I was intrigued when I received a slightly mysterious email this past Tuesday from Jin Jin Xu ’17, inviting me to “hear life stories.” It didn’t specify who would be telling their stories. I didn’t know anybody else going. Further adding to the enigma was the event’s location in Seligman Dormitory, a place I didn’t even know existed.
Despite a little apprehension, I eventually found my way to Seligman last Thursday evening to attend the first “Stories of Amherst” event. Unlike big-name talks, where a “PhD” after the speaker’s name invokes the desire for a take-away nugget of truth, there is faith involved in choosing to sit down and listen to strangers’ stories. It requires a belief that by virtue of the shared human experience, there is something to be learned from everyone, no degree required.
“Stories of Amherst” was started by Alicia Lopez ’16, Angela Hernandez ’17, and Jin Jin Xu ’17 to create a space for people who may never interact otherwise to come together and share their stories. During the one-and-a-half-hour-long first event, three people shared—two Amherst students and a staff member. Some storytellers focused more specifically on one life experience, while others made broader observations drawn from the course of their lives. The official event ended after the stories concluded, attendees drifting into quiet excited chatter. The location of “Amherst Stories” in Seligman, out of most students’ way, is important; because most students lacked any associations with the space, the event felt unique, a departure from regular life into a world away from the college.
Two of the co-founders of the program, Lopez and Xu, served together as CEOT trip leaders. They were inspired by the trip’s “Cultural Sharing” event, in which members sit in a circle and share an item important to them. Through this seemingly simple activity, amazing and often heartbreaking stories emerge. The dual act of telling and listening is in and of itself meaningful. Telling one’s story requires a tremendous amount of bravery and trust that others will listen freely, without judgment. But vocalizing your pain allows you to understand it better; words let you shape and thus know your struggles. Listening can be equally difficult—you must learn to sit with silences, to hear the hardships of others and show them support not with words but with open, receptive listening. We listen; we leave. We are changed in ways that we may not realize.
This inner change is an important result of sharing, and what I especially liked about “Stories of Amherst” is that at the end, there was no attempt to distill the stories into a portable lesson to carry with us back to our dorms. The event’s invitation included a quote from Hannah Arendt: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.” Each person in Seligman’s common room heard with different ears; peoples’ pasts affected the way they reacted to the stories.
There has been and will continue to be a lot of discussion—especially this past week with the “Black Lives Matter” demonstration—about the value of dialogue and how students should address Amherst’s problems. It seems that a lot of issues stem from the fact that people come here with vastly different backgrounds, and instead of using these different life experiences as opportunities to learn, they tend to drive us apart. People can’t be stripped down just to their group identification: Democrat, Republican, Black rights activist, women’s rights activist, queer rights activist, environmentalist, capitalist. They’re humans, their beliefs informed in a visceral way by their experiences up to now. In listening to someone explain their life—where they came from, what they faced in the past—we can understand better their perspective on various issues.
What I’m writing may seem obvious, but it’s very important to remember in heated debates: instead of portraying those we disagree with as faceless, irrational monsters, we need to recognize they have had experiences—the death of a friend or parent, familial pressures, not feeling safe in one’s home, hiding one’s real identity—that continue to inform the way they feel now.
Change ultimately occurs through intimate communication. We see this honesty in “Stories of Amherst,” but it’s something we must also engage in outside of a planned event. Ask people questions and listen. There is a huge—huge—amount of diversity at this school. I realize more every day how fantastic and interesting people here are. It would be a loss not to learn from them.
“Stories of Amherst” is planning to hold events every two weeks in the Seligman common room. The organizers are hoping to hold more open events in the future, where anyone can share their story. If you would like to be added to the mailing list to receive a reminder prior to the event, email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. You do not need to receive an email to come; everyone is more than welcome.