Artist Collective Stitching Stories, Empowering Youth

“If our youth have the option, they will choose peace,” says Susan Colangelo, President, CEO and founder of Saint Louis Story Stitchers Artist Collective. (Story Stitchers is a 2019 YouthBridge Jumpstart grant recipient.) The youth artists participating in Story Stitchers have much to say, she explains, and a particular message that comes through loud and clear is to “drop the gun and keep the peace.”
Gun violence is one of the issues that the collective – made up of professional artists and urban youth – address through an artistic lens. Working together to collect local stories and then reframe and retell them through art, writing and performance, their projects and appearances also create a platform for community engagement, says Colangelo, adding that the annual audience has reached close to 9,000.

“We are out in the neighborhoods collecting and sharing their stories,” she says. “I’m so proud of our ability to pull people together – across generations, races and cultures – and the body of work we’re creating. It’s about bringing understanding and hope to the community, and curating the voices of our future.”

The inspiration for Story Stitchers came to Colangelo, a social justice artist, while stitching a quilt about two sisters who were shot on their porch in University City, and two brothers who were arrested for the crime. Reflecting on the power of stitching throughout history, such as the AIDs quilt that stretched from the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building in 1987, and the quilts of the Underground Railroad, Colangelo says she came to the realization that “I can’t do anything by myself, but joining with others, we can create change.”

Starting with eight artists gathered in Old North St. Louis in the summer of 2013, Story Stitchers today is the only artist collective of its kind, according to Colangelo. While adult artists mentor the youth, the Stitchers Youth Council really guides the group’s path and the projects they undertake, she says. In March, they will premiere a film – “Peace in the Prairie” – which explores the concepts of peace and violence by juxtaposing urban life in the city of St. Louis and the state’s unique endangered prairie lands. “This came about through camping trips and ‘prairie days,’ when our youth were able to spend time in a completely different environment and reflect on the violence in their lives.”

Colangelo – who volunteers her time as CEO – says that while the response from the community has been overwhelmingly favorable, garnering financial support has been a continuous challenge. “Four years ago, I really didn’t know where our next dime was coming from, so to speak,” she says. It was then she was introduced to Kim Tucci, longtime St. Louis business leader and advocate, who guided her through the development of the organization’s first fundraiser – a Bowl a Thon that has become an annual event.

Additionally, the YouthBridge Jumpstart grant, which provides fundraising assistance, has helped her think about new strategies and audiences to target, she says. “Honestly, having a personal coach to walk me through organizing, reconnecting and leveraging the contacts we’ve made through the years has been the greatest asset.” The organization’s year-end appeal exceeded its targeted goal by 80%.