While there may be renowned artists living in the St. Croix Valley, there’s a group of creatives here that are less noticed — youth artists.

Many of these young artists participate in a local nonprofit called StoryArk, which gives youth an opportunity to take control of how their stories are told.

Although StoryArk runs off the creativity of young artists, Executive Director Stephani Atkins is the mover and shaker behind the nonprofit organization’s creative writing and storytelling programs for youth in the east metro area.

Alex Welshons, a freshman at Avalon Charter School in St. Paul, said StoryArk is a community that has helped her gain confidence.

Welshons is a head writer and public relations manager for StoryArk’s “Hush” podcast; She also has work published in the nonprofit’s youth literary magazine.

As a young artist, Welshons said Atkins has been an encouraging force.

“She really just got everything started for me and really sparked my creativity and interest in this kind of industry,” Welshons said. “Stephani is so amazing and runs this program so well...Everything about StoryArk has changed my life and it’s just made such a good impact.”

Origin of StoryArk

Atkins, a Woodbury High School graduate, had a passion for creative writing early on.

She studied journalism, American Culture and secondary education at Northwestern University in Chicago, Ill. She also authored and published a book under a pseudonym in her early 20s.

After she graduated, she got married, had four children, now ages 19 to 25, and became a stay-at-home mom, a role she filled for 20 years until her husband died of cancer in March 2014.

His death was a turning point in her life, she said, as she reentered the workforce in order to provide for her family. However, she didn’t want to work in an office, she said, and it was too late to climb the corporate ladder.

Atkins already enjoyed working with kids, as she ran youth programs at a number of local churches, she said. In the spring of 2015, Atkins taught a creative writing unit as an English sub at a private high school.

At the end of the prose writing unit, several students continued writing even after they’d handed in their work, Atkins said.

That group of 16 students, who wrote poetry, prose and graphic novels during national write a novel month, were the beginning of what would eventually become StoryArk.

Debbie Swanson, of Stillwater, met Atkins about 20 years ago through Trinity Lutheran Church in Stillwater. At the time, Atkins oversaw the children’s ministry and programming, she said. Swanson added that when Atkins sets her mind on something, she commits. She’s driven and not afraid to take risks, she said.

“She has a natural, innate leadership quality,” Swanson said. “If Stephani’s name is attached to something, I know it’s going to be fantastic.”

Students run the show

Today, Atkins said about 100 youth participate in StoryArk’s various creative programs, which includes audio podcasts, film projects, a literary magazine for youth writing, a two-week summer writing intensive and the annual StoryArk Festival.

“Our kids are so fired up about creative writing,” Atkins said.

In fact, they’re so fired up about creative expression that kids have an integral role in the nonprofit organization. All of StoryArk’s programs are student-initiated and student-led, in addition to the organization’s youth advisory board.

For example, a Mahtomedi High School junior started the Boom Site Literary Magazine; Now in its third year, the 2017 and 2018 printed anthologies of student prose, poetry and visual art are on sale at Valley Bookseller in Stillwater.

Atkins said she often asks students: “What’s your story? How do you want to tell it?”

The answers to these questions often give rise to new projects, she said.

“I’m just the big great herder of the cats,” Atkins said. “We’ve grown really quickly.”

Some recent program additions include StoryArk podcasts, such as “Carnation,” a realistic fiction series based on the experience of teens whose families have immigrated from Mexico, Colombia, El Salvador and Vietnam. The upcoming podcast “Broad Spectrum,” supported by the Stillwater Area Public School’s Office of Equity and Integration, is led by Muslim youth who are developing a fiction podcast based on the realities of high school.

StoryArk’s longest-running podcast, “Hush,” is in its third year and has over 17,000 downloads on iTunes and other podcast directories.

The day-to-day operations are also led by students, who frequently practice conflict resolution, convincing everyone of a plot point before moving forward on a narrative, Atkins said.

“I don’t step in. I let them handle it,” she said. “Where they get into conflict is because they’re so passionate about the story.”

Through this rule, Atkins said students learn how conflict can be productive when handled appropriately.

“I am so impressed with their openness, with their compassion, empathy, with their ability to collaborate,” Atkins said. “It leaves me so hopeful about the future of our world.”

A network for young voices

Like many people at the beginning of the new year, Atkins has a goal for StoryArk in 2019: to build a strong organization that is a platform for the student voice.

The first part of that vision — strengthening the nonprofit — could come through StoryArk’s participation in Arts Midwest’s 2019 ArtsLab cohort, a six-month program that helps arts organizations build capacity and strategic framework needed to flourish in their communities.

While StoryArk’s programs provide a vehicle for youth’s creative expression and storytelling, Atkins said the organization will launch the StoryArk network, application and podcast in February or March. The network and application will be a one-stop shop for all student-produced content as well as interviews with industry professionals.

Atkins added she hopes the network will create an “enriched experience sharing student art” and film.

“The kids really resonate with each other’s stories,” Atkins said. “We create a safe space for students to be uplifted.”

This is the fourth installment of a six-part profile series featuring women who lead local nonprofit organizations. 

Contact Kim Schneider at kim.schneider@ecm-inc.com

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