Storytelling Arts' mission is to preserve, promote and impart the art of storytelling to develop literacy, strengthen communities and nurture the human spirit.

Monday, September 5, 2016

... And Justice For All

by Julie Della Torre

The term ‘social justice’ has been used quite a bit this summer.  But what exactly is meant by ‘social justice’? I decided to explore a bit to learn and to figure out how stories fit into this whole discussion. I started my exploration wide for terminology and understanding and then tried to narrow the search to pinpoint individual stories that might be used to start a conversation.

Before I describe my search, I’d like to go into a bit of rationale. For SAI, I do work in the Paterson School District, a district taken over by the state. Many of the students are living with problems associated with life in an impoverished inner- city setting. In my freelance work, on the other side of the Passaic River, I work in affluent, well run school districts. Here we all are in northern Bergen/Passaic Counties, side-by-side, and every morning, around the same time, all of these students are uttering the phrase “... with liberty and justice for all.” How do we understand these words?

In previous years, when I have asked students what this word ‘justice’ means, they usually responded with the word ‘fairness,’ but I believe ‘social justice’ is a bit different. Last year at the Detention Center we explored Super Heroes and how they fight for justice. However, Super Heroes fight one particular evil entity to bring justice to the land. How would a Super Hero fight such things as voter rights protection, fair housing, industrial farming, and systemic racism?

As an individual I try to become more aware by reading and listening. How can I make a difference?  As a storyteller, I believe I have a unique opportunity to make a tiny, tiny bit of difference. Brene Brown says, “If we choose not to get involved or pretend it’s not happening, we’re going against the very sense of connection that makes us human.” Noticing is the first step.

Now, folktales are humble things, but they DO come from the folk. The folk know about these social injustices and have something to say about them, often in a delightful and charming way.  How are social injustices addressed in the old folktales? Maybe we storytellers CAN be an instrument for change, if just the very beginnings of change. We can bring awareness to ourselves and our listeners as we search for stories and as we tell them.

But, I repeat, folktales are humble things. They are not didactic. We can’t put too much on them. We storytellers can think about issues as we search and learn stories and become aware of injustices. Simply telling and listening to particular folktales gives voice to injustices. Helping students think about social issues while discussing folktales will deepen the experience. But we must remember to follow the students’ lead. Fortunately, they know more than we think they do. Students are always observing, listening, reading the world and engaging in discussions.

Any didactic approach to telling a folktale or even leading a discussion will be disastrous to the tale, to the telling and to the listener.

And so I started my search for tales. Many folk tales address individual justice, but I wanted stories that would speak to social injustices. First I enveloped myself in terminology and in the state of education on social justice issues.

Definitions from various dictionaries and the Department of Justice include:
  • ·      Justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society
  • ·      Promoting a just society by challenging injustice and valuing diversity
  • ·      When all people share a common humanity and therefore have a right to equitable treatment, support for their human rights, and a fair allocation of community resources

While trying to define and understand social justice as opposed to individual justice, I discovered the following sites which proved helpful:

  • ·      Teaching Tolerance website
  • ·      Global Oneness Project
  • ·      UN Declaration of Human Rights

As I read and learned more, I was reminded of collections of tales that I own. I pulled down four:
  • ·      Fair Is Fair by Sharon Creeden
  • ·      The Moon In the Well by Erica Meade
  • ·       Once Upon a Time by Elisa Pearmain
  • ·      Spinning Tales, Weaving Hope ed. Ed Brody,

None of the tables of contents contain the specific term ‘social justice’, but they do list such terms as equality, fairness, justice and community. Each volume contained a story or two for my growing list of folktales.

Then I started reading more and more folktales.  Below is a list of stories I will use this year to help deepen my understanding and exploration of the term ‘social justice.’ This list is just a brainstorming list. I found many stories in which one individual helps a community, for instance “The Magic Porridge Pot” in which a young girl feeds a village with an unending overflowing porridge pot. I particularly wanted stories of community members doing good work together for the benefit of all of its members.
  • ·       “Chief of the Well” (Haiti): any of the ‘keeper of the well’ stories would work. The water belongs to us all.
  • ·      “Bringer of Fire” stories, particularly those with many animals working together to bring the fire to the community.
  • ·      “Minu”: a wealthy man dies just like the rest of us. I found this in an old Cricket magazine. Julie P tells a version of this tale.
  • ·      “Nyngara”: the children of a Nigerian village help heal the chief. Found in Lion on the Path
  • ·      “The Magic Garden”:  a family (one young man in particular) help soothe the poor. Found in Stories of the Steppes.

I would love your comments and any additions that come to mind.