Using Stories to Bring Students Together
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Charlotte Vitak and Lauren Franklin from the University of San Diego about the trailblazing work they have done with the student body to bring it together in a regular public forum called “My Story.” The University of San Diego is an AshokaU Changemaker Campus, which is part of a larger effort in the US to build empathy in the world.
Charlotte and Lauren saw the need for greater interconnectivity among the diverse and multi-cultural student body. It was obvious to Charlotte and Lauren that the students did not talk to each other, share personal time, or share space, so they set out to use storytelling as a way to bridge the divides among the different cultural groups on campus with the “My Story” public forums.
Initially the effort was as simple as securing a room and letting people know that there was going to be an opportunity to share and listen to each other’s stories. Something unique to the sensibilities shared by Lauren and Charlotte was the recognition that the space for storytelling is sacred. As a result, they put a great deal of effort into environmental subtleties such as lighting and the placement of the chairs. Over time, they put greater effort into curating the speakers so that the presenters were faithful to the values of respect, diversity, not “tokenizing” people, and were welcoming of the participants sharing their stories.
As Lauren put it, “It’s certainly about storytelling but we quickly learned that it is equally about story listening.” The care they took to create a safe space has resulted in more and more people getting involved and sharing their stories. They have observed that there has been a freeing up and broader storytelling among participants, therefore breaking down the barriers between the students, which was their guiding principle for these sessions.
“It’s certainly about storytelling but we quickly learned that it is equally about story listening.”
In talking with Lauren and Charlotte, I noticed their passion and joy for this work was obvious. They have benefited personally in very particular ways. Lauren has discovered a deep ability to coach and mentor the speakers. This has resulted in speakers coming in and sharing stories in such a vulnerable and powerful way that participants have been deeply impacted by the speakers in ways that they might not have without the coaching. The mentoring has guided Lauren to see there is a path she can take in her mentoring that can help people make sense of their stories and see the positive meaning in their stories.
Charlotte has grown in her appreciation of the thousand little things in the physical environment that can support stories, which fits because they are asking people who can be quite shy to tell stories. Charlotte stresses the connection between creating a safe space for stories to flower and how these sacred moments can build outward to observable community building. Both Lauren and Charlotte have gained a deep appreciation for each other and how their skills complement each other for a 1 + 1 = 3 synergy.
The growth of these sessions has been remarkable. The sessions started at 75 attendees and are now holding at 250 students attending. This is likely the largest organized student event without celebrity or named headliners as speakers.
Some of the impacts on campus they are seeing as a result of doing this for close to two years is that the “My Story” events are creating a more positive spirit of belonging and community on the campus. They have seen the students talk about subjects that are not discussed in other social forums, such as poverty, coming out, immigration, and overcoming health issues. The most powerful part of the effort has been giving all people on the campus a voice. Consequently, the “My Story” events are providing a platform for “making a new society,” because “when people are comfortable with their identity, we can contribute,” Lauren said. “This is the heart of a new society.”
True to the aims of the Changemaker programs, Charlotte and Lauren are exemplars of social innovation and empathy, which they found through a deep appreciation for how storytelling empowers and connects us all.
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Resources for all those called to leadership who understand the power of words and stories to shape their futures from one of the nation’s preeminent narrative coaches, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons of CCS Consulting Inc.