Getting others to tell their story is something that Louisville Story Program (LSP) and its founder, Darcy Thompson, are passionate about. However, making Thompson speak about himself is not easy. He will, at length and in great detail, recount the beginnings of the program; but as it is with any good leader, his work is his story. For Thompson the focus is Louisville Story Program and all roads lead back to it.
“There is a historical function by documenting stories that don’t normally get documented. There’s very much an educational function…and there’s a community building function,” he says.
Inspired by a similar group in New Orleans, the Louisville Story Program started as a conversation between friends, according to local writer and musician Joe Manning, “Darcy dreamt up the idea for the Louisville Story Program and as chance would have it I had also started working on an idea that was almost identical. One Christmas Darcy and I were having a chat, and he described the project that he wanted to start, and I said that’s incredible.”
The two began working on the program and then Manning was accepted to graduate school. He made his temporary departure, and Thompson continued the work. LSP helps historically underrepresented Louisville residents tell their stories, in their words.Through extensive writing workshops and editorial support, the program culminates in beautiful documentary books about overlooked aspects of Louisville’s community, culture and history.
Launching Our Shawnee
The Story Program’s first venture was to document the lives and stories of students from The Academy at Shawnee (formerly Shawnee High School). The principal was enthusiastic and made the project a priority. The subsequent publication is titled, Our Shawnee.
The book describes the lives of eight members of the school’s junior class in the Louisville neighborhoods of Shawnee, Portland, Iroquois and Algonquin. Earning a paycheck for their participation, students spent the summer in writing workshops led by LSP staff and other professional writers and journalists. They read literary nonfiction, did writing exercises to learn about craft, and received training in oral history interview techniques. This led to many hours in the field with digital recorders conducting participatory, community-based research—interviewing family members, friends and neighbors. They also took photographs with the assistance of professional photographers and sourced photographs from family albums to accompany their stories.
Our Shawnee became Louisville’s best-selling book in 2014. Authors earned scholarships, jobs, paid speaking opportunities, and opportunities to advocate for their communities.
Thompson worked so tirelessly with students from Shawnee that he became a mentor to many. According to Manning, Thompson’s relationship to one of the young authors impressed him.
“His friendship with Devante Urbina…Darcy posted up and became a mentor to that kid,” he says. “He’s got a huge heart. He’s a very empathetic person. The agendas of the program are his personal agendas.”
Lessons in Equality
While working in underrepresented areas has been much of his life’s work, Thompson feels that his own upbringing was unremarkable. He didn’t go to especially diverse primary schools. He attended the University of Kentucky for undergrad and got his first taste of real diversity at University of Illinois in Chicago. He feels this experience and his love of reading fed his passion. Thompson does credit his parents for teaching him valuable lessons about respect and compassion.
“I was raised to revere farming folk—people without formal education—to really recognize their wisdom, their brilliance, their ingenuity, their cleverness and their work ethic. My grandfather, he was really revered,” he says.
Serving as an instructor in the Mississippi Delta offered Thompson a close look at the struggles in less privileged places in our nation. “I came into the Delta clueless, and I came out a lot more fired up, a lot more upset about the injustices in the education system,” he recounts.
Subverting the narratives that come when one group controls the power in a society was something that was in the back of Thompson’s mind, though he didn’t set out to do social justice work; he really stumbled over it. A few of his college courses gave him some social justice foundation and the difference in his parents’ upbringing made an impression upon his view of fairness.
“I did not have parents who were concerned with social justice,” Thompson says. “My parents were not activists, but they both grew up poor. My father grew up in a rural area; my mom grew up in an urban area. My dad is the oldest of eleven kids and grew up on a farm that they didn’t own; but they got to live in a farmhouse because my grandfather was the farm manager. My mom grew up near Churchill Downs in Louisville.”
Moreover, the messages his parents received from their families gave young Thompson a lesson in equality.
“My dad ends up going to college and getting his degree, ya know, and having this solid career. He was told that it was something that was doable. He got different messages ‘you can do this’ and ‘it is (sort of) expected that you do this’ and he did it. My mom, on the other hand, did not receive those messages. She kinda got messages like, ‘who do you think you are thinking about college.’ ‘That’s not for people like you.'”
While Darcy was young, he and his brother would work in the fields alongside farmhands. This gave him perspective as a youth and subsequently as an adult and educator.
“Every summer for a while my brother and I worked on the farm helping with the tobacco crop. I give my parents some credit there. When I went into school, I recognized the secretary that [sic] I needed something from is a person, and I should be interested in her life,” he says.
Connecting The World Through Literature
Before becoming an educator, Thompson remembers literature as a way to connect with the world and learn about different people. “Learning about other people through books. I credit literature a lot.”
As a teacher, particularly in his years with Teach for America, he worked in many areas of the nation, but it is in Louisville where his heart lies. He settled here, married local musician and artist Carrie Neumayer, and decided that Louisville was a place where rich stories grew and needed to be fostered.
“My introduction to Louisville was to get to work as a partner with counselors and teachers in high poverty schools. My role was to provide extra support and proceed to post-secondary education,” he says.
This gave Thompson valuable connections in the local education community, which helped him connect to Shawnee.
As Manning says of Thompson, “I have not met many educators with the sort of passion and dedication that Darcy has.”
Thompson is more gracious, “My primary emotion about the work that I’m doing is gratitude. I get to do this full-time. If I could become more effective and more efficient in every single thing then we could do more and better work more quickly. I feel like our success is very much within our control.”
I Said Bang! Is Born
Thompson and the Louisville Story Program latest project is with the Kentucky School for the Blind. They just finished a book called, I Said Bang!: A History of the Dirt Bowl.
In 1969, amid the turmoil of the civil rights era, two college students started the Dirt Bowl, a summer-long basketball tournament in Louisville’s Algonquin Park. I Said Bang! is a book about 46 years of building community through basketball, written by dozens of people who have contributed to and been shaped by the Dirt Bowl tradition: organizers, players, spectators, announcers, referees, vendors and coaches.
Thompson and LSP will celebrate I Said Bang! with a launch party on February 25 at the Muhammad Ali Center (144 N. Sixth St.) at 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.