A group of middle school students were given four choices, along with the hypothetical sum of $5 million dollars. The question before them was simple: how would you spend the money to help kids do better in school?
The options presented to the students mirrored the real choices being debated by community organizer Susan Naimark and others on the Boston School Committee. With the funds, they could: hire tutors to help failing students; develop quality teacher trainings; reduce kindergarten class size; or help middle school kids prepare for high school. After much deliberation, the Gavin Middle School Politics Club rejected all proposals on the table. They instead decided the money should be used to install metal detectors in high schools.
“Where did this come from?” wonders Naimark in The Education of a White Parent: Wrestling with Race and Opportunity in the Boston Public Schools, a first person account of her twenty-five year pursuit of equal opportunity for all children in Boston’s public schools. “Their decision didn’t reflect any of the options I had so carefully laid out. Once again, the young people put me in my place, reminding me that we adults did not have all the answers. Or maybe even the right questions.” This type of candid introspection permeates The Education of a White Parent, where Naimark uses everyday stories from her experience as a mom with kids in the Boston public school system to navigate a particularly complex subject: white privilege, commonly defined as the implicit and unearned advantages that white people hold in our society.
Personal narrative has the ability to address large and often difficult subjects because of the authenticity that comes along with first person storytelling. It can come in many forms and lengths, everything from a short essay outlining one single story to a longer memoir like The Education of a White Parent. We can think of many terrific examples of this from literature and pop culture: Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings that explores racial oppression and sexual abuse; The Diary of Anne Frank that chronicles two years of a young Jewish girl’s life spent in hiding from the Nazis; or I, Rigoberta Menchu that records the horror of the 36-year Guatemalan Civil War through the eyes of traditional Indian woman. And of course, someone who masterfully used the power of the personal narrative to advance a cause much bigger than himself: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose life and work we honor this week.
Like any other literary form, certain points should be kept in mind when crafting the personal narrative, including the use of strong character development and concrete imagery. Remember, show, don’t tell. Helpful resources for creating compelling personal narratives can be found at The Purdue Writing Lab and FreelanceWriting.com, among others. Organizations that focus on first person storytelling and creative writing may provide inspiration and ideas. Check out Philly-based First Person Arts that hosts the StorySlam Competition, or Grub Street, offering writing coaching and classes for all stages of writing development.
Ask yourself whether your cause or organization’s work would benefit from personal narrative, and if so, think through whose voice would be the most authentic. Or if more than one person comes to mind, consider whether your issue could benefit from having the story told from different views or vantage points. Personal narratives can be distributed through a range of outlets, from blogs and social media posts (think series of posts) to a published book or television show (why not think big). The important thing to do is first determine your best messengers, ask them to write their stories and then decide on the best possible channels to reach your audience.
A well-written personal narrative can have legs well into the future and be used as a terrific starting place to open up dialogue. Naimark recounts the story of a young white mother who approached her after a recent public book talk. “She confided that while intellectually she understood the need to do things that support all kids, her gut still told her to help just her own kid succeed,” says Naimark. “I don’t think she’d ever had a conversation like that before, and it was an important first step.”
So today’s question is this: what important first step can you take in using the first person narrative to advance the work of your organization?
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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Silicon Prairie News.