By Alisa Del Tufo
Stories are powerful ways to bring the voice and ideas of marginalized people into endeavors to restore justice and enact change. Beginning in the early 1990s, I started using oral history to bring the stories and experiences of abused women into efforts to make policy changes in New York City. Trained and supported by colleagues at Columbia Center for Oral History and Hunter College’s Puerto Rican Studies Department, I was able to pioneer the use of oral history to leverage social change.
In 2007, I became an Ashoka Fellow and had the space to organize my ideas and experiences about oral history, story gathering, and participatory practices into a set of teachable methods and strategies. This resulted in the creation of Threshold Collaborative, an organization that uses stories as a catalyst for change. Our methods aim to deepen empathy and ignite action in order to build more just, caring, and healthy communities. Working with justice organizations around the country, we help design and implement ways to do that through engaged story work.
This is why when a colleague who runs a youth leadership organization in Pennsylvania wanted to share the ideas and voices of the area’s marginalized youth, we helped to create a school-based story-sharing initiative called A Picture is Worth…. This project came to fruition after the New York Times gave Reading, PA the “unwelcome distinction” of having the highest poverty rate of any American city. Reading also suffered from elevated high school dropout numbers and extraordinarily low college degree rates.
Threshold went to the I-LEAD Charter High School in Reading, which offers poor and immigrant youth another chance to succeed. After spending time at the school — meeting and talking with teachers, parents and learners — we brainstormed a project that would incorporate the personal stories of 22 learners into an initiative to help them learn about themselves, their peers, and their larger community. Audio story gathering and sharing were at the core of this work. The idea was to support them in identifying their vision and values, link them with their peers, and thereby align them with positive change going on in Reading.
With the support of I-LEAD, assistance from the administrators and teachers, the talent of a fabulous photographer Janice Levy, and of course, the participation of the students, Threshold was able to launch an in-school curricular literacy class, which revolved around story gathering and sharing. The project uses writing, audio stories and photography to create powerful interactive narratives of students, highlighting their unique yet unifying experiences. A Picture is Worth… also provides an associated curriculum in literacy for high school students. The project fosters acquisition of real-world knowledge and skills, and encourages young learners to become more engaged in personal and scholastic growth, by combining personal stories with academic standards.
We also gathered and edited the stories of all 22 learners and have linked them with the wonderful photos done by Levy. You can find these powerful voices and images on our Soundcloud page. Here is one of the photos and stories:
Now, we are growing this project to be able to share it with schools and other youth leadership programs around the country. Through our book, curriculum and training program, we hope to inspire youth justice programs to see how young people can contribute to positive change through the power of their stories.
Alisa Del Tufo has worked to support justice and to strengthen empathy throughout her life. Raising over 80 million dollars, she founded three game changing organizations: Sanctuary for Families, CONNECT, and Threshold Collaborative. In the early 1990s, Del Tufo pioneered the use of oral history and community engagement to build grassroots change around the issues of family, and intimate violence. Her innovations have been recognized through a Revson, Rockefeller, and Ashoka Fellowship.
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