, he and his wife made the decision to stay in Ypsi Township.
"This is not a story of tragedy, but of the beauty in a community that shows up when challenging circumstances arise," Jason said.
Yodit Mesfin Johnson's story also focused on the kindness and community she has experienced in the Ypsi area, from establishing a nonprofit that puts strong black male role models in local schools to helping a down-on-her-luck mother and her children.
"To you, Ypsilanti, with love," she said. "We heal, we hope, we embrace possibility."
Other stories revolved around the role of education in storytellers' lives.
Caroline Sanders told the story of how she struggled with being a college student at EMU while also raising a toddler. She said she had been "unwillingly" transplanted to a new city a few times, but her final move to Ypsi was by her own choice. She earned her master's degree here, started a student organization for other mothers, and will earn her doctoral degree next December alongside her daughter, who is pursuing her bachelor's degree.
"I want to be able to continue to give back to the city that has embraced us," Sanders said.
Poet, writer, and activist Dyann Logwood's story noted that she not only was encouraged by public school teachers to become a writer and public speaker, but that neighbors took on the responsibility of educating youth in the neighborhood by teaching skills like car repair.
"My relationship with Ypsilanti is one of loving and being loved by educators and people who took time to work with me and to guide me and make me feel as if I could do the same for someone else," she said.
James Spitler, a member of Ozone House's SpeakOut program and a lifelong Ypsi resident, had a different take on education in Ypsi. He read a slam-style poem about learning to write poetry while growing up on the streets of Ypsi and the impact that the Bright Futures after-school program at Ypsilanti Community High School had on him.
Robin Newell, another member of SpeakOut, talked about her experience watching a couple on a public bus in Ypsi lovingly teasing each other, causing Newell to have an epiphany about what it takes to be in a 40-year relationship.
"I think this is what it means," she said, reading from a poem she'd written about the experience. "When you're not around, it feels like I can't breathe. My heart is falling until you come back. This feeling of being whole. I know now, this is what it means to be worth it."
Cherisa Allen, an EMU graduate who works at Ypsilanti Community High School, told a story about growing up on Harriet Street in Ypsi. She focused on the role that grandmothers and other "mean" older ladies had in raising all the children in the neighborhood, and the role of local barbershops in building community and caring for kids.
"Harriet Street. My family. My community. Where it all began," she said. "I just love my family. How about you?"
In contrast to other speakers who have lived in Ypsi for decades, Alice Kepchar told a story about being a recent transplant and finding community in unexpected places. She noted how she always assumed she could only build a career in theater in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, but she found a space for herself in the Ypsi-based Neighborhood Theatre Group.
"Yes, I have a hill, but I'm climbing the hill of my dreams," she said. "I only thought it might happen in three major cities, but the reality is that theater can happen anywhere. I'm so happy Ypsilanti gave me that space to call home."
Kristin Danko, artistic director and co-founder of Neighborhood Theatre Group, attended to support her fellow thespian and was wowed by the storytelling event.
"I loved hearing stories from people with such different backgrounds and their relationship with the community," she said.
Crystal Campbell, community engagement coordinator for Ypsi Township, was also in attendance. She called the evening "amazing."
"I don't know the last time I was in a space where four accomplished black women were able to speak their truth, unfettered," she said. "It was powerful."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the interim project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at [email protected].
All photos by Doug Coombe.