The Stories We Tell: In Conversation with Cornetta Lane Smith of Detroit Narrative Agency

DNA co-directors Ryan Pearson and Cornetta Lane Smith

Detroit Narrative Agency (DNA) is a community organization that disrupts harmful narratives about Detroit. We do this by supporting Black, Indigenous, People of Color Detroiters to explore and create media storytelling projects that build collective healing, power and liberation. DNA was co-founded in 2015 by adrienne maree brown and ill Weaver with support from Jenny Lee and Allied Media Projects. A community advisory team led a process to ask Detroiters what stories about Detroit they’re sick of seeing? What stories about Detroit do they want to see told? What infrastructure is needed for Detroiters to disrupt those harmful narratives? This process shaped the priorities that DNA went on to steward through fellowships, screenings, workshops, etc. DNA is now co-directed by Ryan Pearson and Cornetta Lane Smith.

How did the Detroit Narrative Agency come to be, and how would you define its mission?

Detroit Narrative Agency was founded in 2015 by ill Weaver, adrienne maree brown, and with the support of Jenny Lee from Allied Media Projects. We initially started off with asking Detroiters three questions: what narratives are you tired of hearing? What narratives do you want to hear more of? And what infrastructure is needed to help you begin to tell stories to begin to shape different narratives about Detroit. From there we took the information that we got from these community gatherings and we launched what is now DNA. Our intention was to really be an eighteen month project but it actually expanded to a five year organization. We realized the need is still there. There are these very harmful narratives that are being told about the city of Detroit, especially around why Detroit has high vacancy and blight and crime and all of those bad things were attributed to Black people, and those narratives don’t at all take a look at the root causes of why a city would have high vacancy, blight, and crime. And so with that need and that narrative that is very harmful to the people of Detroit, we try to find more and more opportunities for Detroiters to be able to tell their stories and in a way that can really shift those harmful narratives. 

Our mission is to support and develop media-based storytelling centering Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) to foster collective healing and power and liberation so that we can begin to see the stories that we haven’t seen yet.

What were some of the more common responses to those three initial questions?

Stories that people were tired of hearing were that Detroit is a high crime city, blaming Black people for why Detroit is what it was. They were tired of hearing about these scrappy entrepreneurs, including Dan Gilbert, coming into the city and saving Detroit—they were tired of the white savior story. They really wanted to hear more stories about what like Ms. Johnson down the street has been doing in her neighborhood for decades to try to support the kids in the neighborhood, to start the community garden, to make sure the people on the block are safe. They also wanted to hear more stories about the root causes for all of the things that you see in Detroit. And then as far as the infrastructure piece, they just wanted more opportunities, more skill-building opportunities, and opportunities to take what they learn and apply it, and hopefully be able to enter the film industry.

I first became familiar with DNA through visiting MOCAD and seeing the film project Radical Remedies that you exhibited there. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about that film series as well as a few of the others you have, including the Ethics and Aesthetics series and The Bodies We Belong To.

In 2020, DNA launched Radical Remedies, a rapid response project to meet the visions and needs of our communities during a critical moment. Radical Remedies: Collective Healing and Power Through Story (  invited Detroiters and Michigan residents to creatively respond to the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and escalating anti-Black racism through short films and videos. Participation was open to folks with all levels of experience in media production. All applicants received stipends to develop their projects. Select videos were shared through social media, online platforms, screenings, and exhibitions, including with the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) from  February through May 2021. While the project amplified the voices of BIPOC Michigan residents, Radical Remedies also served as a low barrier introduction and entry point to the work of DNA.

Film is a way to see new stories. Stories can change the way people think about things or people, and change how they behave. I feel like there are countless films—I’ll give one example, the TV show Pose, I feel like a lot of people have disregarded the trans experience in the U.S. but Pose brought a piece of the trans story to the forefront and shed light on what it’s like to be trans in America, and that’s important. When you have a fuller view of a community you expand your understanding and are more likely to treat folk with humanity. So it’s important for us to tell our stories so 1) other people won’t extract our stories and perpetuate harm 2) we can begin to correct the stories that we have internalized about ourselves. Our work is equally about introducing different narratives about Detroit and showing what’s possible when we examine and weed out harmful narratives that we have internalized. That is something that we are very much implementing within our programming and the way…

What is your background, and the backgrounds of the other founders. I’m interested in how you as an organization focus on the social and political ramifications of narrative and representation and I’d love to know how you all arrived at this point.

Myself and Ryan Pearson were both hired as co-directors in 2019, and ill Weaver transitioned from co-director to advisor earlier this year. My background is in neighborhood storytelling. I first started a couple of community projects, one was called Pedal to Porch, which was a neighborhood bike ride that included stops where residents used different porches as a space to tell their stories. It was a way at the time to fight against the renaming of my neighborhood. My neighborhood is named Core City, and I remember one day scrolling through Facebook and I had come across an article that said “West Corktown, creating Detroit’s newest neighborhood”, and I thought to myself, “in a city as old as Detroit how do you just create a new neighborhood?” And so when I read the boundaries I was like, “wait this is my neighborhood.” So I went to my neighbors and said “do y’all know that they are trying to call this Corktown?”, and they were like, “no this has been Core City, like no.” So it was really a campaign to let my neighbors know what’s happening, but also to celebrate our neighborhood, our history, our culture, and our identity, and let people know that people live here. If you’re thinking about what it means to be a good neighbor, what it means to be a good neighbor is not to rebrand without telling people.

It seems like an issue of basic sovereignty. And that’s happening in other places too, with the renaming of the Cass Corridor as Midtown, or outside the city with Eastpointe.

It’s just the deeper issue of the narrative of Detroit as a blank slate, and Detroit is not a blank slate. That’s not true because there’s culture here, there’s history here, there are people here who are very proud of where they live. So again, to be a good neighbor means to build relationships with people in your community. 

So I started Pedal to Porch, and then I started another event series in which I invited a cook to tell a story that’s connected to their fondest memory and then prepare a dish. It was a series that I started in 2017, its called Dinner for 30, and we were able to host thirteen in-person events and then five virtual events, and they all lifted up cooks of color in Detroit. The event really culminates in a Detroit cookbook, which is coming out later this year and really celebrates Black cooks from Detroit. 

Through my community work, and learning about Detroit Narrative Agency, when I saw the position open up I thought this was a great opportunity to expand upon my work. I really just jumped at the opportunity. Film is another medium to be able to share stories to a wider audience, and it’s easily shareable, so I’m just really, really happy. 

And then Ryan Pearson, who is the co-director with me, she has a theater background, and she worked on lots of films in Detroit. So she came with the filmmaking experience and I came with the community storytelling experience and together we were able to take DNA to the next level.

Could you explain why it is important that the voices of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color get raised up so that their narratives can be shared?

There are a number of reasons for why it is important for BIPOC people to be able to tell their stories. A lot of the time there are outside storytellers and filmmakers who will tell your story for you and will get it wrong, and it only perpetuates a stereotype or it actually does harm to the group of people. Film is a way to shed light on a people and once people see it they can change the way they think about things or people, and change how they behave. I feel like there are countless films—I’ll give one example, the TV show Pose, I feel like a lot of people would have disregarded the trans experience in the U.S. and it brought to the forefront what it’s like to be trans in America, and that’s important because when you think about a trans person it’s not a limited view, it’s more full. And when you have a fuller view of someone you’re more likely to treat them like regular human beings. So it’s important for us to tell our stories so other people won’t, but I think another layer is that it’s important to tell our story so that the stories and narratives that we’ve heard about ourselves can begin to be corrected. When narratives begin to criminalize communities of color, but then you see a whole different set of films and narratives, you begin to change even the way you see yourself in your community. Our work is equally about shifting narratives about Detroit so that people don’t get our identities twisted or confused, but also to begin to change what we have internalized about ourselves. That is something that we are very much implementing within our programming and the way that we do work in Detroit.

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