This project also has a Changeshop where you can read more about its latest progress.
Go to Changeshop: Story Swap.
The Aspen Writers' Foundation, a program of the Aspen Institute, is a literary arts nonprofit breaking down barriers through stories.
About Your Organization
Aspen Writers' Foundation
United States, CO, Aspen, Pitkin County
Country where this project is creating social impact
Is your organization a
Non‐profit / NGO / Citizen sector organization
Your role in Education
The type of school(s) your solution is affiliated with
How long has your organization been operating?
More than 5 years
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Select the stage that best applies to your solution
Scaling (the next step will be growing impact on a regional or even global scale)
How long has your solution been in operation?
Operating for more than 5 years
The Need: What problem are you trying to solve?
Story Swap was founded as a perspective-taking classroom exercise to broaden students’ worldviews through writing. However, it quickly became apparent that the curriculum also addressed schools’ higher needs: breaking down isolation, increasing empathy, and encouraging leadership. The exigency of these needs is born out in the daily headlines and social research on the absence of empathy (i.e. bullying, conflict, violence). The unique characteristics of adolescence—self-consciousness, anxiety about social order, hormonal fluctuations—may also interfere with teens’ known capacity for empathy. Story Swap addresses these needs by using accessible, story-based arts to build empathy, helping participants unlock their potential and change the culture of their schools
The Solution: What is your solution? Be specific!
Building on the dozens of successful swaps to date, our goal is to create a pilot program to expand the Story Swap curriculum into as many secondary school classrooms as possible. We have partnered with Aspen High School in Aspen, CO, to build a pilot for national and international expansion. The initiative has two arms: a one-day swap among the schools’ teachers, staff, and administrators (T2T) and a semester-long course in Story Swap for the students (S2S). The T2T swap will be a professional development day, allowing adult participants to earn credit and experience a swap first-hand, which is the initial training step to facilitate the ripple effect of future swaps in their classrooms. The S2S semester will include standards-based creative writing, swaps co-lead by trained teachers, and service learning to raise money for a weeklong student exchange with another school. The outcome of this trial year will be a strategic plan for future expansion throughout the country and beyond.
The Model: Walk us through a specific example of how your solution makes a difference; include your primary activities
When a swap begins, individuals from different backgrounds come together to form partners and share their stories. Seated face-to-face, participants are asked to tell their partner an essential story from their life that is representative of who they are. They then recreate their partner’s narrative and write the story as if it were their own. By receiving the story of another, recasting it in their own idiom, and, then, exchanging the remixed stories, participants experience the transformative process of walking in one another’s shoes and sharing the view they see from another’s eyes. As they do this, swappers experience the dismantling of stereotypes and the building of understanding.
The program is powerful because it harnesses storytelling—the most accessible and universal of all human activities—to open doors of communication that might otherwise be closed. Because this idea is translated experientially, with students taking charge of their own stories and being responsible for those of others, the empathy learning is particularly accessible and resonant. As Mickey Bergman, director of Middle East Programs at the Aspen Institute affirms: “The program’s model taps into the creativity of youth and engages them not through the lens of their conflict, but rather through their storytelling and listening. The methodology allows participants to genuinely take in perspectives without the ‘threatening’ proposition of agreeing with one another.”
The Marketplace: Who are your peers and competitors? Identify others also working to address the needs you are and what differentiates you from them. What challenges could these players pose to your success or growth?
In Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley, there is no other arts-based, empathy-building program. As a matter of course, when we enter new areas, we survey existing services that address empathy-building and story-based arts, so that Story Swap may enhance and quickly integrate into the established educational landscape. So far we have not encountered any “competition” and preliminary data indicates that Story Swap may be unique in the field. Experts working in education and empathy, including Sam Chaltain, a national education scholar/speaker, informed us that they knew of no other organization doing this type of work on this scale. We will welcome learning from peers as we discover them.
Now that you have thought out your entry, help us pitch it.
Define your company, program, service, or product in 1-2 short sentences [136 characters]
Founded in 1976, the Aspen Writers’ Foundation is a literary arts nonprofit breaking down barriers through stories.
Identify what is innovative about your solution in 1-2 short sentences [136 characters]
While perspective-taking exercises are not new, using stories as a tool to build empathy across educational landscapes is innovative.
This Entry is about (Issues)
What has been the impact of your solution to date?
Story Swap enriches the lives of students and teachers of all backgrounds by giving them the tools, training, and support to create a more peaceful, compassionate world, starting with their own story. The program develops not only writing skills, but also empathic aptitude, which in turn fosters capacity for leadership and investment in one’s community. Story Swap’s unique promise is to make connections between individuals who in turn make deeper connections within their communities.
As one of our teen participants said: “The most important thing I learned is that no matter where you are from we can all get along.” She embodies the transformative impact of the model:
sharing stories > perspective-taking > empathy > pro-social behavior
As each participant experiences this shift, they develop the capacity to make individual decisions that collectively create positive change in their school and community.
What is your projected impact over the next 1-3 years?
In our pilot year, we hope to facilitate three swaps: two intra-school swaps at Aspen High (T2T and S2S) and an inter-school swap between the students of AHS and another school. These will directly and indirectly engage approximately 60 adults and 500 students at two schools, and have the opportunity to ultimately influence secondary schools across the nation and beyond when the full program is rolled out. Since the program’s inception, we have conducted dozens of successful Story Swaps within neighborhoods, across economic divides, over state lines and international borders, and among religions. We will draw on this history, weighed against the quantitative and qualitative assessment of the pilot, to develop the strategic plan that will lead to national and international expansion.
What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?
We are in a pivotal moment in the development of Story Swap. To date, each swap has been a de facto pilot. That is, as we have expanded into new school districts, we have customized each program to fit local parameters. We have gained experience and expertise along the way, yet this has also made for the creation of a “new” program over and over again. We come to you because we recognize that we have a proven, powerful program in need of a more sustainable growth model. Our goal is to take positive steps to change this, creating a true pilot program, with broad evaluation and monitoring, so that we may develop a systematic process to grow Story Swap to a more mature level. Our findings will be the foundation of the strategic plan.
Winning entries present a strong plan for how they will achieve and track growth. Identify your six-month milestone for growing your impact
To conduct a T2T swap at the pilot school and achieve buy-in for the program from the school staff and administrators
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your six-month milestone
Obtain approval for T2T swap as professional development day
Facilitate access to in-district or graduate credit for participating teachers
Secure a date on the district calendar, preferably at the beginning of the school year
Now think bigger! Identify your 12-month impact milestone
To complete the S2S semester course and evaluate the pilot year
Identify three major tasks you will have to complete to reach your 12-month milestone
Obtain approval for Story Swap as a semester-long elective class
Promote new class offering and enroll enough high school seniors to make it viable
Create and get on the school calendar a weeklong inter-school student exchange
Founding Story: We want to hear about your "Aha!" moment. Share the story of where and when the founder(s) saw this solution's potential to change the world [125 words]
Early on, Story Swap founder Jordan Dann listened to a woman telling her Swap partner’s story. “The moment that she said ‘I’,” Jordan said, “I saw a shift in her body and voice. I saw barriers dissolve. And I saw ownership. She was speaking from her partner’s experience, but when she began to speak, it was her own experience.” Later, when the program took root in a high school classroom with native and non-native English speakers, Jordan witnessed students “who had never had conversations before, suddenly engaging, laughing, smiling, asking questions, listening to each other. They were holding each other’s important memory and because of that we made a relationship, and an intimate one.” Not only had the students forged friendships, they had also discovered their creativity, which for some was a new experience. Supporting them was a circle of participants also saying, “Look what you’ve created.” Jordan added, “That was when I knew everyone needs to do this, the world needs this.”
Tell us about your partnerships
Our many partners include: the Aspen Institute, Global Nomads Group, Bezos Family Foundation, Aspen High School, Aspen Public Radio, and Esquire Magazine. We are also honored to count among the membership of our Global Arts Leadership Board: Colum McCann, Firoozeh Dumas, Mona Eltahawy, Luis Alberto Urrea, Binyavanga Wainaina, Ishmael Beah, Assaf Gavron, and Reza Aslan. A broad base of community support comes from the 150+ businesses, organizations, and authors we collaborate with annually, and the 1,150,000+ literary enthusiasts whose lives our programs touched last year alone.
What type of team (staff, volunteers, etc.) will ensure that you achieve the growth milestones identified in the Social Impact section? [75 words]
The Aspen Writers’ Foundation has a full-time staff of five, plus two veteran consultants, who will be working with the lead Aspen High School English teacher to realize our milestones. Our board of trustees, advisory board, donor circles, and other partners also play a crucial role in trouble-shooting and brainstorming ideas related to Story Swap.
Please elaborate on any needs or offers you have mentioned above and/or suggest categories of support that aren't specified within the list