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Storytelling Brings the Two-Gen Approach To Life

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Storytelling Brings the Two-Gen Approach To Life

As pundits and politicians are beginning to more openly address income inequality and struggling families, the piece that is often left out of these arguments is the complexity of the human stories: real, diverse narratives of joy and sorrow, strength and weakness, love and powerful dreams.

Storytelling, after all, has the power to move hearts and minds toward action. “So often poor people and those who partner with them are spoken about in abstract, dehumanizing ways,” says Courtney Martin of Valenti Martin Media. “So often we’re subjected to the danger of the single story. In the real work of the world, a lot of important responses are being architected. A lot of important solutions are happening. Unfortunately, the media isn’t covering them well.”

Equally absent are portrayals of strength that showcase the assets that people who have struggled through dire times can leverage to change their own situations. At the 2014 Aspen ThinkXChange, five inspiring leaders from two-generation organizations shared brave glimpses into their lives. Each represents an under-told narrative that illustrates the urgent need to transcend a one-dimensional portrait of poverty in America.

While none of the speakers had met prior to the Aspen ThinkXChange, their poignant stories reflect common themes, such as the generational impacts of poverty, individualism versus collective responsibility, and the power of resilience, love, and relationships. Some of these leaders have broken the cycle of intergenerational poverty in their own lives and use their experiences to bring an intentional lens not only to their work, but also to how to best share these stories with the next generation. They build on the best of the Aspen Institute’s initiatives that strive for fresh narratives, from Aspen Ideas Festival to AspenX.

Martin and her partner, Vanessa Valenti, encourage social justice leaders to consider the framework created by Marshall Ganz when preparing to tell their own stories to advance change. “Public narrative is a leadership art through which we translate values into action, engaging heart, head, and hands,” Ganz says. This means telling one’s story through three distinct but equally important lenses: the story of “you,” which allows others to experience the values that move us to lead; the story of “us,” making common cause with a broader community whose values we share; and the story of “now,” which calls us to act, so we can shape the future in ways consistent with our values. Martin and Valenti used these three tenets when guiding five ThinkXChange speakers through their own narratives. The impact — both in-person at the forum and as an ongoing lesson for participants — is that structured, authentic storytelling can move and inspire leaders toward action, while encouraging a greater sense of connectivity and empathy among policy makers, practitioners, the public, and families themselves.

KYLE WARK

Tlingit Kyle Wark is an indigenous researcher and policy analyst with the First Alaskans Institute. He grew up in Hoonah, Alaska, where he was exposed to alcoholism and trauma, which he attributes to a dark history of colonial oppression of native peoples. These abuses fractured the rich culture of his people and broke the story-driven chain of Tlingit knowledge that extends back thousands of years. He lives in Alaska.

I know what despair means. I know what no hope looks like. I don’t know what all hopeless situations feel like. I haven’t been the lowest of the low, but I toured the depths. I lived in darkness, fought against darkness, and am now slowly emerging from the darkness. But I could not have done it alone. My grandpa, who struggled so hard with alcohol when I was a little boy did finally shake it off. He would sit me by his knee and tell me stories when I was 2, 3, 4 years old. He was my first teacher. He got angry at my brother and me once for not listening closely enough. He said, “It’s important for you boys to hear these stories so you know who you are and where you come from.” He saved my life because he shared his stories with us, because he cared if we listened.

We [often] say the shortest distance between two people is a story. You can dismiss the data, you can disbelieve an institutional or systemic racism because it’s too hard to see, but you can’t dismiss someone’s story. That story is what they lived. It’s their truth. Sharing a story can open people’s eyes to a world they never knew existed. When I do our work, when I share our story with members of our community, I know what my ancestors felt like, standing at the head of the assembled families, the clans, the koo.éex’  a funeral potlatch, because my Tlingit people knew that words have power. Power to heal, power to protect, and power to harm if used unwisely. Because my Tlingit people knew that our ancestors laid down the path that we who follow walk down. That path is paved with stories. These things I’ve lived through I inherited from my ancestors, the good and the bad. What I make of them is my own, though. My own story to compose and tell as I choose. May I choose wisely, and may you do the same.

KATIE BECKER

When Katie Becker was 18 months old, her parents moved to a cabin with no running water or electricity in the mountains of North Carolina. They had no support system and did not believe in government assistance. Today, Katie Becker is a recent law school graduate and the proud mother of “the Becker Boys,” her three sons, who watched her transition from food stamps and subsidized housing to financial stability and abundance. She is based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Growing up in this environment shaped that lens through which I saw both the world and myself. The way I saw myself was “less than,” “not good enough.” But here’s the good news. Dirt creates determination. Being in that environment, being exposed to that chaos gave me the driving desire, the impetus, to lift myself away from that situation and out of poverty. I had a case worker once ask me when I was going to stop getting pregnant. And another one who told me I should just go get a job at Walmart and stop spending all this time on school. But I also had folks who met me where I was, who understood that I was coming from a wounded place, and who recognized that grit and steely determination that I had to lift myself and my sons out of poverty.

Here’s the charge for all of us. This work that we do can be deeply, emotionally impactful. There can be a tendency to disconnect from that emotion because it gets to be overwhelming, but the truth is that when we disconnect from the emotion, the emotional connection to why we do this work, we lose that passion and the connection to the people we’re serving. We must meet people where they are. We must dig in and get beyond that single story, and we can’t do that if we use programming as a shield. Rather, what we need to do is come down from the mountain, so to speak, and be humble and curious about the people we are serving. I am a living testament that poverty can be eradicated in one generation — when people are willing to meet grit and determination with humble, open, and curious minds.

AUTUMN GREEN

Autumn Green is an award-winning sociologist and the director of the Keys to Degrees National Replication Program, based in Boston, Massachusetts. At age 15, she met a street youth with “piercing green eyes and the most vexing high cheekbones.” By age 16, she was married and pregnant. As she struggled to complete her college degrees, her husband sank into drug abuse and her life spiraled into a dazed mix of anger, confusion, and depression.

“I know that it is absolutely crazy, but sometimes you do crazy things when you’re in love.”
My name is Autumn Green, and I am a formerly low-income mother who has benefitted from many of the programs and services that represent the shared, collective work of the people in this room.

OK, I’m going start over. My name is Autumn Green, and I’m an award-winning sociologist and policy expert and national director developing cutting-edge work on postsecondary strategies for two-generation mobility. To the world, these two different introductions represent two very different people. Some might even think that one can’t be both one and the other. But what I think is that it’s very important to be both one and the other and to recognize that we don’t have to be either/or. In my life, and in all our lives, we are both/and. I am both the low-income mother working her way through community college that I was as a teenage mom, and I’m the policy expert that I am today. But what’s funny is that these tropes and these false narratives, and people telling me that I had to be either/or, have actually helped me to find my life’s path.

The thing is, what happened to me is something that happens to all of us at some point in our lives — challenges and problems that we’re just simply not prepared for. But it’s funny how the more challenges you’re faced with, the more pushback and judgment you get from other people. When I first applied for assistance in Boston, my case worker demanded to my face, “Why should I give some white girl from Oregon some food stamps when there are other people who really need the help? Go back to Oregon.” I was bombarded for years with the message that whatever I did, I was bound to end up in a trailer park chasing around five kids while making ends meet through a combination of low-wage jobs and state public assistance. What’s problematic here is the trope. Because I am in fact a white girl from Oregon, my trope happened to be the trailer park. But if I was from a more urban place, or if I was African-American or Latina, the trope might be a little different, but the message would be the same: that we are bound for nothing because of the decisions we made early in life.

When my daughter was about 9 or 10, I was sitting on my bed typing out my testimony to Congress about expansion of higher education opportunities within TANF reauthorization. She came in and asked me what I was doing. So I told her, “I’m writing a letter to Congress about why moms should get to go to school,” and she told me, “I want to write one too.” Her letter read, “If my mom hadn’t gone to school, I wouldn’t have the nice things that I have. We wouldn’t have our nice house or very many nice clothes. We probably wouldn’t even have as much food.” She ended with a declaration about how all parents should be able to go to school in order to provide a better life for their children. And then she colored the whole thing with carefully crayoned rainbow stripes. We can’t forget that children are part of the journey. And that they’re also beginning their own journeys. When we look into the face of a child, we don’t see tropes or stereotypes other than innocence and potential. We must begin to see their parents as just as full of that potential. We must not see their lives through the tropes and force them into the either/or boxes.

C. BENZEL JIMMERSON

C. Benzel Jimmerson was one of nine siblings with the same largely absentee father, whose children had six different mothers. At age 18, he’d been arrested four times and kicked out of school, losing seven athletic scholarships and two-and-a-half years to the streets as a result. Today Jimmerson is a father to two boys and a girl, an entrepreneur, and program coordinator for the Colorado State University Denver Extension Office’s CYFAR-Family Leadership Training Institute.

In my first memories of my father, he’s not even there. My mother would be talking on the phone in the other room, and I would hear her joyous laughter. Then I would hear angry arguing, then I would hear the phone slam, and then I would hear painful crying. She was too strong and proud to ever come out of that room before she had stopped. I remember the helplessness that I felt. I could not defend my mother, who gave us unconditional love and modeled all things right. She tried so hard to raise me right, but there were just too many things she couldn’t teach me about men because she just simply didn’t understand them.

Today I have three children – Dejave, 12; Najave, 11; and Benzel Amir, 8 months. I am committed to doing everything in my power to stay in their lives, to being engaged in their growth, to ensure that every step on the way they can depend on me to validate them, respect them, tell them that they can do anything that they put their minds, their hands, and their hearts to doing. And just to love them unconditionally. It is my joy and my duty to guide, guard, and govern my children and my home. These are things that are my duty as a father, despite my relationship with the mom, despite my financial position, and despite any other obstacle or circumstance that life might throw at me. I have succeeded at breaking the cycle. My babies know themselves and me wholly. And even when a program or system might fail them, their mothers and I co-parent to ensure they can’t. It is critical for every child to have a caring male and a caring female to understand the balance and be whole.

I made many mistakes along the way, but society is equally responsible. Our family court system puts more emphasis on punitive measures and financial responsibility than the most important elements of fathering: time and engagement. As a result of this, many children growing up in one of the most complex ages in history are bombarded with negative media, tremendous social pressures, profit-driven agendas, and a celebrity culture in which one song by a musician or statement by an athlete can impact more children in our country than hundreds of programs that are available to them. I believe that there are two kinds of children: those guided by the streets, the media, popular culture, money, and power, or those guided by two nurturing parents. We must make our primary focus the awakening of the American people and the creation of a collective conscience and culture that drowns out the perpetuation of our current individualistic society. We all need help sometimes no matter how tough we are.

When I was preparing for my first appearance here at the Aspen Institute, and I was getting ready to be on a panel, I went outside and called my kids and said, “What can I possibly do to be a better father?” My son, who is a thoughtful introvert, said, “Well dad, really, nothing. I love you. And you love me. And I couldn’t possibly ask for more.” I wanted to cry in that moment. As many mistakes as I’ve made and the places I’ve been, that is how they internalize our relationship.

AISHA NYANDORO

Granddaughter of famed civil rights activist L.C. Dorsey, Aisha Nyandoro learned about the delicacies of community engagement and constituent voice while listening to her family discuss racial, political, social, and educational issues around the dinner table. Today she is the executive director of Springboard to Opportunities in Jackson, Mississippi.

As a child, I saw and heard firsthand the anger and frustration that occurs when individuals feel as if their thoughts, ideas, and opinions are not figured into the equation of change. These early lessons have allowed me to develop my greatest asset. My secret weapon when working in vulnerable communities is compassion. Compassion is important when working in communities with limited financial resources, because in many instances it is so rare. Most poor people have limited access to individuals in power, and when these interactions do occur, they’re typically around rules and regulations. You can’t do this or you’ll lose your housing. You must do that in order to maintain your SNAP benefits. Who wants to be treated like this? Who wants to be handled, but more importantly, who are we to make people feel like this simply because of an economic divide? Rarely do interactions occur that are built on mutual respect. Real change requires deeper relationships. Mutual relationships require trust. Trust requires compassion. My role as founding executive director of Springboard to Opportunities is built on this magical progression. Compassion leads to trust, trust leads to relationship, relationship leads to change.

Developing relationships does not occur overnight. It takes time and accountability. For me, this involves showing up at PTA meetings so that parents know I care about their kids; providing my cell number with instructions to call or text me any time, day or night; and having a system in place that does not recognize hierarchies — no titles, first names only. We are all on the same team working toward the same goal. I am so passionate about that last point that I have two sets of business cards. One that shows my credentials and the other without.

When you have an authentic relationship with someone, they trust you not only with their challenges, but also with their dreams. I urge all of us to understand that just because someone lives in poverty does not mean that their dreams need to be impoverished. My granny was the embodiment of this reality. Born into poverty, a sharecropper, she was a high school dropout, teenage mother, married with a kid by the time she was 17. She had six kids by the time she was 26. Her story could have ended here, but it didn’t. Not only did she complete her education, she received a doctorate in social work, and she went on to use her advocacy in civil rights work to improve conditions for others. When she died, there were governors at her funeral. I don’t know how she did it. But I am so grateful that her bloodline flows through me.

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