By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Communities have always been built on stories — the truths and myths that define a society — and those in power typically decide which tales are told and retold. But what about the stories that go unheard? Enter So Say We all, a San Diego-based literary and performing arts nonprofit dedicated to helping individuals give voice to their stories and building audiences eager to listen.
Launched in 2009 by Del Cerro resident Justin Hudnall and his co-founder Jake Arky, So Say We All (SSWA) in its infancy offered writing workshops and staged readings. Fresh from college, the two gave the organization a name that reflected the enthusiasm of youth.
“We were both enamored of [the TV series] ‘Battlestar Galactica’” Hudnall explained. “When they wanted to rally their people, that was their phrase — it’s a phrase to bring people together for one cause.”
Not surprising, the founders discovered storytellers among their audiences, people who wanted to be heard, but didn’t know how to craft their unique stories and delivery them, skills they lacked but skills that could be acquired with help. This became So Say We All’s platform for bringing people together, and its success led to nonprofit incorporation in 2010.
Hudnall recounted the moment and what brought him to it.
“We had to incorporate or shut it down, because it was becoming a lot of work,” he said. “I’m a San Diego native, and there have been things I always wanted to see here, especially accessible arts. I felt like if we didn’t take the opportunity to make it happen, I would be kind of a hypocrite. I felt I had to move on it.”
And they did, although about five years ago, Arky opted to refocus on other pursuits in Los Angeles, but the joy of first personal storytelling has kept Hudnall in San Diego as the organization’s executive director.
“I think it’s a really wonderful and honest form,” Hudnall said. “On the entertainment level, there are few other opportunities to hear a drama, a true human story, from the person it happened to. It’s also the cornerstone of bringing communities together and letting people know they’re not alone. There’s this wonderful thing that happens every month: People get up on stage and tell very vulnerable stories.”
The desire to share one’s tales has led to a variety of So Say We All programs, including a show on KPBS featuring veterans, “Incoming Radio,” and several monthly events that provide distinct venues for story development.
“The cool thing about our three monthly things is that they allow for people to come in and work their way up the ladder. They can workshop a piece in the Green Room Writers Workshop. They can perform it — Long Story Short is for improvised storytelling. And there’s the rock star performance, VAMP, which is scripted and heavily workshopped and competitive. We do seven or eight each month. It doesn’t let people fail, and you don’t have to have an MFA in creative writing or acting to do it well.”
Hudnall has found that while the people who perform their stories reveal their vulnerabilities, they receive both “the glory and love of the audience.” He described the storytelling as “a kind of secular church, a secular confession that communities need.”
These communities include American Indians, military veterans, people who are homeless, college students, and more. To connect with people and their stories, So Say We All has reached beyond its borders to partner with other nonprofits, social service organizations, colleges, and libraries. The group has also ventured into publishing, including the print anthologies “Incoming: Veteran Writers on Returning Home,” and “The Far East,” a “people’s history of San Diego’s semi-rural East County.”
The supply of such stories is likely endless, which suggests a secure future for So Say We all, despite the challenge of securing funding for a nonprofit arts organization, but Hudnall has envisioned even more.
“We’re looking at the possibility of replicating our model in other locations. I’d love to see an arts organization in San Diego gain renown. I’d like to see our programming on TV and radio. I would love to see a Netflix program in there somewhere.”
For So Say We All, the possibilities may be as plentiful as there are people with stories waiting to be heard. For more information about the organization’s programs and performance schedule, visit SoSayWeAllOnline.com.
— Kit-Bacon Gressitt formerly wrote for the North County Times. She is the publisher of WritersResist.com and a contributing co-editor of Writers Resist: The Anthology 2018. She also hosts Fallbrook Library’s monthly Writers Read author series and open mic and teaches Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies in the Cal State system. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.