When I signed up to teach a career day workshop on storytelling at Hyattsville Middle School, a United Way of the National Capital Area (United Way NCA) Community School, my mind occupied the same thoughts one’s mind usually does when preparing for presentations: is this exciting enough? What do I say and how do I say it? Will they care?
The fundamentals of storytelling are critical in understanding where we come from so that we might better discover who we are. There are many versions of success imprinted on students—whether that’s pressure from parents, schools, or peers—that might discourage students from pursuing what they’re passionate about. The pressure to succeed academically ironically can undermine the process of learning; students who are challenged through comprehension or language barriers might feel that they’ll never be good enough so they stop trying.
In my presentation to the 20 ESL students in the classroom, I began by admitting my disconnections in education. I spoke about how when I was in middle school a decade prior, there was such a focus on academic success that I felt a sense of doom in not understanding a particular topic or subject. I was afraid to ask questions and I lived in fear of failure—and ultimately these feelings became so overwhelming that I began to cop out of courses I didn’t understand. Later in my life, I dedicated many years peeling back layers of this fear and began seeing failure as essential in the process of creation. The conventional boxes of “right” and “wrong” inhibit us from seeing solutions to problems that don’t currently exist.
As I continued to engage the students at Hyattsville Middle, there was a sigh of relief. It was as if addressing my personal story of education and the fear of failure I earned their trust. I believe it is important to lead by example and yet I think too often the examples we show our youth don’t include getting it wrong.
I shared with the students how the non-linear trajectory of my life created opportunities for me that would otherwise not have been possible. How getting laid off from a start up—a traumatic life event that happened in the wake of crippling student loan payments at age 22—led me to a career in fashion photography and later advocacy in impoverished communities. How stuffing my backpack filled with food from my school’s dining hall and conversing with people on the street experiencing homelessness ultimately led to me creating a documentary humanizing the experiences of homelessness three years later. That honing a sense of empathy and vulnerability towards others allowed for much deeper relationships in my day to day life.
When we teach students about storytelling, we empower them to create a narrative for their life that is solely theirs. We give them the ability not only to think beyond answers, but to investigate the greater context in which problems exist. We instill in them the tools to listen and empathize with each other. I’m grateful that at United Way NCA I found a vehicle in which to harness the power of storytelling to create platforms for underrepresented members in our community to share their voice. The stories that we share can bring us together to solve local issues; they allow us to see the qualitative complexities of human-centric issues like poverty and get us closer to a solution.
To learn more about the many stories United Way NCA is sharing with the community please visit our news and stories section.