Storytelling, Identity, Social Change

April 9, 2015
Inside the razor-wire fence surrounding Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center, students learn how storytelling can incite social change

Sixteen students arrive at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center to a 10-foot-high chain-link fence laced with razor wire. They identify themselves and the gate ratchets open. Guards greet them just inside the nondescript brick building, verify they’re allowed on-site, and search everyone. Only IDs and jackets are allowed beyond this point. The guards alert their counterparts in the dining hall and the women’s residential cottage and the students enter.

At first glance, it may not seem like these 16 University students have much in common with the residents they meet at Bon Air. But as they begin to share stories of comfort and safety, of family and friends, it’s soon apparent that the lives of teenagers — whether inside these austere walls or at a liberal arts college less than five miles away — maybe aren’t so different.

Those connections, built over personal stories shared in a safe community, are the idea behind Storytelling, Identity, and Social Change, a First-Year Seminar taught by Terry Dolson of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement.

Contrary to what most would claim about this generation, Dolson says being self-revelatory doesn’t come easy for her students. Maybe it’s the personal nature of the stories, or the in-person contact that doesn’t allow for a perfectly crafted, social media-ready message, but, she says, “there are some real contradictions there.”

To help her students practice telling thoughtful stories and build trust in their audience, Dolson begins the course with a series of storytelling prompts around simple topics: remember a time when you felt safe or remember the first time you ate a food you hated.

“I try to get them to place it in time and place,” she says. “Keep it simple; don’t try to make it too complicated. A story is just something that has, at this stage, a beginning, a middle, an end, and a person.”

Other students in the class practice active listening — being present and paying deep attention to the storyteller before repeating the story back to the teller.

They then take these storytelling and listening skills to Bon Air, where they mentor residents preparing for release in the coming weeks.

“So many of the girls and the young men are like them in their interests,” Dolson says. “One of the things students have been saying is how it would be awful to be only known for one story, one episode from your life, and for that to be your whole identity. And that’s kind of what happens to kids who end up in Bon Air. It’s where kids go when they’ve been convicted of a crime and have to serve time.”

Dolson hopes these conversations encourage Richmond students to recognize and value their own privileges and, perhaps, begin thinking about how others could have more access to the same opportunities.

That’s the turning point where she prompts the class to consider storytelling in a broader context — namely, can social change movements benefit from effective storytelling? In class, she cites examples from the Holocaust and emancipation to sexual assault prevention and, of course, the problems in the justice system.

“So much in academia is about de-personalizing so you can be objective. But facts don’t change hearts and minds,” she says. “In order to make change on a large scale, you have to win people over, to care enough about the cause to take risks, because change is so hard. Personal stories have a huge place in doing that.”