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The Value of Storytelling

By Crystal Belle, Director of Teacher Eduation, Rutgers University - Newark

We are always telling stories, whether we are texting, posting an image on social media, or sharing a video that resonates with our cultural, racial, and linguistic ways of being and knowing. The stories we share are inherently tied to our personal ideologies and assumptions and often conjure up like-minded communities of people who will nod, clap, and validate our experiences. However, it is important to consider the stories we do not tell, and the stories we typically do not identify with, based on our conscious desire to remain within the corners of our respective social spheres. Striving for a more social justice oriented way of empathizing with those who may be different from us requires us to become uncomfortable and to step outside of our social and cultural networking bubbles. We can do this through storytelling, too.

This collection of narratives, from the exhibit In|Dignity at California State University San Bernardino, tells stories of “Others” from the Inland Empire community of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Notable Palestinian scholar and professor Edward Said put forth, “Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other” (Yannis, 2012). For the purpose of this exhibition, othering was considered broadly to include race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability, but also incarceration, addiction, heritage, career, size, and nationality, among other aspects of life experience, identity, and difference.

When individuals typically deemed “other” share their stories firsthand, a third space (Bhaba, 2004) is formed, centering a counternarrative that pushes against traditional conceptions of whose stories matter. In a nation that is currently riddled with white supremacy and a deep misunderstanding of communities that are at the margins (immigrants, low-income families, queer people, etc.), it is imperative to hear stories from the people whose lives are often misconceived and negatively impacted by unjust policies, societal “norms,” and the status quo. The philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1984) has suggested that “no human practice other than storytelling better conveys how and why people have motivated intention to fulfill their desires and accomplish their goals. We are storied selves” (Ingraham, 2016). As such, an opportunity to dismantle bias and prejudice presents itself by hearing firsthand from those whose stories are outside of the mainstream, and placing ourselves in their shoes.

Storytelling is one of the oldest ways of sharing and receiving information. What makes this collection unique and essential at this point in history is the intersectional approach to storytelling that it allows for – rather than flattening the narratives into one-dimensional stereotyped portraits of diversity, these stories directly address the complexities of overlapping and sometimes conflicting identities and experiences, the anguish of hidden and invisible identities, and the damage that even positive stereotypes can inflict. The material is presented through a subtle academic and sociological lens that connects institutions, cultures and identities, allowing visitors to the exhibition – and now the readers of this volume – to pause in seeing their world from a different perspective, but without bogging them down with jargon and theory. The multimedia approach to storytelling through images and audio, coupled with thought provoking concept cards, further offers the reader multiple opportunities to engage with the narratives personally and politically, which is essential for creating a more equitable world.

The use of personal stories as a research tool is a distinctive aspect of narrative qualitative inquiry that produces understanding through “collaboration between researcher and participants, over time, in a place or series of places, and in social interaction with milieus” (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). Though these stories emerged through the encounter of strangers – researcher and research subject – the narratives are neither impersonal nor sterile. The participants’ stories are directly relevant to their cultural and social contexts, covering an array of themes such as: immigration, social justice, dismantling stereotypes, criminal (in)justice and identity. Through these intersecting stories, one can begin to have a deeper understanding of diverse human experiences that may be similar or different from our own. Adopting a culturally relevant approach to navigating the world (Ladson-Billings, 1995) implores us to challenge our own personal, political and cultural biases, in order to see those who are typically rendered invisible in various aspects of society.

In addition to individual use, this exhibition catalog is valuable to teaching in several disciplines, including but not limited to education, sociology, literature, anthropology, and history, as it centers the human experience as a means for transforming the world. Using personal narratives as a curricular resource can support the development of empathy and respect for cultural differences in classrooms across the nation. Such a reader can appeal to secondary and post-secondary instructors, creating a space for students to reflect on their own lives while encouraging them to create intersectional narratives of their own.

As you read through In|Dignity, think about your own positionality in this nation. How do you see yourself and others? Do you put yourself in spaces that are outside of your daily routine? Have you ever experienced or practiced discrimination against someone else? How do you navigate the world racially, culturally, socially and linguistically? These are the questions, among others, that we must ask ourselves often, while observing how our own realities compare to the lives of others who are different from us. By asking questions of ourselves and considering the lives of others, we have the power and the potential to become a more humanizing, loving, and empathetic society that embraces the diversity of the human experience.

Homi K. Bhaba. 2004. The Location of Culture
Dean Clandinin and F. Michael Connelly. 2000. Narrative Inquiry
Chris Ingraham. 2016. “The Scope and Autonomy of Personal Narrative”
Gloria Landson-Billings. 1995. “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy”
Paul Ricoeur. 1984. Time and Narrative
Gabriel Yannis. 2012. “The Other and Othering – A Short Introduction”

Essay by Crystal Belle originally appeared as "Foreword" in the In|Dignity Exhibition Catalog (2018), ed. Arianna Huhn. San Bernardino: CSUSB Printing Services.