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Getting It All Together, Now – by Joe Lambert

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Getting It All Together, Now – by Joe Lambert

Emily Paulos

Sometimes this job affords you amazing contrasts. Here is one week in April:

Tuesday afternoon. 

New Haven, Connecticut.

A mad dash to finish a group of stories by rambunctious teenagers. Hip hop music is playing. They are getting up and wandering around and laughing with each other. Especially the tall skinny kid from California; he seems like he belongs there, trading rap lyrics and talking smack.  

They must have been friends for years, right?

But most of these young people only met three days before.

Saturday afternoon.

Berkeley, California.

Four days later. 

Just before the screening. People sitting on the couch at the CDS office, relaxed and joking with each other. Tired but excited by what had been accomplished, and impressed they had survived it. "We should get together again in a month," says one. "Have I got your phone number?" None under seventy, four over eighty, you could see the teenager in every one of them.  

They had just had an adventure together.  

The initial idea of our All Together Now project centered around an intergenerational dialogue on civic engagement, on citizenship in the broadest sense, and on how we are called to purpose and service. As our first StoryLab initiative, we had in mind stories that shared together, provoked a conversation about issues, about life, about resilience, that could become a way for old and young to become aware of each other, to make each other more visible.  

But as we discussed it, our story work is often more successful when the conversations start in generational cohorts. So working with our partners, The Future Project, based in New York and New Haven, and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) in Berkeley, we decided to start with two more typical approaches: a workshop for youth and one for an older generation group. We wanted the stories from one to influence the other, but also to explore common themes that came out of each workshop, to encourage connections and conversations to follow.

As luck would have it, we scheduled the OLLI workshop for some dates in April, but soon after heard that the best time to get a group of Future Project teens would be the same spring break week in April. So there I was, looking at back to back workshops on each coast. Fortunately, the spring break also meant I could bring one of my favorite co-teachers, my seventeen-year-old son Massimo, and that "tall skinny kid" was a hit with the other youth.

The Future project stories ranged from dealing with bullying and overcoming low self-esteem, to witnessing violence, to engagement in social justice campaigns, to being forced to address one's independence at an early age. All of the youth had great stories, but a particularly apropos story was by Jesus Juarez, about a time in his middle school years when the introduction of Mitch Alborn's non-fiction novel, My Tuesdays with Morrie, effectively saved Jesus' life by helping him to gain perspective about life and meaning. Each of the stories demonstrated the resilience of the youth in the face of the all too normal social stress of middle and high school, as well as the added stress of living in vulnerable and underserved communities. Their voices demonstrated that they believe the future is theirs if they can find support and solidarity through working with organizations like the Future Project.

As we brought the stories to the group in Berkeley, they were struck with the maturity of these young people and how they, although still in high school, had already conceived of the value of finding purpose and compassion as critical to success and happiness in life. The OLLI group had many people who had rich and diverse experience as field leaders, activists, artists, and international travelers, as exemplified by Tony Platt, who shared a moving tribute describing his son's ritual memorial in Northern California, which helped lead to Tony's current activism on the repatriation of remains of Native and Indigenous people who became objects of study and collection by anthropologists, museums and others. 

But mainly these experiences, like most digital storytelling workshops, were about coming together around the power of story.

As Sarah Tankoos, New Haven Future Project coordinator, said, "It was amazing!!!!!! The students created such a beautiful community across the three participating schools. It was truly a creative independent learning experience for all of the students."

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And Lorraine Parma, a participant in the OLLI workshop, wrote, "We were challenged to dig deeper in our personal stories to gain more understanding of ourselves and the historical period we have lived and are currently living through. It was a profound experience. We all seemed to search for a way to connect with the big world out there in a deep and meaningful way."

In the coming months, CDS will be sharing the stories in pairs from the two workshops, encouraging a cross generational perspective on how to meet the challenges of the 21st Century through story.