by Rick Joseph
Tell me your story. These words have the power to both liberate and educate. When employed in the context of advocacy, the intentional cultivation of the narrative voice has the ability to transform entire communities.
As a 5th and 6th grade language arts and social studies teacher, I have always celebrated the power of stories to humanize ourselves to each other. Stories invite questions about our shared realities and help us appreciate each other in ways that are more nuanced and less binary. The awareness that every community benefits from affording its members the opportunity to share anecdotes as they relate to one's identity within a particular group, is what has led to the creation of the series: “Powerful Panel Discussions: Sharing our Stories.”
I serve as the chairperson of our school’s diversity equity and inclusion committee. In February of 2019, We realized that we needed to give students, parents, staff, and community members who are African American the chance to share what life is like for them on a daily basis. We wanted them to share their stories and raise their voices. We knew that this would provide an opportunity for deeper learning and understanding on the part of all who listened. Being Black in Birmingham and Beyond was born.
Once we assembled our panelists, we crafted five guiding questions that would be addressed over the course of the hour-long discussion. One of our DEI committee members served as the moderator, and the panel was convened. We conducted this event in front of 200 seventh and eighth graders in our school library during the day. Students were given the opportunity to ask questions as they related to the topics and themes that were shared.
Among the most salient points that emerged, was the common cry, “I am one person. Get to know me as an individual. Do not judge me as a representative of my race. I am so much more than a stereotype.“ Additionally, panelists were quick to point out that their Blackness did not define them. Rather, their racial identity was only one component of who they were as human beings. Panelists bristled at the tendency some people have to generalize and judge them based on assumptions, fears, and societal stereotypes. “Get to know me for who I really am,” they entreated.
Students, staff, and parents who witnessed the discussion were deeply impressed with the panelists' honesty and candor. The panelists themselves expressed that the opportunity to share their stories in a public forum felt cathartic and validating without sensationalizing their experiences. With this first panel, we had set a new practice in motion.
Since the initial panel we have conducted a total of 18 events, both in-person and over Zoom, that have showcased a variety of individuals who represent a vast number of identities and constituencies that have been historically marginalized. From people who are LGBTQ+ to Muslims and Jews to people challenged with their mental health, we have addressed a variety of topics in ways that are accessible to all members of our community. One of the most powerful aspects of this panel discussion series is that the ideas for the panels themselves arise in very organic ways from concerns expressed by people in our midst - classmates, colleagues, neighbors and friends. These panels can be replicated by anyone anywhere. All that’s necessary is a topic, a moderator and people willing to talk.
We don’t need to only listen to “experts” discuss sensitive issues when we can come together with a few basic parameters in place to enable people to give us some insight into their lived realities. Storytelling, as community organizer Marshall Ganz tells us, is the oldest, most powerful tool we humans possess to effect change and stimulate advocacy. Personal stories detailing obstacles overcome and challenges met connect with us at our core and bring out the best in our ability to empathize. Our best resources, in the person of those all around us, may just be hiding in plain sight.
Tell me your story.
Click here to see a list of all the panels in the series, complete with full-length video recordings and photos (shared with permission).
Rick Joseph is a National Board Certified Teacher and has taught 5th and 6th grade at Covington School in suburban Detroit since 2003. He previously served as a bilingual educator and trainer for nine years in the Chicago Public Schools. He is the Michigan Teacher of the Year 2016.