universities & storytelling

Today I spoke at a new kind of conference for me: an academic one – the Engagement Scholarship Consortium Conference. (You can tell this is an academic one by the amount of syllables in the conference name).

I was invited to reflect on a panel why I speak as a patient to health faculty students every year. This was a huge conference at our convention centre, about a topic I didn’t even know existed: how universities engage their communities. The presenters were from all over the world, and I attended a session about storytelling (one of my favourite topics).

Ileans Haunami Ruelas and Saneo Marfil from the University of Hawai’i presented about how their university creates storytelling spaces to share cultural information about Hawai’i with families in their community. I was impressed by their family-centred approach – they offer sessions in the evenings and weekends, provide child care so parents can attend and offer meals, snacks and transportation for participants. This proved to me once again that the little things mean a lot in engagement.

Next up, Judith Bachay from St. Thomas University in Florida spoke about their university’s attempt to connect counselling students with teenagers and young adults who have addiction challenges. The students learned true empathy skills, and the recent graduate speaker said that she started to see teens as teens first, not just as drug users. I love that people-first philosophy, and I believe all us human beings want to be seen as people first (not labels).

The speakers at this conference did not just validate what I already knew. J. Michael Lyons from Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia gave a rousing presentation about using digital media to tell the stories of people incarcerated in the US prison system. He showed a poignant video created by his students that told the story of a man who was incarcerated when he was 16 – the United States, shockingly, has “juvenile lifers” – children who are sent to jail for life for being convicted of murder or accessory to murder.

His Communications Studies students go into a federal penitentiary to talk to the ‘lifers.’ They are only allowed to bring in a pen and paper, so they collect the stories and then create a video, with powerful images and a narrator, that tell the mens’ stories in first person. I was struck by how the speaker so respectfully referred to the men who were incarcerated by name. He also said, “part of incarceration is to keep your story quiet,” and emphasized, “what a waste of humanity to keep people locked up so long.”  He and his students work hard at getting these important stories out into the world.

The words from the gentleman who was incarcerated 30 years ago say it best:

“Do not be a follower. Dare to be different,” and,
“I want to be remembered as someone who made a bad choice. I am a good person who made a bad choice.”

This is powerful stuff.

While I typically speak at health professional conferences, it was enlightening to attend this consortium to think about new perspectives. It pleases me that universities are considering the importance of storytelling in their communities. As I said on the panel today, I still believe that sharing our stories is how we are going to change the world.

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