For teacher and activist Liz Gannon Graydon, her story begins on the day that Robert F. Kennedy’s life was ended, in a Los Angeles hotel fifty years ago this month. That event is her first memory of the world and it has powerfully shaped her sense of purpose. “My father, while helping me understand the incomprehensible murder, told me that the work that Martin left undone was the creation of the Beloved Community,” she explains. “He told me that this was my work.” So it was uniquely meaningful that she was able to attend the special memorial to RFK at Arlington National Cemetery on June 5 with her colleague Robin DeLuca-Acconi, an award-winning social worker and Stony Brook University adjunct professor and co-founder — with Gannon-Graydon and others — of What BETTER Looks Like, a non-profit organization with a mission to “partner with members of the community to help individuals imagine, articulate and create visions for a better world.”
Large-scale change on the level that all of these activists are working toward is measured in small, radical acts of creative courage and engagement. One of these acts is the creative communication of ideas and our own experiences. “We connect most deeply at the level of our stories,” says Gannon-Graydon. “My father taught me that the way to turn someone you think you hate into someone you can love is to listen to their story.
Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FLA, high school senior and activist who founded the gun-control advocacy Never Again MSD, was one of the speakers at the RFK Memorial event who received a standing ovation, along with Representative John Lewis. Gonzalez, new to the civil rights fight, already shows a fierce resilience in the face of the attacks and threats that comes with radical acts of truth-telling and calls for change. Rep. Lewis has been in the fight for his entire life. He is widely respected and admired for his courage on what is now known as Bloody Sunday — when unarmed, peaceful marchers for blacks’ voting rights were violently confronted by law enforcement personnel at Alabama’s Edmund Pettus bridge on March 7, 1965 — and where he suffered a fractured skull, and for his continued fight for civil rights for over three decades. “It struck me as fitting that this gathering of people were aware of the importance of passing the torch, as President Kennedy said, to a new generation,” says Gannon-Graydon.
As Emma Gonzalez and the other Parkland FLA students speak out about difficult realities that must be faced, their story is evolving in real time. Our personal biographies evolve in a similar way through the radical acts of facing and naming the obstacles and forces we grapple with day to day. A civil rights icon like John Lewis’ biography is intimately bound up with a large-scale fight for social change that continues to this day and impacts all of us, whether or not we consciously connect the dots.
The radical act of telling true stories in a creative, highly engaging way is one of the most important tools of social change. “I think it is important to try to influence hearts and minds not with arguments and statistics but with stories,” says Gannon-Graydon. And her organization is aligned with what her father laid out as her purpose, to advance Revered Martin Luther King’s vision of building Beloved Community. This requires “transforming opponents into friends. This is the harder work of reconciliation, redemption, and being in right relationship. Storytelling is the connective tissue of relationships. Forming a coherent story about our past experiences is at the heart of knowing who we are and positive mental and social health. To recognize and name the social forces that shape them can be a radical creative act because there is always resistance, but the imaginative and engaging elements of stories have a way of overcoming some of that. Talking about racism openly is deeply threatening to the institutions that sustain it, and unnerving to white people to confront the many hidden ways they benefit from it. But a personal story about a moment when the undeniable reality of white privilege came into focus might transcend these self-protective barriers. Talking about gun violence as a social issue or a problem of public health is viewed by some groups as a violation of basic rights, but a personal story that describes the “before, during, and after” of being impacted by gun violence might reach around those mental defenses into a place of shared vulnerability.
Through her work with What Better Looks Like, Gannon-Graydon recently facilitated a group of young people exploring their response to the Parkland shootings. She told them that “there are three stories they should focus on:
1.Their own biography. Our own personal story offers us a unique entry point into challenging/adding to the story of the larger society. The Parkland students have a tragic new piece in their biographies which gives them a powerful way to retell a story of who we are and who we want to be. They are figuring out how to use their lives and their voices.
2. The story they tell of the world around them. The most powerful entry point is the present, and we all need to engage in the larger story of who we are and who we want to be.
3. The fictional/mythic stories they are drawn to in the moment. I think the largest obstacle to community is the idea that there was some better time in the past that never was. There never was a magical time when things were better for everyone.”
Retelling stories that have held us back — because social or familial constraints blocked honest personal expression or the truth was too threatening — is a radical act of personal courage that can reframe long-held memories and be a healing force for listeners. And the act of sharing the story has impact we can never anticipate. In one of the 2017 performances of (mostly) TRUE THINGS — the storytelling show I host and curate — a brave 17-year old told about a psychiatric hospitalization when she was 8 years old. She detailed the extreme confusion and distress she felt at the time, especially when it became clear that her father was not coming to the phone when she talked to her family, nor did he come to visit. She guided the audience through the tears, the questions, the story she told herself at the time about being unloved and unworthy as the reason he did not show up. It was painful and gripping right up to the end, when she learned that her father could not call nor visit because he too was in a hospital — a drug and alcohol rehab that he entered to clean himself up in order to be there for his daughter and support her mental health. What caused her the greatest hurt turned out to be a touchstone that fueled her efforts to heal. She and her father were in it together, even though they were apart. They wanted to get better to help each other. Because of this teen’s radical act of telling her story onstage, a mother in the audience, whose teen daughter was going through a mental health crisis, felt a surge of hope. This mother saw a young woman who represented her daughter’s potential for recovery. And other audience members who have no personal knowledge of what a mental health crisis is like for a family expressed having new insight into what people go through when faced with this.
There is no guarantee that a story will transform a listener’s hard-core beliefs. But if it does have an impact, it does the work through a radical, risky decision to take others on an emotional journey. There is always the chance it will be rejected, so it requires courage, craft, and creativity to maximize the chance that it will land. A great story is illuminating and reshapes the way we see ourselves or other people or the world. It has vivid imagery, an emotional arc, which makes it “stick.” We cannot unsee what a great story shows us about life.
A brief, unexpected encounter that day in Washington, D.C. is fueling Gannon-Graydon’s hope in the face of the struggles we face right now, and may find its way into a story she tells onstage or in a presentation. “When I arrived at the sign in table I was standing next to representative John Lewis,” she explains. “Knowing I might never have a chance to see him again, I simply wanted to thank him for his life, his sacrifices, for the pain he endured to make the world a more just, better place. I reached out my hand. He took it in his and I simply said “thank you for all you have done.“ He smiled broadly and replied, ‘I just try to help where I can.’ The juxtaposition of his humble humanity and moral courage had a powerful impact on me. As a mother of two young sons I was picturing how young and vulnerable he was marching across that bridge so many years ago and how brave he was to be willing to bear the blows so that young children have rights he did not have at their age. And there was another moment that made me hopeful. I watched Bobby’s grandson, Senator Joe Kennedy, who was holding his own infant, gently put his arm around Emma Gonzalez and led her to her seat next to his. It made me hopeful that this young generation will have the support of the generations of civil rights activists that went before them to guide them gently, but make sure that they have the spotlight and the voice they need to create their vision for a better world.”
Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, CGP, CPAI is a consultant/trainer and writer/performer. She is host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show that is performed monthly in NY and around the country. Find out about upcoming training workshops at www.lifestage.org