Spanning decades now, that sensation of giving voice to our stories has become a way of life for me. I started as a videographer, then radio producer, to make hundreds of independent video and radio productions, including Back Roads Radio — a narrative series designed to showcase writers and storytellers and to offer community members a way to reflect upon their own lives. Parallel to my media production work and the raising of our son, I developed an interest in education. This led me to seek-out partnerships with educational institutions (including UWC-USA), museums, and non-profit organizations to develop programs in community story-gathering, student media productions, and public presentations. This, in turn, led to becoming the founder and executive director of Youth Media Project, a non-profit designed “to teach and practice the craft of digital storytelling and the art of listening for a socially responsible world.” If there’s one undeniable constant threaded throughout my career, it’s been stories.
Stories are how we make meaning out of our lives; how we listen to and feel one another’s experiences. Ultimately, stories are the glue of our connectedness; they serve as the underbelly of our collective humanity. In the act of exchanging stories, we discover what stories we hold onto and which ones have a hold on us. Through stories we can make attitudinal shifts and transform our struggles into choosing how we want to impact the world. In other words, how we carry our stories fuels how we imagine the world. So why not envision the stories we are hankering to inhabit and create a world we want to sustain? These are questions story-work offers.
Hence, as a Bartos Fellow, when asked to create a “story kit” for students and facilitators at UWC-USA, I jumped at the chance. To create personal narratives around identity, transformational conflicts and growth became a jewel of an opportunity for someone such as me.
From my first wintry days at the UWC-USA castle, I was in heaven. Waking early in the morning, bundling up and traipsing down to the Dwan Light Sanctuary, I’d start my day with meditation and journaling. As the sun broke through the trees and danced on the walls, I’d bounce (or claw for those who know the trek) my way back up to the castle to sit down to breakfast with a student I hadn’t met, to ask about their lives, to listen.
The privilege of being a Bartos Fellow gave me focused time, a shared purpose for interacting with students, staff and faculty, and a fervent hope that story-work would find a sustained place at UWC-USA. Little did I know that five weeks into this new rhythm, the COVID-19 pandemic would be a gateway to test a project still forming wings. With little notice to students or staff, story-work became a requirement for all 115 first-year Experiential Education students, with ten volunteer facilitators working as a story guide team.
The Storytelling Exchange was launched as a six-week, online learning experience and a prime test of how the story kit could serve students and facilitators. We gave students story prompts to identify a challenging or poignant UWC-USA experience and to detail it through writing and brainstorming. Within that experience students were asked to reflect on a new self-awareness that may have emerged. As most students were back home in various countries, we asked if they were finding ways to bring their UWC experience into new light. And might their reflections help them cope with the pandemic?
The student and facilitator groups were assembled in various ways: those who were part of the Constructive Engagement of Conflict (CEC) leadership course; those with interest in Restorative Justice; those associated with their Residential Life Coordinators or Experiential Education sponsors or, in my case, those who had experimented with me on the story kit. Some students did not appreciate the unexpected requirement of this project, as it added pressure to an already difficult time and a demanding online course load. Yet, true to the adaptive nature of most UWC-USA students, many expressed appreciation for this time to write, reflect, and share stories – of hardship, resiliency, uncertainty, and inspiration. Many who were resistant at first admitted it was a chance to feel closer to classmates and relish their UWC-USA memories.
Students’ written responses to the project ranged from seeing it as added stress and busy-work to those who found value in their participation. Here are some of the positive take-aways from students’ anonymous assessment of the project:
I feel that it helped me cope with the pandemic a bit better. It was hard to explain the feelings I’ve felt after coming home…but after doing some self-reflection in my story, it helped me realize that there’s so much more to be thankful for and so much more to look forward to.
The overall experience helped me focus more on the effect the pandemic has on my community.
Hearing other stories made you understand what other people are going through and how you can connect over simple things that you thought you were going through alone.
Before the storytelling exchange I hadn't given much thought into what I had gone through, but after the exchange I have more strength and confidence in what I do. With the storytelling exchange I sort of listened to myself and reflected and ultimately shared this with my team.
It really challenges us to reflect on how UWC experiences have shaped who we are today, and how those lessons will continue on with us throughout life.
And here are facilitators’ comments about the value of the project and how it may develop:
I think the biggest value seems to be in the meditative, retrospective aspect of storytelling. Who are they? How have their lives been changed? What are they grateful for? What is their attitude? For many, this was the chance to sit still and reflect.
The exchange part. As soon as one student shared a meaningful and impactful story it shifted something for everyone who was present to hear it. It gave words to shared experiences and challenges many had and was inspiring for others to put work into the project.
It helped them process their grief, loss and trauma related to UWC-USA and the pandemic.
I gained a deeper window into students' lives, which enhanced my commitment to the students, the school and the mission.
....First, the project in itself can be duplicated. And it is a powerful project for digging deeper into students’ lives. It's also helped me appreciate this depth and see where students are struggling. In future classes, I might intertwine a storytelling element. It touches on literature but also on intercultural values of oral history.
The Storytelling Exchange continues to be a work-in-progress. We’re still reviewing students’ written text and recordings, and assessments by both students and facilitators, to show us how best to move forward. Students and facilitators can use the story kit framework to adapt the process and areas of focus to give wings to new stories that can change lives.
In summary, this Bartos Fellowship has reinvigorated an age-old truism: “the shortest distance between two people is a story.” And by “listening-in” stories we can hear ourselves and one another in profound ways. With the world spinning ever-more precariously out of balance and socio-political polarities ripping us further apart, the question of how we move from hurt to reparation is critical. Deepening our commitments to “bend the arc” towards justice and equality may be furthered with compassionate exchanges of our authentic and collective stories.
Featured below are 3 student audio stories fitting with the CEC Journal's current theme, Hurt and Repair. For a text version, click the student's name.
Suvexa Tuladhar '21: My story accounts of the feelings I felt throughout the journey from UWC-USA to my home in Nepal during the COVID-19 pandemic. I take the readers through a circular rollercoaster of uncertainty, apprehension and momentary happiness I had to deal with in my journey back home. (Suvexa's article in The Nepali Times.)
Given Sandamela '21: I talk about dealing with loss at UWC and how my life was transformed.
Ari Kazantceva '21: In my race for productivity after returning home, I repressed negative emotions...but the hurt slowly gives place to hope.
Judy Goldberg is the owner of Viewpoint Productions. She is an independent radio producer, story facilitator and listener for a just and humane world. Email Judy here.
Thanks to Judy Blankenship for editing assistance.