Monday night I was in the audience for the umpteenth Moth Chicago Grand Slam at the Athenaeum Theatre. Brian Babylon hosting it for his final time. Tyler Greene producing it as always.
A few things came to mind (especially after a pretty tumultuous month of bullshit accusations thrown around the interwebs regarding my narcissism, bullying of storytellers and general dislike of me by a tiny mob of assholes.) Think of me what you will - in the end the group of 30 or so people willing to buy in to the narrative spun of me matters so little that the vast majority of you reading have no idea what I'm talking about. That's the illusion of the Echo Chamber and the Facebook Bubble, those who gather together to castigate someone they find in need of demonizing believe that everyone is listening when, in fact, very few are. That's what high school is like if you remember. What matters here, right now, is The Moth.
By the same people jumping on me, The Moth has been disparaged as an instrument of white supremacy. What I witnessed on Monday night disputes this smear categorically.
First, there were more people of color in this one audience than present in all six years of WRITE CLUB combined (not that that is a very high bar to eclipse...twelve could actually do it.) Second, they were enjoying the stories of ten winning tellers - seven of whom were people of color. With a host who was a black man.
Five years ago, there were two hosts of Moth Chicago Story Slams. Two men. One black, one white. I often made the joke that I was the "Caucasian Host of The Moth" which, for some, was insulting (I never really understood why.) Five years later, there are three slams and three, sometimes four, hosts with the three mainstays being one man, two women and one of them a woman of color.
I'd call that progress.
Is it enough? No. Of course not. NPR audiences are predominantly white and that is the general audience for The Moth. But it IS progress. And that progress is due to the work of a lot of people, both employees of The Moth (from Catherine Burns and Jennifer Hixson to the inimitable Tyler Greene and Lauren Leeber) and tellers and audience members. Working regularly to bring people of color to tell stories on The Moth stage along with people who are white, who are disabled, who are LTGBQ, who are both older and younger.
Outside of The Moth, two people in Chicago have contributed above and beyond to the increasingly inclusive nature of this storytelling scene and they deserve at least a piece of the credit for the performance of one of the most inclusive story shows in town: Nestor Gomez and Scott Whitehair.
I'd wager that Nestor has inspired more people of color to tackle The Moth stage than any other storyteller I've seen in years. He's short (he makes the microphone stand joke every time so I'm not insulting him when I mention it), he has a thick Guatemalan accent, he used to have a severe stutter and in spite of any challenges in his way, Nestor comes out and tells grand, wonderful stories that are inspiring to hear and funny and heartbreaking. And he wins a LOT. He won Monday night - his second Grand Slam. I've been told by a number of storytellers who come to the show that it is Nestor who gave them the courage to be on that stage.
Scott is inspiring in a different way. He hosts and produces both This Much is True and Story Lab and is the maestro behind the ever present Do Not Submit Open Mics that occur in nine different neighborhoods in Chicago. He teaches classes in storytelling and he goes around the world spreading the love of Chicago storytellers and the craft. While not affiliated with The Moth, more Moth Chicago Grand Slam winners were or are his students than any other teacher in town and his non-stop outreach efforts to neighborhoods of color are reflected in the amazingly inclusive stages he curates.
Increasing inclusion is a slow process (even when those who have been traditionally excluded demand it immediately.) I'm proud to be a part of an organization devoted to it. I'm prouder still to know and work with these two true inspirations.