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A conversation with Rachel Pater and The Richmond Story House

05/09/2018 5:00 AM by

Rachel Pater is the founder of the Richmond Story House, a 501(c)(3) certified nonprofit.  As we dig into her many projects I learn that Rachel is a trained English/Speech teacher with an M.A. in Social Justice and Ethics from the Iliff School of Theology. Rachel has a palpable passion for her work and with RHS, she helps empower people to tell their stories.

Let’s get to know Rachel and the Richmond Story House and the many ways both support meaningful connections for people of all ages, classes, races and living status.

The Drop-In Sessions

Rachel has set up a series of “drop-in” sessions where you get three prompts. They change weekly. Write about a memorable road trip or Write about a prized possession from your childhood are some examples. Rachel recounts the very first session of the year, “It was great. Most people shared one of their prompts- the one that they felt affected them the most and everyone had stories that were touching, funny and sad.”

Two of RSH’s board members host a different type of group bi-weekly. Kimberly and Teresa have started writer of color sessions that alternate on Tuesday nights. Rachel doesn’t facilitate that session, “I am here to serve tea and then I make myself scarce. The sessions are a safe space for people-of-color to come write”. (More information about the sessions and how to sign up below).

The Richmond City Justice Center

The Richmond Story House has five branches currently, Rachel tells us:

They may seem sort of disconnected but they all center around our mission statement which is amplifying underserved voices and their stories. Our longest-term partnership is with the jail, the one on Fairfield and 18th. I’ve been teaching workshops there since last June. Every Tuesday afternoon, we do a similar thing as the drop-in sessions. We’ll talk about different ways to arc your story, different techniques, we’ll read a lot. So it gets more in depth.

Check out how impactful the work has been to the inmates in the video below.

Rachel ran the project in the men’s prison for 10 months and then another opportunity to work with a more under-resourced group came up: the women’s floor. 

We had a huge influx of applications from the women as they don’t have a lot of programming for them. This time the group concentrates on getting one story off the page. It’ll become either a performance, like on video, so we can share it with the community. For those people who don’t like performing, they might choose to do an art piece or some other way to express themselves and to share her story.

This focus on both art and performances separates the Richmond Story House from other programs that only concentrate on writing.

Take a moment now to listen to Shatema Smith, from the women’s program. The music you hear is original piano from Wells Hanley, a VCU music professor who donated his services to add music to the inmates’ stories.

The Elderly and Aging Program

The other big branch of the Richmond Story House is their elderly and aging program. “I try to focus on East End and section 8 or under-resourced nursing homes and I help elderly and aging adults in those facilities remember things about their childhood, things about their adolescence, adulthood. And some people write. Some people can’t write for physical reasons or they never learned to write so we’ll focus a lot on oral storytelling in those classes.”

Creating an oral history of our citizens’ lives is a challenging but amazing endeavor and one that, so far, Rachel hasn’t had much luck in fully achieving. Most of these facilities are also under-resourced which means they don’t have a programs manager or a volunteer coordinator so it’s difficult to get initiatives like this one started when these are the ones that need it the most. Undeterred, RHS is committed to fulfilling the goals to make this initiative a success.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Rachel has quickly become enamored with the history of Richmond and couldn’t pass up the chance to tell the story of Elizabeth Van Lew. “I’m creating a downloadable audio walking tour of the life of Elizabeth Van Lew who lived on Church Hill and was a spymaster and worked to sort of undermine the Confederacy.” If that doesn’t capture your attention, then read on. Rachel began her interest (obsession?) with Elizabeth Van Lew after taking a Church Hill bike tour with Richmond Rides.

She lived in what is now Bellevue School. The tour starts at St. John’s Church where her parents got married and where she attended sort of off and on in her life. And it goes over to Libby Park and drops down to back down to Tobacco Row, literally where she walked and tells her story about how she gained access to the prisons and the jails to get information and feed it to the Union.

This is a branch of the Richmond Story House because the story of Elizabeth is an under-told story of someone who worked for the purposes of social justice and fighting for the oppressed. Van Lew lent aid to Union soldiers and military intelligence to the north through a complex web of spies and was called out by Ulysses S. Grant as integral to the North’s victory. It is an important narrative that will be out this upcoming Fall of 2018. Check out a short preview of the tour!

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Writing is not easy. Keeping your attention as you read this sentence can be a gamble. Did I just waste your time? Were you entertained? Imagine writing about your life and your story and then sharing it with strangers with strong and blunt opinions. Imagine finding your inner voice and writing the great American novel or a really compelling journal entry that you find years later and think “wow, I was really inspired” (or otherwise).

When you hear about a non-profit like RSH perhaps your inclination is to think “these are just writing classes”, but RSH does so much more.

I want to make it accessible for folks who don’t think of themselves as writers because I think everyone is inherently a storyteller and whether you have to write that down in order to tell it is kind of beside the point. It’s about really mining your own memories and realizing how your experiences affect how you move to the world today. So it doesn’t matter how you get there.

Check out Rachel’s TEDx Talks on “How Stories Move Beyond Text”.

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