Personal Storytelling and Collective Empathy

November 18, 2016

The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.
–Brandon Sanderson, popular fantasy and science fiction author

Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.
–Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried

Last January I had the good fortune to watch One Drop of Love at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. One Drop of Love is a one-woman show created and performed by Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni exploring the intersections of race, class, and gender through personal storytelling. Fanshen tells her story, which is really many stories: about growing up as a multicultural and multiracial woman, her estrangement and reconnection with her Jamaican father, her brother’s violent interaction with police officers, among many others. She contextualizes her narrative by telling the story of the changing racial categories of the United States Census.

I found the show deeply moving and although the content was complex, mature, and even uncomfortable at times, I knew I wanted to bring it to our middle school, in no small part because of the emphasis we place on personal stories as a foundation for empathy and understanding.

I screened the trailer for the show to our Middle School Diversity Council (MSDC) and they were very excited at the possibility of bringing the show to Prospect Sierra even though, we later discovered, Fanshen had never performed One Drop of Love for a middle school audience. Luckily, she was willing to give it a try.

After months of behind the scenes planning and classroom preparation for the students spearheaded by Britt Anderson, our Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Fanshen performed at the Prospect Sierra middle school campus last month in front of a packed audience of students, faculty, and staff.

Here are some reactions following the show:

“Part way through I was feeling very emotional and started crying, and I thought ‘oh no, what is wrong with me?’ But then I looked around and saw other people crying too, and I realized that the material was particularly moving.” Tamara, Office Manager & Assistant to Head of School

“That was the best assembly I’ve ever been to. I was interested the whole entire way through.” Caitlyn, eighth grader

“That was emotionally trying and very good.” Dora, eighth grader

“She was brave to talk to strangers about her life.” Sidonie, sixth grader

I was heartened to see so many students, faculty, and staff approach Fanshen after the show. There is something to be said for openly telling your story, for making yourself vulnerable to others. The act is a gift of connection and an opportunity for empathy and understanding. Ira Glass, host of the popular radio program This American Life, describes personal narrative as a backdoor to a very deep place inside of us.

For some time now, communication has been trending rapidly toward the digital, asking us to work harder to cut through all of the noise to arrive at that very deep place inside of us. More often than not it happens through face to face communication, through receptivity to the stories of others, even to the point where, faint though it may be, we can get a picture of what it would be like to be another person. And in so doing we can share a common humanity, understand anew our common desires.

To be seen.
To be heard.
To be understood.

Fulfilling these desires is no easy task, but taking time out for personal storytelling, the ancient practice of speaking and listening with an open heart, is a good first step.

There is no substitute for the attention we pay to others.

Jeff Chang, Middle School Librarian