Chattanooga entrepreneur Chris Cummings launched his digital storytelling platform Pass It Down to help individuals preserve and document memories, but he recently announced plans to broaden the company’s scope.
The business’ new venture, the Chattanooga Memory Project, will allow everyone to contribute to documenting the city’s history.
Individuals will be able to share stories about the Gig City via articles, videos and photos through the digital platform. Users will be able to plot the memory on a map for others to see.
The bigger picture
About a year ago, The Public Library Executive Director Corrine Hill was working on the facility’s strategic plan and having conversations about preserving local history. She’d discovered the Singapore Memory Project and then read an article about Cummings and Pass It Down.
Hill invited Cummings to discuss a potential collaboration.
“What if we took your family storytelling concept and said, ‘We’re going to have a city collect stories and memories?'” Hill asked Cummings.
For Cummings, that idea was like a “fortune cookie coming true.”
He’d just been working with the International Storytelling Center, and the organization’s president had suggested that Cummings think about the bigger picture.
Pass It Down for cities
The Singapore project developed after leaders realized they needed to document the country’s economic transformation.
“When we look at Chattanooga, even if it’s not quite as dramatic, it’s a similar transformation,” Cummings said.
Cummings grew up spending summers in Chattanooga, but when he moved back here full time in 2015, everyone he encountered touted the fact that, in 1971, Walter Cronkite reported that pollution here had reached “emergency proportions.”
Local residents knew that history and took pride in the city’s about-face, Cummings said.
That needs to continue; the city’s history needs to be documented in a way that the youngest members of society will connect to, he said.
“We have to change the way we tell history to reach kids,” Cummings said. “If you can, you can influence their entire lives.”
Cummings and Hill said there’s a place for curated collections, professional archives and artifacts, but there’s also a need to document stories in a more organic way.
Every person in Chattanooga is witnessing the city’s history, and if it’s not documented, it could be lost forever, the duo said.
Cummings wants to build an “army of volunteers” who can go into the city’s neighborhoods and document memories, perhaps finding photos and other historically significant items that may be hidden away.
“I’ve seen it over and over again—when you go into a community and pay attention to who people are and their experiences, it changes a community,” Hill said.
And, for people who aren’t tech-savvy, the library will play a role in pushing the Pass It Down content out, she said.
The Public Library also has a studio where area residents can record their memories.
Pass It Down’s technology is easily transferred to cities, Cummings said.
“We understand storytelling better than anyone in the world,” he said. “We use technology and methodology to provide the proper solution for a city or a family.”
And Hill said the Pass It Down tools can be used in other cities.
“Pick a community; this is scalable,” she said.
Pass It Down has also launched a storytelling agency for companies to capture institutional knowledge.
Cummings asks company leaders four questions when talking about the benefits of this option: How many employees will retire or leave this year? How many years of experience is walking out the door? How much money and training are invested in these people, and what have company leaders done to learn from these people?
—Like the Singapore Memory Project, Pass It Down wants to hear about the good and the bad. They want to capture the “messiness of life.”
—Pass It Down’s platform can also be used in classrooms.
“There’s not a better skill set to teach kids than how to tell stories,” Cummings said.
—Officials are working with local organizations to identify people, places and events to figure out what Chattanooga stories need to be told.
—Pass It Down aims to launch the project by Christmas. It will include Chattanooga stories, the sharing platform and a monthly theme. For example, if it’s Jazz Appreciation Month, people can share memories about local jazz history.