Step up to the Mic and Give Back by Sharing Your Story

When traveling with teens, always double check that they have their passports. That was the first lesson I learned while traveling with a trio of What’s the Story Vermont youth to the Navajo Nation for the Hózhó ó Hólne’ writers conference this March. It was one of many enlightening moments along our four-day journey together.

Having just finished teaching a 3-month unit on Food Justice at my small Vermont middle school, I relished the opportunity to connect with youth and other educators exploring similar issues in their communities. How can what Brent is doing with his classes in Louisville inform my curriculum? How can the wisdom shared by these Navajo youth community leaders help my students as they grapple to create change in their communities? What are the issues and concerns that unite us across geographic and demographic difference?

In one of the first workshops I attended, I had the honor of sitting in a hogan and listening to Mr. Rex Lee Jim, the former vice president of the Navajo Nation, share traditional Navajo songs and stories relating to food. In response to his prompt to: write about a time we planted something, people from Alaska to Atlanta shared their stories of food, memory, and growth. It struck me how food is such a profound, daily way that we navigate our relationship to home, family, and the past.

Open Mic nights were a learning opportunity in and of themselves. As expected, it was a chance to learn about the challenges and triumphs being experienced by young people across the nation. A chance to hear about how Elevated Thought is fighting to redefine education in Lawrence, a chance to learn how Shaleisa is helping Washington High School students preserve the past through oral history projects, a chance to see Navajo Youth combating health issues in their schools. But we also learned from our discomfort. None of our Vermont cohort was eager to step up to the mic. A group of introverts intimidated by the awe-inspiring poems dropped by peers from across the nation, we were forced to reflect on the benefits and detriments of our own education. Why did we all seem so uncomfortable with sharing our creative writing? This discomfort, like most when investigated, helped us gain insight into our own culture – how our daily academic environments privilege a certain type of knowledge and writing – the analytical essay – while often neglecting to teach the form and power of creative expression. Being in a room full of youth sharing their poetry and personal vignettes, I was struck by how important it is to create spaces in formal education to equally cultivate these modes of expression. As Andrea Lunsford taught me one summer at Bread Loaf, effective rhetoric involves both logos and pathos. Yet how often does my curriculum only emphasize logos – spending month after month on instruction related to research skills and analytical writing? Attending the Hózhó ó Hólne’ conference reminded me that teaching my students to be effective researchers is only one facet of cultivating engaged citizenship. I cannot neglect to teach them the power of the personal perspective, the intimate narrative that stirs an emotional response, particularly as they work to create positive social change. This conference helped our Vermont WtS cohort step outside their comfort zone, and I’m proud of how Elsa, Lena, and Kati all found ways to step up to the mic and give back by sharing their stories.

The conference was also an opportunity for me to reconnect and reflect on the writing exchange I’d done with Evelyn Begay, a teacher at Window Rock High School. After a year of sharing our students’ writing, it was a privilege to have a chance to talk with one another about how that exchange had helped our students grow, and how we could improve on similar endeavors in the future. I came away reminded of how – no matter the skill of a writer – a letter never truly conveys our full humanity. It’s these in-person interactions that truly build bridges. Evelyn and my collaboration grew out of our shared experience at Bread Loaf one summer. As I watch NGLN youth from around the country laugh, write, and share with one another, I can only imagine what sorts of bridges they are laying the foundations for.

On our long car ride back to Albuquerque across the vast expanses of red rock, our tiny rental car was abuzz with conversations about race: What does it mean to be white? How can we, as white people, create spaces for honest discussion of race in our communities, where homogeny often results in good intentions, but a lack of engagement? What does it look like to move beyond feeling guilty over our white privilege, and instead work to create more equitable conditions for all? These sorts of conversations and learning can only arise out of a real-life experience. I’m so grateful to WtS, NGLN, Middlebury College, and the Ford Foundation for making it possible to come together with such a diverse and inspiring community of activist youth and educators.

 

Fallon Abel

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