What Stories Tell Us

Rebecca Van Maren, Emerson National Hunger Fellow
July 18, 2011

“We dream in narrative, day-dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.” Barbara Hardy

Earlier this spring I wrote a blog on Empowering Other to Share Their Stories. Well, I’m back to take a second look at the important role stories can have in advocacy.

Narratives and stories play such a key role, not only in how we learn information, but also in how we learn to relate to others. Personally, stories and books were always accessible growing up, whether that was when I was three and my older sister told me bedtime stories, six when I was learning to read on my own, or later when my mom told my siblings and me stories about how her life was so different and adventurous living on a Homestead in rural Wyoming decades ago. The stories were made even more exciting when we were able to visit mom’s old barn and house that once had so much life, and are now left there to crumble with age.

When telling stories, it’s not the facts that we learn that make us believe; it’s finding the connection between their values and experiences to our own that make stories and narratives that much more powerful. We know that through the numerous studies and research that have been done on Head Start and other Early Learning environments that Head Start Parents are more emotionally supportive, read to their children daily, and are less likely to engage in negative parenting behaviors. But to hear Melissa’s story about Head Start empowered her to be the parent that she wants to be gives us context and something tangible to appreciate the research that much more.  Or, maybe we knew that Head Start and Early Head Start programs studies showed favorable impacts with fathering and father-child interaction and that in June 1995 the Fatherhood Initiative was launched to strengthen the role of fathers in families; but it is through watching Merrill share the importance of this program or watching Jessie share his story of how he’s become a more engaged father for his daughter that we are able to see what these programs mean for these fathers and their children.

Sometimes I need a reminder of why it is that I do what I do. There have been many occasions when I have questioned my role and the problems of the world seem too large. But then, something happens — I meet someone, or hear about how the program or policy I’ve been working on has influenced someone else’s life — and it gives me the boost I need to keep going. This happened for me when I had the opportunity to meet Almeta Keys, the current Executive Director of the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center here in Washington, D.C.  Almeta is a former Head Start parent, and spoke at a press conference on the importance of Head Start this past spring.  I was so grateful for her story, and that she was willing to share it with our volunteers at RESULTS International Conference last month. Her passion, dedication, and experience with Head Start in so many capacities really spoke to the impact Head Start can have not only for children, but parents. At the same time, I had the opportunity to speak with a current Head Start Parent, Shavon Whitehead; she also spoke at a press conference and again at our International Conference. Listening to Shavon share her story and experience having two alumni of and one child currently enrolled in Head Start — and hearing how well the children — were doing was truly a pleasure. With the support of Head Start and its speech and occupational therapy services, Shavon’s daughter was able to get back on track with her development.

During the month of May when so many of you went on Head Start site visits, you were able to see firsthand how Head Start and Child Care programs were working in your community. This experience helped you to deepen your understanding of the program, and, in the case of Lydia’s Letter to the Editor, it helped convey your advocacy message in a much more meaningful way.

As my time here with RESULTS as an Emerson Hunger Fellow draws to a close, it’s great to look back over the past few months and think about how many stories I’ve been able to hear and share. Parent’s firsthand stories have been a key part of what I have focused on here at RESULTS, and I know some of these stories will stay with me for a long time. It’s been a pleasure to be able to work with not only the RESULTS volunteers, but also the Head Start Parents and providers who are able to share how Head Start has impacted their lives. I know that ensuring members of Congress understand the implications of their actions and that of the policies they enact are very critical. However, sometimes it’s hard to think outside of your day-to-day world about the reality that others may be facing. Though I hope that we understand that families in Head Start are similar to our own, these families face many more obstacles in their lives. I hope that one day our country will see the value in providing equality for all members of our society and making sure everyone’s needs in our communities are being met.

While pure numbers, facts, and statistics may not win over everyone, a story through which someone can find a connection to his or her values and experiences can make a difference. It’s time to make sure that we change the narrative through the work that we do, empower those around us to share their stories and to become engaged citizens by educating  members of Congress on how programs like Head Start are vital.