Inspiring Empathetic Response: Storytelling As Catalyst

Source: Narrated Objects

In 2015, the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI) awarded $100,000 in grants to eight Los Angeles-based creative businesses through its Creative Economic Development Fund (CEDF), currently in its third year of granting. We speak with CEDF grantees directly, to hear about their journeys in their own words.

For this post, we spoke with Teena Apeles and Andrea Richards, the co-founders of CEDF grantee, Narrated Objects: “Narrated Objects is a creative collective that develops products to benefit causes close to our hearts. Our mission is threefold: to provide individuals with an outlet to share their diverse experiences and talents, to enrich people’s lives through unique multimedia stories, and to partner with organizations doing good.”

How did each of you find your way to this new kind of work?

Teena Apeles: I’ve worked as a writer and editor for more than 15 years, and I also have experience in nonprofit arts management. I really enjoy working with artists and arts organizations in some fashion, and I’ve always jumped at the opportunity to share stories about different communities and cultures, especially Asian American culture.

Andrea Richards: As a freelance writer, I know how hard it is to get a story published and sometimes I’d pitch a story I loved only to hear that it wasn’t “right” for the magazine or there just wasn’t enough space in that issue. Teena and I both have so much excitement about untold stories that don’t fit in the traditional structures and we were frustrated with the lack of platforms that exist for them. So we decided to just do it ourselves. Why wait for some other publication to give us a green light when we know everything we need to know to make a book? And why stop at books? Stories can be shared many ways and that’s part of what Narrated Objects explores.

What are some of the obstacles you’ve faced as a creative entrepreneur?

Richards: Arts funding is treated as if it’s a gift and not an essential. We never invest in the arts the way that we invest in other businesses. To me, the arts are absolutely essential. If we don’t work more to establish empathy and caring in the world, what are we really doing? Our background in independent publishing has taught us to be savvy and scrappy about finances. But no matter what, you need development money to get projects off the ground. Then, the next barrier is distribution and marketing. As the climate has shifted in the media world there are fewer outlets but a lot more production. So it’s harder to reach your audience–you have to fight for space in stores and make it through the din of social media.

Apeles: While technology has allowed entrepreneurs to easily launch small businesses and promote themselves, I feel like starting a new publishing company is still difficult for many reasons. There’s, of course, the cost of printing locally and trying to get distribution. Also self-publishing or a small indie-publishing venture like ours still has a weird stigma attached to it. If your books are not with a big publisher or carried by big distributors, often your work is not considered as valid or as important. But if someone launches their own jewelry line, no one says the line was “self-released” and that line can still get placed in a big store. So we’re still up against that and it’s unfortunate because if you were to add up the years of experience between us, you’re looking at 30-plus years.

How did this funding impact the trajectory of your work?

Apeles: I think there are three things that people really need. There’s funding–number one! Second, as freelancers who are mothers, it’s time. And the third is exposure and distribution. Before the grant from CEDF we were planning to self-fund our two projects. We were going to make them happen whether we printed a hundred copies or a thousand copies. What CEDF made possible was obviously the “thousand-copy vision” for We Heart P-22, but it wasn’t just about scale, it was also about confidence. It confirmed that something we were doing could appeal to a larger community. We used P-22 as a vehicle to tell so many other stories about the city and it’s made a huge difference in the lives of everyone involved in this project.

CEDF has also given us amazing connections, community-based support, and workshops tailored for creative enterprises. Through these workshops we have met so many other incredible people working in L.A. and have actually found ways to support each other. It’s a matter of pride for us and for so many people involved in the project that this has been supported by and for the City of L.A. because we believe in investing in our city and our local artists. Most people think it would be crazy to print books in L.A. Thankfully CEDF made that possible, so the majority of our funds were spent in the city: supporting L.A. businesses, L.A. artists, L.A. stores, and other L.A. entrepreneurs.

Richards: Publishing has always been a difficult business to make money in unless you sell a huge number of books. Many of the publishers I’ve worked for as a freelancer print overseas because the cost is so much lower. But we want to be green. We want to support the local economy and small business owners, and have sustainable business practices. So what was great about this grant is it allowed us to print in Los Angeles. When you’re looking at the bottom line, that’s not the best financial decision, but when you’re looking at the ethics of who we are, what we stand for, and what kind of community we’re trying to build, it makes 100% sense. The CEDF grant allowed us to do that.

The grant also allowed us time to think about the foundation of our business and some strategies for growth. Teena and I are always working on projects to pay our bills. At no point in time was I going to go and take a business class! What was fantastic was for that to be part of the CEDF award. It allotted us time and space not only to learn key bits of business know-how, but also to dig deep into the vision of Narrated Objects, our core values, and to create a trajectory for growth. Those workshops really let us think long-term about where this could go and how to get there. The opportunity to have that R&D time–and to do it collectively with other creatives–was powerful. It allowed us to be inspired by their work and visions, and vice versa. We gained confidence thanks to the support of our peers and from having an outside entity that encouraged us to think expansively about the business.

What other supports have been most helpful to you as a creative entrepreneur?

Richards:  One very specific support was a conversation we had with the teacher of our strategic planning class, Apollo Emeka, who challenged us to question the limits of our DIY mentality. We’re so used to doing everything ourselves–we actually box up book shipments and put a handwritten note to vendors. But he said something like, “What if instead of printing 1,000 books, you print 10,000 books. How are you going to handle that?” It was a great question that encouraged us to think about what aspects of our small-scale enterprise we want to retain, and how and where we should go bigger for growth. It was an empowering moment to realize we could write the script for how we do business–and grow at the same time.

Apeles: LA Original has been a great model in terms of helping local makers with distribution and exposure and leveraging the community. They’re going to help market our books to new audiences because they can get us into places that we wouldn’t generally have access to, like the MOCA Store. A little collective like Narrated Objects would have difficulty getting into a store like that–we only have four products!–but through LA Original, We Heart P-22 is now there.

What’s next for you?

Apeles: The We Heart P-22 book has been really rewarding. It furthers our mission to discover different voices, partner with people doing good work, and to share unique stories. I know that Narrated Objects is a business and we need to also focus on making money, but we’re really enjoying the ways the work has rewarded us in so many other ways. Our next projects aren’t funded yet, but even if we don’t get outside funding we’re still going to try to continue to facilitate creative experiences that bring communities together. We know that we’re still new on the scene, with just one book out, but we’re just excited about the growth potential and all the incredible people we’ve met along the way. And we hope that continues with the release of Dear Seller in September.

Richards: We are doing this, and we’re doing this big time. Narrated Objects isn’t a profitable business yet; none of us have quit our day jobs over here. But it’s a platform that I see a real need for as a writer and editor, as a woman, and as an Angeleno, so that we can publish work from people that aren’t being served right now. There was a reason P-22 spoke to me and there’s a reason that everyone is so fascinated by this mountain lion. It has so much to do with our situation as people living in urban wilderness, and that it’s increasingly difficult to live in Los Angeles. To me, the function of storytelling is to create empathy for experiences outside of our own; to allow us to imagine other people’s lives. It’s not something that I could have articulated was really important to me before we started on this process, but I can now. We want to share stories like P-22’s that connect us and inspire us toward social change. If we can empathize with a puma living in an urban park and feel empowered to protect him and our urban wildlife, maybe we can do the same for people, right?