We all know the power of storytelling and how a passionate, informative, and inspirational narrative can serve as a catalyst for change within ourselves and within the communities in which we live. A good story can effectively reach in and help you form new perspectives and develop new ways of examining important issues. As humans, we communicate through the act of telling stories. We share the burdens and joys of our own personal human experiences through this act. It is through the telling and in turn, through the listening that we are given the chance to achieve a better understanding of the conditions of our fellow human beings. The real meaning and importance of storytelling can oftentimes emerge when we decide what to do with that understanding.
J.R. Jamison is co-founder and CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer) of The Facing Project (Jamison is also Executive Director of Indiana Campus Compact). The Facing Project is an innovative 501(c) (3) nonprofit that connects people through stories to strengthen communities. These voices come from those who are, as Jamison says, “facing life circumstances that deserve to be shared to better educate the broader community and connect people across difference.” The Facing Project works to connect “writers, storytellers, artists, educators, and community leaders who are having crucial conversations on social justice issues—neighbor to neighbor, community to community—by discussing solutions and exploring healing through their own narratives.”
We asked Jamison a few questions via a questionnaire concerning The Facing Project in an attempt to understand the inspiration behind the project and how it came to be. We also asked Jamison to share with us how he thinks this project can help meet the goals of deepening civic engagement initiatives between campuses and surrounding communities. Our questions and Jamison’s answers are below.
What inspired you to begin this project and how was it initiated?
I co-founded this project with Kelsey Timmerman, the New York Times Bestselling author who wrote “Where Am I Wearing? A Global Tour to the Countries, Factories, and People That Make Our Clothes” and “Where Am I Eating? An Adventure through the Global Food Economy.” Kelsey traveled the world and spent time with garment workers and farmers, and through his books he told their stories. Back home in Indiana, he felt like a crummy local and decided to get engaged in our hometown of Muncie. Part of his local involvement, because he is a writer, was the development of a storytelling project called Facing Poverty with an organization that works to empower people in poverty toward self-sufficiency. He developed what is now the model of The Facing Project, and he recruited me as a writer on that project. I was so moved by the experience, the relationship I developed with my storyteller, and the immediate impact I saw the project have on our community I told him the magic couldn’t be one and done. My background is in community organizing and the community engagement movement in higher education, so I knew a thing or two about replicating models and working with communities to make projects work. Also, both of us knew narratives are a key component to change perspectives.
How can this project help meet the goals of deepening civic engagement initiatives and experiences on campuses and within the communities they live in and serve?
Our goal as educators should be to get students to think bigger about social justice issues – not only globally but also locally. The real question to ask should be: Do I know one person in my community facing poverty or hunger or a disability? And better yet, do I understand their story? The Facing Project provides the opportunity to create connections between community members and students, and it provides for interdisciplinary engagement that is more intimate than other community-based experiences because we’re asking students to carry the weight of their neighbor’s story and stand with them, side by side, to create community change. I’d like to think we are creating community organizers who understand the art of listening.
What keeps you motivated to continue to promote and develop this particular project?
The stories, the people, and the connections we’ve seen happen in communities because of their Facing Projects…There’s a ton of good in all of us. By the summer of 2017, with all of the Facing Projects combined, nearly 75,000 books will have been distributed throughout communities, 7,500 volunteers mobilized partnering with 800 community partners, and over 1,500 first-person accounts collected to create community change across the country.
Please share a few words of advice to inspire those (faculty/staff/students) who strive to enrich their communities through civic engagement and who may be looking for alternative ways to do so:
Don’t be afraid of the unknown. As engaged scholars, we spend so much time in reflection mode and navigating the systems of higher education, which is super important, but that constant mode can keep us from taking risks. We must take risks, but do so with the community as a core partner. The support you’ll find there is amazing if you’re authentic and have good intentions. None of us do this work alone. Find a partner, or many partners, and go make a difference. Everything else will fall into place, as it should.
If you’d like to know more about the Facing Project, check out The Facing Project’s website, where you can find contact information, examples of Facing Projects in many different communities, and more details about how the project works. Also, Missouri Campus Compact has partnered with The Facing Project to offer projects to five member campuses. These campuses will be highlighted in our upcoming SPOTLIGHT blog so don’t forget to check it out!