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Amanda Delheimer Hello, my name is Amanda Delheimer. I am the artistic director of 2nd Story, an arts organization located in Chicago, Illinois and you’re listening to one of a series of conversations I’m having with recipients of grants from the Arts Work Fund, a funder collaborative that invests in the adaptive capacities of small arts and culture organizations across Chicago. Through these episodes, we are excited to share stories about just a few of the unique and innovative projects that Arts Work Fund grant recipients are embarking upon. We hope that by opening up our experiences, goals and glitches to conversation that peer organizations can benefit from the lessons learned and we can strengthen the sector together. In this episode, I spoke with Vanessa Harris and James Kenniff from Strategy For Access about their program, Children’s Stories That Heal, which is housed on their website called Fun4theDisabled.
I am here talking with Vanessa Harris and James Kenniff, from a Strategy For Access. And they are working in partnership with Tellin’ Tales Theater on a project called Children’s Stories That Heal, which is a series of video stories aimed at encouraging young children to learn positive attributes of all kinds of people regardless of ability. So Vanessa, I understand this is a relatively new project, you’re in maybe your second year or so. And I’d love to know start off with a little bit about what this project is. What are you creating?
Vanessa Harris Yeah, well, these are videos of children’s books, where we take stories where the theme of the children children’s book is either disability, or racial justice, or gender issues. And they’re fun books for kids that they can share with their families. The main character doesn’t necessarily have to be a human being. But it has to weigh one of those issues. So like we have a rock, Ricky the rock that couldn’t roll. Now he had his friends, help him figure out how he could roll. So it was like a story about kindness and teamwork.
Amanda Delheimer Great, and you’re taking those stories, and you’re making videos out of them, right?
Vanessa Harris Yes, we are. So we have disabled experienced actors and actresses reading the books. We also have a puppet who introduces a story and tells us what the story is a little bit about so they can, entice the kids to want to hear the whole story. And then at the end the puppet asks, What do you think about it? And do you want to share it with your family?
Amanda Delheimer So the puppet is the framing device. But the content is this story, this children’s book that’s being performed by a disabled actor or actress that’s kind of related to these these areas of interest that you are trying to lift up.
Vanessa Harris Yeah, and all of our books are captioned. So our videos are captioned, and they’re interpreted with American Sign Language for the Deaf and hard of hearing. We also have all the transcripts for our books on our website for screen readers for the Deaf Blind.
Amanda Delheimer Great. And when you say website, this is the Fun4theDisabled website. Right? Yeah, yeah, you’re thinking about disability from all of these different lenses as you’re thinking about these videos, right? That there’s all of these kinds of different ways that I can access that video.
Vanessa Harris Absolutely, absolutely. We’re also on YouTube, and we’re also on social media. Our YouTube channel is Fun4theDisabled and we’re also Fun4theDisabled on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
Amanda Delheimer So also easily accessible on the internet. Yes, I love it. And I understand that there was a specific moment for you. That was kind of the lightbulb or the beginning of this whole idea. What was that moment?
Vanessa Harris Yeah, that was about almost three years ago. I used to take care of my mother. Um, I lived with her. She was 94 years old, and I was taking care of her. She passed away in December 2019. And, um, I was at home in the apartment a couple of days later, and I was feeling kind of lonesome. And I thought, you know, I need something to make myself feel better. And I don’t know how to do that. And so I was looking at Amazon, I thought, you know, I want to read some children’s books. So I started looking at Amazon, I ordered seven children’s books, because I thought, you know, I love children’s books, and I love to read them. And they made me feel really good. So I ordered seven children’s books. And I picked the theme of disability. And they all the books showed up a couple of days later, and I read them all in one sitting, and I really enjoyed them, I had so much fun reading these books. And then I thought, I’ve got to do something with them. And I already had been making videos for the Strategy For Access Fun4theDisabled website. And I thought this would be a great thing to do is to make children’s books in video format. So I started contacting the publishers and the, the authors. And some of them were really interested. And I also had access to a puppet master. And I contacted him, I said, Would you be interested in helping me with these videos? And he said, Yes. So that’s how we got started. And then I realized that I also wanted to have them captioned with American Sign Language. We got all that going.
Amanda Delheimer I love it. I love that. It’s so Chicago, like I got a guy. I got a puppet guy. Let me call my puppet guy.
Vanessa Harris Yeah. Amazing.
Amanda Delheimer I love it so much. Okay, so James, you’ve been supporting this project as an intern. And I’m curious to hear you talk about how did you first get involved with this project?
James Kenniff Sure. So I had seen, Vanessa had made a post on like the my school’s kind of like, job listing board. And I was reading it and it really spoke to- the mission really spoke to me as something that was important, I thought it was she was also requesting people with like video editing experience. And that was something that I have, it’s something that I thought could could I could offer in order to pursue the mission that I felt was important to have increasing accessibility to fun things and generally like fostering like a more inclusive world. And I remember talking to Vanessa, and one of our first meetings, I remember her talking about the puppet master. She was talking about how she had this puppet master. She had some ideas floating around. And it was kind of being concocted into a project. And I thought, yeah, that sounds like a sounds like a great place to work where there’s a puppet guy on retainer. So I started working her with her over that summer, producing a lot of these children’s books. And it was kind of how I interpreted it, or it was always my impression that the this was around the start, like March of 2020, I believe. So it was like the beginning of the pandemic and these parts. And as school kids were being sent home from schools, the project really filled like a gap in like available media for kids at home as they’re spending more time online. We thought it was particularly important that they have kind of media that they can that can teach them something that can help them learn to like understand one another and be more accepting of other kids. And I thought that this project was you know, definitely worth doing such that yeah, I was working for a while now for the organization in like a variety of capacities like kind of alternately as a intern and a volunteer. Really trying to further this, this goal.
Vanessa Harris One thing, James didn’t know how to use the editing software, did you before we started? So we use a national university that teaches on demand classes. And he took that class on demand to learn how to use the editing software that we use so everything could be consistent.
James Kenniff Yeah, I’d never use Premiere Pro before or anything. I was I made some videos in high school using like iMovie, and things like that. Because, yeah, totally different system. But I, there was some experimentation in the beginning a few different projects that were floating around before I could really hone hone the craft of making these videos.
Amanda Delheimer Very cool. And Vanessa, you so you already shared the reason why you gravitated towards children’s books was this idea of joy, or I want to lift myself up, I want to enjoy do something that I really enjoy. And I’m curious, are there other things that led to this idea of children’s books been a thing?
Vanessa Harris One thing is that, um, like James said, it was during the beginning of pandemic. And, um, we’ve had some programs that we had scheduled to do, which you had, which we couldn’t do, because one thing we also broadcast on the Chicago Access Network Television station. And we were using their studios and they closed their studios down during the beginning of the pandemic, because of social distancing, we couldn’t use them because there wasn’t enough space. So we had to rethink what we were going to do for our programming. And so this came in at a perfect time, because readers could read the books remotely, the puppet master could do his work remotely, and the editors work remotely. So this working perfectly, we also had some other projects we were working on, leading to the pandemic, which allowed us to shift from program we were going to be using to something that was more appropriate to help people with the pandemic.
Amanda Delheimer Gotcha. What I love the idea of, not only was this there was a necessary shift, because you weren’t able to use the studio, but everybody can work remotely. And also, it seems like this shift that you made filled a need at the time, right, that James is talking about in terms of the kind of like, oh, no, what are we going to do with all this time that used to be time in school and that sort of stuff?
Vanessa Harris Right, right. That’s one of the reasons that a lot of the publishers said yes, initially, they were they were like, yes, we think it’s a good idea for you to do that. So we’ve done about 30 books total so far. But after about a year and a half, we went back to some of the publishers and asked him if we could continue to keep those books up on our website. And they said, No, COVID is over. So we need to take down five books, unfortunately. And COVID is not over yet. And kids do enjoy those books. And we’re finding that the demographics of people that are actually accessing our website are like, young women who have children who want to have the books read to them.
Amanda Delheimer Oh, sure, right, that even the parent is like, Hey, I, my child wants to hear this book. I would really love to have a breather, be able to do laundry, or even not be speaking for a second and just listen, sit with my child and listen to this book together for Yeah. Oh, how interesting. That makes total sense. I wouldn’t think of that. But that makes absolute sense. Well, and James, what is like what has been the impact on in addition to learning new editing software, what has been the impact on you as you’ve been working on this project and hearing or reading all of these stories?
James Kenniff Sure. So yeah, definitely, as I was working with each book, like I was, you know, reading it, hearing it over and over again, as I’m going through adding different parts to it. So like a lot of the books have, like, I was really struck by their messaging, I thought they were particularly important. Like there are a lot of themes, some of the important themes for like just representation in general, like the featuring on a lot of like black and disabled figures that I hadn’t heard of before and that I was really interested to learn about, and I thought it was important that kids would learn about. I thought it was definitely a message worth amplifying. So some of the books like A Splash of Red about Horace Pippin, who is a visual artist who has his arm paralyzed in World War One, and how his disability really like helped him forge a distinctive like art style as he’s moving his hand and etching like burning into wood. Which I thought was a cool person to learn about. And I liked that I was able to amplify that. And like Art Tatum is a jazz pianist who is blind. And how his blindness that maybe like a conventional disability wasn’t like in any ways, limiting his capacities in any way it was with like hearing as his primary sense, he was able to absorb himself more into the music and become like an acclaimed figure, which I thought was really cool. And I also thought it was important to be talking about how kids can like interact with one another, and making sure that they’re interacting in like a healthy way. So some of the other important, some of the other books that stuck with me are like, Just Ask! by Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, which really talks about kids with different abilities and how they, how they interact with one another, like, if they’re curious about each other, you know, they should, they should just ask and foster like a conversation between each other about their different desires and abilities and unique, unique traits, and how all that kind of melds together into like, a more cohesive whole. So as I was working through those, through those books, and hearing that message over and over again, I thought I was it was really inspiring, really just to be able to, yeah, be able to be putting together this message as it is sent out to kids that are ready to be, that are taking in a lot of stuff as they kind of build who they are and how they interact with each other.
Amanda Delheimer Sure. Well that occurs, it occurs to me that not only is the Fun4theDisabled website, is a place where I could go to find and watch these videos, but also as a place that I could go to learn about children’s books that I might not be aware of, right, whether that’s as a parent or a teacher, but that you just listed three books that I’ve not heard of. And so knowing that there are 30, or 25, since five of them are taking down books that might be new to new to people who are looking for content for the children that they’re taking care of.
James Kenniff Yeah. And really like talking about important things. It’s talking about things that deserve to be talked about. Yeah.
Vanessa Harris And we got different people, well, at first I was finding all the books within I started reaching out to like, librarians and different people. And I would say, what are your favorite books? And I got some of the best suggestions that way.
Amanda Delheimer Yeah, shout out to librarians. Right. Yeah. Librarians. Thank you all librarians. Well, Vanessa so I’m curious, what do you hope, in addition to some of the stuff that that James has outlined in terms of representation and disability, and, you know, lifting up messages that might be more infrequently heard by children? What do you hope the impact of this project might be?
Vanessa Harris You know, a lot of times kids learn their impressions about people, from the people they’re closest to: their parents, their siblings, their teachers. And a lot of times they have a lot of biases are picked up that way. And we want them to know that there are ways to find other ways to deal with all kinds of people. And there are a lot of different kinds of people and issues to deal with. We should keep an open mind. And we also want that to be better information to be available to the entire family. So they can talk about it, and share their own opinions and just say, hey, you know, this is something I didn’t realize.
Amanda Delheimer That also makes me think about how the child could be the leader in some of those conversations.
Vanessa Harris Absolutely, absolutely. You know, kids usually are the ones that are most open to kindness, and sharing and things like that. And that is not as prevalent as you age. But it can be if it’s encouraged.
Amanda Delheimer So one thing I’m wondering is, what is your vision for the world at large?
Vanessa Harris I think that, um, in many ways, I’m a kid at heart. I like to do things that are fun. And when I was younger, as an adult, I didn’t do a lot of fun things, I didn’t really have time because I’m working, I was an engineer, you know, and I worked full time as an engineer I’m working full time is that. But then I had several disabilities. And I found that I need to find some fun things to do. And I wanted to share those fun things with other people. And that’s how I came up with the website Fun4theDisabled. And that’s not only resources for kids, but it’s for their, their families and people with all kinds of disabilities. And it’s to show that people with disabilities have just as much to offer if not more than people who are able bodied. If I find something that’s accessible, I want everyone to know about it. And that’s why all of our all of our videos are captioned with American Sign Language. And we’re trying to get funding soon, to have even more, even more accessibility on the website for things like, um, dyslexia, and have the website be more available to seniors who have cataracts and things like that.
Amanda Delheimer One of the things that I find so both exciting and overwhelming, but mostly exciting about conversations related to disability is that like, once you start trying to think about access, you realize that there’s layer after layer after layer after layer of access that can be created, right? And what does it what does it mean to center those things as we think about art making and sharing art making?
Vanessa Harris Right, right. And that’s why I think it’s so important for us to look at these, these different books, like the ones that James mentioned, on Art Tatum and Horace Pippin, we want to look for some more books like that. But um, there’s a book that I’d like to make a movie out of, a full length movie out at some point called the Heart of Apple Butter Hill, which is written by a woman with low vision. And it’s about a blind young adult who says saves the world and it’s a fantasy situation. And I love that book, it kind of reminds me one of my favorite books of all time, it’s a fantasy book, and she saves the world.
Amanda Delheimer Amazing. Before- Tell us your favorite book of all time since you dangle that carrot in front of us.
Vanessa Harris A Wrinkle in Time? Yeah, that was introduced to me by my librarian when I was nine years old, she saves the world in that book as well, the main character saves the world and in that in that book, as well.
Amanda Delheimer So what are some upcoming projects that you all are working on or thinking about?
Vanessa Harris We are going to be doing another 11 books this year. And one thing I didn’t mention was that last year, we had to go through a list of over 200 books to narrow it down to 16. Because most of the publishers said No, last year,
Amanda Delheimer James, what were your gonna say?
James Kenniff Like I’ve been working on for a while this universal, universal design video. And we talked about last time about going through different places in Chicago and seeing how they’re accessible and visualizing the accessible routes through those places, to really make sure that people are able to see the way to do things that they want to do.
Vanessa Harris One project that we want to work on this year we’re applying for funding for right now is finding accessible tourist venues in Chicago because the mayor wants Chicago to be known as the disability friendly city. And so we’ve come up with a list of about 10 locations in Chicago where we want to feature videos about and show how accessible they are, I think it’s gonna be a fun project. And they’re gonna be fun for the whole family.
Amanda Delheimer Fun for Everyone.
Vanessa Harris Yes, fun for the disabled and fun for everyone. And that’s something that I put on- that’s one of my hashtags, fun for everyone.
Amanda Delheimer I love how much your work centers joy, right? Like you even said, you know, I was feeling down. And so I wanted to figure out how to lift myself up. So I went and got these books that I enjoy. And you know, as an adult, I wasn’t having any fun. So how can I center fun, right, and it feels like, I don’t know, like, in some ways, I feel like the word fun can be sometimes used as a pejorative. But actually fun and joy and pleasure is in many ways, the engine of life, you know, the bringing, and that everyone deserves to have fun. And fun is for everyone, which is something that I feel like is really centered in the work that you’re doing, for sure. And also in just kind of the how you are thinking about the role of the work that you are doing.
Vanessa Harris Absolutely. Absolutely.
Amanda Delheimer Well, thank you so much for being in conversation with me today. I cannot wait to share your insights and words of wisdom with the world.
Vanessa Harris Thank you. Thank you very much, Amanda. And thanks, James, for joining us. And thank you for all you’ve done, James.
James Kenniff Yeah, thank you guys. Thank you, Vanessa.
Amanda Delheimer These interviews were produced by 2nd Story, edited by Max Spitz with Original Music by Mariana Green. They are supported by the Polk Brothers Foundation along with Marcia Festen from Arts Work Fund and Jon Satrom from studiothread. 2nd Story, 3Arts, and the Arts Work Fund are all located on the traditional homelands of the Council of the Three Fires. For more information about the organization’s featured in this interview, go to 2ndstory.com and Fun4theDisabled. To learn more about the Arts Work Fund and to continue the conversation, we encourage you to join the Arts Work Fund Listserv, AWF Connect, which can be found along with more grantee stories at ArtsWork.fund. Thank you for listening!