Telling the “big stories” of the City of Saint Paul

Under the leadership of Mayor Melvin Carter, Minnesota’s capital city has become a national hub of inclusive, liberating civic innovation — but without a central communications office, Saint Paul had nobody to tell the “big stories” of their work. That’s when they called me.

Telling the “big stories” of the City of Saint Paul
Saint Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, left, visiting with Chee and Mary Vang. He gave their baby Rowan, born on January 1, 2020, a onesie to celebrate the City’s brand-new College Possible program, which invested $50 in Rowan’s future. Photo: Jerry Holt, Minneapolis Star Tribune

A quiet revolution in local government

In just a few years, the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, has quietly implemented some of the boldest, most innovative municipal policies in America. City workers, working across department lines and with unprecedented community participation, have been busy designing and implementing those visionary policies — but not talking about them.

As the deputy mayor told me, “It’s pretty impressive what Saint Paul is achieving. It’s one thing that we get stuff accomplished, but stories matter. We need to train ourselves to tell a story across programmatic areas.” But the departmental structure of the city government made it hard for anybody in city government to step back far enough from their own areas of work, for long enough, to learn and retell the biggest stories of civic progress that cross departmental lines. As a result, the most holistic and transformative Saint Paul policies were succeeding brilliantly — without anybody’s knowing about it.

That’s when Chase Maxwell, who manages Saint Paul’s communications, got in touch. Together, Chase’s team and I came up with an ambitious plan of work we called the Big Stories project to tell the transformative civic progress in Saint Paul — what those stories are, why they matter, and how they’re changing real lives for the better, now and for generations to come.

What we did

We’ve been doing this work one Big Story at a time, from the story of the city’s new Office of Economic Empowerment to a community-first reinvention of “emergency response.” For each story — we’ve told four of them so far — the process has been the same:

  • Deep interviewing. Saint Paul’s communications team and I spent lots of time interviewing the people who know those stories best — workers at every level of city government, community leaders, activists and organizers, and Saint Paul residents from all kinds of walks of life. “Those interviews are so useful,” Chase told me, as a form of institutional memory. “The work that we did has allowed us to memorialize that history in a way that the City wouldn’t normally do.”
  • Making meaning. Our interviewees’ words, carefully memorialized, helped me create clear, simple, powerful communications guidance — a very brief Big Story narrative, message guidance for city leaders, and actionable recommendations for content strategy (stories to tell, videos to make, data to visualize, and so forth) — which every interviewee got to review and revise along with me. “That process of actually talking to people, getting their unvarnished perspectives,” said Chase, “was crucial to put forward recommendations that felt authentic, and really portrayed the people we talked to in an honest way.”

What’s next

There are many more Big stories to tell about Saint Paul, but it’s already making a difference — not only in how people perceive Minnesota’s capital city, but in how the city functions in service to its people.

“We continue to lean into the messaging we created on financial empowerment,” Chase told me. “The interviews you conducted were really helpful in helping (the city’s incoming equity chief) get up to speed. And we’ve had nothing but positive feedback on the Community-First Public Safety story, which has been really helpful as the City has received additional funding for the federal government for enhancing public safety response.”

“Sensitivity and care”

There’s a high level of sensitivity and care in how Ash engages stakeholders. For me and my team, bringing people along with us, making sure they’re comfortable, is a key to our success. I feel confident in Ash’s ability to manage that, to understand the sensitivities. That’s one reason we’re so comfortable working with him — that attention to relationships.

Chase Maxwell, Communications & Digital Media Manager, City of Saint Paul