Centering Student Voices in Storytelling
By Allie Bradford Brown
Welcome to the Youth Work 101 Series! Student U offers this blog series to support youth work practitioners, educators, advocates for young people, and after-school professionals in their work by sharing what has worked for us. For insights on this month’s topic, Allie Bradford Brown, Student U’s Advancement Writing Associate, interviewed Brandy Luce, Student U’s Director of Marketing and Storytelling.
Storytelling is woven into just about everything that we do at Student U, from supporting students to making our case to donors. Storytelling communicates, builds connections, increases empathy, and helps people understand complex ideas or new information. There is even scientific evidence that people understand and retain information much better when it’s communicated through a story rather than raw data or facts.¹² Because of this, we rely on storytelling to teach and communicate.
However, good storytelling is not as simple as it may sound, especially for those in service or youth-focused organizations. Flashy, provocative stories that erase an individual’s voice or lived experiences can create deficit-based narratives rather than affirming, asset-based accounts. Manipulative or objectifying storytelling is a widespread problem in the nonprofit sector, especially in fundraising appeals.
There are several reasons why centering students’ voices in storytelling is a priority at Student U, including
- helping students explore their own experiences and identity,
- helping students build the transferable skill of storytelling (for example, students are often asked to tell their stories in college and scholarship applications and job interviews),
- avoiding making assumptions or reinforcing stereotypes, and
- ultimately getting a better final product that more genuinely represents the student and their community.
How to Help Students Tell Their Own Stories
At Student U, we strive to center students’ voices in storytelling to more authentically capture their human experiences, struggles, and desires. There is no doubt that centering students’ voices takes more time and effort, but the results are clearly worth it. Here are some guidelines for helping students tell their own stories:
- Build trust: Start by introducing yourself and your intentions. Share part of your story to help students feel safe and empowered as they open up to you.
- Give them a prompt and some space: Ask them to brainstorm freely based on an open-ended prompt such as “List the top 10 most meaningful moments in your life.” This can generate a more authentic story and reveal students’ genuine values, compared to asking leading questions (such as “How has Student U been meaningful to you?” or “What are some hardships you have overcome?”). After suggesting a prompt, allow plenty of time and space for self-reflection.
- Explore meaningful moments in their lives: After students have brainstormed their own ideas for telling their story, help them dig deeper by picking out the themes and values that are revealed. You may ask the students what connections they can draw or suggest some that you see. Then decide together where to expand and explore more.
- Leave it open-ended: Even after themes, values and anecdotes begin to emerge, leave the story open-ended as you write or talk it out together to allow students to take it in any direction they choose.
- Give students the final say: After the story has been polished and edited for presentation, always check back with students before sharing their story. Let them know they have the final say and ultimate control over how their story is told. Work together to produce a final version for sharing that you are both proud of.
These Students are Amazing!
Brandy has spent countless hours listening to students discuss their experiences, perspectives, and dreams. “Their dreams are so big. It’s amazing,” she recalls. Brandy and the Student U staff are continually amazed by our students’ dreams, which are both lofty and rooted in their community. Young people like those in the Student U community genuinely want to make their portion of the world a better place and pave the way for those who follow them–be it siblings, friends, or strangers–to accomplish big things. As Student U students tell their stories, it’s clear that they are smart, emotionally intelligent, and aware of the world around them and the impact they can have. There is no denying that first-generation students and students of color face really significant challenges, but time after time, they rise above, inspired and lifted by their incredible dreams. These students want change and are not afraid to pursue new paths that make the world better. And listening to their stories, we are convinced that that is exactly what they will do.
It’s been said that “the shortest distance between you and me is a story.” At Student U, we take this to heart and invest in genuine storytelling to create a close-knit, supportive community where everyone can succeed.
¹Scott, S.D., Brett-MacLean, P., Archibald, M. et al. Protocol for a systematic review of the use of narrative storytelling and visual-arts-based approaches as knowledge translation tools in healthcare. Syst Rev 2, 19 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/2046-4053-2-19
² Dahlstrom, M.F. Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Sep 16; 111(Suppl 4): 13614–13620. Published online 2014 Sep 15. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1320645111
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