J.R. Jamison, ’01 MA ’03, has long known the value of telling a compelling story. As a Ball State undergraduate, he combined his geography major with a minor in creative writing, intending to one day become a travel writer. Now, he is collaborating with bestselling author Kelsey Timmerman on The Facing Project, using storytelling to help communities start conversations and address difficult topics.
Since the two founded The Facing Project in Muncie in 2012, the nonprofit has grown. In 2017 alone, 40 new Facing Projects were started covering 18 U.S. states and a range of issues.
“We want people to connect across differences and bring people together around stories,” said Jamison. “We think The Facing Project can change minds and hearts around tough subjects.”
The project’s unique model connects writers with residents of communities who share stories about their life challenges — issues such as addiction, homelessness, racism, and mental health. Writers work with the storytellers one-on-one to develop these stories into first-person accounts, culminating with a book that’s shared throughout the community as a resource and acted out by local actors through community theater and monologues.
As communities collectively hear and read the stories, they can begin to find an understanding and common ground.
Community engagement has long been a priority for Jamison. After receiving a master’s degree in higher education administration from Ball State, he worked for two years in the University’s Office of Leadership and Service Learning, overseeing community engagement initiatives for students. In 2005, he joined Indiana Campus Compact (ICC), a consortium of 40-plus colleges and universities throughout the state committed to fulfilling the civic purposes of higher education. As its executive director, Jamison leads ICC’s support of administrators, faculty, staff, and students as they pursue community-based teaching, scholarship, and action in the service of public good.
In 2012, Jamison was recruited by Timmerman — the New York Times-bestselling author of “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes” — to be a writer on a project called “Facing Poverty.” Both men are Muncie natives, and Timmerman had recently moved back to the community.
As a freelance writer doing work with local nonprofits, Timmerman said he started thinking about poverty in Muncie and misperceptions surrounding it. He brainstormed ways he could bring people together around difficult topics like this one and help the community understand one another and the problems they all face — bringing them to light. His work would become the model for The Facing Project.
“One of the leading factors to decline is a lack of empathy and understanding of those who are perceived as different,” he said. “Simply put: People are no longer listening to, or trying to understand each other or how to work together despite differences. We felt the model and the tools we developed for The Facing Project could help better connect people and create understanding across difference throughout the country.”
Together Timmerman and Jamison created a toolkit with resources to make it easy for campuses, schools, and even businesses to use and create their own Facing Projects. They started slowly, testing in five different communities to work out a model that was adaptable to any size community and any type of school or organization. Now, there are Facing Projects in more than 75 communities and 40 campuses across the country, with 7,500 volunteers so far participating and 1,500-plus stories shared.
“Both of us knew narratives are a key component to change perspectives,” said Timmerman, who is also the author of “Where Am I Eating? A Journey Through the Global Food Economy” (2014) and “Where Am I Giving?: A Global Adventure Exploring How to Use Your Gifts and Talents to Make a Difference” (2018).
An adaptable model
Headquartered in Muncie, The Facing Project maintains a strong Ball State connection. Among faculty who have used the model in their courses and participated in projects is Beth Messner, MA ’86, associate professor of communication studies.
“Perhaps the most exciting part of the project is engaging with people who I would likely have not met otherwise,” said Messner, who was involved in the very first project, Facing Poverty, and continues to collaborate with the nonprofit. “Discussing their life experiences, learning through their memories, struggles, and joys, allows me to glimpse dimensions of our community that I often know little about. In turn, it broadens and enriches my own perspective and informs the way I interact with others in our community.”
In 2017, storytellers, writers, actors, and organizers donated over 38,000 hours to The Facing Project, which recently moved to a new location in Muncie, began its first corporate project with Principal Financial Global, and launched its first fundraising campaign. Also last year, the project model was adapted for use in high school classrooms.
“None of this would have been possible without all of the brave individuals who have stepped forward to say they believe in the power of storytelling to create community change,” Jamison recently wrote on a blog for The Facing Project website. “Stories from each project have inspired us to continue the work of connecting people across differences with the belief that it takes a thousand voices to tell a single story.”