Date September 8, 2021
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Student storytelling series unlocks the power of personal narrative

“Writing My Own Story,” a summer workshop series organized by the Brown Center for Students of Color and the Global Brown Center, invited students to explore their personal stories and learn from those of others.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A packed city bus inches toward a traffic light. Bright brick buildings line the street, their colored awnings announcing names of local businesses. People speckle the sidewalk. Signs announce speed limits and one-way streets. Bubbled graffiti adorns a faraway billboard, and subway tracks loom overhead.  

When Jennora Blair snapped this spontaneous photo of Broadway Avenue — a busy street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn — a few months ago, she was moved by its familiar, vibrant energy. “I just really love that place because it’s my home,” she said.

But the bright scene took on a different meaning this summer, when Blair revisited the snapshot during a session of “Writing My Own Story: Race, Place and Embodying Space,” a summer workshop series for undergraduates hosted by the Brown Center for Students of Color and the Global Brown Center. 

Writing about this image of home and sharing her reflections with her peers was a “therapeutic experience” for Blair, she said: “The places where we grow up, we kind of downplay them, like, ‘Oh, it’s just New York.’ The workshop made me realize how important that place really is to me and how it has shaped me over time. In some ways I feel like I’m not only a part of that space, but it’s kind of a part of me.”

Jennora Blair's Photo
The workshop series invited sophomore Jennora Blair (left) to reflect on the way growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn — shown here in a photo she took — has shaped her identity.

Jennora Blair, Class of 2024
Jennora Blair, Class of 2024

The “Writing My Own Story” series was designed to spur those types of revelations for students interested in exploring the ways that their relationships, environments and experiences have shaped their multifaceted identities. Over the course of the summer term, participants engaged in workshops and events that provided them with the tools to express their own lived experiences through a wide range of narrative forms, from poetry and prose to songwriting and performance. 

The students shared their work in a final storytelling showcase, held virtually in late July. Their work over the summer inspired an open mic space the week before Fall Semester began, where incoming first-year Brown students attending the Third World Transition Program and International Mentoring Program —  two longstanding pre-Orientation programs hosted by the BCSC and Global Brown — shared their own stories using narrative forms explored throughout the summer program. 

“Both the BCSC and Global Brown Center are deeply invested in student perspectives and stories, but we don’t always get the chance to dive this deeply into issues surrounding identity development in our pre-Orientation programs,” said Sage Morgan-Hubbard, assistant director of the BCSC and co-creator of the series. “This storyteller series has been a chance to provide our students with the tools to create narratives that represent them in their lived experiences.”

With these tools, participants will be more fully equipped to share their unique experiences with their communities, said Andrew Heald, program director for the Global Brown Center and co-creator of the series.

“A huge goal of this program is to empower students to tell their own stories,” Heald said. “There’s a magic in that. There’s a power in that — in giving students the agency to tell us what it is that we need to know, to tell us what is untold and unseen about themselves.”

A space for storytelling

Throughout the summer, participants in “Writing My Own Story” took part in an array of events designed to hone their ability to put their own lives into prose, poetry and song. 

Some installments invited undergraduates to engage with established storytellers from the broader Brown and Providence communities. Karen Craddock, a visiting scholar at Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative and the University’s first tribal community member in residence, conducted personal narrative workshops with the program’s participants. And a Juneteenth storytelling event featured members of the Rhode Island Black Storytellers sharing stories of the Black experience with members of the Brown community.

But at the heart of the program were small, student-led workshops — like the one where Blair revisited her photo of home. These sessions invited participants to delve deeply into the ways that their own, multifaceted identities have been shaped by their experiences, communities and relationships. For these workshops, the program’s 32 members broke into half a dozen smaller cohorts, each led by student facilitators who designed and modeled writing exercises and community dialogues that guided students toward personal insights that would animate their own self-stories.

The cohort-based workshops — most of which were held virtually to accommodate students who were living away from Brown’s campus for the summer — created formal opportunities for student facilitators and participants to craft stories about their identities and experiences within an inclusive peer community, said Audrey Buhain, a rising senior and one of the program’s peer facilitators.

“I think that students who really see their identities as essential to how they navigate Brown and everyday life sometimes feel like it is hard to find a space where the theme of identity is central to the discussions of writing,” said Buhain, a double-concentrator in history and ethnic studies. “What I really appreciated about this program is that it’s a formal space for those opportunities to happen, and for that writing community to be created, if it didn’t already exist in a student's life.”

For Monique Jonath, who participated in the program as a first-year student, the opportunity to share complex personal identity stories alongside students on similar journeys was deeply rewarding. With parents from different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds — Jonath’s father is of Ashkenazi Jewish heritage and mother is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo — Jonath said it has often been a struggle to feel fully understood within established community spaces. 

“One thing about having an intersectional identity is that it’s very, very hard to find places where I feel like I truly belong,” said the rising sophomore, who is studying psychology and gender and sexuality studies. “For my whole life, I’ve struggled with feeling like I have one foot in and one foot out.”

“Being with people who I know are going to take what I say carefully and lovingly feels really valuable. There’s acknowledgement going in that everyone’s story is necessarily going to be different, which means everyone shares a grounding belief that differences are inherently valuable... It just feels like I don’t need to explain myself so much. I can just tell my story.”

Monique Jonath Class of 2024, "Writing My Own Story" Participant
Monique Jonath, Class of 2024

Participating in the “Writing My Own Story” program has “helped me feel like I have a place,” Jonath said.

“Being with people who I know are going to take what I say carefully and lovingly feels really valuable,” Jonath said. “There’s acknowledgement going in that everyone’s story is necessarily going to be different, which means everyone shares a grounding belief that differences are inherently valuable... It just feels like I don’t need to explain myself so much. I can just tell my story.”

Telling their own stories is just part of what has made the program valuable for the undergraduates who participated. For Rebecca Qiu, a rising senior and one of the program’s peer facilitators, the conversations within her cohort spurred new insights into the relationship between personal history and intergenerational healing.

“For me, one of our most memorable discussions was about why it is important to study history as members of marginalized communities,” said Qiu, a history and international and public affairs double-concentrator. “Even if that history might be of trauma or of pain, there is a need to have that root in order to feel grounded — to know that there is a history to your family, to your culture, that you can trace back to you. And establishing that root can allow all of us then to feel more grounded, to move forward from that trauma, to recover from that trauma, and to look ahead to how we can shape the present and the future to be different and to be better.”

The program also offered student participants and peer facilitators the chance to learn from each other’s unique stories, said Victor Beck, a program facilitator and rising sophomore.

“I think my biggest lesson from the program has been allowing people the space to surprise you,” he said. “There are so many ways that you can have preconceived notions about people you’re meeting — the first time you see them on campus, the people they hang out with, these things all sort of play into your image of them. But it’s the best feeling in the world when someone can make you see that there is so much more to them — so much more beauty and depth. By hearing someone’s story, you get a sneak peek into what that person really thinks or feels.”