TEDx NJIT: Returning to the Story – How Writing Can Change the World

Recently, DAP Founder and Executive Director Adam Falkner delivered a TEDx Talk at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, NJ. The following is a transcript of his talk:

Just because you were raised in a racist home, do you think that means you have to be at least a little bit racist yourself? I’m not sure if I should come out to my mom – she might be cool with it, but if she’s not, I’m not ready for that. I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t speak Spanish – and that’s actually kind of a big deal.

These are the voices of some of my high school students. I’ve opened with their words because their stories and their courage in telling those stories encapsulate what I believe has the potential to completely change the way we think about education.

When I was asked to deliver a TEDx talk here at NJIT, I was delighted, and honored– but also a bit intimidated. In the process of writing and rewriting (and rewriting) that talk I arrived at a familiar conclusion.

I say familiar because what I arrived at was a theme that is recurrent in my life, and it rests at the core of both my personal and professional work, and that is: my story is enough; that the litany of experiences that have brought to this exact spot on this stage – the ones that have caused me to throw my hands up in joyous celebration of life as well as those that have crippled me in grief – those are the very things that connect me most to other people, provide the richest, most honest platform for me to communicate with others.

And that brings me to the title of my talk this evening: Returning to the Story and How Writing Can Change the World. This isn’t a story about a widget that will end poverty, an approach that will combat climate change or an formula that will lead to the curing of caner – but it is no less important than any of those. I’m going to talk about how desperately we need to learn to talk about ourselves as a way of better communicating with those around us. Although a small idea, carries massive implications when considering the technology-dependent, increasingly isolated and buzzword driven culture we share, wherein we are sooner asked to sound off on how we feel about gun control or gay marriage or the mayor’s stance on stop-and-frisk than we are our own stories that inform our opinions on those ideas.

When I began teaching 7 years ago, I wanted to teach a creative writing elective that inspired young people around the possibilities of writing. I wanted to teach a contemporary writing course that placed Whitman beside Willie Perdomo, Lucille Clifton beside Lupe Fiasco, and validated experiences and voices often left outside the canon of the traditional English classroom. I wanted to teach a course that implored students to take their writing seriously – and so I did so the only way I knew how.

I taught a class modeled after what Jeff Kass, a former teacher of mine, would refer to as the “creative writing as archeology” approach in which students were encouraged to mine their lives for the personal stories that mattered most, write about them in rich, vivid ways.

Amidst the creative backdrop of New York City, I created a “live literature” component to the course, where every two weeks, I would ask an especially electric guest artist to come into my classroom for the day, meet with kids and perform their work in honest, uncensored ways – and, not surprisingly, students responded with enthusiasm and energy that made the rest of my course seem dry in comparison.

After a year or two, however, something began to happen that I was not expecting: Not only were students demonstrating increased concern for their own writing but they were beginning to ask difficult questions of visiting artists, the work and each other along lines of race, gender and identity, and share personal stories in their writing (like those that opened this talk) that would not typically have made their way within 1,000 yards of room 750.

And that was not only exciting, it was revolutionary. As much as we would like to think otherwise classrooms are not typically safe spaces, and yet these young people were sharing about deeply personal moments in their lives related to race, sexuality, religion, gender; and eventually, engaging in dialogue around larger concepts like diversity, multiculturalism, racial profiling, reproductive rights – dialogues that adults across the country in classrooms and lecture halls like this one seem to be struggling so desperately to engage in.

So the following year, with the support of my incredible administration we refined the vision for the course not only to use creative writing to explore personal identity and story, but one that went out of its way to use that personal exploration through art as a springboard into highly structured, protocolled student dialogue around identify and around the social and political factors that impact their lives.

Indeed, it was a bit like throwing a firework in a mailbox, and there were many waivers to sign and many conversations with parents about why their student was talking about homophobia, or why their son or daughter brought home a poem they’d written about a racist grandparent or a story from the family vault of secrets – but ultimately, the results were astounding.

Over time, the classroom was molded into a more tolerant, more courageous space. This elective course, students aptly named the “Dialogue Arts Project,” or more informally, “DAP.”

Since witnessing the transformation that took place my classroom we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how to replicate this lightening in a bottle experience and grow our impact beyond the confines of our four walls in Brooklyn.

We’ve spent time traveling around the country, talking to artists, academics and young people alike and providing trainings, workshops and facilitated dialogue exercises intended to help students and leaders communicate and collaborate more effectively across difference. And while DAP is not the “answer,” there are three fundamental principles that we have learned in the course of our work over the last several years that we believe have made this effort unique and, especially impactful – utilizing the arts as a shared entry point into dialogue, exploring composite identities within individuals and using personal experience as a platform to engage around larger social and political issues. So what in the world does this mean?

1. DAP utilizes the arts to create a shared entry point into dialogue about identity instead of assuming participants are equally equipped with the language and experience necessary for communication across difference. For example: Had I walked into the classroom on day one and said “We’re going to talk about diversity and racism and privilege,” I probably couldn’t have even so much as finished that sentence before the walls went up. Were I to simply say, “Today we’re going to talk about homophobia,” students would have rightfully met that statement with a “No, we’re actually not” – yet by talking about a piece of art exploring same sex marriage and writing about personal experiences related to our individual processes of learning sexual identity, the buzzword itself faded into the distance and students’ personal testimonies assumed center stage.

2. DAP emphasizes the diverse range of identities contained within individuals and explores how personal experience can be shaped by the interplay between those identities. For example: We acknowledge the full range of characteristics the make up a person’s composite identity. I am never just a man for example. My masculinity is influenced by race. By social class. By nation of origin. Further, my masculinity matters more in some places and less in others – meaning, while I am always a man and I always have access to male privilege, my masculinity is impacted by place.

3. Most importantly and most relevant to this talk, DAP prioritizes independent reflection and the sharing of personal experiences related to identity before engaging in large-scale discussions around buzzword issues or current events.

Currently in education – and now I’m talking well beyond simply the English classroom – we stand at a very dangerous crossroads. In our efforts to unify and prepare for rapidly changing demographic of young people, we have become a buzzword culture.

Words like diversity, and power and privilege, while hugely necessary and important to understanding our work, have been overused and prescribed in schools and workplaces and on news shows that not only do they not mean what they once did but they can be divisive, and allow us a false sense of accomplishment for engaging with the “isms” of our culture while completely ignoring the personal stories of shame, pride, celebration, curiosity and joy that connect us to others and fuel our investment in education in the first place. They enable us to avoid talking about ourselves.
Consider the importance of this given several recent and compelling demographic trends: White Americans will be the minority in the US by the year 2040 and according to US News and World Report and the disparities of wealth in this country will be greater in 2020 than they are right now. It is not merely enough any more to learn and regurgitate concepts and research and vocabulary – we need to learn each other. We need to learn ourselves.

Interestingly, my journey to this realization and the idea of democratizing the process of dialogue, art and the educational experience and of using ourselves as a basis for learning is brilliantly represented by platforms like TED and TED X. No longer are amazing ideas isolated behind prohibitive pay walls and admissions fees and no longer are we simply looking to text books and the experiences of others to understand ourselves and how we relate to our world. In just the last month alone there have been 125 TED X events just like this one in over 42 different countries using their own stories and experiences to innovatively begin to address many of the world’s most pressing problems….that’s a pretty good start but I think the impact can be even greater and the answer starts right here with each of us in this room and watching this online.

You’ll recall that at the beginning of this talk, I shared about my own personal anxiety surrounding how best to approach this opportunity. And I shared with you the voices of several of my students, whose anxieties, not unlike my own, represent what millions of people feel every day when faced with the daunting lexicon of words and ideas and instructions they feel they should understand, but do not. I nearly let that debilitate me from bringing the stories most central to my life into this space – but I’m glad I didn’t.

To be more connected to those around us, we need to be more willing to celebrate and examine ourselves – and refute the fear that rises in us when we feel we are ill-equipped or under-qualified. It is not easy work, this work of trusting ourselves and our stories in place of the buzzwords – in fact, it is work some of us go an entire lifetime without even realizing it is there to be done – but if 15 year olds can do it, I’m challenging the rest of us to do the same.