Listen to this entry: Using Personal Stories
Use a quiet voice. Lower your voice. That’s an outside voice, use an inside voice. Watch your voice, please. No voices!
As children we get a lot of messages to keep quiet. As a result, many of us skid into adulthood, slam into relationship walls, and find ourselves speechless. Either we never developed good communication habits to begin with or we’ve learned to deal with our emotions by silently shutting down. Learning to talk as babies can be far easier than finding our voices later in life.
Teenagers have an especially difficult time. Peer pressure and self-consciousness can silence the strongest voices. For foster care children, the stress and turmoil of being displaced from home can compound the teenage drift toward silence. But there are programs working to combat the silence. I had the privilege this weekend of participating in a program that partnered Toastmasters volunteers with Iowa teenagers who use their personal stories to educate and advocate for changes to the foster care system. The group, called Elevate, uses the motto: “Nothing about us, without us.” Elevate participants ask to be included at the table where decisions about the foster care system are turned into law. These teens and adults – who have once been or currently are in the foster care system – know best what works and what doesn’t, and because of their expertise have been invited to give input to Iowa lawmakers who write the code governing foster care. Elevate has a proven track record. Their latest effort led to a new law requiring “all reasonable efforts” be made to keep siblings together when they’re placed in foster care homes.
My lesson plan yesterday called for working with Elevate teens to help them write and deliver a persuasive speech. As is often the case, I learned more as the teacher than the students learned from the exercise. One teen in my group wrote a speech called “Why My Sister is My Role Model.” Her sister, she explained, took excellent care of the family. When I pressed her to provide more details, she added the following to her speech: “My sister looked out for me and my brother because our mother was addicted to drugs. When my sister had to go to kindergarten, she taught me how to change my brother’s diaper and mix his formula. He was a newborn, and I was two and a half.”
This teen plans to tell her story to advocate for the foster care system. Speaking out about her experience may lead to changes that strengthen the system for others. The takeaway is that like her, each of us must find our voice to speak up for ourselves and others. Whether across a mediation table, a conference table, or the coffee table in our homes, finding our voices and speaking out can help us to connect with one another and to draw connections that lead to positive change.