On the Value of Stories

Last month, I attended SUNY’s first system-wide diversity conference in Albany along with over 300 other faculty, staff, and students. While the conference had many inspiring moments (the SUNY Cortland Gospel choir, Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, among others), the session that had the most impact on me, and my work, was that of Drew Kahn, Professor of Theater at SUNY Buffalo State.

Drew is the founder of The Anne Frank Project, which “uses storytelling as a vehicle for community building, conflict resolution, and identity exploration. Inspired by the wisdom of Anne Frank, AFP surfaces and shares stories stifled by oppression”. In 2006, Kahn produced a play with an actress portraying Anne Frank, and a second, Rwandan girl Anana, narrating alongside. This play was the beginning of The Anne Frank Project, which continues to inspire and educate young people throughout the world through storytelling.

Just after this initial success, Kahn was invited by Carl Wilkens to travel to Rwanda. He had never been. Wilkens was the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, sending his young family to safety in Burundi while he stayed to help orphaned children. Before the two men departed, Wilkens promised that Kahn’s heart would be filled and broken every single day. It was. Since then, Kahn has taken a dozen Buffalo State students to Rwanda every January. They leave as students, and return as adults. As you can imagine, the experience is life changing. Kahn believes that we have to push our students to the limit so they can navigate the complexities of their lives. Many of the students who have traveled with Kahn have gone on to produce important works that educate young people on issues of social justice and equity.

And so, events do converge. The evening I returned from the conference I went to my local library. As I approached the checkout counter, I looked down to see Paul Rusesabagina’s audio book, An Ordinary Man on the shelf. Rusesabagina was the manager of the Mille Collines, the hotel on which the movie Hotel Rwanda was based. I slowly swapped his book for the one I was looking forward to reading, knowing that I too was about to open my heart to breaking.

I listened to the book over the course of the following week. I didn’t take any calls on my commutes to work or home, I burned it on my computer so I could listen to it on headphones while I cleaned the house. The story, narrated by Dominic Hoffman, was poignant, unimaginable, inspiring, and heartbreaking: neighbors who had friendly cookouts with each other one day, went to murdering each other the next. Wives who killed their husbands in their beds. Vicious bloodshed continued for 100 days. While the violence seemed to be sparked by a singular event, it was the results of a slow, systematic radio campaign whose hatred only escalated. The Rwandan path toward genocide emulated all of those before or since: structured, systematic, and sponsored, developing over time. Genocides happen because good people choose not to act.

“The other thing you have to understand was that the message crept into our national consciousness very slowly. It did not happen all at once. We did not wake up one morning to hear it pouring out of the radio at full strength. It started with a sneering comment, the casual use of the term “cockroach,” the almost humorous suggestion that Tutsis should be airmailed back to Ethiopia. Stripping the humanity from an entire group of people takes time. It is an attitude that requires cultivation, a series of small steps, daily tending.” 

–Paul Rusesabagina, An Ordinary Man

The Anne Frank Project reminds us that we have an obligation to share our stories, even if they are uncomfortable to tell. By sharing our stories, Kahn means speaking up when we think policy might be made without taking in all of the facts, and people, into consideration: when we are yet at another meeting, or speaking with another parent at a curricular event, or even on social media. We know this. We say this. But we need to be self-assured in practicing it.

Joann Lindstrom, MPA ’07
Director of Recruitment & Internship Placement
Department of Public Administration
Binghamton University