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Who Gets to Be a Storyteller?

A waiter, after getting us to buy dessert, is pitching his movie to me. It's the story of him and his family moving here. It's also about his grandfather, and his father, and now him trying to understand his place in a very different world than the one of his forefathers. A bildungsroman with a twist, I think to myself.

In LA, these mini-pitches happened at nearly every outing I went to. It happened at bars, in restaurants, and in the hills of Runyon Canyon. The thing is: I'm not in Los Angeles now. I am in a restaurant chain in downtown Honolulu. The guy talking to me is talking about his family's move from Sāmoa a few generations ago. The thing is, he has only been able to grab a few credits of beginning film at a local community college, and doesn't know how to get his story out.

"I know there's some way a script is supposed to look," he confides, "but I don't know what it looks like."

"Oh, have you heard of Final Draft?" I ask him. I mention that he can look for some free programs (the ubiquitous writing software costs hundreds of dollars), and look up some formats online.

Still, this moment hits me in the gut. In college and for a few years after, I was what I could call "industry-adjacent." I went to a school known for its connections to the film industry, and most of my friends were involved in some way. We had worked in enough offices and studios to not just know the importance of presenting a script the correct way, but I personally had tossed scripts aside because they showed up on the desk in Times New Roman or broke one of the other thousands of rules the film industry ascribes to. 

At the time, I shrugged it off as "the way things were." There were, I'm sure, some false narratives in my head about the ability to use Final Draft meaning "dedication" or "the right to submit" or "experience."

Now, a story stands in front of me, eager to be told but without the dressing that shows its apparent "worth." And I can't help but wonder who made that decision to begin with. How many stories have I overlooked or forgotten because they weren't "dressed for the part"? How many important voices got silenced or ignored because they didn't know the secret codes to show they were "worthy"?


Still, the world moves forward. We are beginning to discuss why not-just-white stories matter, whether around the diversity of Hamilton, the politics of "Black-ish," or the on-going discussion around #OscarsSoWhite (and Hollywood's problem with white-washing in general). Even the New York Times ran a beautiful yet heartbreaking interactive discussion about what it means to be in Hollywood if you are not white and/or a male.

What does this mean for educators? While this debate may seem centered far away from our classrooms, I don't think that's true. Representation matters, and the subtle messages we send about whose stories are valued have an effect on our students. One of the most potent ways we can fight bias and stereotypes about communities we serve or come from is to share their stories with the public at large. Stories can help us reformat the unequal systems we are all pushed to see the world in. It made me reflect on a few things:

  • We must continue to provide access and opportunities that support students and communities to tell their stories. Yes, STEM is a big and important push, but we can't serve science by stripping away critical and creative consciousness. We have to continue to support organizations that help communities of color gain skills and tools to navigate a system that doesn't necessarily help them succeed at getting their story out. Programs like New Urban Arts in Rhode Island, DreamYard in New York, and Redline in Colorado seem like good places to look at (I'll add more to the comments section as I hear about them, and would love to shout out others). 
  • We must continue to teach our students to question the system. The system is built to support the hegemony: in terms of politics, in education, and in the arts. While we want to teach them to navigate that system so they can get their stories out, it's also important to teach them that they are working with a system that is unequal and broken to begin with.  I want my students to know they don't need to change or adjust because what they are is wrong. They should wonder why scripts only get read when they look a certain way. They should question why producers aren't eager to cast faces or tell stories with people who look like them.  
  • We should do everything we can to ensure our students are confident and empowered in the knowledge that their stories matter. Recently, Rusul Alrubail, an education writer and consultant, wrote a piece about the school I teach at and the narrative writing we do. When I was reflecting on why I teach, I was reminded of an important fact: I don't teach so that I can tell the stories my students tell me. I teach so that I can help validate my students' voices and stories. As they move through a media world that may try to tell them they don't exist, they don't matter, or their stories are only worth being the stereotypical B-plot of a sitcom, I want my students to stare those assumptions in the face and say, "NO." 

At the end of the day, the system will change. It will change because the next generation demands a new kind of storytelling. The more we create a space for our students to know that stories should be exciting and diverse, with nuanced perspectives from multiple groups, the more we move the idea of diverse storytelling from a place that seems "radical" into a realm where it is simply the way we interact with the world.

I hope that we, alongside our students, become the ones who seek the stories that used to be ignored or passed over because they weren't "dressed" the right way. Maybe then we can begin to see how beautiful they were all along. 

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