On May 1, 2014 I was selected for the MAN Initiative Bell Award´ from Columbus State Community College. This is an award presented “to a central Ohio community member who demonstrates qualities embodied by the award’s namesake,” Napoleon Bell, a dedicated community resident with a long history of service.
Qualities of the Bell Award include:
Demonstration of involvement in the character-building and leadership develop of men.
A support for access and equity to education.
An inclusive appreciation for the diversity in thought and difference in others.
A desire to uplift and unite men in all life stages and from all walks of life.
As much as I blush at being awarded the “Man of the Year” award, as I mentioned at the ceremony I accepted this on behalf of my father who passed away three weeks ago. The award committee asked me to respond to three questions and I was glad to share how I believe listening to the value of stories for over 28 years has richly benefit my understand of my role not only as a man, but as a compassionate listener.
What is your definition of a man?
According to Dr. Victor E Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning and a survivor of the Holocaust, “Man is originally characterized by his ‘search for meaning’ rather than his ‘search for himself.’” He continues, “The more he forgets himself—giving himself to a cause or another person—the more human he is. The more he is immersed and absorbed in something or someone other than himself the more he really becomes himself.”
Considering these wise words, a man is someone who dedicates himself to serve others. A man leads with his heart to deeply listen to others and from that deep listening acts. A man is led by compassion for all gender, race, and ability. He knows and understands this simple thing—we contribute to each other. We all have a story to tell and when we are permitted to tell it, it is a powerful sound.
However, as the French philosopher Voltaire declares, “Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” A man is inquisitive not to become all knowing, but to always be in a state of searching for ways to help improve upon the good will of who we are. One way is to share our stories. It is through our stories we understand that our differences provide joy in our rich individuality. It is in our stories that we discover our own narrative is connected to so many others.
How do you exhibit these characteristics?
I am a curious storyteller. However, first I am a deep listener. I believe this helps me tell stories well or at least with the authenticity that they have been given to me. Because of my deep listening skills, I have been privileged to hear and often share stories from migrant students who toiled the land and at the same time fought to do well in school. Celia’s story—crossing the border at age 14—would not have been written or told if she did not trust me to tell it. “Bluewater” of the San Juan Pueblos took me in for three days sharing stories of the Tewa tribe because as she informed me it was important to share stories forward. Pat Mendoza, a two-time Vietnam Vet, shared countless tales of the war and how hard it was to reveal his own story. Richard, who works the fields in Bakersfield, California, retold his time in prison as a time he wanted to forget, but also a time that taught him he needed to teach children to not make the mistakes he did.
Each story adds to a tapestry of understanding. As a university professor and a storytelling teacher, I also hear my students’ stories. Melanie shared how she volunteers her time to help a student with a rare disease while working to maintain her grades and taking care of her two children. Trent completed a digital film honoring his grandparents who thanked me for sharing how to tell that story. Here at Columbus State where I was honored to share how stories are integral to leadership and see how dedicated students work not just for a conference, but to put leadership in their lives on a daily basis.
There is a Croatian saying “you can’t hurt someone once you know their story”. By providing a space for stories to be shared, students, faculty, and everyone from the person who prepares your meal to those who sweep this floor become visible. We need to remember our stories remind us we are alive, we are important, we are valued, and yes, we are loved.
What experiences have you had – positive or negative – that contributed to your development as a man?
My father, who passed away three weeks ago, was a compassionate listener and a blessed storyteller. They say when an elder dies, we lose a library. However, I will say he is not lost as long as I am able to share his stories. When I think of people who influenced me I must say although he worked at Goodyear for often 12 hour days and raised six children with the help of my mother, my father provided space `to share stories with me and to listen to mine. He started me on the path of being a good listener.
I struggled as a youth. We were not rich. My Dad was on disability most of his life. We were poor. However, like many students here, I wanted to learn more. I began not to listen to the story of poverty, but the story of possibility. Even though no one in our family attended college, I listened to a story of promise. Not on my own, but my father and mother helped me move to earn a doctorate in storytelling and story making from OSU.
However, this began at the base of the diplidated couch when my father and mother would regale us with stories of West Virginia. I knew only then that I loved stories, but how was I to know that I would be bestowed with being a story keeper for the last 28 years?
As I stated before, a man listens and shares his work out of compassion. In my work as a storyteller and educator I have had rich rewards. I have told stories with children whose parents had experienced AIDS and will never forget their smiles as they danced in fairytale land. For 11 years, I coached high school storytelling troupes and traveled around the country performing with teenagers. For two years, I served as the first “Academic Storyteller in Residence” at OSU where I used story to address equity and diversity for the Multicultural Center. At ODU, I have students who dive in deep with me as we see that folktales, myth and fairytales are not remote to their lives.
However, I will leave you with a story of my recent expedition in the Middle East where I worked with 25 teenagers from Qatar and 25 students from various places in America. I was responsible for teaching them using story to help share their culture and even create a two-hour Umisya performance in Arabic (I don’t speak Arabic—but that is a story for another day.)
In this short time, we spoke this language and more. We spoke the language of story, whether we were spending the night in the desert or creating StoryBoxes, we reached beyond this language and found a new one. During our performance, a Hawaiian teen blew a conch shell to greet our day, we shared a story in English, Arabic, and French, and we laughed as various impressions of the Batman’s Joker were shared, and songs were sung. When the last word was done, we traded even more. This is the power of story.
As a man, I work hard to remember that I am one man but when my voice is joined in concert with other men (and women) we make a powerful sound. That sound might help change who we are and how we treat each other.