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A New Gig in Government: Chief Storyteller

Some cities are hiring people to share locals' stories and change the traditional narrative surrounding the place they call home.

A business owner talks to a resident as he prepares to install Christmas lights on Livernois Avenue in Detroit.
(AP/Carlos Osorio)
Most media reports about Detroit sound the same to Aaron Foley. A journalist might fly in for a day or two. They might speak with a few "Detroit experts," a short list of economists recycled in all the major news outlets. But Foley says these writers don’t really know Detroit, and it shows.

“People try to talk about the city culture, but they may leave crucial things out," he says. "There is such a big difference between Detroit and everywhere else.”

Foley's job is to point out those differences. He is the city's first chief storyteller, an unusual government position created by Mayor Mike Duggan to shift the narrative of Detroit beyond bankruptcy, crime and sports.

The city has its share of problems. It's still recovering from what was the nation's largest-ever municipal bankruptcy filing in 2013, and it has the second-highest violent crime rate among big U.S. cities.

But there’s much more to share than stories of violence and financial hardship. That's where Foley -- a local journalist and author of How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass -- comes in. His team of five seeks to showcase locals' daily lives in a city that has the highest concentration of black residents in the country.

Their signature project is a multimedia website called The Neighborhoods where people can learn more about Detroiters. One article discusses a woman’s push to open a gymnastics center. A video on Detroit slang garnered almost a quarter-million views.

The site also presents an opportunity for Detroiters to directly communicate with their local government. In one video, Foley spoke to children from a West side neighborhood, asking what changes they would like to see. 

“Some abandoned houses, I think the city should tear them down because stuff can happen,” a young girl said. “I want to see joyful people there … people doing good.”

For Foley, part of the excitement of his role is that he's the first person to fill it and he has discretion to shape it. When initially approached about the job, Foley says he had some hesitation. He was the editor for a local magazine called BLAC but ultimately couldn’t pass up the “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

As local governments around the country consider more creative ways to interact with residents, Foley hopes Detroit inspires other cities. In fact, it already has. Denver recently hired its own chief storyteller.

Moving forward, Foley's goal is to diversify the range of stories they produce. But, he says, they will always be authentically Detroit.

“We've got people who can do animation. We've got people who can produce audio. We truly have an opportunity to produce engaging content that Detroiters can’t get anywhere else,” he says. "Let’s give the people something they deserve.”

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