Annual FUNDA Fest Uses Stories to Create Community in Providence

From trading tales to sharing a table, the Rhode Island Black Storytellers host January programming for all


Telling stories is a fundamental human experience. Since ancient times, storytelling has played a role in teaching people history and values. Because of this legacy, the Rhode Island Black Storytellers (RIBS) chose the name “funda,” a Zulu word meaning “to teach and to learn,” for their annual storytelling programming, FUNDA Fest. It doesn’t hurt that the term also includes the word “fun” in it.

“We define Black storytelling as the oral arts of African descended people from around the world,” says Valerie Tutson, executive director of RIBS. “It has always been important to us to show the diversity of Black people and our voices and stories and experiences.”

For many, “storytelling” may be associated with fairy tales and children’s stories, or narratives broadcasted on radio shows and podcasts. Tutson stresses that for this festival, storytelling encompasses so much more: “[Our programming] runs the gambit, so you’ll hear personal stories; you’ll also hear stories that come from history, [and] stories that are deep, cultural traditions.” Tutson references Jamaican Anansi stories, “which came from the African captives from West Africa, so there are all these cultural connections that come with folklore, as well as the fairy tales and traditional stories. You’ll also get poetry and spoken word.”

Storytelling takes a teller and a listener – both are equally important, and both take part in the art of conversation. “When you’re really focused on the oral tradition of storytelling, it’s about what is happening for the whole community in that moment,” Tutson explains. “The experience is more about what is happening for us together as opposed to just me telling my story. This is about the ‘us,’ and not just about the ‘me.’”

Stemming around the notion that diverse modes create space for a plethora of conversations, FUNDA Fest is hosting three special events amidst its traditional offerings this year. Community Flavors brings people together around a table to share food and anecdotes, with prompts offered by RIBS tellers. There will be a special night dedicated to exploring the relationship between storytelling and hip hop, in recognition of the genre’s 50th anniversary. Another new event this year is a night of Hard to Tell Stories, a space dedicated to the voices of Black men.

The last day of FUNDA Fest serves to kick off Black History Month at Southside Cultural Center of RI. Performances will feature Sylvia Ann Soares portraying Nancy Elizabeth Prophet, an Afro-Indigenous woman who graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1918. Soares’ performance will be followed by two documentary films: one on Black baseball in Rhode Island, the other following Black tennis players. The festival will conclude with artist April Armstrong presenting her show about Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman aviator. Other highlights include internationally acclaimed storyteller Len Cabral, guest performer Sidy Maiga, and Amina Blackwood Meeks.

The stories, histories, and cultural traditions shared at FUNDA Fest are meant for everybody. “We believe it is vital and healing to be able to bring the community together across generations,” Tutson asserts, and 26 years in the making, she’s seen it happen. “We’ve had kids grow up coming to FUNDA Fest. Now, we have some of them bringing their own children.” FUNDA Fest consists of three weekends of public performances and community outreach from January 19 to February 3 at various locations. For a full schedule of events and programming, visit



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