Storytelling Is Essential in the Fight for Social Justice

This post was written by 2020 Young Explorer Zoë Jenkins.

In middle school, I was placed into the gifted program. To me, it seemed like administrators put the gifted students into some of the lowest-performing schools in the district. The kids in the gifted program tended to be bussed in from the other side of town, and I felt like we were unfairly placed on a pedestal by school administrators. From my perspective, this led to a huge disparity in the school climate. 

Then, students who were part of the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team came to my school and did a workshop specifically talking about school climate. The PCSVT works to elevate and amplify the voices of students in education research, policy, and advocacy. This workshop was the first time I was able to put words to what felt wrong to me at this middle school, and it got my mind rolling: What can we do to actually fix the school climate? My first meeting was in January 2017 and I’ve been actively involved ever since.

As part of my PCSVT work, I founded the podcast Get Schooled, which works to amplify the voices of students throughout the state. For example, we had a student report on Kentucky Senate Bill 1 this year, which would ban “sanctuary policies” on college campuses and, as a result, require school officials to report the undocumented status of students and levy punishments if they didn’t. There are serious consequences to this bill — not only the profiling of students but also, students who find safe spots with professors would not have those spaces. The student reporter was in contact with many Latinx college students and recorded conversations with them on the policy. It was a really cool way to elevate those voices with no filter. People see issues impacting undocumented students, but don’t hear from the students who are actually the victims of that legislation. It’s been really rewarding. 

The Get Schooled podcast will never be able to elevate every voice around the country, but it can be a model for other students to replicate so more stories can be heard. We push episodes to teachers and policymakers, and it’s important that we keep propagating that work so other students can have access. We distribute the podcast through Anchor.FM and that service distributes it to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and virtually all other platforms where podcasts can be found. We publicize our episodes via social media and when we discuss certain policies, we direct our publicizing to policymakers and educators as necessary. 

Through my podcasting work, I’ve realized that I want to help other young people tell the stories that matter to them and their communities. As part of being a National Geographic Young Explorer, I’m creating an 8-month-long fellowship, the Kentucky edStorytellers Fellowship, to do just that. We just released applications and are looking for cohorts of 2-4 students from across the state who want to create a podcast miniseries about education. With the funding, we’re going to pay the cohort members, pay for equipment, and pay for editing to make it as accessible as humanly possible. In particular, we’re targeting students who aren’t being heard on the issues that matter most— students in Appalachia and other rural areas coping with online learning and unequal technology access; Black students in Louisville, now the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement, advocating for racial justice in their schools; and others whose voices need to be amplified. We are developing a curriculum to prepare students for all aspects of production from researching and choosing a topic to editing and recording. The curriculum is coupled by working hands-on with the Get Schooled team as we produce regular-season episodes. After a couple of months, they’ll be producing their own pieces along with a mentor who has done this work before. 

In the Student Voice Team, we often talk about the need for head and heart in everything. Statistics are important but you can’t have statistics without stories, and vice-versa. There are so many instances where if you look at the data, problems and their nuances are concealed, but when you start talking with real people about what’s going on, you realize there are huge systemic issues at play. It’s important to zoom in on individual experiences, alongside the data, to really understand what’s going on in the fight for equity. You simply can’t have social justice without storytelling; the greatest movements in history are fueled by it. Black Lives Matter, climate justice — stories about the people affected by these issues have the power to break through and drive action in a way that data alone never will.

Want to learn more about the power of storytelling? Click here to learn more about our free #StorytellingForImpact courses available for both young people and educators. Students and educators who participate in the program will receive complimentary access to Adobe Creative Cloud to help them express their creativity and tell their own story. You also can sign up here to stay in the loop in all things #GenGeo.

Feature image by Zoë Jenkins

One thought on “Storytelling Is Essential in the Fight for Social Justice

  1. Wow, Zoe thank you so much for the work you do! Storytelling is a sacred practice, and I agree that social justice cannot exist without it. I have introduced podcasts to my students, and they either really love the medium for sharing or they don’t like. Do you have any advice for engaging youth with podcasts?
    I’m so glad that you and your peers on working on highlighting students and their experiences in the education system. We need their perspectives and thoughts to help make a more just system. Thank you again for the creative work you have been doing. I’ll keep an eye out for the curriculum you all are developing!

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