Lawrence storytellers present digitized projects on homelessness, police brutality, Black joy

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Suppressed experiences of marginalized communities — such as Lawrence’s unhoused people — have been brought to light by local storytellers.

An audience gathered inside the Carnegie Building on Saturday to participate in three interactive presentations that included live performances and exhibits. The event was part of the Stories for All festival that took place Thursday through Saturday in downtown Lawrence.

The event featured more than 40 Kansas-based projects that are being documented using digital media.


‘Unsettled Lawrence’

Mostly discarded by the larger community, unhoused people in Lawrence have created smaller communities in survival, historian Rachel Schwaller told audience members Saturday. Their stories are part of Lawrence’s history.

“The way people live should not isolate them from a community,” Schwaller said.

Her project, “Unsettled Lawrence,” documents oral and public histories of people living unhoused in Lawrence through the years.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Rachel Schwaller

The city last month closed its sanctioned campsite that was on the land behind Johnny’s Tavern in North Lawrence. On Monday, people living on other parts of the land had to pack up and move out.

A visual part of Schwaller’s project was an exhibit that portrayed a tent the way it can be seen out at campsites. Tables and chairs represented trees that help prop tents up, and notes were taped down to express the way wind brutally blows away possessions no matter how hard people try to secure their items. Creating art at encampments is a staple, so original artwork was displayed around the tent.

Queen, who previously lived at the North Lawrence campsite, was supposed to do a drag show performance as part of the presentation Saturday. But he said he just couldn’t do it.

Schwaller attributed Queen’s absence — and the absences of other folks who are part of Lawrence’s unhoused community who contributed to the exhibit — to anxieties around their continuous displacement, most recently this week. Some were hanging out and creating music on the Carnegie Building steps outside, but by the end of Saturday’s presentations, they came inside.

And Queen was there. Sitting on the floor, he set up his keyboard and a sign and began to sing, his melodies occupying the space.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Queen

Learn more about Schwaller’s “Unsettled Lawrence” project on the Stories for All website,

Love and loss in Black communities

Alex Kimball Williams’ project on police brutality, “Police Brutality Song,” centers on the families of victims. Through her research, she mostly interviewed Black mothers about the impacts of their losses. As a mother herself, that hit close to home, she said.

Notably, she said some mothers were surprised she wanted them to share what they loved about their children, as news media often perpetuate negative stereotypes and social media lends itself to short-lived hashtags after their deaths. They appreciated being able to honor their children.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Alex Kimball Williams

Kimball Williams and Tai Amri Spann-Ryan, co-founders of BLACK (Black Literature and Arts Collective of Kansas) Lawrence, collaborated on an audiobook project, “beautiful ashe: memoirs of a sweet black boy & other poems,” based on a book Spann-Ryan authored. They aimed to celebrate the beauty in who Black people are and what they create. 

In between talking about their methods of storytelling, both gave live performances Saturday — Kimball Williams performing under her artist name, Bad Alaskan

As a Black man who grew up on the east coast, Spann-Ryan remembers people often asking him where he’s “really” from, referring to his African roots. But he knew that when white people carried out transatlantic slave trade, they stripped Black people today of that knowledge and connection. 

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Tai Amri Spann-Ryan

He said he remains aware that Black men are missing in rooms like the one in which he spoke Saturday, which segued into a larger issue: the overrepresentation of Black men in the American prison system.

When considering the loss Black communities experience, Spann-Ryan said he asked himself, “Are our legacies lost or is our legacy loss?” He recognized that anything lost can be found.

Learn more about Kimball Williams’ Police Brutality Song on the Stories for All website, Learn more about her and Spann-Ryan’s project, “beautiful ashe: memoirs of a sweet black boy & other poems,” also on the website.

Molly Adams / Lawrence Times {B/qKC} is an archive of Black queer Kansas City. Curated by Nasir Anthony Montalvo, managing editor of The Kansas City Defender, the project was on display at the Stories for All festival.
Molly Adams / Lawrence Times Elizabeth Sullivan, of the Lawrence Arts Center, facilitated Saturday’s event.
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Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

Molly Adams (she/her), photojournalist and news operations coordinator for The Lawrence Times, can be reached at molly (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Check out more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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