Friday July 5, 2013

NORTH BENNINGTON -- In the past four months, Alisa Del Tufo has driven more than 10,000 miles. She's not a truck driver, or an automobile tester, nor does she run a taxi service. She is a story gatherer and the founder of Threshold Collaborative, a local non-profit organization that aids communities in the art of storytelling.

Del Tufo has been involved with storytelling and oral history since the 1990s, during which time she lived in New York City, running a shelter as well as a direct service program. Her work and daily interactions with a marginalized population inspired her to use her story gathering knowledge to start an oral history project, dealing primarily with issues of domestic and family violence.

"I was very concerned that there needed to be more social change work being done rather than just direct service work," Del Tufo said.

Throughout the project, Del Tufo worked closely with women who were being abused or who had experienced abuse in the past, while attempting to understand the relationship between the abuse, parenthood, and their decisions to stay in the abusive situation, leave the abusive situation and sometimes, return to the abusive situation.

"I was interested in women's own sense of story," Del Tufo said, "and how they saw that they were doing, how everything co-mingled."

Del Tufo explained that the project proved to be both powerful and effective upon completion.

"It even translated into a New York City-wide legislative and public policy reform campaign that was extremely successful," she said.

It was then that Del Tufo realized how one could leverage the power of a story into social change work.

So, in 2006, with the draw of her beloved Lake Paran and lifelong local friends, Del Tufo moved to North Bennington. Soon after, she received a fellowship from Ashoka, an organization that funds social entrepreneurs, thus enabling her to launch present-day Threshold Collaborative.

Threshold works both locally and nationally to bring the stories of people most effected by social issues to the surface, and, in turn, uses the stories, values and insights gathered to make positive changes within communities.

"What we're trying to do is create a story about the community," said Del Tufo. "To understand from the point of view of citizens what the strengths and challenges are of living here and what we can do as a community to make positive changes."

In the past year, Del Tufo, along with her three-woman team have worked with participants of the Sunrise Center and the Bennington County Childcare Association, as well as with students from the North Bennington Graded School.

Threshold has also held numerous workshops, most of them in New York City. However, recently, one took place in Bennington. Del Tufo plans to hold more local workshops in the future.

The Threshold team appears with the Dreamcatcher, the 1965 Scotty Pup trailer that serves as Threshold's mobile story gathering booth, at community events to speak with willing locals. According to Del Tufo, though, the cuteness and non-intimidating façade of Dreamcatcher is usually enough to draw a crowd.

Recently, Threshold has launched a new initiative in conjunction with Bennington's Tutorial Center, an organization that provides an education program for those individuals who have dropped out of high school and are seeking a GED.

Threshold will work with up to five students and teach them how to perform surveys and how to become story gatherers.

Del Tufo says this project will hopefully jive with another initiative in which Threshold is involved, Wholesome Wave, an organization which fosters strong linkages between local agriculture and under- served communities.

"We will combine the information we get from the surveys with the rich stories we will gather from locals, to create community presentations," Del Tufo explained. "and hopefully create ideas on how to bring healthy, locally grown food to communities that wouldn't normally buy or eat it."

Threshold's philosophy stems from the belief that if you want to make change, you must include people who have the power to do it. 

"If you want low income people to become part of the healthy food movement, you have to include them in the process," said Del Tufo. "You don't jam ideas in at the top, you surface them from the grassroots."

Del Tufo says she sees issues in the Bennington area that need tending to.

"I think there is a bit of a caste system here, with the ‘haves' and the ‘have-nots.' I don't like that," she continued. "I think people who are marginalized have a lot of good ideas and rich experiences that are not considered in the way communities design themselves and function."

Del Tufo says that because this group of people feel ignored and left behind, they in turn feel as though they don't belong in the community. This, to Del Tufo, seems to be the root of many problems and needs to be repaired so that our community, as well as other communities, can thrive.

"What Threshold is doing is building connections between people on both sides of that diving line," said Del Tufo. "We provide opportunities for participation and inclusion for people that are not typically made available."

Del Tufo says that the problem with her vision is that change is not a "quick fix."

"You have to really sustain the activity," she said.

The women of Threshold will be busy in the next few weeks with the finalization of their "place-based audio tour" in North Bennington for the North Bennington Outdoor Sculpture Show on July 13. They have been conducting interviews with locals who have interesting stories about North Bennington landmarks. The interviews will be edited and uploaded to the Web. During the sculpture show, guests will be given a map showing each landmark with a story. Landmarks will be outfitted with a plaque containing a QR (quick response) code which guests can scan and be directed to the uploaded stories.

Del Tufo will hold story gathering workshops in August and in the fall, in Woodstock, Vt., and California respectively.

She hopes to forge multiyear partnerships with other organizations in the future to "make change happen."

"Storytelling is the ‘in' thing right now," said Del Tufo. "I love that I can be a part of it."

To learn more about Del Tufo and Threshold Collaborative, visit thresholdcollaborative.org, or call 802-440-1575. Follow Threshold on Twitter @thresholdvt.

Contact Elizabeth Conkey at econkey@benningtonbanner.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.