As part of Namely’s Inclusion Week, we welcomed Brandon Doman and the Strangers Project to our New York office. Doman created the Strangers Project in 2009 as a way to encourage people to share their stories and connect with the experiences of those around us. The project collects handwritten stories ranging from light-hearted thoughts to emotional revelations. Doman displays the stories in public spaces—and the occasional office—for passersby to read and connect with.
We sat down with Doman to learn more about why he started the Strangers Project and the power of stories.
What inspired you to start the Strangers Project?
I started this in 2009. I thought it was going to be a one-day social experiment. I had no grand plan for it. I just thought it would be interesting to invite people to share something about their lives and see if they would do it. Turns out they did!
I just set up in public spaces and capture people as they’re passing by. I create these spaces where people can be curious and explore other people’s lives. I set up walls and post the stories, but it’s truly up to each individual how they want to interact with it. Some people will come up, read, and not talk to me at all—others will come up to me first and start asking questions. I try to make it accessible in a way that very gregarious people can come up and start asking questions or people who are a little more shy or unsure can experience it at their own pace.
It’s a little different for everybody, but it’s built in a way where hopefully everybody can have access to it if they’re interested. Anyone who wants to add their own is welcome to do so. I started the project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but I’ve been to over 100 cities so far. I’m based in New York, but I love to travel and share the stories with people all over the country. I went out and did it another day and another day and here we are, 10 years and over 40,000 stories later!
Why did you decide to have people share their stories on pen and paper?
In the beginning, I think it was just the two things that I had with me. I just had my notebook and a pen and invited people to sit and write. Very quickly, I saw that there was so much personality in people’s handwriting. When you handwrite something, you really have to slow down and think about what you’re going to say and how you’re going to present it. It’s very different than how we share our thoughts when we can type, edit, and change them. That’s been a big part of why there are no online or mailed-in submissions. These 40,000 stories are the result of people deciding to participate in that moment. It’s a way for them to be incredibly present.
How do people usually react when they see your stories for the first time?
It’s a little different for everybody. I’ve tried to build this experience in a way that people can put in or take out whatever they want or need. When I’m curating which stories are going to be on display, I’m always trying to include a diverse range of stories. Some of them are really short and silly and some are very emotional and some are people’s challenges and triumphs. There’s no one starting point, so each person is going to have a slightly different experience, but everyone seems to find the stories that they needed to find.
What is the importance of understanding other people’s stories?
These are the stories of people we share our space with every day. Many times they’re stories that we might not share with others day to day. Whenever I’m doing an exhibition, there are people standing next to each other reading the same stories, but I like to remember that these stories came from the people standing there before them. It’s a way to learn more about your world and yourself. Stories are the more human thing we have and can really connect us.
How do you bring so many people’s unique stories together in a workplace successfully?
I don’t bring The Strangers Project to a lot of offices, just because it’s structured to be out in the public, but if it’s for a really awesome mission or organization then I’m more than happy to partner with them. I think programming like this is really important. A workplace is a mini-community, so creating access points for people to feel safe and comfortable to have these kinds of experiences and share their stories is really important.
Namely’s Inclusion Week aims to build a culture and environment in which employees feel encouraged to be their true selves at work and share their own stories. The Strangers Project is only one way Namely encouraged employees to learn more about their coworkers and teammates. Subscribe to the Namely blog for even more highlights from Inclusion Week events and exhibits.