Our Inspiration: Voice of Witness

An organization at the root of ethical storytelling

Emily Breunig, one of our co-founders, taught community college composition for years, often using a text called the Voice of Witness Reader. So of course Voice of Witness was on her mind when she created Small Stones. That’s why we were so excited a few weeks ago when our other co-founder, Eva Kaye-Zwiebel, attended Voice of Witness’s four-day oral history workshop in San Francisco.

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Dragon in front of San Francisco Asian Art Museum, which kindly hosted the VOW workshop

Voice of Witness (VOW) is a nonprofit dedicated to sharing the stories of people who have experienced injustice but are largely unheard in the public square. In fact, VOW’s tag line is “amplifying unheard voices.” They describe their mission like this:

“Our work is driven by the transformative power of the story, and by a strong belief that an understanding of crucial issues is incomplete without deep listening and learning from people who have experienced injustice firsthand. Through our oral history book series and education program, we amplify the voices of people impacted by injustice, teach ethics-driven storytelling, and partner with human rights advocates.”

If you’ve read or heard about Dave Eggers’s book What Is the What, about Valentino Achak Deng, a “Lost Boy” of Sudan, you might recognize it as part of VOW’s origin story. Eggers’s experience of working with Deng was instrumental to his inspiration to found Voice of Witness, along with Lola Vollen and Mimi Lok. VOW now publishes oral history collections and creates resources to help teachers, activists, and youth create oral history, too.

At this year’s training, Eva and 25 or so classmates participated in discussions, brainstorms, and role-playing with oral history teacher-practitioners. Then, everyone buddied-up to go through the process of telling a personal story and recording a partner’s story. (You can read part of Eva’s story here. VOW’s blog about this year’s workshop is here.) It was a very intimate and emotional experience: there’s a feeling of “nakedness” to sharing a private experience with another person, but also a feeling of strength in seeing that story written down, as well as its impact on others when it’s read aloud.

Our interview process is directly inspired by VOW’s work. If you think you might want to speak to us—or introduce us to someone who might—please do get in touch at smallstonesedu@gmail.com.

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Last day of class: Group photo at the Voice of Witness 2017 “Amplifying Unheard Voices” workshop

Going It Alone, by Rahawa Haile

“Perspective is everything.” Hiking the Appalachian trail, by @rahawahaile.

From Outside Magazine:

“What happens when an African American woman decides to solo-hike the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine during a summer of bitter political upheaval? Everything you can imagine, from scary moments of racism to new friendships to soaring epiphanies about the timeless value of America’s most storied trekking route.”

It’s the spring of 2016, and I’m ten miles south of Damascus, Virginia, where an annual celebration called Trail Days has just wrapped up. Last night, temperatures plummeted into the thirties. Today, long-distance Appalachian Trail hikers who’d slept in hammocks and mailed their underquilts home too soon were groaning into their morning coffee. A few small fires shot woodsmoke at the sun as thousands of tent stakes were dislodged. Over the next 24 hours, most of the hikers in attendance would pack up and hit the 554-mile stretch of the AT that runs north through Virginia.

I’ve used the Trail Days layover as an opportunity to stash most of my belongings with friends and complete a short section of the AT I’d missed, near the Tennessee-Virginia border. As I’m moving along, a day hiker heading in the opposite direction stops me for a chat. He’s affable and inquisitive. He asks what many have asked before: “Where are you from?” I tell him Miami.

He laughs and says, “No, but really. Where are you from from?” He mentions something about my features, my thin nose, and then trails off. I tell him my family is from Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, next to Ethiopia. He looks relieved.

“I knew it,” he says. “You’re not black.”

I say that of course I am. “None more black,” I weakly joke.

“Not really,” he says. “You’re African, not black-black. Blacks don’t hike.”

I’m tired of this man. His from-froms and black-blacks. He wishes me good luck and leaves. He means it, too; he isn’t malicious. To him there’s nothing abnormal about our conversation. He has categorized me, and the world makes sense again. Not black-black. I hike the remaining miles back to my tent and don’t emerge for hours.

Continue reading here.

Storytelling

We’ve been musing about the direction Small Stones should take and one avenue we’re pursuing and deepening is storytelling. By that, we mean first-person narratives with a focus on the topics and themes we’ve been blogging about: discrimination, bias, racism, prejudice, and also the tools available to confront these.

Frequent readers will remember some of our oral history posts, including Oral History: An Introduction and Oral History: A Community College Assignment.

As we start developing interviews, we’ll share some resources pertaining to the storytelling process.

Today’s are from The Moth, a storytelling program that’s one of our favorite podcasts. First, three values The Moth promotes, which we offer in the spirit of “food for thought”.

  • We believe that processing experience through narrative can provide insight and agency
  • We believe that listening to stories can widen our perspective and help us realize what we have in common.
  • We believe that a community is strengthened when its members share stories with one another.

And next, some concrete tips for storytelling from The Moth. Keep in mind that The Moth is interested in oral story telling with a particular format, so some of the tips are specific to the genre.

“What to do

“Have some stakes: Stakes are essential in live storytelling. What do you stand to gain or lose? Why is what happens in the story important to you? If you can’t answer this, then think of a different story. A story without stakes is an essay and is best experienced on the page, not the stage.
Start in the action.

“Have a great first line that sets up the stakes and grabs attention: No: “So I was thinking about climbing this mountain. But then I watched a little TV and made a snack and took a nap and my mom called and vented about her psoriasis then I did a little laundry (a whites load) (I lost another sock, darn it!) and then I thought about it again and decided I’d climb the mountain the next morning.” Yes: “The mountain loomed before me. I had my hunting knife, some trail mix and snow boots. I had to make it to the little cabin and start a fire before sundown or freeze to death for sure.”

“Know your story well enough so you can have fun!: Watching you panic to think of the next memorized line is harrowing for the audience. Make an outline, memorize your bullet points and play with the details. Enjoy yourself. Imagine you are at a dinner party, not a deposition.”

“…and what not to do

“Steer clear of meandering endings: They kill a story! Your last line should be clear in your head before you start. Yes, bring the audience along with you as you contemplate what transpires in your story, but remember, you are driving the story, and must know the final destination. Keep your hands on the wheel!

“No standup routines please: The Moth loves funny people but requires that all funny people tell funny stories.

“No rants: Take up this anger issue with your therapist, or skip therapy and shape your anger into a story with some sort of resolution. (Stories = therapy!)

“No essays: Your eloquent musings are beautiful and look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won’t work on stage.

“About that (fake) accent: If your story doesn’t work in your own voice, or that of your people of origin, please consider another story. In our experience, imitating accents from another culture or race rarely works and often offends.”

By way of a bonus, here’s a recent broadcast from The Moth: Pam Burrell’s “My Unlikely Brothers“. Click the story name to re-direct to the story, which doesn’t have embed capability.

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(P. Burrell image by Jessica Taves courtesy of The Moth; featured moth image from“[Planches enluminées d’histoire naturelle” (1765) via Flickr.)

Weekend Reading: So You Want to Raise an Activist…

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As we often say about running this blog, you can’t do it alone. The same holds true for raising a socially-conscious, motivated kid. Here’s some help for those of you engaged in that endeavor.

The Washington Post has a lovely list of children’s books in their On Parenting blog focused on activism:

As protests and marches continue to sweep the country, parents can use books to help them broach complex topics with their kids. Many kids recently attended protests for the first time and these budding activists often have tough questions.

Here is a list of books that can introduce even the youngest children to the idea of rebellion in an age-appropriate and inspiring way. Give the princesses and pirates a rest and try these inspiring reads — just don’t be surprised if bedtime negotiations rise to a new level. Every activist has to start somewhere!

Want more? Check out Teaching for Change’s online store. There are some incredible bargains to be had, and if you need to order 500 copies or more, some titles are free, save for shipping.

And if you need a reminder about the power of reading when it comes to sparking social change, take a look at these testimonials from the Zinn Education Project. Back in March, when there was a proposed ban on books by Howard Zinn in Arkansas schools, people coordinated to send those very books to teachers and libraries in protest. The response was incredible, and some of the stories about why people donated are here.

 

 

 

Opportunities, Plants, and One Last Push: Come on over and tell us what you think!

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It’s live for just a few more days…come on over and take our survey!

A HUGE thank you to those who have already stopped by. Responses are already helping us figure out what we’ll be working on next, how to bring you more of what’s been helpful, and what you might like to see that we haven’t done quite yet.

We are also about to begin a project preserving stories from educators in this national moment. If you’d like to talk with us, anonymously or otherwise, about how things are for you and your students, right here and now, we’d love to hear from you. (And you can indicate that on our survey.)

Now for opportunity! If you are a Bay Area teacher working with students in grades 8-12, you just might be interested in KQED Learning’s new Student Inquiry and Publishing pilot program.

We are looking for 40 Bay Area English, science, social studies or VAPA educators who teach grades 8-12 to pilot a new project starting this summer and continuing into fall of 2017.

The project will feature curriculum, media-making resources and professional development for teachers to support students in investigating questions and creating media about their findings. Using an online publishing platform, students will be able to work with peers both in their own classroom and other classrooms in a safe space where they can seek authentic feedback, support and inspiration. Students will access this platform through their teacher (similar to Google Classroom), and student work will not be visible to anyone not participating in the project.

Head on over to the link above to read more and apply. Get moving–applications close 3/24!

And plants: we recently discovered the Smithsonian’s Botany and Art and Their Roles in Conservation. Aside from being gorgeous to look at, these resources for primary and middle grade students can help provide in-depth interdisciplinary content for a science or art classroom.

This teaching guide includes a lesson plan originally published as “Smithsonian in Your Classroom.” It introduces students to the work of botanists and botanical illustrators, specifically their race to make records of endangered plant species around the world. The students try their own hands at botanical illustration, following the methods of a Smithsonian artist. Also included here are additional resources on the topic, a one-hour webinar and a website.

Thanks again for stopping by and responding to any and all of our survey questions!

 

Weekend Reading, 3/12

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It’s been a busy week for us here (please take our survey!), so it’s time to grab a drink, some reading material, and relax. Here are a few things we’ve been reading, though fair warning, unlike surveys, they’re not all conducive to relaxation.

First, watch this space! The Academic Expat is creating a Get Out Syllabus, centered around the incredibly acclaimed (both by critics and viewers) movie by the same name. Right now you’ll find the beginning of this work by Crystal Boson, PhD, here. If you’re not familiar with the film, this is material probably best suited for high school, college, and adult learners. Here’s her introduction:

The “Get Out” Syllabus focuses intently on the conversations surrounding White violence, the consumption of Black Bodies, and the erasure of Black Women that the movie elicits. The syllabus is divided into two parts; the first  closely examines the historical and cultural violences that made the movie possible. The second section examines the absences and erasures that make sections of the film explicitly more horrifying. My “Get Out” syllabus is in no way meant to be exhaustive or complete. Rather, it is an entry to point to key conversations that must be continued after the movie falls from theatres and our current popular culture attention span.

Rolling Stone has a deep dive into Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, and how her religious and cultural background may impact her agenda in this position.

Neither Betsy DeVos, who is 59, nor any of her children have ever attended a public school; her Cabinet post also marks her first full-time job in the education system. Even before her nomination, she was a controversial figure in education circles, a leading advocate of “school choice” through student vouchers, which give parents public dollars to send their children to private and parochial schools. During her Senate confirmation hearing in January, DeVos struggled to grasp some of the most basic fundamentals of education terminology, student-loan policy and federal provisions mandating public schools provide free and appropriate education to people with disabilities. At one point, Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who represents the families of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, asked DeVos if she believed schools should be gun-free zones. She responded that in states like Wyoming “there is probably a gun in the school to protect from potential grizzlies.”

If you are interested in learning more about the broader vision DeVos and those she’s worked with share, this is an article well worth your time.

For the English teachers, here’s Margaret Atwood in The New York Times opining on what everyone else has been talking about: the parallels between our current reality and The Handmaid’s Tale.

Yes, women will gang up on other women. Yes, they will accuse others to keep themselves off the hook: We see that very publicly in the age of social media, which enables group swarmings. Yes, they will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power: All power is relative, and in tough times any amount is seen as better than none. Some of the controlling Aunts are true believers, and think they are doing the Handmaids a favor: At least they haven’t been sent to clean up toxic waste, and at least in this brave new world they won’t get raped, not as such, not by strangers. Some of the Aunts are sadists. Some are opportunists. And they are adept at taking some of the stated aims of 1984 feminism — like the anti-porn campaign and greater safety from sexual assault — and turning them to their own advantage. As I say: real life.

And finally, some humor that we sincerely hope stays funny:

On the Origins of the Civil War: “Refusing to recognize the rights of Southern small business owners to help the documented immigrants in their care obtain their dreams, Dishonest Abe Lincoln, who never had a birth certificate, waged an illegal war using the machinery of big government.”

On the Massacre at Wounded Knee: “Not to be confused with actual massacres like the one at Bowling Green over a century later, this so-called tragedy in 1890 was nothing more than the feds taking out some bad hombres and undocumented natives hiding out from authorities in South Dakota.”

See you next week–and share our survey!

Series Catch-Up!

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We’ve been working on a couple of series lately, and since we editors are slammed in our ordinary lives, it seems like a good day to collect both of those in one giant in-case-you-missed-it post. Enjoy!

Oral History:

The Music of Social Movements: