Residents of the Hotel Julian Speak

Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services recently partnered with the Resilience Project to launch a digital storytelling program for residents of the Hotel Julian. The culmination of this project is a series of highly personal video-stories aimed at helping the community get to know who the residents of the Hotel Julian are via a free screening on Wednesday, May 31 at noon at the Darkside Cinema.

Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services (WNHS) is an affordable housing organization located in the heart of downtown Corvallis that works with groups all over town to bring their residents educational and fulfilling opportunities. They pride themselves on working with residents to identify their needs and interests so that they can make the most meaningful connections.

“The Hotel Julian primarily serves seniors and people living with disabilities, so it’s a vulnerable population,” said WNHS Community Engagement Manager and downtown resident Rebecka Weinsteiger. “It has place-based Section 8 which is really great.”

This means that residents of the Julian will never pay more than 30% of their income for rent. Not bad for a historic property with a waterfront view.

“With the Hotel Julian being a historic building downtown, it draws a lot of attention and people come through getting tours,” explained Weinsteiger. “There was one particular tour where there was a comment that said, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize it would be so nice in here,’ – it was implied that since it serves a vulnerable population, it might not look as good.”

On the contrary, Weinsteiger had been blown away during her first visit to the Julian two years ago when she started working with WNHS. What had caught her attention was the art the residents created and proudly displayed within the Julian.

“You walk into this historic hotel and you are greeted by art from the residents that live there, which is really an awesome experience, and so I worked with them to do another art show last summer,” she said.

The Earth-inspired show prompted art of all kinds and ultimately led to the creation of a writing club. Folks from the Julian wrote poetry, some journaled, and others used the experience of writing and sharing as a form of therapy.

It so happened that, over a cup a coffee, Weinsteiger shared these gleanings with a soon-to-be friend and fellow downtown resident named Kriste York. York, an educator and co-founder of the non-profit Resilience Project, was intrigued.

Nearly 10 years ago York attended a training program with the Story Center in California. The story Center was growing and developing a very neat way of sharing perspectives known as digital storytelling.

What is digital storytelling, you may wonder?

“The best definition I have heard is folk art for the 21st century, so they are made by regular people who are not professional artists,” explained York. “The idea is it’s just a short personal narrative that participants write and then we work on revising, they record it as a voice over, and then they use basic digital video editing software to add music and images. That completed story is what we are going to screen.”

The power of digital storytelling is that, rather than an interview or reiteration of someone’s story, York and the Resilience Project are providing the tools for people to tell their own story. Everything that is said, how and when things are shown, and the depth of the experience are guided by the proprietor of that experience.

“I’m really interested in the idea of resilience, about people’s ability to move through difficult times in their life and part of resilience is about your physical environment and your social environment, which is why I think it’s so interesting about what has been happening at the Julian,” said York.

“I like it on all levels, because the whole part of creating the story is part of our mission. What we do is bring people together, helping them get to know each other,” added Weinsteiger. “Crafting these stories with neighbors…knowing that there are so many differences among all the people around the table, but as their story gets unpacked and they start sharing things with you, there is just this depth of connectivity that grows.”

Once York and Weinsteiger had conceptualized the project and garnered interest among Julian residents, they applied for and were awarded a $2,000 grant from the Benton County Cultural Coalition. One stipulation to the grant was that in addition to funding art projects in Benton County, the art must then be shared with the community of Benton County.

To meet this requirement, York and Weinsteiger contacted the local independent cinema—easily the perfect venue for such an event—the Darkside Cinema.

“Paul Turner is the one who donated that. He’s really enthusiastic about the project [because] he also is a downtown resident and I think he is excited to get to meet some of his neighbors,” said York. “He instantly jumped in when we asked him if he would be willing to host it.”

York and Weinsteiger are confident that those who attend this event will see the residents of the Hotel Julian in a whole new light. The residents themselves are excited to reach out to the rest of the community with their stories—York believes that they will be blown away when they see other people witnessing these deep experiences in their lives.

Join York, Weinsteiger, Turner, and the Julian crew at noon on Wednesday, May 31 to witness this wonderful, hour-long, community-building event at the Darkside Cinema—visit the Resilience Project website to reserve a ticket. It is free, you can bring a lunch, and donations will be accepted to help produce more of these kinds of events in the future.

Check out the Resilience Project’s new website, Drop by the Darkside Cinema at 215 SW 4th Street and say, “Thanks Paul, you da man”… or ya know, see a movie.

By Anthony Vitale