“Stories are a communal currency of humanity.”
– Tahir Shah, In Arabian Nights
“If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.”
– Kendrick Lamar
Names, stories, and narratives are inextricably linked to how we navigate the world, bumping into one another. There are stories behind our names that we share with others; the stories we collect forge narratives surrounding our identities; these narratives then inform how we interact with others and carry ourselves. Each can be changed — molded or truncated, misinterpreted or adapted for someone else’s benefit. The reality we glean from our names, stories, and narratives must be carefully cultivated and preserved, as we have often reflected over the course of the John Lewis Fellowship. In the words of Ianne Field Stewart from viBe Theater Experience, “Storytellers are the stewards of heaven and hell.”
We started the program with the seed of this notion, of the significance of title and story in determining our actions. We are John Lewis Fellows, after all, and that name carries weight far beyond the Congressman’s district. It evokes the legacy of a man whose life is committed to justice and whose constancy has kept him in the civil rights struggle with communities beyond his own. An amalgamation of Europeans and Americans, academics and advocates, we unified under this title and a collective commitment to arc-bending. Our personal stories bubbled underneath the surface.
“Storytellers are the stewards of heaven and hell.”
Slowly, the histories that have shaped us sprang forth into the open. We offered hints of ourselves with items that represented us the first night at Paschal’s Restaurant, telling tales of personal odysseys and found families. With every personal presentation that ambled past its ten-minute limit, I learned more about the Fellows. Our paths to Atlanta were deeply distinct, but our presents coalesced as we formed strategies of civic engagement for the future.
One of the highlights for me in exploring the narratives of our cohort was the Under My Hood Experience at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. Event organizer and spoken word artist Coleman G. Howard talked of how if you don’t share your experiences, others will shape judgments based on assumptions and misinterpretations. Control over our own narrative is one of the most empowering tools we wield, and the chance to hear my friends boldly claim this as we humanized one another was a favorite moment in the program.
Consistently, presenters and facilitators of the program shared their stories, along with their work. In fact, the two were most often intertwined, as personal successes and failures proved as informative as data and policies. Nse Ufot, the Executive Director of the New Georgia Project, discussed her status as a naturalized citizen in tandem with the importance of exercising the right to vote. Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther party member and long-term political prisoner, joined his memories of unjust incarceration with broader criticisms of the criminal legal system. When we center voices of experience, we gain insight beyond the purely intellectual and avoid the misinformation with which we are constantly inundated.
I believe one of the greatest opportunities for civic engagement is communication between unlike communities: this requires a combination of courage, delicacy, persistence, and resilience.
The dangers of misleading information and fabricated narratives were a consistent theme in our conversations of justice. Dr. Carol Anderson traced back America’s long history of voter suppression, stopping to explain how duplicitous concerns over fraud and stories of an uneducated electorate hid the truth of imbedded racism in the political system. When the Kennesaw Five came under fire for protesting police brutality, the brother of one of the cheerleaders said he knew the group had to take control of the narrative immediately through the press to handle the situation most effectively. Naming mass incarceration and the war on poverty instead of succumbing to the simplistic tale of the war on drugs is necessary to address these systemic abuses, as illustrated at the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama. Narratives control the reality we live in and must be treated with the appropriate degree of respect and caution. This requires both powerful listeners and committed storytellers.
The dangers of misleading information and fabricated narratives were a consistent theme in our conversations of justice.
I believe one of the greatest opportunities for civic engagement is communication between unlike communities: this requires a combination of courage, delicacy, persistence, and resilience. During the John Lewis Fellowship, each person who walked into the room was prepared to share their name, truth, and story so the rest of us could benefit from their sincerity and authenticity. It’s only fair I leave the Fellowship and do the same in my spheres.
My name is Laurel Hiatt. Over the past few years, I’ve told my story a million times, a million ways. From now on, I hope to tell my truths in recognition of the reality I’m cultivating and to uphold the voices of others in their own storytelling. I hope the fire from our mouths lights the path forward to justice, and the narratives we develop reflect the complexity within each of us.
“My story is a freedom song of struggle. It is about finding one’s purpose, how to overcome fear and to stand up for causes bigger than one’s self.”
– Coretta Scott King