This book is the final product of a six week long storytelling journey in which 39 young writers, poets, artists, and most importantly, humans came together and worked as partners, sharing with each other their own life stories--a part of their identity and something that makes them who they are. What you will be reading is the compilation of the physical works some of these humans created in hopes of sharing their life beyond this storytelling group -with you and any other reader who chooses to delve into our lives and what they offer.
As you immerse yourself in the stories inscribed within each page, you may notice that some of these storytellers used art to capture these fragments of their lives, whereas others chose written reflections. These variances reflect the storytellers individualities and differences, something that cannot be set aside. Nonetheless, these works may also exhibit the bonds these storytellers formed along the way. Indeed, getting to know each other became a by-product of sharing these stories.
However, if you at one point are unable to see the bonds and connections that we, the storytellers, so inevitably expected to form along this journey, then you are not wrong. Along this journey, we found that some of us were quick to connect, whilst many others were still in the process even when our time together had come to an end. Thus, in making this book, we, as the storytellers, feel the need to acknowledge that humans are complicated beings. We may be all different, our backgrounds polar ends, our circumstances extreme or easy, yet being a human is what we all ultimately share. As you now read the many stories, you may then be able to see this shared humanity reflected on each page.
Ultimately, we wanted to create something that captured the youth and spirit of our work and more importantly our storying process. We hope you see this reflected in the different dynamics of each page, each section and the whole book itself.
This book compiles our time together and now we are sharing it with you.
Jeanette Lam ’19 (Leadership Studies major, Film Studies and Journalism minor, and Bonner Scholar) created a short documentary that emerges from her experiences with peer storytelling between University of Richmond first-year students and young people currently incarcerated at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. Jeanette first experienced this in Dr. Sylvia Gale's First Year Seminar, “Storytelling and Social Change,” in 2016, and then reconnected with this class and experience in the spring of 2019. Her work on this documentary project has been supported by her Joy of Giving Something Fellowship with Imagining America.
Description from the filmmaker: “This film emerges from the last one-hour conversation of four partner pairs of the Storytelling & Social Change program. Through listening to their stories, I hope you can come to feel their light and understand their truth just a little bit better.”
Story to Story: E Pluribus Unum: A Collection of Stories by Thirty-Two Individuals from University of Richmond and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center
How many times have you touched a penny? When is the last time you stopped to actually read what it says? You see, if you really take the time to look at a penny, engraved on it is “E Pluribus Unum”, meaning “out of many, one.” People are similar to pennies; we see the surface and examine them based on our own preconceived notions, but if we just took time to see what’s really there, the world would be a better place. Out of many, we are one and united we stand, story to story, hand in hand.
Our unity began as a storytelling workshop, but it has become so much more. We, the storytellers, are a group of 32 young individuals from the University of Richmond and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center who have worked together to share our stories. During our time together, we got to know each other and ultimately wrote this book, which features stories that were chosen to be published by each partnership. Our only expectation going into this project was this publication. However, we never had a specific prompt nor subject in mind. We wanted to tell our stories for the sake of telling them; we wanted to let the stories speak for themselves.
While many projects associated with Bon Air act as mentorship programs, we actually strove to foster a sense of equality between each Richmond student and Bon Air participant. Specifically, our goals were to build a healthy, short-term, peer-to-peer relationship as we use stories to bridge across difference, collaborate with our partners in order to reflect on and understand our own lives in a new way, and tell a story about ourselves in a way that can be shared with others and helps others understand us.
Each partnership had the choice of editing the stories after writing them for the book, and of the extent of the edits. We could either choose to leave them as written, or edit for grammar. We chose to let each group decide to honor the nature of the partnership, as well as maintain the integrity and voice of the stories as they were written. Dispersed between each set of stories are quotes sharing one thing we took away from this experience, in order to demonstrate the impact this project has had on the storytellers.
On the night of our last workshop, we wrote down our preconceived notions about this experience, and our thoughts after having gone through this together. Some of these initial sentiments include:
On the first night I thought...this was going to be fun. - Robert
On the first night I thought...that this was going to be different like people trying to talk to us, like preach or something. - Jermaine
On the first night I thought…it might be difficult to make connections with my partner. - K. Stewart
On the first night I thought...this experience was going to be exciting but nerve wracking. I was nervous about what my partner would think of me and this project. - Amanda
On the first night I thought...that I wouldn’t learn anything new. - Troy V.
On the first night I thought...that I wouldn’t find much in common with my partner, or that they wouldn’t want to open up to me. - Kayla
On the first night I thought…that wow I signed the paper but I aint think they would really come - Jarell
On the first night I thought…it was cool that y’all came. - Naqwon
On the first night I thought… that I wouldn’t be able to talk to him as a friend - Bianca
On the first night I thought...this would be a terrific experience. - Jaquan
On the first night, I thought… I wouldn’t be able to connect with Hannah. - Troy L. On the first night, I thought… My life would not be interesting to my partner. - Hannah
The stories that we shared helped deepen our relationships with our partners, and, for many, changed our initial thoughts about the project as a whole. We hope that by reading the stories we wrote, you will understand the remarkable connections that each partnership made during this experience. While reading, please keep in mind that each partnership chose the specific prompt and story they wished to share, and that the stories contained in these pages are by no means all of what transpired while storytelling. Each partnership got to know one other through stories of all kinds, but these specific ones mean the most to them. We hope you enjoy.
Tell Me a Story: Bridging the Gap Between University of Richmond Students and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center Residents
We are sixteen University of Richmond students who registered for a class called Storytelling and Social Change in the second semester of our first year of college. Our class explores the ways that stories—particularly life narratives—contribute to a community’s shared or imposed sense of identity, and considers whether and how storytelling is a tool for social change. As part of our class, we completed a Community Based Learning Project in which we worked with sixteen residents at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center to build relationships through stories. The goals of our storytelling workshop were:
1. Build a healthy short-term peer-to-peer relationship as we use stories to bridge across differences.
2. Partner each Bon Air resident with a UR student and share stories in order to reflect on and understand our own lives in a new way.
3. Settle on one story prompt and write about ourselves in a way that can be shared with others and helps others understand us.
Most of the residents we partnered with at the Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center are involved in a program called “Career Pathways,” which is an educational and vocational training program that offers youth between the ages of 14-21 years old educational, career and placement services by engaging youth in individual and group mentoring, leadership, service-learning, and workforce development opportunities. It was through a series of storytelling workshops, created by our class as part of the Pathways program, that we had the opportunity to exchange stories and gain a new perspective.
When we first entered Bon Air JCC, it was like nothing that we had ever experienced before. Here are some of our thoughts at the time, as captured in journal reflections we wrote:
“I am especially uncomfortable with opening up on a deep, personal level with someone who I have just met and who is imprisoned.” -O.W.
“I think there’s a sense of guilt that will accompany all of us as we view the facility—we can’t help but feel bad because we can’t imagine what it’s like to be in their place, or have gone through the hardships that they have.” -C.I.
“I hope he wants to talk to me. About real stuff. Not just surface things.” -A.S.
We visited the center on three different occasions for two hour sessions. Each time, we met in small groups before breaking off into pairs. As a group we had a short discussion, for example sharing about our day or telling stories about our favorite places. When we broke off into pairs, we asked our partners different story prompts and alternated in sharing stories. Each pair had a different experience and exhibited different levels of success with the prompts. Eventually, we all landed on a story that we wanted to share. It was up to each pair how to present the stories, side-by-side or intertwined. Finally, it was up to our class to create this booklet.
During our workshop, we focused on finding and telling stories more than perfecting them in written form. For that reason, we have chosen not to edit the stories significantly. Throughout the booklet, we also included short excerpts from our class’s journal reflections about this storytelling experience. In addition, we included illustrations drawn by two of our classmates, Christine and Vi. The purpose of the illustrations is to place the partners together in the same space, just like the goal of our project. The title page was a collaboration between a Bon Air resident and a University of Richmond student.
We would like to thank Ashley Williams, as well as the staff of Pathways and the officers at Bon Air JCC, who supported this project and ensured that we would have a positive experience; without them, this exchange would not have been possible. As a class, we would like to thank Dr. Sylvia Gale and Miranda Rosenblum for guiding us and keeping our goals in sight throughout the project. We’d also like to acknowledge the University of Richmond Bonner Center for Civic Engagement for supporting our community based learning experience from start to finish. Finally, we would like to thank those who have pursued similar programs, such as Dave Coogan, for inspiring us to embark on this project.
The stories you are about to read are initialed for privacy reasons. They are also initialized to emphasize the stories themselves, rather than any preconceived notions about the writer. Something that we have learned through this experience is that all stories are equally important; the difference is who’s listening to them.
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