Fordham Brings Honesty and Storytelling to Emotional Event
By Anna Passero-Koennecke
Our Story started their first ever program with a full house. They had to pull out more chairs so many people arrived. They provided cookies and hot chocolate for the milling crowd beforehand, which overall had a very positive vibe. The event opened with Charlotte Vitak, the founder of My Story at the University of San Diego, telling her story and what inspired her to start the program. She went from a small all girls high school where she felt safe and seen as a person, to a large college where she felt invisible for most of her freshman year. In her sophomore year she started going to more clubs and realized many other people felt like she did. Charlotte wanted to find a way to bring people closer together, and thus the idea for My Story was formed.
The idea is to have members of a community come together and tell their stories of a deeply moving or difficult time in their life when they had to face adversity and were changed by it. It could be a one-time event or an ongoing struggle. For this flagship event at Fordham only students spoke, but at the University of San Diego they now have, in addition to the students, faculty, staff, and even people who live near the college speak as well, bringing all facets of the community together for great understanding and empathy.
Next came Amanda Vopat and Julia Gagliardi up to speak and tell why they brought the concept of My Story, redubbed Our Story for Fordham. Vopat told of how she first heard of My Story when she was attending an AshokaU conference for Fordham’s Social Innovation Collaboratory. She went to a My Story event hosted by Vitak in order to support a fellow Fordham student who was participating, and told us how she was so moved by the event that she knew she had to bring it to Fordham. Like Charlotte, Amanda had also been feeling isolated and alone at college, and thought this would be a great way to bring people together. When she told Julia about her idea, Amanda learned that Julia too had suffered from feeling isolated, and the resolve to bring My Story, now Our Story, to Fordham was strengthened.
Before the storytellers for the night came out the audience was told about mental health and emotional support resources available to them in case anyone felt emotionally triggered by any of the stories told that night and needed to reach out to someone. These resources included the health center and campus ministry. They also requested that students not talk about and spread the stories outside of the event, as all were very personal and for several students this was the first time they were telling anyone of their story. It was made clear that this event was to bring students together and foster greater empathy in the community, and it was under no conditions to be reduced to gossip. In addition to this, they very important point was made by Charlotte that “No one can tell a story like the owner.”
There were five students from different campuses telling us their stories, and the event lasted about an hour and a half all together. The stories were accompanied by slide shows containing important pictures and quotes that the students felt would help enhance their storytelling, making the event a much more visually involved experience than I first expected. Overall it felt somewhat like a mixture of a TED Talk and a slam poetry event, yet more personal than either. Some of the storytellers used poetic motifs to pull the story together, such as a phrase repeated throughout their story, but none of them felt as stylized as poetic readings often do. Some of the stories were told in a very straightforward fashion. The variety of ways the stories were told made it very clear that we were hearing each tellers individual voice. The audience was very respectful throughout. At the end Charlotte came back to the front to close out the tellings.
Afterward the storytelling was over, we as an audience were encouraged to meditate on our feeling and then to turn to our neighbor, who in my case was someone I had never met before, and share how we felt. We then each wrote down a word on a sticky note summing up the main emotion from what our partner told us and to put it on the wall in the back. Our words were “Embrace” and “Empathy.” Attendees were told they could take any word they felt they needed off the wall. There were also empty book for each of the storytellers that the audience could write notes to them in.
Overall Fordham’s first Our Story was a huge success, and they hope to do one every year, possibly every semester. From what I observed the event was successful in their goal of fostering empathy and closeness in all that attended. As it continues and grows, I predict Our Story will make the Fordham community a better place.