Storytelling, Beyond Compassion

Countless anecdotes from education and advocacy, as well as recent studies from psychology and neuroscience, show us the power of storytelling.

Peer-reviewed articles from prestigious universities are telling us today what we’ve always known in our human hearts — that hearing someone else’s story sparks empathy for them. And that processing narratives from other people or places can shift our own paradigms.

These insights inform the philosophy of Reviving Sisterhood’s Muslim Sheroes of Minnesota storytelling project. An article that takes five minutes to read can change unquestioned perceptions of Muslim women. A video can challenge antipathy or apathy — offering alternative perspectives about these Sheroes as community members, citizens, and changemakers.

Seeing my first Shero video was a significant moment of transformation. Until they came crashing down around me, I never consciously assessed the assumptions about Muslim women that I had inherited and continued to hold.
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By the time that I joined Reviving Sisterhood as a writer, I was fueled by a passion for facilitating the same spark that I had experienced. And because of the power of the Sheroes whose stories we showcased, I saw that come into fruition. I watched as my non-Muslim family and friends read these stories, studying their facial expressions as curiosity became surprise became compassion. I witnessed as empathy unfolded.

And in writing for the project, I experienced a deeper and more difficult transformation.

In college, my favorite class was my senior seminar on rhetoric and composition, which is the study of language and writing. In that classroom, I was introduced to different theories around composition and became captivated by one called post-process.

According to post-process theory, writing is an interpretive and indeterminate act. Rather than a generalizable process — as many are taught in elementary school via the ‘five-paragraph essay’ — writing can be described as a practice influenced by social and situational factors. And dialogue among these factors is where meaning is developed.

As I continued meeting Sheroes, listening to their stories, and talking with them about issues from disability to higher education to art, I was reminded of post-process theory. I was reminded of the reality that it wasn’t only the Sheroes’ lived experiences, diverse accomplishments, and insightful pieces of advice that influenced their narratives.

My identity and my privilege as a young white woman raised Catholic in the rural midwest interplayed and intermingled within this storytelling practice.

One particular story left me struggling and stumbling. Although I was accustomed to rewriting and rethinking throughout the editing process, the issues in this draft went deeper than awkward syntax and sent me straight back to the drawing board.

I had written a narrative that relied on Islamophobic tropes rather than truths of the Shero’s story. Reworking that narrative meant reconciling my prejudice and realizing that I could never serve as an unbiased storyteller.

Initially, I felt angst over this revelation. I became overwhelmed by my ambivalent position as a non-Muslim woman writing stories that were not my own.

But as post-process theory suggests, these moments of uncertainty as well as the points of connection became part of my storytelling practice.

Though my original motivation in joining the project was its potential to kindle compassion in others, I found new growth in myself as storyteller, in shadowy spaces where I didn’t realize there were roots.

As Ursula K. Le Guin writes: Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.

I tried to embrace the stumbling nature of my position, and in doing so, I started to see beyond empathy. I saw that although empathy can take us far, we need more than compassion to join the struggle against Islamophobia, white supremacy, and gender inequity — all systemic oppressions that Reviving Sisterhood’s storytelling project challenges.

When white folks like me attempt to take restorative action, we often appeal to blind compassion, shielding ourselves from an uncomfortable confrontation of our own whiteness. But compassion doesn’t mean much when we continue to tell stories, do work, and move through the world steeped in internalized racism. Most fundamentally, I discovered that I desperately needed to heal from the effects of toxic whiteness.

There is so much further for me to go, so much more for me to do. But my experience as a storyteller shined a spotlight on where I needed to start.

Words can spark empathy — and they can show our blind spots. If we let them, words and stories can help us heal.