*This was first published on the blog for Exhale*
At the age of 19, Shaka Senghor
shot and killed a man. “But,” he says, “that wasn’t the end of my story, it was just the beginning.” He spent two decades in prison for murder, nearly half of which were in solitary confinement. He is just one of the 90 percent of people in prison who will eventually return home to their communities.
Senghor’s opportunities and life after prison are deeply impacted by the way our culture chooses to embrace or marginalize people whose behavior is judged as wrong. In his recent TED talk
, Senghor describes his hope that our nation can “embrace a more empathetic approach to incarceration” instead of just locking people up and throwing away the key. Anyone, he believes, can be transformed if we create space for that to happen.
Humans have a remarkable capacity for empathy.
And yet, when Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst and media pundit, revealed on national television that she is a survivor of sexual assault, she was publicly attacked and criticized. As most survivors know, despite the fact that rape is the crime, it is the victims who are often blamed for what happened to them. “You were drinking, what did you expect?” were the first words Maxwell heard
after she told someone she had been raped. The more people she told, the more questions she got about what it was she did wrong to warrant this man’s bad behavior.
As anyone who has shared a stigmatized story
knows, it’s common to be on the receiving end of blame, shame, pity and attack. Yet, because the voices and experiences of people who live with stigma are critical to changing the way our culture addresses our most pressing social issues — from mass incarceration to sexual assault — advocates must prioritize supporting those on the leading edge of culture change, the people who publicly share their personal stories.
is a model that ensures a storyteller’s needs and leadership are supported and her rights respected throughout a storytelling process, especially one designed to make a public impact. Approaching storytelling through the eyes of the storyteller opens doors for meaningful connections and engagement across differences with audiences.
Last year, Exhale put our ethical storysharing model to the test. We supported five leaders who traveled the nation
to share their personal abortion stories, reaching over 350 audience members at 19 colleges, universities, churches and community organizations in 5 states. Independently evaluated
by Learning for Action, results from the survey’s showed an increase in empathy for women who have had abortions:
• 88 percent of audiences felt more prepared to hear diverse and complex experiences with abortion after the workshop.
• 83 percent of audience members felt a connection to the women who shared their experiences with abortion.
• 88 percent of audience members heard a new perspective about women’s experiences with abortions.
• 97 percent believed that the workshop was respectful of diverse experiences.
Something else happened, too. Comments from audience members showed that many of the people who normally feel excluded from conversations about abortion felt welcomed to participate:
• “It made me feel at ease to learn that men have a role and a place in all of this that is respected and appreciated.”
• “I am personally pro-life and often feel shut out or judged because of my opinion. However, I could one day be in the same position and respect everyone regardless of political stance.”
• “I was surprised by the speakers’ compassion, empathy and sensitivity to those who oppose them.”
We discovered that the secret sauce to generating empathy wasn’t just in the stories that the women told, but in their unique ability to role model empathy before an audience. When the storytellers faced judgment, instead of defensiveness they offered their understanding. By treating others the way they would like to be treated — respectfully and with empathy — they showed that talking about abortion, even with strangers who share different values and beliefs, doesn’t have to be a divisive act. In fact, abortion can be the subject that brings people together.
This is the true purpose of why we share our stories: to create human bonds powerful enough to change the world as we know it. Personal stories alone can’t humanize taboo topics, but empathetic leaders can.