The HBCU Storytelling Journey: Transformation, Sharing, and Sustainability

The Frontier Set HBCU Storytelling Team

“People don’t believe what you tell them. They rarely believe what you show them. They often believe what their friends tell them. They always believe what they tell themselves.”

-Seth Godin

Storytelling fuels institutional transformation by illuminating ideas and creating a lasting shift in perspective—and experience; taps into a sense of familiarity and shared values, and bonds person, place, and thing. However, often-repeated stories quickly become “old news,” losing both purpose and impact. Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) must continually underscore and support their legacy of educating within nurturing, inclusive, and equitable learning environments and influence transformation by continuously communicating stories that generate concern, curiosity, excitement, and desire to belong. However, that hasn’t always been an easy thing to do for many institutions.  

Intermediary Kathy Thompson conceived the Frontier Set HBCU Storytelling Team initiative at the HBCU cohort’s 2019 convening. During the “Brag Reports,” a lively segment in which site leads share their institutions’ accomplishments to enthusiastic applause and hearty congratulations, a site lead mused, “I wish we could tell our stories like this to our own people.” Thompson saw an opportunity to help institutions celebrate student success milestones internally and externally, affirm the HBCU legacy, and showcase work from across their institutions through storytelling.    

In summer 2020, the team interviewed 16 HBCU student success initiative leaders from Claflin University, Delaware State University, Fayetteville State University, Johnson C. Smith University, Jackson State University, and Morehouse College to hear their success stories. The team heard inspiring stories of doing more with less, creative resourcing, and faculty/staff who go over and above the call of duty to contribute to student success and equity at the risk of their own career progression. Yet, these stories were virtually unknown outside the respective departments. The team learned that the initiatives were primarily catalyzed by shifting metrics such as retention and graduation rates where retention and graduations are examples of KPIs, institutions and student finances, and crises. Interviewees spoke of early adopters, leaders, and faculty/staff whose passionate advocacy and single-handed efforts are often frustrated by barriers such as communication silos, a lack of resources, obsolete technology, and alumni who fear the loss of tradition in meeting the needs of a broader group of students.   

Some Frontier Set HBCUs made the national spotlight with consistent, upbeat stories of resilience and sustained stakeholder engagement throughout the early months of COVID-19. Others worked more quietly, doing what needed to be done to serve their students. All six HBCU institutions honored their universal legacy of ministering to students in various acts of community, such as providing technology to those without devices or internet, housing students left homeless by the pandemic, paying for funerals of family members taken by COVID-19, and providing money for food and rent. These, too, were important stories and, while seemingly small in the face of the pandemic’s magnitude, would have gone a long way toward fortifying pride of belonging among key audiences. These types of stories create collective memories and present transformation as an unknown but positive inevitability and nothing to fear. While details differ by institution, the story is the same: HBCUs overcome seemingly overwhelming odds to implement transformation and make lasting shifts. These stories should be told.      

Without storytelling, institutions, staff, and students overlook accomplishments and pride points, losing interconnectivity.

Conversely, effective storytelling moves audiences beyond the numbers and connects readers to something they can relate to and want to join. Storytelling fuels transformation by illuminating ideas and creating a lasting shift in perspective—and experience—and creates advocates to pass on the stories. Storytelling is critical to both external and internal audiences, who will continue to raise the bar from where it is to where it should be—and higher. 

The HBCU Storytelling Team is composed of a diverse team of communicators who have developed a Storytelling Playbook to help institutions tell their stories and contribute to institutional transformation: Carlisha Hartzog (Project Lead/Contributing Writer), Lisa Becker (Contributing Writer/Editor), Dr. Joe’l Billingsley (Interviewer), Meredith Rushing (Graphic Designer), and Candace Spencer (Interviewer/Lead Writer).