Pilot Program Fosters Education through Personal Narrative

Movement building is exhausting, highly skilled work that succeeds only through a combination of painstaking planning and organizing. Achievement of sustained participation in any social movement depends in large part on the degree to which the movement’s mission directly relates to the everyday lives of its participants. Emma Race ’18 has taken this truism to heart when implementing her Spanish-language storytelling workshops in New London this semester. These workshops offer participants a forum to define and reclaim their individual experiences as immigrants. Discussing her workshop initiative in the context of promoting social change, Race commented that literature resonates with her “as one way to bring something to the struggle.”

Race became interested in the intersection of literature with social movements while interning this past summer with LOM Ediciones, a publishing house in Chile. The alternative publishing house, she says, “raised the voices of previously unheard and unpublished activists.” As a result of her internship, Race gained a heightened awareness of the ways in which the free press provides an important avenue for criticism.  Her experiences taught her the importance of owning and developing a personalized narrative. Returning to Conn, Race sought to “utilize the lessons taught” over the summer to tailor her CISLA Senior Integrative Project around an idea that would benefit the community as a whole. Meeting with community organizers and residents of New London, Race determined that many Spanish-speaking immigrants lacked access to higher education classes. She feels that their experiences are framed within “other people’s opinions on them being here” and that a series of workshops targeted at Spanish-speakers in New London could produce tangible benefits for participants.

Race’s project has a two-phased rollout: a pilot program implemented this fall semester and a more integrated series of workshops to be conducted in the spring semester. Race, along with Fabiola Ramirez ’19 and playwright Carlos Canales, carry out the day-to-day duties of the workshops. Five of these workshops, each lasting two hours, have been held this semester. Each workshop consists of a lesson component, group work and one-on-one writing and editing sessions. Initial workshops focused on general narrative elements and the most effective literary techniques to incorporate into each individual story. Canales gives special attention to developing individual stories in ways that both empower and encompass the fullness of the writer’s experience. Race hopes to showcase the work of participants through outlets that respect the highly personal and sensitive nature of the stories. She has connected with members of Eclipse, which organizes the student-run performance under the theme of storytelling, to consider incorporating spoken stories from the community as part of the show. She is also considering whether to record or even publish the stories via campus publications. The end product, Race says, depends on the level of comfort of contributing storytellers.

The pilot program currently includes four participants that span from their 20s to their 80s. Race comments, “It’s cool to see the interactions of all different people of a variety of ages and backgrounds.” Race values the small group dynamic that lends itself to easier coordination. The process of advertising the workshops, however, taught her important lessons about the challenges of community organizing. Initially, her approach to advertising centered on “handing out brochures everywhere.” Brochure distribution spots included the Centro de la Comunidad and the library in New London and places on the Conn campus. Although a number of people appeared excited when handed the brochure, only those whom Caneles and Race had interacted with extensively actually showed up for the workshops. Limited to a two-week period to advertise, Race didn’t have the opportunity to conduct extensive face-to-face publicity. She now understands that finding participants requires “not just telling people about an event, but explaining the event to them.”

To date, Race has received $3,279 from five different sources (CISLA, the Holleran Center, the SGA Sustainable Projects Fund, the Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, and the President of the College). Funding has been allocated for paying Canales, who leads the workshops, as well as for renting program spaces and providing food for participants. Acknowledging that “it is asking a lot of someone’s time” to participate in the workshops, Race says that participants will receive a small gift card by the end of the series. She expects a lower budget for the fall workshops compared to the spring ones because the fall programs represent “a smaller version of what is happening in the spring.”

The program, Race says, is gratifying because the people involved are excited about it. The initiative seems to be off to a good start, but Race envisions more for the program. She believes that the structure and curriculum of the spring workshops will facilitate more systematic changes relating to immigration. In its current form, workshops focus on building community through storytelling. By the spring, Race will meet with New London activists to present the workshops “for a community that already exists and is mobilized for change.” After laying the groundwork for progress with only a few people, Race hopes to soon have a delegation of activists whose involvement will bring more people to the struggle.