Lifting seldom-heard voices in order to re-examine traditional social constructs and to cultivate love and empathy

Truth to Power

Some of the participants. I am in pink on the left.

The University of Denver (DU) Graduate School of Social Work is sponsoring Catalyst Series for Social Justice workshops that are open for the public to apply to. These workshops are covering various topics. One of the recent workshops was titled “Truth to Power: Personal Storytelling for Social Justice.” This workshop was sponsored by DU but was taught by three teachers from Speech/Act. Speech/Act is a group out of New York whose focus is to bring narrative skills to advocates for various important policy debates. The point and process of the workshop was to help participants to think beyond just telling stories for entertainment but for public good. More specifically, the examples of telling a true story of yourself to lawmakers, to influence their decisions around law creation. Speech/Act coined the term “weaponize” to express that the goal of storytelling can be to bring about change.

When I learned about this program I was very excited to apply for it. The DU website posted resumes of the Speech/Act teachers who had met while working together at The Moth. If you haven’t heard of The Moth, it is a story-telling workshop. With Speech/Act, as in Moth stories, we did not use notes to tell our stories in the Speech/Act, DU-Truth to Power workshop. The idea is that there is nothing between the storyteller and the audience.

The program at DU required an application. I included a link to, explained that I wish to lift voices and help tell stories for others, and I talked about my activism. By some miracle I got into the workshop, which had me jumping up and down and crying tears of excitement. I was doubly excited when I learned that my friend Joi also got in and we would be doing the workshop together.

Our teachers from Speech/Act were Catherine McCarthy, Julian Goldhagen, and Hanna Campbell. The first day of the workshop was January 29. We started with introductions and ice breaker activities. One activity had the definite effect of connection. We were given the sentence stem, “I’m the kind of person who….” And then we completed the sentence. I found myself having silly and serious things in common with many people there. People varied by saying they can’t do anything before coffee in the morning all the way to not being able to get anywhere on time. The group was diverse, but we were learning that we had a lot in common.

Because we were not prompted to come prepared with a story in mind, brainstorming activities came next. The first activity asked us to choose a social identity that we hold. Basically, when people look at us, what do they see? It could be race, gender identity, economic status, age, abilities, etc. Once we had chosen one then we made a list of things that we have experienced because of that social identity. Next, we were to choose a second identity and think of things that have happened to us because of that identity. The sweet spot was where we might have had things that happened to us that were a combination of the two social identities.

We also received another brainstorming page that prompted us to think about events in our lives. For example, times when we stood up for others, when we felt silenced, when we participated in something larger than ourselves, etc. Obviously, if you’re going to be speaking before law makers, you will already have a topic in mind. However, these exercises were needed for those of us in the workshop since some of us did not come to the classes with a prepared story idea.

Once we had completed the brainstorming activity, we were encouraged to tell a short version of our story to three different people or a different story to three different people. We did this to get feedback, to meet more people, and to see how each story felt. One person I spoke with said they had been working with HIV/AIDS patients for years and felt as if they were carrying around their stories inside. Another person didn’t know how to resolve the issue between inviting their boss to happy hour and keeping the boundary of the boss verses, the human. I told three different stories, two of them from working with incarcerated youth and one from my personal life.

As we were prompted to choose a story from those events in our lives we were given cues as to what would make a good story. Those cues were stakes, change, scene, and theme. I use examples of the stories that are on the Facebook video posted at the end of this article to explain each of these cues.

A good story will have high stakes for the storyteller. In other words, the point that the teller will gain or lose something needs to be clear. In one storyteller’s story, he had to tell his family that he wanted to transition from being a woman to a man. He had the love and respect of this family to lose. In another storyteller’s story, she was being pulled over by four police cars and she had no idea why. With that many police, there are a lot of things that might be lost. Both these stories had the idea of gain or loss made very clearly in them.

Change shows that when the story is over you are a different person at the end of the story than you were at the beginning. One storyteller talked about laying awake in bed trying to think of a way to respond when someone tactlessly asked her where she is from. That night, tossing and turning, she was able to come up with a better response than she had given in the past to people who questioned her racial ambiguity. Another speaker told about how her experience with post-partum depression has changed her so that now when she speaks with new mothers she asks the new mother how she is instead of how the baby is. These are both changes in the way that these two women responded to life situations.

Being able to paint a scene for the audience to visualize while you tell the story is important. They need to be able to see what you’re talking about. When a storyteller questioned the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus in her Boulder, Colorado, Southern Baptist church, you can see him hanging in a painting on the wall of that building. When another storyteller spoke of running the vacuum next to her red, painted toenails, you could see her in her living room engaged in that activity.

Theme was considered an editing tool. Things that don’t contribute to the point of the story should be deleted. For example, if the storyteller who spoke about how people from India only engage in “serious” careers talked about a vacation with her friends to Disney World, it wouldn’t add to the story. However, if she had gone to Disney World to participate in an interview process for a “not serious” career, then it might be relevant.

After covering these topics, we broke until the next day. When we returned we were seated in circles of ten. Joi and I were in our group together and our teacher was Hanna. Each of the ten people in the group got to have a chance to tell a story and get feedback from the group. In our circle we heard from a storyteller who told about the difficulty of breaking up from an unhealthy romantic relationship because they saw what it was doing to their children. One of our storytellers talked about how they worked in an adult group home for people with serious mental illness when they were young and how much they learned from the experience. We had a storyteller who told about their co-workers in a non-profit purposely avoiding race issues and avoiding taking a stand against racism in their outreach. Another storyteller spoke very emotionally about their enlightenment away from evangelicalism once they started doing missionary work with people of color all over the world. Someone talked about how proud they were to be an American ever since childhood. However, because they were racially mixed, when this person took their fiancé through customs, they were the one they assumed to be the immigrant rather than the fiancé. Because of skin tone they looked at the white, fiancé (with a British accent) to ask about naturalizing our storyteller. I told a story about how working in juvie with children criminals had changed the way I see the correctional system and criminals in general.

It was time to break again. The teachers would email us to let us know who would be on stage in the evening. Joi and I lunched together and discussed our stories and our chances. We discussed others’ stories as well. We were both very impressed by both the stories and the people we had encountered throughout the two-day workshop. As we talked, she noticed our Speech/Act teachers coming into the same restaurant. Joi suggested that we send our untouched beignets to the teachers’ table. I joked with her that we were bribing them to choose us to tell our stories to the audience later that night. She joked back, “Do you think it will help?”

We finished lunch and each went home. A few hours passed and we texted back and forth, wondering what was going on. Maybe because we hadn’t heard anything we weren’t chosen? Eventually, the email came with the list of storytellers. Neither Joi nor I were chosen. Our “beignet bribe” did not work. We were both disappointed, of course.

That evening, as we all sat and watched the stories unfold in Craig Hall at DU we were all awed by the strength and power in the stories that were chosen for the stage and grateful for those who were chosen. I hope you, my readers, are awed as well.

-Lifting Voices-
Truth to Power Workshop Storytellers Click Here

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