“By using our words, our very breath to tell each other’s stories, we not only acknowledge but honor each other’s humanity.”
My friend Zukiswa and I have a lot in common. We are both mothers of three boys, we are educators, we are vegetarians, we are passionate about chocolate. We met this past June at the Narrative 4
Global Summit in Limerick, Ireland, where I was invited to give a presentation on the Student Facilitator training we’ve developed in the Upper School. Four days later, Zuki and I were calling each other “Mama” and had shared intensely personal stories with each other. Since we’ve returned from the summit, we’ve been in touch by email many times to check in about the multiple threads of our lives we shared during the conference. I hadn’t formed such a close friendship in a long time, and it felt amazing, particularly because we made this strong connection across a lot of differences, too. Zuki lives in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where she helps to run an after-school art program, which is how she became involved with Narrative 4. As a Black woman, she still feels the after-effects of Apartheid on a daily basis. She does not have easy access to healthcare, which meant that her C-section deliveries were complicated and scary. At age thirty-six, her trip to Limerick, Ireland for the Narrative 4 Summit was her first ever vacation. She has a gorgeous South African accent and a prodigious vocabulary; everything she says sounds like poetry.
Narrative 4 (N4), a non-profit organization based in New York City, deserves the credit for connecting me and Zukiswa, not just by bringing us to the same physical space in Limerick, but by cultivating an environment in which people were able to be “real,” to share their most vulnerable, authentic selves. The act of sharing those essential stories performs a kind of magic: it illuminates differences in people’s identities while at the same time disintegrating the barriers that often divide groups with different identities. At the N4 Summit I befriended a woman who brought together students from an underserved high school in Baltimore and Baltimore police officers to exchange stories just five months after the shooting of Freddie Gray. I met a woman from Tampico, Mexico who is executing story exchanges with at-risk elementary-aged students from all over her city. My two roommates at the summit were high school English teachers from Tel Aviv, Israel. There are very few positive interactions between Jews and Arabs in Israel, yet Taliah’s Jewish students and Lily’s Arab students had read The Hill by the Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron and had come together for two days (with Gavron present!) to exchange stories about the radically different life experiences they’ve had as a result of their religions. They parted as new friends, connected through their stories and now through social media.
Narrative 4’s mission is “fearless hope through radical empathy,” and the organization aims to accomplish its mission by organizing story exchanges around the world. I found Narrative 4 in 2014 through a New York Times article entitled “The Tale of Two Schools,” which described a story exchange between two schools, one a highly affluent independent school, the other a public school in the poorest district of New York. The goal of the story exchange was to foster connection and understanding across a vast socioeconomic difference. The method by which N4 achieves this “radical empathy,” no matter how wide the chasm of difference, is simple: people exchange stories from their lives with one another, then retell their partner’s story in the first person; in other words, the teller takes on the persona of their partner and in doing so experiences “radical empathy.”
I can tell you from my personal experiences of the story exchange that it works. I’ve done at least ten exchanges since 2014, and the most powerful experiences I’ve had have occurred when I’ve exchanged stories with a partner whose identities and experiences are most different from my own. During the formal story exchange at the N4 Summit in June, Zukiswa and I were partners, and when I shared her story, the tears I shed were her tears; her pain was mine.
Around the time the 2014 New York Times article was published, I’d been thinking about how to make issues of diversity relevant to the whole SCH community, not just those who hold identities that have been traditionally marginalized. The Narrative 4 story exchange method seemed to me to be the missing link, a way to get at the basic building blocks of a diverse community: the stories that comprise each individual’s experience. I reached out to Narrative 4 right after I read the article, and in the fall of 2014, forty-three Upper School students and several faculty spent a day participating in a story exchange led by Lee Keylock, director of Global Programs at N4. The experience was, for most people there, transformative.
Since that fall day in 2014, the story exchange has become a cornerstone of the diversity programming we do in the Upper School. We’ve implemented the story exchange in myriad venues at SCH—during faculty and staff professional development, in the training of our Student Facilitators, and as the anchor of SCHout, our student-led, multi-school diversity conference. Every year since 2015, Upper School students have exchanged stories during the annual Day of Understanding in order to connect to each other across differences and to open themselves to reflection about how the identities that we carry shape our lives. Author Ron Rash, one of Narrative 4’s board members, comments, “By using our words, our very breath to tell each other’s stories, we not only acknowledge but honor each other’s humanity.” And Colum McCann, the 2013 National Book Award winner and one of N4’s founders, puts it this way: “The one true democracy we have is storytelling. It goes across borders, boundaries, genders, rich, poor—everyone has a story to tell.”
I think that we’re on this earth to connect with other people. As a Quaker, I believe that all people are imbued with an Inner Light, which is every person’s responsibility to discover in every other person they encounter. As a mother of three, I’ve been working on raising my own white male teenagers to recognize and dismantle systems of oppression that may be difficult for them to see. As one of the diversity coordinators at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, I am thrilled by our new mission statement, which declares that we are an inclusive community aiming to inspire independent thinking and to nurture students’ knowledge of themselves and the world. This mission, it seems to me, must be underpinned by human connection and its execution will lead to more and deeper interpersonal connections. At the Narrative 4 Global Summit this past summer, in community for four days and listening to and sharing stories with people from all over the world, I felt I was living our school’s new mission.