This story was first published in ProPublica Illinois’ weekly newsletter. Sign up for that here.

As you may know, ProPublica Illinois is partnering with Free Street Theater and Illinois Humanities to host theater-journalism workshops across the state. The goal is to bring people together to talk about their relationship to the news and information in and about their communities.

Our first workshop was more of a trial run. It took place in Free Street Theater’s Back of the Yards Storyfront space on South Ashland Avenue in Chicago, a small building that’s easy to miss if you’re in a hurry. As we settled into the space — the bottom floor of a two-story storefront that Free Street’s converted to accommodate its Meet Juan(ito) Doe performance — artistic director and facilitator Coya Paz gave us all a task: On a sticky note, write a headline that describes your day. The results ranged from “Obstruction!” to “Local Girl is Almost Done with College and Terrified of the Future,” which was mine.

About two dozen people showed up, a mix of ProPublica Illinois staffers, Free Street Theater folks and people from around Chicago. Here’s our first takeaway: Few people from Back of the Yards came — aside from one participant who worked in the neighborhood at Plant Chicago, who may have seen one of the fliers Free Street posted around the area. That raises the question of how we can do better at local outreach for these events.

ProPublica Illinois reporter Jodi Cohen participates in an interactive exercise during the theater-journalism workshop. (Natalie Escobar/ProPublica Illinois)

After we had written the headlines about our days, we were asked to put our Post-it on the wall and grab one we did not write. We formed a circle and read the headlines aloud. “If you’re, like, ‘That’s me!’ then jump in the middle,” Paz said, and commiserate with the statement in any way that makes sense. The headline “Local Woman Wonders if She Really Needs to Pee Again” struck a chord with me. I felt a little absurd giving high-fives and yelling “Woohoo!” to a room filled mostly with strangers, but I knew it was an ice-breaker. Seeing colleagues do the same thing was great.

Games became vehicles for our conversations. We played a game in which we were asked to line up according to how strongly we agreed with various statements, from “We are living in a war zone” to “I love ice cream.” You’d be surprised at how many interpretations there are of what a war zone is, and how many people have strong feelings about ice cream.

In small groups, we talked about a time we each felt misrepresented in a news story, and how that directly affected us and our communities. It led to revealing conversations about how we each defined “community.” Those definitions were different, and, at times, abstract. While the facilitators from Free Street embraced and worked with those differences, we all agreed that without more participation from the surrounding neighborhood, we were missing out on an opportunity to talk about “community” in a more specific way.

As with most of these kinds of events, they live or die on how much we engage. For the most part, people really were into the conversation. The two hours flew by. I noticed that people who had been shy at the start began to warm up.

At the end of the night, we returned to the sticky notes to ask: What do we want the story of our community to be? This is an important question — for us and for this project — that journalists rarely ask. But they should. If journalists don’t know how a community views itself, journalists don’t know what that community has at stake when it is represented or misrepresented.

A few of the sticky notes on which participants in the Free Street Theater workshop described their hopes for their community. (Natalie Escobar/ProPublica Illinois)

If we never bother to ask — in real, concrete ways — it can seem like we don’t care. Journalists know how to fact-check names and statistics. But how often do journalists fact-check the underlying narrative of a community?

ProPublica Illinois’ and Free Street’s hope for these workshops is not only to better understand people’s relationships to their own communities and how they see themselves in news coverage, but also to build relationships within those communities in the first place. To do that, we’ll need to do a lot more listening.

We’ll keep you posted on where we head next and what we learn.