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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.
University of Richmond
life narratives, storytelling, juvenile correction, social change
Gale, Sylvia, "Tell Me a Story: Bridging the Gap Between University of Richmond Students and Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center Residents" (2016). Storytelling and Social Change. 3.