Staff members Anna Passero-Koennecke and Michael Jack O’Brien interviewed Amanda Vopat and Max Lynch, members of the Social Innovation Collaboratory about an event being hosted this Wednesday called ‘Our Story.’ This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Michael Jack O’Brien “Can you tell us your name and student organization?”
Amanda Vopat: My name is Amanda Vopat and the organization is Social Innovation Collaboratory, but for Our Story, although it is being run under the Collaboratory, we’re really branding it as a Fordham event and not a Social Innovation event.”
Anna Passero-Koennecke “Can you tell us a little bit about what Social Innovation does on Fordham’s Campus? Are there some other examples of what you’ve done in the past? You’re a pretty unique organization.”
MJO “Yeah, this is the first we’ve seen this on our campus, as far as I’m aware. Are there other examples of this kind of thing happening?”
AV: The Collaboratory is really neat cause it’s a network of students, professors, faculty, staff, community members, members of other schools coming together to promote social innovation, social entrepreneurship, and to create systemic change. And so, there are a lot of different opportunities that we have in the Collaboratory. We are focused on impact investing, we’re focused on diversity…We run sustainability initiatives on campus, so we run St. Rose’s garden. We’re involved with the flea market events, sustainability week, we work with the comity of USG a lot. There’s a new publication coming out from the Collaboratory called The Innovator, and so they’re going to talk about different areas of innovation that students are talking about on campus. So, we do a lot of different things. We’re very open to students taking on any different kind of project that they care about, so if there’s something you want to do, build a team and you can do it. There’s not a lot of restrictions. It’s very student run.
MJO: So one of the projects is obviously our story. Why did you choose to bring this initiative in particular to the campus?
APK: And can you explain a little bit of what Our Story is?
AV: Sure. So I guess it’s best to start from the beginning with why I brought it. I started in the Social Innovation Collaboratory as a newsletter editor. And because of that I was pushing out a lot of different opportunities that we had to the broader community. So, because of that I had the opportunity to attend the AshokaU conference in Miami last year in March. And Fordham in one of about 40 AshokaU campus in the world recognized by the Ashoka foundation for our work in social innovation. At the conference there was a panel from the University of San Diego and two students there had an initiative called My Story, which is a story telling event like a TED Talk. They brought it to their campus, so I went to watch that panel because one of our students was speaking at it and I went to support. During the event the two girls who had started it, Charlotte and Lauren, were talking about their process, and they have three story tellers tell personal stories of things that had happened to them in their lives. Then we sat back and wrote down one word of how we had felt in the moment listening to people be so vulnerable and it was a really moving experience. Then they talked us through the process of how they did it at the University of San Diego. They have five story tellers and five story mentors who sit down and build the stories with the students and the community members who are speaking. They started out with only students and then they brought in faculty and staff from the university, they also had community members from outside of the university talk talk at some of these events. And so after three and a half years they had this whole program down of how they were doing it. During the event, before it was over, I texted the director of the Collaboratory and said, ‘We need this at Fordham.’ I think that it’s something that builds community-
MJO: So you just talked about vulnerability and how and how these stories were moving, especially when they were in person, so I wanted to know a few things. One, what was your process for choosing people to speak, and what is the format that students can expect to here these stories?
AV: We were looking for five students for our first event to tell stories about changes that happened in their life, something negative that they experienced. Things that really created challenges for them. Part of that is when you share that out loud in a space you’re making yourself vulnerable, and you’re creating a space where people feel that’s okay to do that. When you’re listening to the stories-it takes so much courage to tell these stories, and you feel that, it’s something that just comes into the room. So it’s really important because it creates a space people feel that they can relate, it creates empathy and inclusion. A lot of the time when people are telling these stories you could know the person and never know they experienced what they’re talking about.
APK: And so you definitely think it’s important that this is a unique feeling that can only be achieved when hearing in person and not through other means? The human face to face interaction.”
AV: Right. I think the really tangible part of the experience is the listening to the story, because when you’re in a room with a lot of people it creates a safe space for the story teller and for the listener, because you’re feeling that vulnerability, and the empathy, and all the positive feelings in the room, and you can sit with that…Because they are such personal stories it becomes less trivial if you’re sitting down and intently listening, rather than kind of hearing it and taking it in but not processing it at the same time.
MJO: So you just talked about how we need to be able to sit down and process these stories in a way that’s very intimate between the speaker and the listener, and as people who cover news and hear certain stories we know it can be an extremely volatile time. So, I want to say it can take a lot of courage to put these stories out. How does your organization work to make it a welcoming place to tell these kinds of stories? What would you say to someone who says ‘I have a story similar to the ones I heard at Our Story, but I feel personally uncomfortable talking about it’?
AV : So there are actually-
(Enter Max Lynch who overheard our interview and wanted to join)
AV: This is Max, Max is actually the guy who spoke at the AshokaU conference.
AV: So there’s a couple different ways we go about safety. We take two approaches, one for the safety of the students speaking and one for the safety of the students listening. For the speakers, this culminates in a two hour event, but it’s a four day process. The event will be on a Wednesday. On Sunday the speakers will go through a four hour workshop with Charlotte, who is the founder of My Story at USD, and she’s really experienced having done this for almost four years now. And so she has a process of mentoring where each story teller has a personal mentor that’s a peer, and so they’ll go through the process of how to write a story about yourself, and then a process of how to mentor a story for editing so that the story is authentic and unique-no one’s putting words in anyone’s mouth, but also so the student can sit with it and rewrite it and get out what they really want to say while being comfortable with the fact that they are moving it into words, and talking through it with someone personally a couple of times is really helpful for that and maybe realizing ‘Okay, maybe I don’t want to say this this way, maybe I want to change it,’ so that’s why we take awhile to do that. The student will also meet with counselling and psychological services once to make sure they’re in a safe space to share the story, and they’ll do a read through with them and see if any of the language in the story should be changed for the audience so that nothing is too drastic. One thing is that we don’t want this to be a kind of soapbox. We want authentic stories and feelings to come out, but we want this to be the story of the person, and not the story of whatever the topic is that they’re talking about in general.
MJO: And on that point, not naming any specifics, can you give us an example of a story that has been proposed that you’re working on to tell?
AV: We have stories about people’s personal health, people who have experienced sickness or death in their family, we have stories of a veteran, we have stories about mental health.
APK: You mentioned not wanting this to be a soapbox type experience, but do you think the current political environment has an effect on Our Story for the people involved, or that Our Story might have an effect in this political environment, and what it could achieve?
AV: I don’t think that it has any more of an effect than having a regular conversation with someone. Obviously in these times, people used to say the only things you shouldn’t talk about are religion and politics, and now you can find anything that you can talk about and someone’s going to have something to disagree with. But since this event is really focused on telling the story of someone’s life, it’s not telling the story of sexual assault in life, it’s not telling the story of voting for whoever and how it affected you.
MJO: It’s a deeply personal kind of thing
AV: Right, because these stories reflect the lives of people in our community, and they’re not the only people who have stories like these.
Max Lynch: I think also that in politics when you see people speaking out on behalf of their specific agenda, whether it’s for race, gender, sexual identity, or whatever cause that they’re promoting, while it benefits other people it’s kind of, in a way, the mission is aligned with self-interest. Whereas, when you look at Our Story, when you look at the mission of what we’re trying to do, it’s about listening and giving other people an opportunity to listen and understand other people’s experiences. And so, I think it’s a very selfless-while it’s it’s Our Story and I may be telling the story of what I’ve gone through, it’s for the purpose of serving others, which I think is unique and kind of getting the political agenda.
APK: What are your goals with ‘Our Story’ moving, for this session and in the future?
AV: So I think I’ll first read the mission statement that we came up with and then expand on that. Our mission statement is ‘Empowering individuals to share the deeply personal stories of their lives and find solidarity among others. Encouraging our community to embrace empathy by story-listening.’ So, the words that really that stick out to us are ’empathy’, ‘inclusion’, ‘community,’ ‘vulnerability’-in a positive way, to build towards something greater. And the reason that we called it Our Story is because, while these are multiple individual stories, when you leave them together it is our community as a whole and the Fordham experience, and we really want this to, I think bring people together is a very broad desire, but make people realize that they are not alone. I personally had a really long journey through Fordham feeling that I didn’t belong, and kind of feeling guilty about that, and thinking that I was all alone and the only one going through what I was going through, and this has helped me to realize that that not true, and hopefully if there’s one other student that feels that same way and comes to this event or tells a story at this event and feels included by that, I think that we achieved our goal.
ML: And to just add to that, at the base of it we’re hoping to have an event like this every year, maybe twice a year, and then the effects of that will be a more wholesome Fordham community.
APK: I know you mentioned you have your speakers for this year, but how can people get involved for forward?
AV “We have an email called email@example.com. We’re also run through the Social Innovation Collaboratory, so next semester we’ll be sending out applications and nomination forms. But if someone is really interested before then, they can stop by the event and talk to us afterwards, we’ll right down people’s names who are interested, they can also email us, or just say ‘Head’s up, keep me in mind, I’d love to do something like this at your next event.’
ML: And if you talk to anyone in the Social Innovation Collaboratory they’ll be familiar with the story telling initiative, so they’ll be able to help that person.
APK: And as a final wrap up, can you tell us when the Our Story event will take place and where?
AV: It’ll be November 15th, 6-8 pm in Bepler Commons.