"Stories as Pathways to Understanding" by Co-Dean of Diversity Erica Pernell
Beginning at the age of twelve, I spent every weekend of every summer traveling to play competitive fast-pitch softball. Between games, practices, and lessons, I spent many hours in the car with my parents. What I loved most about those car trips were my parents’ stories of neighborhood rock bands, sibling mischief, and schoolyard fights. In the stories, my parents were not telling me what to do, criticizing me, or assigning chores. They were suddenly people who existed previous to and separate from me. Their adult selves seemed to fade away and I got to see my folks as my peers: my dad getting in trouble with his mom for hiding a stray kitten in his room and my mom spending her summers riding bikes and camping at the beach. Their stories provided mirrors of my own lived experience. Seeing my own reflection in their tales immediately humanized my parents and ignited my desire to truly understand and know them. Their stories also provided windows into experiences that I did not share: my mom working multiple jobs to pay her way through college to major in math when she truly wanted to study fine arts and my preteen dad taking a bus to pick tobacco and caddy on the golf course on hot summer days to make money for his family. These glimpses into different realities developed my sense of perspective and respect for lived experiences that do not resemble my own. Through their stories, my parents offered me the gift of mirrors and windows.
It is only natural for storytelling to be a part of the educational experience at Nobles. When our students graduate, the most important thing we ask them to do is to lead for the public good. In order to lead for the public, it is critical that students are able to communicate effectively across cultural differences. This ability, also known as cultural competency or cultural intelligence, allows students to connect and work effectively with people who are radically different in terms of age, religious belief, nationality, race, gender, ways of thinking, political beliefs, ability and more.
In the same way that the mirrors and windows in my parents’ stories helped to bridge our generational differences, stories can be used to teach cultural competence and enhance self perception. Connecting these stories to larger systems in our society is a critical step in helping students to develop a sense of what leading for the public good truly means. Once we engage students through stories, it is essential to provide direct instruction in tangible cultural competency skills (see figure 1). Through telling stories, analyzing systems, and teaching skills, we hope that Nobles graduates are prepared to do their best work and bring out the best in others when collaborating with people with multicultural identities different from their own.
Along with the other members of the Diversity Initiatives team, I have spent the year listening to stories all over campus from various groups in diverse venues. From assembly to parent gatherings to middle school faculty meetings, it is clear that the process of knowing and understanding one another is well underway. Each community member’s perspective and experience is the most important thing they bring to school each day. The Nobles community is full of stories waiting to be told.
It is our hope that the stories and the learning continue at home. We encourage you to share stories with your children and take the time to listen to the stories of others in an effort to understand and connect. If you need inspiration, amazing resources exist to help with this task: the Storycorps website contains an archive of more than 65,000 stories from people all over the country and curates an impressive list of meaningful questions that can be used to inspire conversation. The stories my parents told me as we drove all over the country were not entirely unique to my family. The beauty of a story is that everyone can find a connection yet there are elements that make each tale completely unique. Next time you’re in the car, sharing a meal, or in a rush to get to the next activity, consider the time an opportunity to give and receive the gift of mirrors and windows.
In her poem “There Are No Honest Poems About Dead Women,” Audre Lorde asks, “What do we want from each other after we have told our stories?” In the Nobles community, stories are only the beginning. Stories foster understanding and inspire deeper learning and action. The whole process begins with a good question and an honest answer. So, what’s your story?