I believe in the power of storytelling to educate and transform both the person telling and the one listening. In my work I often listen to the professional stories of childcare teachers, directors and owners. These women, (for they’re still almost all women), came to this work out of a deep love of children and a calling to help them get the best start in life. I listen to their stories of the challenges they’ve faced in trying to do this work – the lack of adequate pay, benefits or even respect for what many people still think of as “babysitting”.
Partly because they are so busy fulfilling the roles of teacher, counselor, collection agent, bookkeeper, custodian, etc., these women are not used to taking time to sit and talk about their experience. Telling their stories of coping with multiple challenges gives them a chance to reflect on the experience. Keeping a business going while state child care payments are late, for example, is both a victory of creative entrepreneurship and a bitter experience of overdrawn accounts, late fees and frustration with an unresponsive bureaucracy. In the telling the story takes on significance in response to the interest of the listener. Empathy and attentiveness engender affirmation. The story teller feels “heard”.
Listening to stories is the first step of any effective organizing effort. How has this job or situation affected you? Organizers invite people to tell of their experience and then invite them to talk with others who’ve had similar experiences to see how they all might work together to make things better. When people gather to tell of their shared experience they find that their story resonates with others – they are no longer alone.
Women have a long tradition of story telling in our personal relationships. We build bonds of intimacy through empathetic listening. We often gain clarity about our feelings and desires after discussing things with a good friend. While it may be cathartic to tell a friend how hard it is when you’re not paid enough, it is a revelation to discover with others that your lack of adequate compensation is part of a collective inequity that can be more effectively solved together.
We can begin to heal our relationships, communities, countries and the world by listening attentively to one another.
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