Founders believe that storytelling in its simplest form boosts self-esteem.
The Wildling is mentoring kids to share their stories in meaningful and powerful ways. Sisters and Linden Hills residents Megan Kaplan and Mekea Duffy created the nonprofit in 2018 to help youth find their voices. Through its programs and curriculum, The Wildling aims to create safe spaces for young people to tell their stories, and build connections through lived experiences and feelings.
As a trained journalist and natural storyteller, Kaplan believes “sharing [a] personal experience is the most expansive and accessible way for human beings to connect.” But when she reflected back on a younger version of herself, she saw a middle school girl who didn’t know how to share her own story or find that deeper connection.
That was a lightbulb moment for Kaplan. The teenage years are tough, and youth need a safe outlet where they can learn “how to become true to [their] own story and be able to share that out loud, in community,” she says. “In those middle school years, there’s a need for that kind of development.” In the age of social media, this idea is more important than ever.
To help grow her concept into an organization, Kaplan recruited her sister to develop The Wildling’s curriculum. Duffy’s background made her the perfect choice to help create an evidence-based curriculum to facilitate storytelling and connection. She had spent most of her career as a literacy specialist and, at the time, was also teaching educators how to teach reading and writing at the University of Minnesota.
“Story has always meant a lot to both of us—and the power of sharing,” Duffy says, recalling the openness with which the sisters and their family shared stories when they were growing up. “In our family of origin and our [professions], both of us understand the importance of story and telling your own story … And it didn’t feel like there was a lot of opportunity for young people to openly share their lived experiences … That idea is missing, especially with kids who are accustomed to sharing who they are behind a screen.”
Eventually, the duo launched the organization by hosting story workshops that culminated in a Story Jam, where a microphone was passed around, and participants would share their stories freely, with a newfound confidence. Over time, they shifted their focus to training educators to implement their curriculum, so the vision of The Wildling could grow beyond the workshops it could individually host.
And in the middle of the pandemic, when in-person workshops weren’t possible, they launched The Wildling Story Booth in partnership with Maribeth Romslo—a filmmaker and Edina resident. The first Story Booth project, Growing up in the Pandemic, collected 34 stories from kids across the country and was featured on Minnesota Public Radio and in the New York Times. Kids can go to The Wildling’s website, pick a theme and share their story in their own voice through an audio recording. There’s no cost to participate.
Since then, community partnerships—like Morningside After Dark and TEDxEdina have helped grow awareness about the nonprofit. Last fall, The Wildling team hosted a workshop for the TEDxYouth@Edina presenters, coaching them on public speaking techniques, community building and helping participants map out their stories in a more cohesive way.
Indra Khariwala is a junior at Edina High School and participated in TEDxYouth@Edina with help from The Wildling. “The first thing I worked on with my mentor was my hook,” she says. “I reached a standstill in my progress,” and the outside perspective offered a clear direction.
The Wildling mentors helped eighth grader Erik Brovold connect with the audience by using emotion, hand gestures and word choice. “They helped me feel prepared, confident and deliberate in how to convey my message,” Erik says. They also helped ease his nerves using positive affirmations. Repeating, “I am prepared. I have worked hard. I am ready,” helped Erik successfully connect with the audience.
Through all of The Wildling’s programs, Kaplan has watched youth open up and grow in confidence, but the process isn’t always easy. She often hears students say they’re not a writer or don’t have a story. When she hears that, she knows how to flip the switch and say, “Yes you are. Let’s map it out and find the spark that excites you.” Once given permission to tell a story, a new world unfolds.
Duffy agrees. “Initially they don’t think they have any good stories to share, but they soon realize there’s a story in all of us. Kids can tell stories in all sorts of ways,” she says. The Wildling approach teaches participants to express themselves through spoken storytelling, where grammar and spelling aren’t an issue. Duffy says, by the end of a workshop, participants “feel celebrated and valued” as storytellers. “Very simply, it makes kids feel seen and heard,” Kaplan says.