New Orleans is a city of a thousand stories. I spend a lot of time there. My job is to help people find their voices and the words to tell their stories.
It’s not bad work for a writer.
A very wise person once told me that trauma untreated is trauma transferred. The truth of that statement is played out every day, in conflicts small and extreme. Just like broken bones, traumas, in the form of emotional or psychological injuries, do not go away if a person pretends they never happened. They fester below the surface, and exert themselves in other ways. They cause behavioral changes, or physiological changes. They deal with you, until you deal with them.
At the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, we help community people find solutions to problems caused by or aggravated by difference. That difference can be racial. But it can also be class, gender or age. We teach them active listening and personalized speaking (owning what they say and not attributing it to “everybody knows…” or “people say…”). Then we guide them through a process addressing the issue, using poems and flash fiction pieces to help them do so without feeling it as a personal attack. We are active in 16 communities in Mississippi, New Orleans, and consult in Ferguson, Baltimore and Charleston and Columbia, SC as well as Northern Ireland and South Africa. The goal of the process, called the Welcome Table, is to help community people find their common humanity and build lasting relationships. We start with person to person relationships. From there we move to group to group relationships. When positive group to group relationships are established, systemic change can follow.
We do this with the power of story.
We start with the Guideposts, eleven rules that describe how everyone in the circle will interact with each other. Then comes an exercise in which each person in the circle introduces him or herself and tells where their name comes from and what they believe their gifts are. Next comes a poem, “Where I’m From…” by George Ella Lyons is one of our favorites. “Where I’m From…” is a list poem in which the authors chronicles the things, places, people and memories that made her the person she is. We have the participants in the circle write their own versions of the poem, listing the people, places and things that influenced them. Each participant is permitted to read his or her poem to the circle if they choose; it’s not share or die. As they listen to each other’s works, they discover new things about each other, and that they share common experiences.
Doing this sort of work gives a writer a new perspective on the power of story and of the responsibility that writers bear as they practice their craft. Story is a powerful thing. It can drive policy, and sway public opinion. Whether we write fiction, nonfiction or poetry, we must be mindful of playing into stereotypes. For many readers, their perception of individuals different from themselves comes from the books they read, or the television programs and movies they watch. That section of the brain that processes and creates empathy can also create fear and antipathy.
Consider the following: in the months preceding the Rwanda genocide, in which members of Hutu ethnic group took up machetes and killed between 800,000 and one million Tutsis and non-colluding Hutus, local radio stations broadcast stories and programs crafted by the ruling Hutu regime depicting the victims as “cockroaches” and less than human. It was this process of dehumanization that enabled people to forget that they were turning on their neighbors and friends. It gave them license to do the unthinkable.
It is for that reason if for no other that we as creators of content must be mindful of creating characters that are realistic and nuanced and representative of their communities, ethnic groups or religions to which they belong. One dimensional characters not only do a disservice to the story, but to the reader as well.
As the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina has come and gone, more and more people have discovered that they have something they must say. They realize that there is a reason a hard rain unnerves them, or that suddenly they cannot sleep with the bedroom door completely closed. They have a story inside them. It’s trying to get out.
That’s where I come in. My name is Tucker. I’m a peace builder, and I’m a writer.