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Breaking Down Walls: All Together Now Civil and Human Rights – by Arlene Goldbard

STORYCENTER Blog

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

Breaking Down Walls: All Together Now Civil and Human Rights – by Arlene Goldbard

Ary Smith

“I got very emotional when I read my story aloud in the first story circle before the recording. Probably it’s because November was the month when Esther passed away; this is the fifth anniversary of her death. When I said that line about the anniversary of her death, I just broke. I felt so vulnerable because I was embarrassed and then Mr. Westmoreland said, ‘Just breathe.’ That was when I was able to actually sit up and continue to read the rest of what I had written. Then when I actually did the recording, I didn’t cry. I started to get choked up toward the end, and I got choked up when Eugenia played it back. But when I actually recorded it, I didn’t cry. I’ll never forget that, when Mr. Westmoreland just said, ‘Breathe.’"

Alexis Storch is speaking of the moving story she made about her friend Esther Haas, which you can find along with a growing body of other great ATN stories at the All Together Now portal on Cowbird.com. Esther survived the Holocaust, and when Alexis at 19 met Esther and heard her story, she was inspired to the work that has infused her life ever since. Alexis is Director of Educational Outreach at the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Educationin Cincinnati. “When I go to Pittsburgh,” Alexis says in her story, “I visit Esther’s grave and I tell her not to worry, that her story lives on and will forever live on in me.” She took part in a November 16th All Together NowStoried Session, part of StoryCenter’s series of free civil and human rights workshops designed to bring generations together to learn from each other what it means to stand for our rights. The fellow participant who encouraged her to breathe that day was Carl Westmoreland, a civil rights movement veteran and curator of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

This is the tenth in our series of StoryCenter blog posts that share voices relating to All Together Now, and like other ATN workshops, it features individuals who have led very different lives, who have never before met, but whose sharing of stories showed them as lifelong allies in the task of breaking down walls.

Alexis told us she was thrilled to take part in the All Together Now workshop with civil and human rights heroes. “I was very excited to go. Then when Jim Rulli sent out the email that listed the other individuals who I would be sharing my story with, I about dropped out of my chair. These are people who I had always admired and looked up to, particularly Carl Westmoreland and Marion Spencer [honored in the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame]. I told Ms. Spencer that we had just created a traveling exhibit here at the Center that looks at individuals who stood by and stood up during the Holocaust; our last panel is on upstanders in our Cincinnati community and she’s one of those upstanders. It was one of the most rewarding days I’ve had, just to be surrounded by individuals who are so passionate and dedicated to the cause of civil rights.”

Jim Rulli is President of the Board of the Kennedy Heights Arts Center, and it was his idea to host the ATN workshop. “I’m on the StoryCenter email list because I attended a digital storytelling session about 10 years ago with my wife out in Berkeley. We went through the 3-day workshop, so I knew how they could help people tell their stories. That was the impetus, to say I know the good work that the Center for Digital Storytelling can do in helping people tell stories and this is a good opportunity for us as an art center to really practice our mission, to build community through the arts.” The Arts Center was started by a diverse group of neighbors who pooled and raised resources to rescue an historic building that was slated to be torn down to make way for a self-storage business. “The art center itself is 10 years old, and it’s a very strong community with that interracial community coming together to save a building that was going to be demolished because they felt the community was losing too many businesses and it was heading toward that dangerous situation of possible blight. So now the art center has had a great 10-year run and is actually looking at another property to expand.

“Sharing the stories in our community will make it a tighter, stronger community, building bonds,” Jim told us. “It is a diverse community, and the African Americans and the non-African Americans need to sit down and continue to talk to each other about what they’ve gone through and what they’re currently going through. I think the impact of doing this and listening to stories helps on a community-wide basis, but it’s also very helpful for the individual.”

Jim sees much more potential for storywork in his community. “I think this is the beginning of something. We haven’t planned it yet, but I think we will use this last experience as a jumping-off point to introduce it to the larger community. We’re definitely interested in having the Center come back, but also all of our participants or as many as can come back and do a panel discussion for a larger group in the community to explain what we did, show them the stories, and then – again this has not been fully baked – think about what’s the next step? I know there’s more stories to tell that are more locally connected and I think that would be helpful for the Kennedy Heights community here to talk to each other, to learn from each other, and to use that to strengthen the community.”

Talking about sharing across generational lines, Alexis told us, “I know the youth is not a lost generation. There are a lot of us who are still actively engaged and make it a priority to ensure that every person regardless of race, regardless of religion, regardless of sexual orientation, will have a right to happiness and equal rights. If one group of people isn’t given equal human rights, that effects all of us. My hope is that through hearing my story, those who did so much to pave the way for those in my generation and younger than me, that we understand how much they did to set the foundation for us, and that has never – at least on my watch – has never been forgotten in our lives.

“Even I have these moments where I’ll be working with one group of students at the Center and they’ll be so actively engaged, and then I’ll work with another group of students that haven’t even heard of the genocide in Darfur, which occurred on all of our watches. And I’m just like, ‘What is going on, how did you not know this?’ And I get frustrated, but I have to always remind myself that I need to turn that frustration into action and use that as fuel to say, ‘Okay, that just means I need to do more.’”

There are still a couple of workshops left in this series. We hope there will be more to come. If you’d like to help expand All Together Now, please donate to our Indiegogo campaign(and get some great premiums in return). To apply to take part or to find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our website. Whether or not there's a workshop in your town, you will be able to access the growing collection of stories on our Cowbird.com All Together Now page and eventually, to add your own story.

Alexis concluded with a gratifying statement. “I think this project that you’re doing is so powerful at breaking down walls that often separate. Through sharing stories and telling each other stories we see how we’re all really connected in so many ways. This use of story is incredibly powerful, so I really thank you for everything are doing to make this come alive.”

How will your story break down walls? All Together Now is asking for your stories about standing for human rights and bridging generation gaps to stand togetherThis is your opportunity. ThisAll Together Now project is StoryCenter’s gift to young people and elders across the nation. There is still time to apply to take part in a free workshop. What does it mean to you today: the legacy of fifty years ago, and all of the people who have stood for their civil and human rights since? How does your own story connect?