This is the third part of a three-part series on storytelling and community organizing.
I often tell people that while I grew up in poverty, I also grew up with wealth – a richness of many generations of my family history. Unlike so many people who have had their family histories destroyed or lost through slavery, genocide or assimilation, I grew up knowing the stories of my family – 13 generations, in fact.
I didn’t realize until I was an adult how valuable – and comparatively rare – knowing this long history is. It gave me a sense of belonging, even when, as the daughter of a farmworker, socially I was considered a “nobody.” It gave me a sense of values, knowing stories of my family members standing up for injustice. It gave me community. It taught me lessons.
Penelope Stout was the first of our family to come to this land in the 1600s and was my 10th great-grandmother. When her ship landed, their group was attacked by Native Americans defending their home, leaving her severely injured. Two Native Americans found Penelope near death and took her into their community where they nursed her back to health. She remained friends with them for the rest of her life. Penelope’s children were the first Stouts from our family born on this continent.
The Stouts were Dissenters from the Church of England in the mid-1600s who joined George Fox, the founder of the Religious Society of Friends and the Society of Friends (Quakers).
As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve met people also named Stout who are Quaker. Chuck Stout in Denver, CO came up to me and asked, “Do you know Penelope Stout?” I started laughing and said, “Of course! I especially love the story about how she used to let her grandchildren feel her scars through her apron pockets.”
For an organizer in the South, sharing family history is important, regardless of how many generations you can go back. People want to know who your kin are. These stories often hold deep meaning for us – stepping stones from one generation to another.
Our family had a letter from a relative discussing the compulsory military service required by the Confederate army in the Civil War. It tells how my great great aunt’s fingers were smashed and broken as soldiers tried to torture her into revealing where the men in the community were hiding. They were trying to avoid fighting in a war that was against their spiritual beliefs.
In World War II, men in my family were conscientious objectors, yet served as medics and ambulance drivers, one winning a Purple Heart. A more recent story is about my nephew who was severely injured in Afghanistan. This young man, the first in our family to ever graduate college, yet unemployed five years later, a pagan and 14th generation Quaker, was against this war, yet felt forced to join the military as his only way out of poverty.
These family stories of war make me realize that you can hold two contradictory values at the same time. Another stepping stone for me.
In the 80s and 90s, Piedmont Peace Project hosted an annual spring tour, where folks, mostly from the Boston area, would come down for a week to share in our lives and celebrate our victories with us. On the last day, a group of us would sit down with our visitors to exchange our family stories.
Sharing these stories was difficult and courageous. It made us feel vulnerable but it built deep trust among us. From very different backgrounds, listening to each other’s stories was life-changing.
We heard from descendants of enslaved people whose stories were ripped from them, descendants of slave owners, and descendants of Holocaust survivors whose stories were annihilated. We heard from wealthy, middle class and poor people. One woman, Lynn, told a story of being a descendent of the Waller family, Virginia plantation owners who purchased a slave, Kunta Kinte, whose story was featured in the miniseries, “Roots.”
Lynn had never shared her story with others, and she told it with deep shame and lots of tears. Though she had dedicated her life to working for peace and justice she always carried the humiliation of this part of her family history. Telling that story was a stepping stone for her.
Family stories are complex, filled with challenges, joy, trauma, abuse, laughter, addiction and triumph. The stories go back for generations, like mine, or not even a generation. Being able to tell these stories can give us power over the past. They are stepping stones to the future.
Storytelling is a formidable tool organizers can use to illustrate lessons learned, and the change we want to make in our society.