Storytelling and Healing as Trainers of Color

by Jay Masika


Change work, whether personal or political, cannot be all head or all heart, but a mix of the two. We use our stories (heart) to connect and build, which enables us to move into collective strategy. This work is vulnerable, and vulnerability is hard. I like to define vulnerability as putting myself out into the world in ways that leave me feeling exposed. Exposed is a broad term - for me it means everything from failing (specifically in public) to sharing a fear or simply letting my voice and my words be heard. Being a trainer is engaging in a dance of vulnerability with participants. Participants are trusting you with their process, all while seeing their mess and holding “the work”.


Being a trainer of color is also vulnerable - sometimes working with groups is triggering, we misread individuals or the group and make mistakes,  or we share a personal story in order to move and build with a group. We wade into the discomfort, learn from it, and get back on the horse. Stepping into the role of trainer calls for a dash of humility and compassion in balance with working for justice. There’s a mutual exchange of vulnerability between trainer and participant. How dope and powerful is that?


Keeping It Real as a Tactic for Thriving


The dynamics and intersections of systems of oppression impact trainers of color and participants of color in training spaces. As participants, when we speak up about our experiences or speak from our experiences the response is often silence or a responding statement that we’re making it a single, primary issue. As facilitators and trainers, our identities intersect with the hustle of being a trainer. Our experiences as people of color, as women, as trans folks, come into the spaces we work in. Even deeper, our experiences are why so many of us do this work and speaking truth to them is an act of owning our truth - owning our stories. Trainers of color are most effective when we allow ourselves to hold and share those experiences and stories in training spaces. In organizing spaces. In life.


All too often, organizers and trainers of color attempt to or are silently asked to separate our life experiences and emotions from our work. Fracturing ourselves as the organizer or trainer from our life experience is like fracturing the brain from emotion. This is not only detrimental to our ability to show up and do effective work, and to the groups we work with, but (and most importantly) it is dangerous to our health. When we contain or fracture ourselves, we’re allowing the physiological effects of trauma and stress to run rampant on our bodies. The impacts of this lead to increased risk of stroke, heart disease, and diabetes, just to name a few. Our communities already have too much of an increased risk based on the lack of access to healthy and sustainable foods. Leaning on each other, showing up, and processing our trauma and stress in ways that work for us is supportive to us being able to show up for someone else another day.


The Word to Describe Training: Creative


I recently attended the first Fellowship Retreat for the Judith C. Jones Fellowship for Trainers of Color, a program offered through Training for Change, and we did a storytelling activity as an introduction. So much occurred during that activity - I learned a little bit about how and why Fellows became trainers, but more importantly, I learned more about where they’re from, what they’ve experienced, what their families are like, and how we each developed our resiliency skills. I’m so grateful for the time and the gifts we shared with each other. The Fellowship has supported my growth as a trainer - from finding my own voice, stepping into and addressing the fears and internalized narratives that hold me back, and how to incorporate more storytelling in to the training spaces I’m leading.


Storytelling as a design method has been particularly useful when working with a limited amount of time. As a rule of thumb, I try to have training sessions for no less than 4 hours - which, in reality, is still not enough time to build relationships, trust, and cohesiveness in a group and dive into the work. What I have found though, is that storytelling develops a container that ensures the work can continue well after the training is over. Vulnerability researcher Brene Brown talks about the power of story in her newest book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution, and states:


We are wired for story. In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there’s a surprisingly simple reason we want to own, integrate, and share our stories of struggle. We do this because we feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories - it’s in our biology.*


This doesn’t just relate to participants sharing their stories. I spoke a little bit about the vulnerability exchange that occurs between participants and trainers. I’m not the most vulnerable person - I’m currently in a process of shedding my armor. I’m also an introvert, so the combination of the two has meant that I’ve wanted to share as little as possible with the groups I’ve worked with. I have a fear of my story being used against me. I fear being judged or shamed. For me, a lot of my fears and shame go hand in hand, but that’s a topic for another time. As I’ve become more aware and more in touch with my ability to be vulnerable, I’ve felt more grounded in training spaces where I mirror and share vulnerable moments and stories with participants. I’ve also felt more solid in my role as a trainer. We as trainers can talk circles around a challenging participant, using all the theory in the world, and sometimes, they still won’t get it. I’ve found that participants have moved more in their thinking, values, and beliefs when stories have been used as tools within a training space.


There is a selectiveness to what stories I share, and when. The selectiveness may be based on where I’m at, where the group is at, if I trust that the group can hold it, and lastly, identifying who I am speaking to. I may be in a training with 40 participants and 3 of them are People of Color or Black. My story in that moment may have an impact on everyone in the room, but I am not doing it for everyone. I’m doing it to connect with the folks who are (most likely) all sitting next to each other and may or may not feel seen in that space. I want to communicate to that I see them, and that I also need to be seen. I’m doing it so my people - our people - can begin to heal, no matter who is in the room.


*Brown, Brene. Rising Stong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution. Audible, 2015. Audiobook.

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