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'First-Person Stories'

April 25, 2011

(Bruce Trachtenberg is executive director of the Communications Network, a nonprofit that works to provide resources, guidance, and leadership to advance the strategic practice of communications in philanthropy. Bruce is also an occasional contributor to and frequent commenter here at PhilanTopic. This post was published earlier today on the Network's blog.)

What a story the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund has to tell about "First-Person Stories."

Among the the things to know about the storytelling project making its debut on the foundation's Web site are these:

  • All the stories being published online are oral histories told by the people themselves -- immigrants, gays and lesbians, young students, and others -- who are the focus the Haas, Jr. mission to help build a “more just and caring society.”
  • The effort is receiving guidance and hands-on support from a Pulitzer-Prize nominated author.
  • People who want to tell their own stories can submit their ideas to the foundation via its Web site.
  • Overall, says Denis Chicola, senior communications officer, the Haas, Jr. project is designed "to give a voice to people who might otherwise not have one, yet who have something important to say about the issues at the heart of the foundation's work." Chicola adds that by actively promoting the series, the foundation also Is "giving people whose stories need to be heard access to an audience that also wouldn't be within their reach."

First-Person Stories draws its inspiration -- and technical assistance -- from a nonprofit called the Voice of Witness that was started by author Dave Eggers Voiceto depict "human rights crises around the world through the stories of the men and women who experience them."

Like Voice of Witness, Haas, Jr. is using oral histories as a way to "humanize difficult and complex subjects," says Chicola. More so, Eggers is lending his expertise to the Haas, Jr. effort by editing the first-person stories submitted to and subsequently posted to the foundation's Web site.

From his work with the Voice of Witness, Eggers has already seen firsthand the power of first-person storytelling:

Again and again we see narrators who feel empowered and self-possessed after telling their stories. It's actually a process of reclaiming the narrative of your life. When we published our book about exonerated prisoners in the U.S., the narrators wrote to us saying that it was the first time their story had been told accurately and in full. That's a big deal, especially to someone who's felt wrongly accused or misunderstood. To finally have their narrative reclaimed -- it's very powerful. Even life-changing.

The first to tell his story on the Haas, Jr. Web site is Dr. Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1980s. In his early years, he worked as a migrant farm worker, and -- against all odds -- made his way to Berkeley and Harvard Medical School before becoming a renowned brain surgeon. Says Chicola, "In his own words, 'Dr. Q', reflects on his remarkable journey and on what America means to him."

The fund intends to add a new story to the First-Person section of its Web site on a regular basis.

 While largely a communications department-managed project, program staff plays an important role by helping Chicola identify the themes that best embody or reflect the nature of the foundation's grantmaking. For instance, Dr. Q's story is about the challenge of being an immigrant in the UDE.S. Other stories might portray other aspects of immigrant life, such as what it's like to be a native-born child whose parents are undocumented.

The foundation's Web site invites people to submit their ideas for stories that can help broaden awareness and increase more engagement around issues such as gay and lesbian rights, immigrant rights, and education opportunities, and community initiatives. If the story seems right for telling, the foundation will follow up and request that the person write it up and send it in.

Chicola says the foundation is open to the possibility of some day letting people post their stories directly on the Haas, Jr. Web site as a way to "promote an even deeper level of understanding and engagement." He adds, "As a funder, we have access to so many amazing stories."

There are a number of ways to view First-Person Stories. We can label this a smartly designed communications project. Or we can describe it as a productive collaboration between communications and program colleagues. But, in this case, it could be considered something more than even those two things combined. It's an example of how a foundation is trying to make our society more just and the cultural life of communities more vibrant -- and not just by relying on its own resources, but by giving voice to people we rarely hear from and are better off when we do.

-- Bruce Trachtenberg

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