The Bronx taught me how to get to know people and learn their stories. Hot-button issues gained faces and names. My student, Jamie, showed me the vital importance of DACA and the dire need for comprehensive immigration reform. An immigrant from Honduras who entered the United States when she was less than 5 years old, Jackie applied herself in every way throughout her schooling. Born into poverty, she’d done precisely what she thought would lead to her own American Dream. But, near the start of her senior year, Jamie came to me with deflated aspirations and barely-contained tears after learning how her immigration status could limit her college options. DACA was not quite two years old at the time, and the DREAM.US scholarship was newly created. The intimate, life-changing impact of this national policy and supporting initiatives became crystal clear, and galvanized me to advocate for immigrant rights.
Stories make strategies and policies personal. The experiences and circumstances of real people serve to humanize contentious political discourse and give weight to larger trends. Such personalized distillation captures readers and listeners’ imaginations and connects with them at a level deeper than ideology or talking points. I’m passionate about crafting similar narratives and learning experiences, sharing these opportunities for growth and understanding, and contributing to lasting change in our world. Throughout my career, I’ve sought out opportunities to equip people to understand and develop their own talents and identities. Transitioning to work focused on storytelling and narrative development allows me to celebrate accounts of such empowerment at scale.
I’ve gotten to build upon my experience as a teacher and college counselor in my time with the Illinois Tech Global Leaders Program (“GLP”). My greatest joy in guiding students through the college admissions process is helping them see their unique path, passions, and experiences, and figure out how to authentically communicate that narrative to resonate with their audience. GLP empowers high school students to lead and serve their communities, and our programming focuses on developing agency, identity, and problem-solving capabilities.
Interwoven with my time in education is complimentary experience and increasing responsibility in digital and written communications. I’ve managed social media accounts for a public figure and written for online outlets about social media analytics, strategy, and Millennial-focused commentary on current events. Throughout my tenure with GLP, I directed the program’s communications’ efforts, including email marketing, blog, print materials, social media accounts, and running the application and recruitment process for prospective students. I also guided GLP through a complete rebrand and developed a structured roll-out strategy. We refined our communications strategy to align more directly with our mission to support and empower students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM. A key part of that was to better engaging and amplifying our Scholars’ own voices through creating Recruitment Ambassador and Communications Fellows initiatives, directly equipping and involving our current students in the process of sharing their perspectives and experiences.
Growing up in a homogeneous, suburban community in west Little Rock, AR, I remember noticing a stark dissonance between the experiences of my peers and myself and the world I read about or saw portrayed on the news and in films. As I learned about globalization and the diversification of society, my overwhelmingly white, evangelical, middle-class, patriarchal community began to look more and more surreal — and detrimentally disconnected from the world-at-large. I wanted out.
As I left — first for school out-of-state, then to teach in NYC — I encountered lots of well-intentioned individuals with backgrounds and yearnings parallel to my own. I also saw many of these people expecting — and often receiving — roles of leadership and influence. With the best of motives, the people speaking loudest about issues of racism, poverty, education access, criminal justice reform, etc., remained the people personally least affected by them.
Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash
Nothing in my experience in public education led me to believe I had all the right answers or had found some previously-unknown panacea. Far from it. I internalized that the wisest approach was to ask questions, posture myself as a learner, and listen to people discuss their own communities, backgrounds, and experiences. Listening forces me to hear and process uncomfortable truths about myself and my privileged position in society, and challenges me to develop a much more nuanced picture of this “America” that I know and love and call home. Embracing such dissonance is painful, messy, and incredibly beneficial. I’m grateful for the people I’ve met, the stories I’ve learned, and how they’ve given me appreciation for the communities they represent.
As I’ve focused on learning from students’ stories and individual backgrounds, I’ve become firmly convinced in the importance of empowering people to create meaningful change in their communities. Local and national news expend breathless hours on violence in Chicago and decry amorphous evils like mass incarceration, unfunded mental health resources, and homelessness. But Hannah isn’t faceless; she’s sitting in the chair directly across from me, interviewing for admittance to the program that I administer. When I ask her about the inspiration for her essay — proposing solutions to gun violence in Chicago — she says she lost a sibling in a shooting recently. And a cousin the year before that. And two friends in middle school. And a neighbor before that. I fight back tears and grasp for a follow-up question, but Hannah is unphased. For Hannah, this is normal. This is her childhood.
Before meeting Jamie, Hannah, and hundreds of other young people with stories like theirs, I cared about issues like discrimination, immigration, and violence in a theoretical or hypothetical sense. I hear and read the myopic, exclusionary stereotyping spouted by loved ones and friends I grew up with, and always wish they knew the faces and stories that I’ve had the privilege of meeting. Encountering people with perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences disparate from my own continually increases my capacity to empathize. Through time teaching high school special education, college counseling, running an out-of-school college access program, and live in diverse urban areas, my students and others have taught me so much. I approach storytelling with a similar emphasis on listening, posturing myself so I can learn from diverse communities and constituencies to better share their unique wisdom and narratives.
Questions exhort; they give others the encouragement to speak. Questions involve students in the acquisition of knowledge and construction of meaning, instead of lectures that mistakenly elevate overly-homogenous ‘experts’. Listening is empowering, because it humbly affirms the worth and weight of a speaker’s words. I’ll only be truly successful as a storyteller if I’m first and foremost a story-listener. My voice is an amplifier; I look forward to handing others the mic.
Students’ names were changed to respect their privacy.