When we started Humans of St. Louis (HOSTL), we were two social work students inspired by Humans of New York (HONY), wandering around downtown St. Louis in the winter, and a lot of people wouldn’t talk to us. Week after week we kept at it, feeling out our approach, going to different neighborhoods, and five years later we're still talking to strangers to share those random run-ins with all of you.
As the audience has grown, there have been a lot of questions about who we talk to, where we go, what we ask, and why. How do other “Humans of” sites work, and why did we choose to become a nonprofit? So we thought it would be helpful to share more information here about how HOSTL started and how is evolving.
The truth is, there’s no formula for who we approach, what we ask, and where the conversation leads when we hit the streets. It’s organic in the sense that storytellers will head to any neighborhood and approach people who seem available to have a conversation. We might choose a place or an event to go to to start. Early on, we decided that a 30-mile radius around St. Louis would be the approximate area we would venture around. Most of the interviews take place in the City because there is more foot traffic there, but we’ve also shared stories from the County, Illinois, and throughout Missouri. It’s been incredible to see how the audience has received those.
When we meet someone on the street, after introducing ourselves and the concept of HOSTL, we get permission to interview and jump into it with open-ended questions, like, What are you most proud of? Who’s been your biggest cheerleader? When’s a time you had to take a fork in the road and how did you choose? What’s the hardest advice you’ve ever had to take? What’s on your mind today? The interviewee essentially chooses where the story starts to go from the topic they bring up, a memory, or a lesson learned that they want to share. We take their portrait, ask if it’s okay to share with our audience, and exchange contact info. During the editing process, their pictures are paired with their quotes, and we run it by the subject again to correct for accuracy. Then, we let them know when everything will be posted on social media. Without this layer of consensus-building to ensure the subject is okay with their story and moving forward, HOSTL would not work.
As soon as we publish the photostories to social media, the second part of this storytelling comes to life when the audience weighs in with their impressions, encouragement, resources, and questions. We try to promote a respectful conversation on the site. A profanity filter is set to automatically grey out anything with swear words. Those comments are occasionally unhidden as long as they are not hateful toward the subject or someone else on the thread. As long as followers aren’t bullying or trolling, all comments are welcome. Inappropriate followers are given a warning in private, then in public, and, in extreme cases, blocked. So far, there have only been about six people blocked since the page began.
Before attempting to start HOSTL, we wrote Brandon Stanton, the founder of HONY, several times to inquire about his model, but he’s a busy guy. We get it! We settled for watching his interviews, reading his posts, following the developments on his page, and seeing so many other “Humans of” pages take off around the world. With this inspiration, we decided to move forward with launching Humans of St. Louis. The page was officially launched in May 2014.
Soon after, the administrator for a private Facebook group called “Humans for Humans” invited us to join. That group is made up of storytellers for other active “Humans of” pages so that everyone can stay in touch around the world. It’s been wonderfully helpful to be connected to a larger community of image-makers and interviewers doing something just as specific yet different from us. We are able to ask each other advice about interviewing, editing, collaborating with companies, building books, and highlighting amazing humans from Dublin and Amsterdam to Minneapolis and San Antonio.
A year after HOSTL launched, private messages started coming in from companies and organizations asking if we could do this same type of storytelling by generating content and sharing some of it with our growing audience for a fee. We received our first ask in May 2015 to do a collaboration with the Ferguson Commission, who was looking for a storytelling component as they built their report, Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity. We ended up interviewing all 16 commissioners as well as community members who spoke to the four pillars outlined: Youth at the Center, Justice for All, Racial Equity, and Opportunity to Thrive. Then Parents and Researchers Interested in Smyth-Magenis Syndrome (PRISMS, Inc.) and the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce asked us to capture a series for them also.
We shared a selection of that work on our page that we thought the audience would appreciate and we realized that being a part of making those series gave us access to individuals who we may not always be able to run into on the street. These in-depth pieces took another level of planning, care, coordination, and more wear and tear on camera equipment. So it felt rewarding to know that we could reinvest in HOSTL.
With the inquiries coming in for collaborations, we spent a year debating which business model would be best for HOSTL and sought a lot of input from our teachers, mentors, and social network. Believing that a nonprofit would be the best way to grow as an organization and give back to our community, in May 2017, we incorporated as a nonprofit with three board members and one lead storyteller. It was important for us to build a community project that wasn’t owned by any one person, but that could create room to build a team, grow, become sustainable, and continue the storytelling for years to come.
Since becoming a 501(c)3, HOSTL has continued to feed our social media channels with regular everyday HOSTL stories, as well as the stories we build together with our partners. The subjects, no matter how we meet them, give us the biggest gift of all: to be able to keep the storytelling alive. HOSTL will always provide free content for the public on our pages. And, for organizational sustainability, we have been able to flourish from a mix of paid content partnerships, photography sales, grants, speaking engagements, and donations.
Since transitioning to the nonprofit model, our partnerships have grown in more ways. We have continued to work with Forward Through Ferguson. We have also worked with Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project (MICA), the United Way, the St. Louis Community Foundation, the Regional Arts Commission, and the St. Louis Community Credit Union, a local not-for-profit financial cooperative.
In the past, we have referred to this work as collaborations. Recently, we have been asked by some viewers to follow the Federal Trade Commission Endorsement Guides and include a hashtag delineating the difference between regular everyday HOSTL and collaborations. Moving forward, we will be adding #paidcontentpartnership or #sponsoredpartnership at the end of stories HOSTL was contracted to create so there is less confusion. And we will never post #ads.
Today, the HOSTL team has grown to include a board of directors made up of 6 people; the storytelling team made up of 1 lead storyteller, 3 new storytellers in training, and a 3-5 member volunteer editing team; and the book team which fluctuates between 10-15 creatives depending on the phase of the project. It’s still a small team, and we realize that some of the stories make a large impact. We do not always agree with the featured subjects’ statements or point of views, so we added a disclaimer to the page to reflect that. Nevertheless, we do believe in valuing and promoting a culture that listens, and we are committed to sharing content that allows for conversation, growth, and reflection.
Because the co-founders and storytelling team have a background in social work, public health, and documentary street photography, our project offers a unique lens. We are open to interviewing anyone who is on the street in St. Louis when we are there too, and have an honest conversation. Interviews may last anywhere from three minutes to an hour and a half. Of all the things we hear and that people confide in us , as storytellers we’re always searching for and asking ourselves, “What’s the story?”
The whole point of the page through the stories we capture is a reminder for all of us to look at our neighbor and consider what they have to share and how we can learn from them. And that starts with us welcoming when the audience weighs in with contributions, feedback, or things we miss the boat on, whether it’s as small as a punctuation error or as big as requesting more context and framing.
We are so appreciative of your interest in our storytelling over the years. And we thank you for holding us accountable while also being challenged to hear perspectives different than you might hold. If we run into you on the street or are introduced to you another way, we look forward to hearing your story!
Thank you, always, for your support.