“When I told my story in our small breakout session, I got the whole point of storytelling. It’s a way to initiate conversation. That’s when other folks were asking me, ‘How is your brother a U.S. citizen, but you’re undocumented? How come your parents didn’t do it this way or that way?’ That’s when you actually sit down and have the conversation about this is how our legal system works. For example, my mother had her work sponsorship from 2001, and it wasn’t until like last year that her appeal for residency was even taken into consideration. That’s when you can talk about the 10-year backlog in our current immigration system. You can talk about what it’s like to be a youth living through that with no control of the matter. But it’s that initial storytelling that opens up that conversation.”
This is the ninth in our series of StoryCenter blog posts that share voices relating to All Together Now, 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. We’re featuring one of the youngest participants – Yves Gomes, the 21 year-old Maryland resident quoted above who took part in our Washington, DC workshop on November 9th – and one of the most experienced in the power of storytelling – Kelly Navies, Oral Historian and Special Collections Librarian in the Washingtoniana and Black Studies Divisions at the DC Public Library, who has been recording interviews with 1963 March on Washington veterans and which sponsored the DC workshop.
Kelly deeply understands the power of storytelling. “When you’re talking about an oral history, there’s the connection made between the oral historian and the person who is telling the story, for one. Both people are ultimately changed in that process: the person who’s listening is learning from the experience of another, and the person who’s reflecting on their own story is gaining more insight. When it reaches another person –the public, a researcher – it’s interpreted for the next generation or for others outside of that particular story. So an oral history really has an endless life. In terms of American history, it forces us to address issues in our past that many people don’t want to address. One way to heal is to listen to these stories, to tell these stories, and to keep these stories going. It inspires people to act, to reflect on their own lives and their own stories, to connect with shared experiences, to think about things they never thought about before.”
Kelly is passionate about preserving the knowledge that emerges from our direct experience. “We talk about the civil rights movement, but it never really ended. Things wax and wane, and we’re just in a different phase. The main thing we need to do now is pass the story down to the young people who don’t know. There are so many things that people coming up now or moving here from different places don’t understand about the struggle here, and of course, it’s related to the struggle around the world as well. That’s why it’s just so important to do this work. Because the only way to make progress is when things are passed down – otherwise you go into some kind of dark ages: things are lost, knowledge that has been acquired is lost. During the so-called dark ages, people stopped reading and speaking the language and that’s kind of what we’re going through now. We’re losing a lot of information due to technology; I’ve lost a bunch of stuff that’s on floppy disks. People aren’t reading books, they aren’t listening to old music. If it’s not on the internet, they’re not interested, so there is this huge gap of knowledge that’s being created. Something like All Together Now is really important, actually bringing people together in a circle to face each other. It’s a kind of thing that doesn’t happen so much anymore, so it’s very powerful."
You can find Yves’ story, “The Spider Bite,” along with dozens of other great All Together Now stories at the All Together Now portal on Cowbird.com. His has the hallmarks of a classic awakening narrative. Until Yves’ young life was disrupted by the arrest and deportation of his father, he told us, “I thought that, ‘Okay, I’m just here. I’m here to do the least work possible, I’m just an average middle-class American kid. I don’t really care about this. I just want to do school, I want to hang out, I want to have fun.’ I didn’t really see the importance of giving back to my community or being socially active about the issues around me. It wasn’t until my world was turned upside down, until my family was snatched away from my hands, when I was facing deportation, that I realized how much I used to take for granted. For me, at the core of the issue was realizing the kind of privilege I’ve had growing up. That’s what enables me to connect with others as well, because I’ve lived most of my life as a legal immigrant in this country; it wasn’t until recently, since I’ve been living as undocumented, I got to see the sharp contrast in the two communities. That motivates me further to educate others on the issue.”
Yves has been living into that motivation through work with two different organizations. The Maryland Dream Youth Committee is one of about 50 groups in the national immigrant youth-led United We Dream coalition. He knocked on doors, raised money, gave talks, and organized for the successful passage of the Maryland DREAM Act last year. And he recently got involved with South Asian Americans Leading Together, a cosponsor of the Washington, DC Storied Session, telling us that “I plan to work alongside SAALT even more, especially in efforts to get more Asian stories in our immigration debate, because I feel like our voice is not represented and we’re still too afraid to share our voice.”
There are still a few workshops left in this series (and we hope there will be more to come). To apply to take part or to find out how to sponsor a workshop, please visit our web site. 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.
In 2010, Yves was one of a very few undocumented individuals who were granted deferred action, which has allowed him to remain in the U.S. and enroll in college. If you google his name, you’ll find countless news stories, a Facebook page entitled “Stop the deportation of Yves Gomes,” and many more expressions of support and solidarity. Yves feels that telling his story was key: “One of the ways I got my friends to be involved was through sharing my story. My best friends, some of them are pretty conservative. And my worst fear was that they’re going to judge me, and what if they don’t want to be friends with me? But for me to come out and actually share my story, and to have them be so receptive of it, and to actually be so willing to really hear me out and want to understand how I was put in this situation, I think that was definitely the most amazing thing. Then to have them come out and actually sign petitions for me and put together events to make sure I was going to be staying in the country, and to come out to rallies and to come out to marches, that’s something that I never would have seen as possible if I had not told my story.”
What will your story inspire? All Together Now is asking for your stories: stories about human rights, and stories about bridging generation gaps to stand together. This is your opportunity. This All 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?
Please join StoryCenter and our great partners – national partners The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, Color of Change, Equal Justice Society, International Museum of Women, Cowbird, and CommunisPR; and local partners Alternate Roots, American Friends Service Committee, Denver, History Colorado, Coloradans for Immigrants Rights, Greater Phoenix Urban League, DC Public Library, Painted Bride Art Center, Rosa Parks Museum, Warm Cookies of the Revolution, Austin Coming Together, Kennedy Heights Arts Center, Dominican University, Intertribal Friendship House, California Foundation for Independent Living Centers' Youth Organizing! Disabled and Proud, Elizabeth City Alumnae Chapter Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, AARP Pasquotank County Chapter, Elizabeth City Pasquotank County Community Relations Commission, Elizabeth City Cornerstone Missionary Baptist Church, Delta Iota Chapter of Omega Psi Phi, Elizabeth City Hope Group, Youth Media Project, Sankofa House, Enlace Chicago, 900 AM WURD, Leeway Foundation, Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, GriotWorks, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, South Asian Americans Leading Together, and Association for the Study of African American Life and History – in this wonderful project. All together now!