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Bridget Cherry, program officer in the K12 Education Program, photographed July 9, 2021 In Takoma Park, MD. Photo by Chris Kleponis

Discovering the Power of Story to Drive Change in Education

July 15, 2021
The more we share our stories, the more we learn what people and communities need for their children

As a K-12 education grant maker, as a woman, and as a mother, I have often felt implicit pressure to keep my personal life separate from my work. Yet according to systems change experts, sharing stories and building relationships are a key component of how to build movements and power. The number one motivator of the more than 50% of respondents who moved from supporting an organization on social media to supporting it offline was encountering story, according to a Georgetown Digital Persuasion Study.

During the pandemic, I gave birth to our family’s second daughter and, upon returning to work, did include my baby on some video calls. But more importantly, as part of a new body of work related to engaging communities in a process of determining their own priorities around education change, I began to more deliberately share my story.

Bridget Cherry is a program officer in the foundation's K-12 Education Program.

Doing so took some preparation. My colleagues and I studied approaches to personal narrative, learned about the role of story in community organizing, and watched videos of speeches that linked personal narrative to calls to action. We considered the parts of our story that had brought us to where we are today and ways to connect our personal experiences to the broader mission of our team – to support transformative educational change that will increase economic opportunity for low-income students and students of color.

As I got to know new partners, they frequently shared their stories about what brought them to this work, and I began to share more about myself. I talked about being the daughter of a first-generation college student, inspired by how education had helped my mother realize her dream of becoming a doctor and providing care for underserved communities.

By sharing her own experiences as a mother of two daughters, Bridget Cherry learned that storytelling can build trust and support deeper partnership with grantees.

I shared about being the mother of two young children, my interest in the ways that they already show different talents, abilities and dispositions, and my desire to find school settings that will nurture them both. I recalled being a teacher in Honduras, where I got to know students who were seeking to learn English to gain access to higher-paying jobs in their country, while they missed mothers or fathers, aunts or uncles who had gone to the United States in search of economic opportunity to help their families back home.

Through this experience, I learned firsthand that storytelling can build trust and support deeper partnership. New partnerships inherently require navigation of differences and tensions as we seek to understand each other’s intentions, learn about priorities and processes and determine ways to work together.

I found that uncovering unexpected commonalities made it easier for me to give a partner a call when I needed to talk through something complex. Knowing more about what brought a partner to the work made me more receptive to critical feedback, as well.

Bringing our humanity to conversations has made our work together stronger and more impactful.

I have made mistakes along the way and continue to seek ways to learn and grow, to apologize when necessary, and integrate that learning into my work going forward. Bringing our humanity to conversations has made our work together stronger and more impactful.

This year, the K-12 team hosted small-group conversations with leaders in communities where we are exploring investment as part of the foundation’s new five-year strategy. Through these community roundtables, we had the opportunity to hear the stories of local leaders and advocates and the families they serve.

We heard stories of how some students struggled with the impact of online school, unable to interact in person with friends and teachers, while others were able to set their own schedules and engage in schooling in a new way through innovative virtual formats. We learned about a family fearful of asking for help due to immigration status when their heat was shut off in winter, and the way that a grassroots organization had built trust with that family and addressed that pressing need. We also learned about the ways new partnerships and coalitions formed during the pandemic, as individual experiences drew people to connect with others to make concrete change in their communities – and the ideas they have for ways to continue to build on those partnerships to increase impact through investments in local organizations and local leaders.

Parents and families drew on their individual experiences during the pandemic and connected with others to make concrete educational change in their communities, says Bridget Cherry.

One of the most striking parts of the roundtables was hearing participants share their visions for lifelong success for themselves and their communities. The responses, coming from each person’s own story and the stories they have gathered through their work, showed the promise of community-based work to support individuals and communities in succeeding on their own terms, with their own goals and priorities at the forefront.

These stories were inspiring and full of hope. I can’t wait to hear the new stories and transformative opportunities that will emerge.

In the Field is a series featuring Walton Family Foundation staff whose commitment and passion for their work is helping create access to opportunity for people and communities.
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