Our Storytellers PLUS ME program is one of my favorite programs to facilitate with PLUS ME because of the consistently surprising and transformative results we see. On any given presentation day the students file into the classrooms on their cell phones, laughing with each other in their small, carefully selected cliques. They sit in dispersed fashion and often have very little idea about what they are about to engage in with Storytellers.
I introduce myself and the Storytellers program and we begin our discussion on how to talk about our personal experiences in a safe way. If I told the students what they would be sharing by the end of the class, they would mostly say, ‘No way! Not me,’ and possibly walk out of the classroom at that point. This is precisely why I love this work. A real transformation takes place from the beginning to the end of these workshops.
Individuals are shifted and more centered in some very important and healing ways. There is an adjustment from a highly defensive posture to a softened and more open way of presenting oneself, as well as a willingness to connect and support one another.
I am always so heartened and astonished when I watch students take a step to share their personal story, to lay themselves bare and vulnerable in front of their peers with sometimes just a small anecdote from their life. What unfolds is so much more than they expect. They, for often the first time, own a challenge in their life, allow this challenge to be witnessed by many, and then the magic happens, they are well received. They are listened to, honored, and are exposed to a space where they can be exactly who they are in that moment. Who they are is an unapologetically open person who has been compromised, experienced great loss, encountered abuse, or any other number of personal tragedies most of us experience but feel we must tuck away in order to be seen as sufficient, competent, strong, or acceptable.
What we as a society have backwards, Storytellers gets right. As adults we are often so busy tailoring our story to our selected audiences, be it co-workers, family and friends, or partners. We do this so we can get our needs met and to be deserving of love. The unexpected truth is this: it is our honest stories and tales of our struggles that draw people in and bring us the support and connection we truly long for and desire.
To watch these young students get an opportunity to be seen by others for life experiences they thought would make them less than or unloveable is a remarkable and moving event each time. They receive support and validation and see how connection truly works.
How does connection truly work? When we reveal the truth of our situations and who we are, we also reveal the place in us where others can connect with us. And shockingly this moving and transformative experience of being open and receiving quality support from peers is only part of what Storytellers does.
Never before have I worked with a program that accomplishes so much with such simplicity. This very modest and clear formula creates a vast and multi-dimensional impact. The first dimension is the personal. The students get a chance to introspect and to be asked questions about themselves, their successes and challenges and other life events. This is a rare time where the student is able to look at his or her life in a safe space with no demands put on them and their perspective is validated. As the students begin to share parts of their stories they realize something deeply comforting, “I am not the only one.” The students come to see they aren’t alone in facing struggles and quite often someone in the class is going through the same thing. This invariably builds up the students and inspires hope in them.
This sharing leads to the second dimension Storytellers accomplishes, the interpersonal. The students are able (through the willingness to accept the vulnerability of sharing their story) to connect and relate to their peers in the classroom. Bonds are built, and in addition to realizing they aren’t alone in the struggle, the students often find they have a new friend or two in their network. The program introduces the idea of a social network that can be a source of support and compassion. We encourage students to stay in touch with the people in the class and support one another as a new network.
Finally we reach a third dimension, professional. Storytellers offers the transformative experience of having control over one’s life narrative. An empowering shift occurs starting from ‘this happened to me’ to ‘I survived this challenge because of my qualities and strengths.’ This new perspective sets students up for a powerful ‘can do’ attitude in their lives. Students are able to then have an empowered story they can tell the world when applying for work, grants/scholarships, or college applications.
Which leads us to one of the most practical applications of the Storytellers program. At the completion of the Storytellers workshop students have created a comprehensive portfolio of challenging events in their lives, personal strengths that got them through, and lessons learned. They have now accessed the content they need to write their personal statements for their college applications.
As Alice Walker said, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” By the end of our Storytellers seminar the students better understand their personal power and the power contained in their peer network. They are set on the path to live their highest potential with their greatest assets, themselves and the strength of their story.
Please reach out to the PLUS ME project for opportunities for the students in your life!
Jessica Campain is a presenter with the PLUS ME project. She has a passion for working with groups while facilitating people in self-exploration, connection, and empowerment.