By Dena Franco
One night a few weeks ago, we had our first AVODAH programming lesson in advocacy. We were all sitting in a circle, expecting a discussion about social justice, as was the norm. But the facilitator began by asking each of us, one by one: “How did you get here?” After some confused responses such as “I took the bus” or “I walked,” it was clear that the question was meant to be interpreted in a broader sense: what is your story? Why AVODAH? Why social justice? Why intentional community?
After everyone shared, I realized that each person had shared only a glimpse of his/her picture during the program. Because in every story, there are so many sub-stories, and within those sub-stories are even more stories. These stories help define us and shed light onto who we are. One of the take-home lessons from that night was the importance of storytelling for advocacy work. We have to be able to express why we’re interested in working in any given community with their specific challenges and why the community’s struggles are ours as well—it’s essential in order to engage people and gain support.
Since that program, I’ve thought a lot about the concept of storytelling. At work the next day, I noticed that all of my interactions with clients actually involved storytelling. In fact, even though my job description would never say it, I listen to stories all day long!
I work at N Street Village, a community of empowerment and recovery for homeless and low-income women in the DC area. We have comprehensive housing opportunities ranging from a night shelter to permanent supportive housing. There are programs specifically for women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and programs for women who are HIV positive. We also run a day center for both the N Street Village residents as well as any other woman who needs a meal, shower, and clean clothes—they could be coming from an emergency shelter or right off the streets.
Our work, however, goes beyond the basic needs. We have a Wellness Center, which is my domain. Every day, there are health promotion activities, services, and support groups for the ladies. We also have a partnership with Unity Health Care, who sends a doctor, dentist, and psychiatrist to see clients here on a walk-in basis. My favorite part of this work is coordinating the team of Wellness Center receptionists—these are N Street Village clients trying to build their resumes. Doing this, I spend a lot of one-on-one time with some of these women. The more we get to know each other and build trust, the women open up to me. They share their personal stories—these stories are beautiful, painful, funny and uncomfortable. Now, I am helping them put their stories in written form. I believe that by writing their stories, these women will be able to achieve a tangible goal and participate in an incredibly empowering process. These women are learning to understand how their life experiences and traumas can transform into resilience, and this affords them the power and ability to give back to the community.
This storytelling does not have a limited scope. Although the recent AVODAH program was the first time we were instructed to explain publicly and explicitly how we got to where we are, a lot of us already knew pieces of each other’s stories. We know our housemates extremely well. We describe ourselves as a dysfunctional family. A week after moving in, I have a vivid memory of all of us together during a meeting: “How is it possible that we already love each other?” It’s incredible how close we became in such a short amount of time. And then I realized: during orientation, we engaged in a lot of storytelling, and these conversations did not stop once we exited the AVODAH office and started walking down U Street. We continued to share and ask questions—it still continues and will continue.
It has been really eye-opening to explore the relationship between storytelling and advocacy: at home with other AVODAH corps members, at N Street Village with my clients, and on my own as well. When I think about my future, about how I want to be an advocate for issues surrounding gender, health-care, and homelessness, I know that the atmosphere of openness and willingness to share in my AVODAH house has made me a better storyteller and, consequently, a more powerful and influential advocate.
Dena Franco is from Atlanta, GA, attended University of Michigan and is a Wellness Center Program Assistant at N Street Village.