Leanna Blackwell and Aine Greaney from Bay Path’s MFA were at the Women’s Leadership Conference with a version of NPR’s popular StoryCorps booth. What’s the story?
Leanna Blackwell said that at this year’s Women’s Leadership Conference, she had one of the best seats in the house…yet she didn’t get to hear a single keynote speaker. What’s the story with that?
Bay Path’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction Program Director, Blackwell and Aine Greaney, noted author and MFA faculty, were the hosts of the Conference’s “Own Your Story” booth, modeled after the popular National Public Radio StoryCorps. Such booths are designed for an individual or duo to make an audio recording of a chapter of their lives. It’s not uncommon for the radio broadcasts to bring moments of deep laughter or heartbreaking tears.
Why is it so compelling for us to tell our story? Blackwell said that before the day’s recording, her answer would have been entirely different.
“With the theme of women’s leadership such an important part of the day,” she explained, “I was prepared for stories of triumph. We did get that… but not in the way I expected.”
“There were stories of deep and profound suffering, of trauma and shock,” she continued. “These events were transcended by the speakers eventually. But this was a chance for them to testify, almost. It was as though some of these speakers were reaching out of themselves, wanting a witness to what they had endured. To let the world know, this is what happened to me, and to state, ‘I have survived.’”
The majority of participants in the booth were women in their 30s through 70s, Blackwell said. Perhaps, she mused, the prevalence of social media allows women from younger generations more opportunity to divulge their story on a daily basis.
“When I think about the frank things that people nowadays are accustomed to sharing, be it on Facebook, blogs, Twitter, you name it,” she said, “it makes sense that telling their story is about how they exist in the world. So much has changed since even a generation ago.”
She heard many stories about health concerns, cancer survivors, “Stories that just had to be told,” Blackwell said. Some of them had battled illness and survived. Some were still fighting. There were stories about not having the chance to thank friends and family for what they had been given.
“You don’t know when you’re young what the sacrifices are that people make for you,” she said. “This only occurs to you later, when you’ve lived long enough. People were saying thank you, wishing they had the chance to say it face-to-face.”
An interesting parallel, Blackwell said, was the College’s Massive Open Online Course running concurrently with the WLC. Also addressing the theme of telling one’s story, she said the MOOC was an excellent opportunity for people to use the cathartic release from the story booth to go even further.
“Some of them, afterwards, were so exhilarated after the experience, they wanted to know how they could do more,” she said. “The experience of being in a community of people simultaneously sharing this experience, doing it with other people, and mentored throughout—many who hadn’t known of it left us and then registered for the MOOC.”
It was a powerful day of sharing the deepest sentiments that, in many cases, were given voice for the first time. One woman’s story in particular, Blackwell said, summed up many others’ sentiments.
This participant had faced a difficult decision that was ultimately met with tremendous hostility and judgment from her family, Blackwell remembered. This woman’s courage, she added, was powerful beyond words.
“After so many years,” Blackwell said, “she described the contrast between then and the way she lives now as the difference between living in darkness and light. Now she finally has the ability to breathe.”