The End of Life Teaches Us How To Live

I would like to dedicate this podcast to my BFFF (best furry feline friend) Buddy, a short-haired tabby. Yesterday, my partner Curt and I said goodbye to Buddy who gave us eleven years of his life. Truly the best gift we will forever cherish. If you have a pet or have had one, I’m sure you will understand me saying that we rely on our pets to teach us about unconditional love and generosity. If we let them, they can bring out the best in us as human beings.

Being with Buddy as he drew his last breath changed me. Now I look at my life in a slightly different way. LISTEN to two storytellers calling for a more heroic narrative for death which, if we let it, can become a more positive thread that transforms our lives.

Kelli Swazey, Amanda Bennett, Buddy
Kelli Swazey, Amanda Bennett, Buddy

What is school for?

On the heels of our observance of Labor Day, a series of questions come to mind about the meaning of work. One question I have is: What motivates us to work? Contrary to conventional wisdom, it isn’t just money.  But it’s not exactly joy either. Scientific research has shown that most of us thrive by making constant progress and feeling a sense of purpose. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely has presented two eye-opening experiments that reveal our unexpected and nuanced attitudes toward meaning in our work.

Also on the heels of this holiday, Chicago Public Schools are opening their doors to begin the new school year. I can’t help but try to connect the dots between the meaning of work and why teachers teach? What compels someone to stand in front of young impressionable minds?

According to Seth Godin, the school system was redesigned to meet the needs of the factories born out of the industrial revolution. Students were taught respect and obedience in order to fit in, so they can do the same after they graduate and secure a job on the assembly line. Obviously, times have changed and the economy has changed. If they’re not training kids for a life in a factory, what is a teacher preparing students for? Is it still about fitting in? Reciting what’s on the text book? Knowing what’s on the test? Today, is it more important to ask kids to collect dots than to connect the dots?

I will never forget what my high school English teacher, Emannuel Leviste, said to me in our writing class: “Don’t fall in love with one idea. If it ends up not working, don’t be afraid to throw it out the window and start again.” His words have always been a pillar for me whenever I face a fork in the road. A great teacher knows what school is for: With passion, insight and love, to spark courage in every child to follow their dream.

Education and Story: Building Blocks of Community

In keeping with Barkada’s 2015 theme of education, I’d like to highlight an article that was recently published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ameya Pawar, alderman of the 47th Ward on Chicago’s North Side, wrote an opinion piece about Chicago’s test-based high school system.

He begins by telling the story of his father living in Mumbai, India in the mid-1950s. His father and other students spent their childhood preparing for one test to secure one of a few coveted seats in the right high school. It meant the difference between spending the rest of their lives in poverty or winning the lottery for a chance of getting ahead. Twenty years later, his father immigrated to the United States so that when he started a family, they wouldn’t be condemned to the same broken system. Fast forward to 2015 and we find the same broken system here in Chicago. Pawar describes what this looks like and feels like for the families in our City of Neighborhoods:

Children begin to prepare for Chicago’s selective public high school entrance exam as early as 10 years old – spending hours on homework and stressing over earning straight As. Test-shaming and peer pressure are the norm. Parents scrounge together resources for tutors and admissions consultants. Parents peer pressure one another. To what end? Each year 25,000 eighth graders compete for 3,600 seats across eleven selective enrollment schools. A near-lifetime of preparation to get into the right high school. In a system which serves a few and neglects the whole.

And so, like many families, Pawar’s father once again decided to move his elsewhere to seek out stability and equity, fleeing to the suburbs to find a stable neighborhood K-12 system.

According to Pawar, “Chicago is doing itself a tremendous disservice by replicating an educational pattern that helped force my family out of India. The narrow focus on selective enrollment high schools is stressing families, harming neighborhood high schools, and undermining long-term growth in Chicago.”

Urban education reform treats schools like businesses, but we know that most businesses fail. Pawar’s vision for Chicago’s educational system is where schools are the starting point for neighborhoods to come together and make change happen, because everyone has some vested interest in making sure that their schools are doing well.

He describes this initiative as having three pillars:

  • Organize around the schools and change the dialogue in order to change the perception of neighborhood high schools
  • Generate conversations one household at a time and connect these conversations to a plan
  • Build community around the plan

For a community-driven initiative like this to be successful, the leaders have to be ready to do a lot of listening. By getting people to share stories with one another, they begin to realize that they are dealing with the same challenges and they all want the same thing for their children. They begin to realize that they will be more successful if they work together to make change happen around their schools to achieve stability and equity.

Leaders begin and end with stories.

In 2003, Harvard Business School interviewed screenwriting coach Robert McKee. He talks about why it is essential for a leader to be a skilled storyteller in order to successfully persuade members of her team to work toward common goals. Particularly in the nonprofit sector, a leader should be able to convince potential donors and funders that his organization is worthy of receiving their financial support. Cognitive research has shown that the human mind assembles the bits and pieces of an experience into a story in order to understand and remember. We tend to forget lists and bullet points. Instead, human desire and struggle are what stay with us.

Why does it make a world of difference to go beyond rhetoric and present your case in a story? According to McKee:

Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. You want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness. It demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable.

Our team at Barkada Circle has worked closely with leaders of nonprofits to help them realize that storytelling is a powerful catalyst that brings together key stakeholders of an organization to the same page. Stories reveal shared values and foster deeper understanding of common goals. The outcome is a shift in the collective consciousness of the organization to create a shared narrative about the mission that has more clarity and focus. From here, leaders can take their story and develop a more compelling message that resonates with their audience.

Jacqueline Novogratz and Simon Sinek
Jacqueline Novogratz and Simon Sinek

LISTEN to Simon Sinek and Jacqueline Novogratz share stories that encourage us to take the initiative for inspiring others to change the way they think and see. Ultimately, the outcome will be something bigger than we had imagined.

Stories we tell define who we are

At Barkada Circle we believe that positive change begins with cultivating a sense of community around real collaborative efforts and allowing various ideas to converge. This is why we use storytelling as the main catalyst for realizing new ideas and shared goals.

As human beings, we are naturally wired for story. When you tell a story to another person, you will spark a story from that person. As an emergent form of communication, a compelling story conveys meaning that the other person can relate to because it reflects what they believe in. As a way to bring people together, stories reinforce the culture of the community. Stories build our identity and help to forge meaning for what it means to be a community, and ultimately, revealing who we are as individuals.

Chimamanda Adichie, Thandie Newton, Tavi Gevinson
Chimamanda Adichie, Thandie Newton, Tavi Gevinson

LISTEN to three artists talk about how stories reflect our humanity and all its complexities––the multiplicity of the human experience.

Teacher. Student. And how story connects them.

At Barkada Circle, we use storytelling as the catalyst for sparking conversations between the people of a community so they can inspire each other and work together to make change happen.

For the past few months, my team has been immersed in Chicago’s education community. From coaching early childhood educators in a nursery school so they can engage the parents of the children on a deeper human level to speaking to a group of development professionals for community colleges about the value of storytelling in their work.  From training teachers to be leaders in their own communities to engaging the board members of a museum in outreach and promoting their mission.

Barkada Circle’s goal for 2015 is to highlight the value of storytelling as a transformative agent for education: why storytelling is the foundation for how children learn and how adults find common ground around the issues of education, why each one of us must engage in making sure everyone has access to education regardless of their socio-economic status in the community.

Recently we gathered parents, youth, educators and nonprofit leaders around a table in Evanston, Illinois to share their experiences and perspectives on education. Participating in this conversation provided them opportunities for:

  • Meeting other equally invested neighbors who share similar visions for Evanston
  • Deepening their understanding of the community’s needs, programs, challenges and successes
  • Planting the seeds for future interactions, collaborations and resource sharing

This was our first step in supporting people’s efforts to make the necessary change for education in Evanston. As we facilitate more conversations, we continue the journey of addressing education as the cornerstone of our democracy and, presently, a tangled web of direction, intention and contention. Once we reach the place where we find our common truth and identity, only then can we change our story that weaves together reconciliation, courage and hopefulness.

Rita Pierson, Christopher Emdin and Linda Cliatt-Wayman
Rita Pierson, Christopher Emdin and Linda Cliatt-Wayman

Listen to these three storytellers talk about having the courage to break down barriers to reconcile their passion for education with the needs of underserved students so that they can hope to succeed in life.

The Struggle to Be American

I was driving down Clark Street yesterday afternoon from Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood to get to Andersonville. While waiting for the light to change at the intersection of Clark and Granville, I turned my head to gaze at the office of Centro Romero, a nonprofit agency that serves the immigrant and refugee community. My eyes were transfixed on something I had never seen before. I saw hand-painted on their office window the words: No Budget. No Service. No Justice.

“Did they close their doors for good?” was my first thought. I couldn’t tell for sure because it was Sunday and no one was around. Then the light changed. Driving off, the question “Was this the aftermath of the state budget cuts?” popped immediately into my head.

Two months ago, I had lunch with Daysi Funes, Centro Romero’s Executive Director. Back then, she expressed a deep concern for what could potentially become the fate of nonprofits after Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner announces the state budget in July. Now that we’ve turned that corner, I’m seeing signs that point toward difficult times ahead. Just the other day, a friend told me that he was laid off from a community organization also serving immigrants and their families.

Nonprofits like Centro Romero work to keep immigrant families together, help people from this community find jobs and provide them access to healthcare. The state budget is a reflection of how little value elected officials put on the lives of people who have the weakest ability to find resources for building a sustainable home. It’s seems so easy for someone in power to forget how this country was built in the first place. From where he stands, he sees today’s immigrant community as having no impact on the status quo that he’s trying to protect. But what he fails to see is the reality that immigrants shape the future of this country, whether or not he accepts it. This is how it has always been throughout our history, and how it always will be.

Tan Le, Anand Giridharadas and Pearl Arredondo
Tan Le, Anand Giridharadas and Pearl Arredondo

Listen to three success stories that shed light on the immigrant community. More than that, they are stories of courage, perseverance and compassion. What may seem to be foreign at first is, in reality, ideally American.

A Life Worth Living

Early in the spring of this year, I had the privilege and the pleasure meeting the good folks who carry out the mission of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in IL. Volunteers from all over the Chicagoland region gathered to share stories and learn how to increase awareness for the cause. I had the opportunity to give the volunteers useful tips on how to engage others through storytelling. Today, I’m launching my personal campaign to raise some funds so that I can join the volunteers when they walk to raise awareness for suicide prevention. The Out of the Darkness Community Walk takes place on Sept. 26 at Grant Park in Chicago.

Suicide is a serious public health problem that takes an enormous toll on families, friends, classmates, co-workers, and communities, as well as on our military personnel and veterans.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2013–the most recent year for which full data is available–someone in the United States died by suicide every 12.9 minutes. This makes it the 10th leading cause of death for Americans, but unlike many other leading causes, suicide continues to claim more lives each year. Suicide is currently the third leading cause of death among young people age 15 to 24. The highest overall rates of suicide are for adults age 40 to 59.

To know the reason for someone’s suicide death is challenging. Research has shown that most people who die by suicide have a potentially treatable mental disorder at the time of their death. The disorder has often gone unrecognized and untreated. What we know about the causes of suicide is lagging behind that of other life-threatening illnesses because the stigma surrounding suicide has limited society’s investment in vital research.

The stories shared by volunteers at the gathering made me realize that even when our lives appear fine from the outside, locked within can be a world of quiet suffering, leading some to the decision to end their life.

Nadine Burke Harris, JD Schramm & Guy Winch
Nadine Burke Harris, JD Schramm & Guy Winch

Listen to three stories that ask us to break the silence surrounding suicide, advocate for medical interventions to counteract the damaging impact of stress, and encourage us to take care of our emotions and our minds with the same diligence in taking care of our bodies.

Hidden Stories About Our Freedom

The 4th of July is one of our country’s beloved traditions when we enjoy the great outdoors and some great grilling. Yesterday, I joined my family as they gathered to watch Team USA win the Women’s World Cup. This holiday has traditionally been a time to celebrate our victories as a nation, to commemorate our independence and to express our patriotism. It meant one thing in 1776. Today, what does it mean in our collective consciousness? What does it mean to be an American, to value our individual liberties and at the same time, acknowledge that others share that same freedom with us?

Wes Moore, Jody Williams & Sebastian Junger
Wes Moore, Jody Williams & Sebastian Junger

Listen to the stories of three people who fight for America’s freedom. They tell us what the work means to them––not romanticized, not idealized. It’s what most of us don’t see, or don’t know about, or sometimes even choose to ignore.