Can pandemic storytelling cure divided communities?
Anchorage Museum teams with writer, newspaper, to help community reconnect in Covid-changed world
April 01, 2022
ANCHORAGE, Alaska – After years of pandemic-forced isolation, roiling politics, and all kinds of losses and disruptions, the Anchorage Museum is rekindling a sense of community and healing by teaming with an Anchorage writer and Alaska newspaper to gather and share residents’ pandemic stories.
“I talked to bartenders and military folks, hairdressers and corporate executives, nurses, business owners, incarcerated people, teachers, restaurant servers, parents, older people, therapists, politicians and leaders in many faith communities, collecting hours of interviews,” says Julia O’Malley, Anchorage Museum writer-in-residence and leader of a collaborative project called Neighbors: Stories from Anchorage’s Pandemic Years.
“What I’ve heard over these conversations is a near universal sense that the community was tested and that divisions ran deep, but that we’re headed into a healing phase as we move (fingers crossed) into a moment that feels less like an emergency. I also heard about a deep desire to reconnect.”
The pandemic put a pause in Alaska’s experience economy as individuals self-isolated for close to two years. Conflicting opinions about vaccines and masking further divided individuals, friend groups and families. With museums increasingly seeing themselves as having a social role in their communities, Anchorage Museum staff and leadership considered how the museum can be a place of healing by helping people convene both in person and virtually through story sharing.
“Our individual stories will become our collective histories, and sharing them can be point of connection and healing,” says Anchorage Museum Director Julie Decker. “Museums are intimately connected with communities through stories. Storytelling holds power for healing and understanding through its ability to access memories and emotions, and to spark conversations. We can help our community, through creative action, to live together with a focus on care for each other.”
The Neighbors project has three parts: listening, writing and community sharing. O’Malley recently began gathering pandemic stories through surveys, interviews with community members, and social media prompts shared on Instagram @eachotheranc. In partnership with the Anchorage Museum, she is leading community micro-journaling activities and workshops in the museum’s satellite community outreach space, known as Seed Lab. O’Malley draws from each of these to write a pandemic stories article series that first will be published in Alaska’s major newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News. The stories also will be shared through the Anchorage Museum blog, a Neighbors project eNewsletter, and the Neighbors project Instagram account @eachotheranc. Eventually, the stories gathered will be archived on the Anchorage Daily News’ website.
About Julia O’Malley
Julia O’Malley, a third-generation Alaskan, is a journalist, teacher, and editor who lives in Anchorage. Her work over the last two decades has explored Alaska’s politics, culture, climate, and food. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Nation and The Washington Post, among other publications. She has served as the Atwood Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She got her start as a reporter and columnist at the Anchorage Daily News.