The mission of Chicago-based 2nd Story is simple: a well-crafted, well-told story can be a catalyst for change. Founded in 1999, Chicago’s longest-running storytelling series has told stories with messages as diverse as the storytellers themselves across bars, restaurants, and other intimate spaces all over the city.
CultureBuilds, an extension of 2nd Story, seeks to bring the empathy, compassion, and humanity of the storytelling experience to the workplace. Unlike more traditional HR sensitivity training, CultureBuilds is differentiated by its focus not on one-size-fits-all PowerPoint presentations but in the power of a single story to facilitate growth and spur the pursuit of empathy and understanding in the workplace.
National and global partners have looked to CultureBuilds for growth opportunities in one of the most politically and culturally polarized times in recent history. Artistic Director Amanda Delheimer, Managing Director Lauren Sivak, and Manager of Partnerships LaTanya Lane—all of whom have engaged in rigorous pedagogical training—took the time to detail their own history with 2nd Story, the differentiating philosophy of CultureBuilds, and how difficult conversations can be an invaluable first step in the never-ending journey to a more equitable, fair, and compassionate world.
There’s Something Happening Here
Delheimer has been with 2nd Story since 2003, when the organization was still staging more traditional plays. “Our 2nd Story shows were becoming the reason people were most excited about us and why they were showing up for the larger organization writ large,” Delheimer says. “We had a conversation and decided to take what we do best and to put all our energy into it. In 2007, we decided to stop producing plays and focus specifically on storytelling itself.”
Sivak joined 2nd Story in 2014, after six years within the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s education and administrative departments. “I realized that while I was an arts education advocate, my real passion was in sustainable growth at organizations whose work I think is essential,” Sivak explains. “2nd Story is one of those organizations. I deeply believe that we are changing the world one story at a time.”
And it wouldn’t be a modern storytelling arc without podcasts, which is how Lane first became aware of 2nd Story. She eventually wrote and auditioned for 2nd Story performances, later becoming a company member and more intricate contributor to the overall mission. Her fifteen-plus years of nonprofit and organizing experience certainly don’t hurt either.
“After having built a relationship with this organization for years, there was a perfect intersection where I wanted a change of direction and 2nd Story was thinking of how to support its programming,” Lane says. “I’m working to further the mission of the great work Amanda and Lauren have done.”
To Bring Your Whole Self to Work
CultureBuilds has grown organically from 2nd Story productions. “People were coming to us and asking us to do a 2nd Story show for their leadership groups, their discussion panels, and other events for employers,” Sivak says. “We’ve been doing this work for a very long time, but we just hadn’t figured out how to talk about it. The stories that we tell in our CultureBuilds aren’t crafted by our artists for an HR training. That story was crafted by an artist because they think a story can change someone’s heart or mind.”
It’s easy to see CultureBuilds was built almost as an antithesis of the traditional HR training method. “A lot of the topics we talk about are complex, because they can be close to the heart and overwhelming,” Lane explains. “I think humans tend to take care of their hearts by creating this distance between the topic and themselves.
“Our goal is to help you connect with a story and to realize this isn’t supposed to fix everything right here and now,” she continues. “We want to facilitate providing information, but, more importantly, listening and giving people the opportunity to engage with someone else’s story.”
The core idea of CultureBuilds is to address the question about the relationship between the personal and the professional. “We feel like our society did itself a disservice when we decided that those two things were somehow fundamentally different,” Delheimer says. “And the moment that we’re in right now specifically requires that we do really complicated personal work in a professional setting, that we pay attention to people when they say they want to bring their whole selves to work. The entry point for Culture Builds is personal stories.”
The Reviews Are In
CultureBuilds is a success already, with the difference it’s made through its partnerships and how that impacts 2nd Story both fiscally and culturally.
“It feels like there’s this cyclical process that’s helping us make better art,” Delheimer says. “When we have conversations with employers, we come back to our artists to see if they have a story that can help them address this question. Many of the activities we do with CultureBuilds are exercises we do to help generate art for our 2nd Story shows.”
“We talk about the work of CultureBuilds and 2nd Story as us going around and planting seeds of trees whose shade we will never sit under,” Sivak says. “If we’re at a global law firm, working with first-year associates, and we’re doing an experience on empathy, we know we’re talking to future lawyers, senators, maybe even presidents. You’re helping them make empathy a daily part of their lives. We can help create positive change in this world.”
Editor’s note, 10/30/20: LaTanya Lane is no longer with 2nd Story.