23 Feb 2024

Rhode Island Black Storytellers 

Josh Pereira


Rhode Island Black Storytellers Nurture Next Generation of Storytellers

This month, Papitto Opportunity Connection (POC) celebrates the innumerable achievements of Black Americans and honors the generations of individuals who have made a profound impact on the American economy, its society, and culture.

POC is proud to support Black-led non-profits across Rhode Island that are working to achieve racial equality and preserve African American heritage. For 26 years, the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS) have inspired communities by honoring the lived experiences of the African diaspora and Black Americans. Working as the oral historians of our time, the storytellers give audiences a front row seat to the stories of triumph and tradition that shape cultural heritage through the annual signature exhibition known as “Funda Fest.” In Zulu, Funda means “to learn.” To date, the festival and its educational programs have engaged over 150,000 people.

Members of RIBS

Members of RIBS

POC checked in with RIBS’ Executive Director, Valerie Tutson, who says the non-profit is taking on a new role as it uplifts the next generation of Black storytellers.

POC: How is RIBS honoring its mission in 2024?

RIBS: We are off to a great start already in 2024! We just finished three weeks of FUNDA FEST: A Celebration of Black Storytelling, which took place from Jan 19-Feb 3rd. We presented over 26 artists, ages 5-82, in public performances across Rhode Island and beyond. We had a joyous opening party at The George Houston Bass Performing Arts Space (BassPas) at Rites and Reason Theatre and Africana Studies at Brown University. That was particularly meaningful, because many of us who are RIBS tellers began or nurtured our love of Black Storytelling in that historically Black Theatre space. We even had 2 films premiere! One celebrating Black Tennis, by RIBS storytellers Rochelle Garner Coleman, featuring many RIBS tellers, and another film about Black Baseball in RI. It was a rich time of gathering around the Black story fire!

Photo Credit: RIBS

Photo Credit: RIBS

Part of our mission is to ensure that we nurture the next generation of Black storytellers, so it was great to have our youth performers and workshops for them. We will continue that work this year during school vacations and during the summer when we offer FUNDASTORY CAMPS.

POC: Can you share any reflection on your impact as a non-profit thus far?

RIBS: We have presented FUNDA FEST for the past 26 years. Each year, through our public and school programming during FUNDA alone we reach over 6,000 people in our region (this year we were even called to come to Maine, and we did!) We have also made it possible for RI Black artists to get paid for their work right here at home, instead of always having to leave RI to get paid. The number of artists we help support has been growing over the years – we helped support 26 Black artists at this year’s FUNDA FEST and we also have partnered with numerous organizations over the years, pooling resources with other small culturally based organizations such as Higher Ground International, RI Latino Arts, MPACT Stage, Mixed Magic Theatre and the Langston Hughes Community Poetry Reading, to name just a few. We hear all the time from people who are now adults, who remember one of us telling stories in their school or library. We hear that they “saw someone who looked like them” for the first time, were inspired to believe they could make a life in the arts, or that they “learned something” they had never known before.

We also offer in school programs that can be tied to curriculum studies: History, Language Arts, Cultural/Social Studies; our performances often tie into the educational standards.

Rhode Island Black Storytellers. Photo credit: RIBS

Rhode Island Black Storytellers. Photo credit: RIBS

POC: You’re taking on a new endeavor of training the next generation of storytellers. Tell us about your upcoming storytelling training program?

RIBS: We are excited to bring together a cohort of people who want to develop themselves as storytellers. We call our program Legacy Academy, a Culturally Based Storytelling Training Program. We know there are a lot of storytelling courses out there that will teach people how to develop a personal story. A personal narrative. And that is good. We also know that those are not the only kinds of stories there are, or that we need.

We need to know our stories from history; we need to know the folk tales, that carry the wisdom and cultural values of peoples through the ages; we need to know the spiritual and wisdom stories; we need to know the different styles and ways of telling our stories, which include spoken word and hip hop and dance/movement, how we dress and wear our hair. We know many people have a gift and love of storytelling already and sometimes say “I could never do it like you.” And the good news is, you don’t have to! You get to do it like you!

So, we are inviting people (adults) who want to deepen their storytelling and performance skills, explore cultural traditions and work with us to create a marketable program to sign up for our class. We want to help you gain professional skills to carry on this work. RIBS artists have over 250 years of experience among us, and we want to share it so we can bring more voices and artists to our RIBS family.

Folks can sign up on their website to get on their list to receive more information here.

Share your Story of Life

We all have a story. Your story and that of your community should be told by you, because it’s lived by you.