Communities are built from stories. At the first Wheaties Academy session, participants were tasked with writing a creation story about our community. In 7 minutes, 16 individuals stories were crafted, each beginning with “Once upon a time…” and ending with “...and that’s how Wheat Ridge was created.” These stories were all deeply rooted in the personal experiences and belief sets we are wedded to and take our community identity from.
“Once upon a time… a farmer lived in North Denver where his house was small, he had no land, and he couldn’t afford to eat. He decided he needed a change and a place where he could have chickens. So one day, he crossed over into the unknown land West of him and he discovered possibilities. Acres of land where houses could be built with large yards, plus gardens and room for chickens and dwarf goats. The farmer decided to move and build and he brought his friends who also wanted space yet the amenities of the big city close by. They built a house close enough to know each other but far enough to stretch out, bought businesses that were owned by mom and pop, and invited all their friends and family who also valued diversity, small town feel and home cooked meals… and that’s how Wheat Ridge was created.”
Whether factual or fanciful, creation stories include symbolic narratives of how something began. Over time, these stories take on a mythological power and when such stories are retold, creation myths are usually regarded as conveying important truths. As we shared our stories on Thurday, it was delightful to notice emerging themes to help us name our narratives. Farms. Connectedness. Personal space. Affordable dreams. Distinct identity within a large city. Small town pride.
“Once upon a time… a band of travelling botanists were lost on the way to a garden party. Upon stopping at the local saloon, they were greeted by a wheat farmer who was struggling to produce a crop. In their infinite wisdom, the botanists were able to educate the wheat farmer via an elaborate diagram made from peanut shells and other items they discovered in the saloon. By the end of the night, the wheat farmer was back on track, and the botanists disappeared as quickly as they came… and that’s how Wheat Ridge was created.”
Community leaders need to be good storytellers. They give context and validation to past stories while casting the vision for the story they hope to shape for the future. Community storytelling is a unique skill. It requires deeply listening to the stories of others, including those whose voices are no longer with us. It requires a thorough understanding of our personal story so we can draw from core passions. And it requires a thoughtful telling of the story we wish to create.
“Once upon a time… there were acres of farms. Flower farms, apple orchards, turkey farms, wheat farms. And it was good and beautiful but around the farms, cities stretched. West of the farms, mountains beckoned. And the farms were broken up, and more houses were built, but there were still open spaces, and you could ride a horse pram from Kipling to Table Mountain. And the cities stretched but Wheat Ridge stood its ground and drew its boundaries. More farms evolved into neighborhoods. Businesses were established. Roads became busy. Parks were created. And, for a long time everything ticked quietly on. But then, new people came and wanted a city that felt tight-knit and long-lasting… and that’s how Wheat Ridge was created.”
After writing our own stories and watching Louise Turner tell hers, we asked one another: “What is your attachment to your story costing you?” Sometimes, that cost is resisting necessary changes for the sake of maintaining status quo. Sometimes, that cost is hostility to neighbors who don’t share your vision of our community. Sometimes, that cost is a blindness to citizens in the margins or in the middle. It’s a powerful question and it's the one that lays the foundation to becoming a community leader.
~ Rachel Hultin, Wheaties Academy mentor
Special thank you to Brittany Joy Fitzsimmons, Jeremy Schwartz and Rhiannon Gallagher for graciously volunteering to share their unedited stories. Collectively, they’ve lived in Wheat Ridge for 15 years.