On Friday, March 29, twenty individuals gathered at EMW for its first-ever Storytellers Project event (formerly called The Human Project). The bookstore’s space had been cleared, leaving only a circle of chairs and a white board. As people walked in, I could tell that they were feeling nervous, maybe skeptical. No one knew what to expect. But they were courageous and generous enough to walk into this bizarre little unknown, and for that I was and am so grateful.
Abel, Kongo, and I conceived the idea for The Storytellers Project months ago over ice cream and outrage over the daily misunderstandings, violence, and loneliness that we experience or witness every day. I mean, I look around at this planet of ours and could sit here for hours just listing off all the people that we fear or stigmatize—gay people, trans people, sick people, “illegal” people, poor people, black people, brown people, young people, old people, homeless people, surviving people, foreign people, disabled people…it’s extraordinary. It’s absurd. It honestly blows my mind, how segregated our society can be, how easy it is to accept a lie, phobia, or prejudice if you have never personally known the story of someone who has lived a certain experience. Inspired by a number of similar projects—The Human Library, TED Talks, the work of hundreds of sociologists who have come before us—the three of us decided to create a space in which otherwise quieted, pushed-aside, or segregated stories could intersect. We came up with The Storytellers Project.
Actually, to say we “came up” with it is a bit lofty. Storytelling and listening have been a part of our species since its earliest days, but what we did do was come up with a prompt and invite people who were aching to tell a story—or aching to listen and learn—to share. It was this: Tell us about a moment in which you became who you are today.
Our search led us to find four extraordinary Storytellers and thirteen Listeners. But something surprising happened that night: we all became Storytellers and Listeners. We opened with a simple group exercise that, because of the courage of everyone in the room, transformed into something sacred. Participants were asked to write and share one of the following: (1) A moment when you realized you were a skin color, gender, or class; (2) A moment when you were broken and reborn; (3) A moment of pure joy.
One woman spoke courageously about the trust that was broken and the wisdom that was reborn after a sexual assault. “I was kind of nervous about sharing my story and thought about going the safer route, but hearing other people's experiences pushed me to take a risk and I am glad that I did.” We told love stories, coming out stories, stories about enormous mistakes and quiet epiphanies. By the time the exercise came full-circle, we had each heard or shared something that had never been told before, like a real-live Post Secret.
Finally, it was time for our four featured Storytellers. The moments in which they became who they are today. What was said, what was shared, what transpired from the sharing—that’s something that could never be captured, that existed only in that time and space. I leave the reader, then, with just four images:
A Chinese-American son of immigrants writes his parents a letter declaring that he will not obediently follow a traditional career path but will instead devote his life to bridging our country’s unconscionable health disparities.
A woman lies in bed under sheets with a beautiful lover, while a storm rages on outside. She can feel in her heart that her partner sees her not as a “former man” or a “trans person” or a “freak” but as a woman, strong and good, the woman she has fought her whole life for the right to be.
A young immigrants’ rights activist approaches the podium at a rally to give a speech he has given dozens of times before—and realizes with a start that for the first time in his life, he is proud of the person and activist he has become because of his documentation status.
A young woman stands quietly in a church. She looks around, sits in its pews, walks its aisles. She lights a candle, adding its flame to the dozens of other candles that have been lit in prayer. As she lights this candle, for the first time in her life she acknowledges to herself and to the world the many nights she spent here in this church and in youth shelters while growing up in homelessness. She becomes the advocate and scholar she is today.
We left the bookstore that night, feeling shaken, inspired, and, I hope, loved. I am humbled by how many forms of “coming out” I bore witness to that night, and how healing it was for others to hear people tell their truths. As one participant said, “Listening to the others' stories about their courage and strength was inspirational and reminded me that we are all stronger than we may understand.”
The second Storytellers Project event took place on Saturday, April 6th, in Providence Rhode Island at Brown University. A recap of that event to follow.