Three months after a November workshop, Narrative4 (N4), a nonprofit founded by author Colum McCann, returned to Hamilton to create a partnership between the organization and the College. More than 20 students, faculty members, Levitt Center administrators discussed how to take N4’s mission — fostering empathy through profound “story exchange exercises” — and affect deep-rooted change to campus culture. N4 executive director Lisa Consiglio and director of programs Lee Keylock led a story exchange exercise before the group discussed their vision for using N4’s core methodology to create a culture of empathy and compassion on the Hill.
“We’re back and we’ll be here a lot,” Consiglio said at the beginning of the training session. “You guys are our pioneers ...our trailblazers and we’re here looking for your ideas. The focus of the evening is turning empathy into action.”
Before the story exchange, Keylock, who taught English at Newtown (Conn.) High School for 13 years, discussed how he became involved with the organization in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. “I wanted to get kids talking, not necessarily about what had happened, but about their lives. You can’t let one story define you,” he said. “You can either curl up and become paralyzed by that kind of event or you can try and change something.”
The group was divided into pairs who spoke for 30 minutes. Each partner could tell any story of personal significance, but four guiding questions were provided: 1. What story can you tell about when you realized how much race matters? 2. What story would you tell about you and the environment? 3. Tell your own personal “war story” — a time when you were at war with…4. Think of an essential story from your life that is emblematic of who you believe you are.
Following these conversations, they re-grouped into two groups of 10 facilitated by Consiglio and Keylock. Everyone told their partner’s story in the first person, taking great care and respect to recount the story with which they had been entrusted. When the entire group reconvened, the tone shifted from the story exchange itself to what would come next. After experiencing the empathy of telling another person’s story, the momentum in the room and the desire to extend that empathy was palpable. Hands shot in the air for more than two hours as the group discussed how to move forward at Hamilton.
“Story exchange is not the end-all-and-be-all of what we do here at Narrative4,” Consiglio said. “How can we get this into classes here at Hamilton? What type of prompt could be a theme for an entire course?”
Noting the number of shared stories concerning family, many group members raised ideas for a course themed around the fluidity and complexity of family. Another idea was using N4’s tenets to change the way the campus views and relates to the surrounding communities of Clinton, New Hartford and Utica. Timing of a story exchange in a classroom context was debated, and Consiglio and Keylock, in conjunction with the Hamilton group, proposed “best practices.” These included how to set expectations, address concerns about judgement and bias, and incorporate “aftercare” working with the Counseling Center.
The group also discussed how best to incorporate story exchanges into orientation and the First-Year Experience. Students noted that upperclassmen need to model it as “something Hamilton does,” and to target the moment that first-year students are trying to figure out what the ‘cultural norms’ are at Hamilton, a sentiment that was supported by Dean of Students Nancy Thompson.
“There is an incredible energy around this experience,” said Steve Yank, who will be leading the Levitt Center’s Community Engagement Workshops on Feb. 13 and 14. “To keep that going, you need a core group of people and it looks like that group is here, including the people with decision-making authority.”