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Vol. 29, No.4
Summer 2015
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Storytelling as Resistance

By Jerica CoffeyAdd to Cart Purchase a PDF of this article

Ricardo Levins Morales

“Does anything good ever happen to these people?” demanded Ana. “I hate this book!” Only a week before, Random Family was the only book she had taken home and read all year. As she spoke, I remembered that Ana was the mother of a 4-year-old, and her life in many ways resembled the women she was reading about.

Random Family, by journalist Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, chronicles the lives of several generations of Puerto Rican women in the Bronx with whom LeBlanc developed long-term relationships. These relationships enabled LeBlanc to write about intimate details of the women’s lives as they navigated raising children in poverty. Jessica, for example, is hooked into the illicit drug trade through a romantic relationship and serves a 10-year prison sentence; caring for her children falls to family and neighbors.

Readers watch families trapped in a brutal reality close to impossible to escape as they interact with the only institutions accessible to them: public housing, welfare, and the criminal justice system.

At the same time, LeBlanc perpetuates a pervasive myth: People live in poverty and/or in conflict with the law because of bad personal choices. Random Family is devoid of analysis or context, so it is easy to blame the women for the successive tragedies they endure.

This political problem with the book is one of the reasons I use it. Written by a white journalist, it is a powerful example of narrative journalism, but its representation of the community needs to be analyzed and critiqued.

So, as we began our unit on writing the untold histories of our community, we read Random Family as a mentor text, but also as a vehicle to begin unpacking the problems that arise when people outside our communities control our stories.

Representation and Reality

Nonfiction narrative writing is one of my favorite genres to teach for two reasons: First, it requires the meshing of different styles of writing to produce a coherent theme or argument. Second, it helps students understand that nonfiction writing—on the internet, TV news, books—is storytelling and creates a specific view of the world. The stories we hear and tell shape and define the way we relate to ourselves and one another.

If I was going to engage my students in what Theresa Perry defines as the African American philosophy of education (which I believe is also relevant to Latina/o students), they needed to see storytelling as inextricably tied to who we are and how we see our history. I wanted them to understand that everything we read, watch, or hear is a construct with underlying power dynamics. Who has the power to tell the story matters.

I wanted them to think about what happens when you are a people who do not control your own story, and how that changes when you take up the responsibility, as writers, to honor the legacies of struggle and resistance in your community. With that goal in mind, we set out to document stories of the community that students believed were marginalized or silenced in the mainstream culture but that deserved to be recorded and celebrated as acts of resistance.

As students walked into the classroom on the first day of the unit, I waited for them to notice the word Watts written in bold, black letters at the center of the board. “Take a few minutes to write down what most people think of when they hear the word Watts,” I told them. When they were ready, I wrote their responses on the board: “drugs,” “murder,” “projects,” “ratchet,” “ghetto,” “police,” “helicopters,” and on and on.

“OK,” I said. “Let’s look at what we’ve come up with. What do you notice?”

“It’s all bad,” several students responded.

“Is this really all that there is here?”

At this point one student reminded me that I asked them what other people think, not what they think.

Taking a different color marker to document their responses, I said: “Well, what do you think? Let’s add things that are missing from this picture, but that you know are part of this community. What’s the story we never get to hear or learn about?”

I grabbed their words—“family,” “hardworking,” “friends,” “church,” “swap meet,” “Watts Towers” [a series of sculptures that are a National Historic Landmark]—and put them on the board.

“So, there is a difference between your reality and the reality that people think you live.” I pointed to the first list. “If this is the story being told about who we are, where does it come from?”

On the empty side of the board I wrote down their responses: “news,” “movies,” “television,” “music,” “videos,” “books.”

Then I asked the most important questions of the day: “How often do we have the power to tell our own stories about our community?” Most students just stayed quiet, a few shook their heads. “Never,” someone mumbled.

“How many times have you read a book in your classes about someone from Watts?” Andrés reminded us that our school has an ethnic studies class where he learned about the Watts Rebellion and the 1992 LA uprising. “Surprisingly, I paid attention in that class,” he reflected. Everyone laughed. I agreed that it was great he was able to take an ethnic studies class, but reminded students how few of them get to take that class, and how few schools even have that class offered.

“Why do you think this fuller, truer story of who we are is so rarely presented?” I asked.

In response, that night Andrés wrote:

I’m a misunderstood underachiever. In schools we are misled—from never learning anything about ourselves to feeling inferior because of the way we are judged and misunderstood. In our households, report cards only highlight our lack of interest and efforts to nonconform to what the education system wants us to learn. Often these things aren’t thoroughly investigated by our peers and the idea of miseducation is abruptly dismissed.

The reflections that Miguel and the other students wrote were rich with ideas for discussions that set the stage for the research and writing students did later in the unit. But first, we read Random Family.

Pulling Apart Random Family

As we read, I wanted students to pay careful attention to the ways race and poverty are represented. I also wanted them to notice the conventions of narrative journalism they would need for their final projects: descriptive detail, framing dialogue, careful word choice, imagery, and showing vs. telling.

Each day, I enlarged and photocopied a paragraph or two of the text assigned for homework the night before and passed it out to students. I looked for excerpts that wielded examples of multiple conventions—like the one below, which describes one of the women central to the narrative visiting her son in jail:

Lourdes was dressed like a schoolgirl the cold September morning in 1993 when she went to see her youngest son. She wore a green and cranberry striped hoodie and matching green leggings. She sported canvas shoes. A gold scrunchie cinched her waist-length hair into a bun. Slender gold hoops dangled from her ears. She’d painted her lips Summer Pink. But by the time Lourdes laid eyes on the tree-lined drive of the Coxsackie Correctional Facility, she looked as though she’d imploded. She hated prisons. “Because I feel the pain of the whole room, of the whole people in jail, and I can’t take it,” she said. . . . When the guard asked her, “What’s your relationship to the inmate?” Lourdes whispered “mother”—a word she usually proclaimed.

After we read the excerpt twice out loud, I asked students what they noticed about the writing: “How did Le Blanc make this section come alive?” I followed with a series of questions to get them to think about how and why the clothing is described in such detail. I urged students to notice how the writing shows instead of tells. For instance: “What does it imply to whisper something you normally proclaim?”

This kind of conversation supports their development as writers, and also helps them see that a story is constructed in a particular way. There is a message behind which details are described—Lourdes’ attire paints her as young and immature, and her response to the prison guard evokes a sense of shame and discomfort. Because I projected the chunk of text onto the board, I could model marking it up during our discussions, and I asked students to do the same on their copy. Soon students had a collection of examples in their notebooks with notes in the margins for reference as they worked on their interview writing at the end of the unit.

By the time we were halfway through the book, many students had joined Ana in expressing frustration with the way the women were represented. I was glad to see their discomfort and anger with LeBlanc’s perspective, but I didn’t want students to disengage. So before we finished the book, I added another aspect of the project.

Community Cultural Wealth

To frame their upcoming community research, I introduced Tara Yosso’s concept of Community Cultural Wealth from her book Critical Race Counterstories Along the Chicana/Chicano Educational Pipeline. Yosso, a Chicana scholar, articulates the importance of counterstories—telling the stories of people who exist at the margins of our society, stories that challenge power. She describes what she calls Community Cultural Wealth: the range of knowledge, skills, abilities, and contacts possessed, passed down, and used by communities of color to survive and resist oppression. We only read one small excerpt from Yosso’s text (see Resources), which is written for academics, but we spent an entire class period working with the concept. To break down the idea of Community Cultural Wealth for students, I used the following definitions:

Aspirational Wealth: the ability to keep your hopes and dreams alive even in the face of adversity and barriers.

Navigational Wealth: the skills we develop as we learn to navigate institutions not designed to serve our people.

Social Wealth: the connections and relationships that we make and use throughout our community that help us survive.

Linguistic Wealth: the multiple language and communication skills that we use to survive and support our communities.

Familial Wealth: the teachings and knowledge that are passed down from our families, however we define this, that is a resource that helps us survive.

Resistant Wealth: all the knowledge and skills we learn by having to challenge inequality and injustice.

I started class that day by projecting a $100 bill on the board. “What is this?” I asked.

“A hundred bucks.”

“What does it mean to have money, both symbolically and literally?” “Wealth,” “power,” “status,” “respect,” “survival,” “you can do whatever you want,” students volunteered. I wrote their responses on the board.

Then I asked: “OK, so are there any other things that can also give you status, respect, power, or ability to survive?” The room was silent. After a time, someone suggested “your looks or your family background.” Another student added “who you hang out with.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “In our community, even though we don’t have a lot of wealth in terms of money, we have other kinds of wealth that help us survive.” We came up with a long list of these other kinds of wealth, including friends, teachers, church, coaches, family, our brains.

Then I introduced Yosso’s theory of Community Cultural Wealth and we read an excerpt on Linguistic Wealth. Most students could easily give me examples from their lives: They communicate differently on the streets than they do in school, at work, or in church; both types of communication are important for their success and survival. Bilingual Spanish-speaking students translate for their parents to help their families get housing, healthcare, and other necessities.

Our conversation about Familial Wealth raised interesting questions about the “American Dream.” As I introduced Familial Wealth, I explained that family can be one you choose or one you are born into. After reading the definition, I asked students to share with a partner, then write how their chosen or biological family helps them survive. Roberto wrote:

In an individualistic society, people are only supposed to look out for themselves and their direct family. . . . Obsessed with the concept of success, we tend to block people in order to stay on the path of success.

I asked Roberto to explain his thinking. I was intrigued because I hadn’t asked students how Yosso’s forms of wealth are thwarted by the dominant culture. He said that his family was not close because everyone was always working and trying to get ahead. He also wished his extended family, back in his home country, was a part of his life. This resonated with many students. Some shared that immigration in search of the American Dream had separated them from their parents for years.

Preparing to Tell a Silenced Story

When I saw that students understood Yosso’s theory, I introduced the unit’s final assessment. I told students that they had the year’s most important writing assignment before them: They were going to research, document, and analyze the untold histories of people in their community. Their research would highlight a story of resilience and resistance that would normally remain hidden—a counter-narrative.

With Community Cultural Wealth as their guiding framework, groups of two or three students brainstormed a list of people to interview and decided collectively on a few people to approach for the project. I told them: “Write a list of the people you know in your families, on your block, in any community space—people who might have a story of resilience and resistance that needs to be told. You’re looking for individuals who might have forms of Community Cultural Wealth operating in their lives.” I told them to be ready to ask several people—not everyone would want to participate. I also insisted that groups choose people older than 30. There was push-back on this, but I refused to make exceptions. I wanted them to interview generations of community folks they might not otherwise be in deep conversation with.

After watching several groups get stuck, I realized they needed to hear that they didn’t have to be sure what story they would get. “You just have to be curious,” I assured them. “The interviews will guide you, and we’ll work out any problems that arise along the way.”

The next step was creating questions for the interviews. We did two activities to develop strong questions. First, I put the definition for each form of Community Cultural Wealth on its own poster and hung them around the room. In small groups, students moved from one poster to the next, designing questions that could help them understand how this form of cultural wealth was at play in the person’s life. Some of the strongest questions were later used by the whole class in interviews. For example:

For Resistant Wealth—Can you tell us about a time when you faced discrimination or an injustice? How did you get through it?

For Navigational Wealth—Can you tell us about a time when you faced a challenge in school, with the police, or with the government? How did you overcome this challenge?

We spent an entire class period working on interview questions, discussing what makes some questions stronger than others. For every question students developed, I made them write two follow-up questions, based on imagining what the person might say. The second activity involved working backward from what they already knew about their interviewee. I asked students to identify three moments in the person’s life that they might be able to highlight in their projects. For example, one group was interviewing a woman from Mexico who had made the dangerous trip across the U.S.-Mexico border while pregnant. They generated questions based on what they already knew:

Tell us about your life before you immigrated to the United States.
What made you want to leave your home?

Tell us what happened as you made the trip crossing the border.
How did you stay strong?

Some groups were working with someone whose history they didn’t know. In these cases I encouraged the students to first ask: “What are the three most significant events that have shaped the person you are today?” They could use the response to develop questions and follow-up questions.

Once they had a community member who agreed to the interview and a list of questions and follow-up questions, students were ready to take digital recorders out into the community to document stories.

All the groups were different. Some did strong interviews the first time. Others realized the weaknesses in their questions after the first round of interviewing, and went back again and again to get the story.

Once the interviews were completed, they brought them back to the classroom for transcription. We printed them up and I handed out copies to the members of each group.

What’s the Theme?

At this point, students were ready to start crafting their stories. But first they needed to figure out their focus or theme. “A theme is a big idea that comes up repeatedly in a piece of writing, film, or song,” I reminded them. “Big ideas in these interviews, just like in the novels we’ve read, will often be things that most of us can relate to because we experience similar issues in our lives.” Anticipating they would need to practice this, I printed up copies for everyone of part of one of the transcripts:

Q: What made you come to the United States?

A: I came to the United States without thinking, without knowing how life was here, or what was going on.

Q: What was the reason?

A: I had a child out of wedlock. Brenda was 6 months old when I brought her to the United States.

Q: What did you think of the United States before you came here?

A: I came to a place that was unknown. I did not recognize it. I heard many stories, yet I did not know what to believe. I came to find new cultures, opinions, a lot of discrimination, jealousy. Things I really did not see at home. I came to a country where I couldn’t go out because the streets are so unsafe. I spent time indoors because I was scared.

“What do you notice is a ‘big idea’ that this person raises several times in the interview?” I asked students. They noticed that the United States was not what the woman thought it would be and suggested themes: “the unexpected price of immigrating” and “questioning the American Dream.” I told students to look for big ideas/themes in their interviews and to highlight places where they were repeated.

We revisited Yosso’s six forms of Community Cultural Wealth so they could identify examples of resilience and resistance in the person’s life and identify the kinds of Community Cultural Wealth that were at play.

Then they were ready to write their narratives. I reminded them to use conventions of narrative journalism to make the writing compelling. I could tell from both the quality of the writing and the number of revisions they were willing to draft that they wrote with more sense of urgency than they had all year. They knew all the stories would be published in a book and would be presented to participants and hundreds of community members at an exhibition a few weeks later.

The groups spent two weeks drafting and editing. I asked them to write their narratives in first person because I had recently attended a digital storytelling workshop with Clifford Lee, a teacher-researcher with the National Writing Project. He argued that writing first-person narratives based on research builds students’ sense of empathy and responsibility to accurately tell the story. He shared evidence from video reflections and interviews he conducted with his students. I was convinced, but concerned that my students’ analysis and synthesis of ideas, along with the addition of narrative elements in their writing, would move the stories away from people’s truths. So I had the students integrate “member checking” into the writing process. They consulted regularly with interviewees as the story was being written to ensure they had authentically captured the story.

This is an excerpt from one group’s narrative:

When I was living in Mexico, I contracted Hepatitis C, unbeknownst to me. In the community I lived in, people lived in makeshift houses without running water and some without electricity, so staying and being healthy was a challenge. A woman vaccinated everybody to remain stable and healthy. However, she injected everybody with a needle that was cleansed with boiling water and rubbing alcohol. The way those needles were cleansed was unsanitary and wasn’t enough to kill viruses.

As a result, many people in the community contracted incurable viruses. Poverty, like a hunter, follows you and can trap a person into a life of successive tragedies.

Regardless of my illness and near death experience, regardless of the challenges life has made me confront, I consider myself strong and still willing to fight. Ultimately, my strength comes from my daughters. I live through them each and every day. They are my ultimate reason to keep on fighting. Words cannot describe the pride and joy I feel every day as a mother. My biggest wish is to see my daughters graduate and see them succeed in life. When that happens I know my job as a mother will be fulfilled.

Once we had final drafts, students transformed their writing into digital stories by integrating audio recordings of their written narratives with art, music, and images of the interviewees at different stages in their lives. Now we were ready for our community exhibition.

Bringing Community Stories to the Community

We publicized the exhibition throughout the school and community, and invited the interviewees as our guests of honor. Each group introduced their project and thanked the person whose story they were telling. We gave each interviewee a copy of the class book of narratives as a token of our gratitude.

This night of intergenerational storytelling held special importance in a Black and Brown community with a history of tension, misunderstanding, and violence. The turnout, the tears shed while students shared their work, and conversations I had with community members after the event communicated this much to me. The next day in class, I asked students to reflect on the impact their project had on the community. Selina, who wrote the story of her mother’s migration to the United States and life as an undocumented worker with disabilities, wrote:

I got home that day, and I was stirred up by the emotion of the presentation, and I noticed my mother was crying. I asked her, “Mom, are you OK? Did I hurt you in any way?” I thought I embarrassed her. She said she was astonished. She felt like she was finally heard. . . . I grew up listening to her stories, sitting there and admiring her, but this time I was the writer, I wrote her story, so she felt different and her life did change because now she feels like maybe other women that have been through that, now they can know.

In south Los Angeles, where the narrative about who people are is conjured in the nation’s imagination by films like Training Day, End of Watch, and Boyz n the Hood, the students’ work allowed us to define for ourselves what stories matter and how these stories get told. Students’ scholarship challenged existing deficit thinking about who lives in Watts and why our community faces the conditions we do. My students pursued learning to uplift their community, honor the stories of their elders, and give voice to powerful lessons about community strength and survival.