East High School student Marley Aiu brought this photograph of the sun setting over Lakeside Amusement Park in northwest Denver to an "If Not Us" storytelling workshop.

(Photo: Courtesy of Marley Aiu)

Sitting on a bench outside Lakeside Amusement Park in northwest Denver, 16-year-old high school student Marley Aiu shared a simple public display of affection with her companion.

A passerby stopped and his gaze shifted towards the two teens. He didn’t say anything to the girls. But Aiu felt the weight of the stranger’s scrutinizing stare.

“I don’t remember much of what he looked like, but I could never forget the way he made me feel,” Aiu says. “His stare seemed to find the delicate part inside my heart.”

Aiu’s story is part of a growing collection of recorded tales for a project titled “If Not Us.”

A collaboration between three Denver organizations -- the Rocky Mountain/Midwest division of Center for Digital Storytelling, civil activism organization Warm Cookies of the Revolution and Buntport Theater -- the stories reflect on times when people stood up for themselves, wished they had stood up for themselves or witnessed another person standing up for something. Most of them focus on issues such as human and civil rights, gender and sexual orientation discrimination, and immigration.

“It’s a platform for them to author a story about their lived experience and also a platform for them to be heard,” Center for Digital Storytelling regional director Daniel Weinshenker says.

The project also strives to narrow the generation gap through dialogue around these challenging issues.

“It’s important not just that people come to tell their story, but that we collect portions of the population that don’t usually talk with each other,” Weinshenker says.

“If Not Us” is under the umbrella of  “All Together Now,” a larger national storytelling project.

It started in summer 2013 in tandem with the 50th anniversary of multiple civil rights benchmarks, such as the March on Washington in 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Since mid-September, Weinshenker has been collecting narratives for “If Not Us,” which range in length from 90 seconds to about six minutes, through a series of one-day workshops held throughout Denver.

“If Not Us” has also spawned several spin-off events and projects, online, on air and in a live setting:

  • Participants recently recorded their narratives at a “Mixed Tape” event hosted by Warm Cookies of the Revolution on Oct. 15 at the McNichols Building in downtown Denver.
  • With the help of Buntport Theater, East High School students are in the process of transforming many of their stories into a live theatrical presentation, running Nov. 13 to 15 at the school.
  • And Colorado Public Television is working on a documentary about “If Not Us.” The  organization plans to air the film in winter or spring 2015. Plus, the stories are archived in an online database.

Weinshenker hopes the project will inspire others to make time to listen to people’s stories, be more empathetic to others’ struggles and celebrate others’ triumphs.

“Everyone is fighting some struggle that you have absolutely no idea about,” Weinshenker says. “Everyone has stories within them and reasons about why they are the way that are.”

A participant from the “If Not Us” project narrates her story on the Oct. 17 edition of The Colorado Art Report.