The Power of Story: An Interview with Men’s Story Project Founder Dr. Jocelyn Lehrer

Screen Shot 2018-06-18 at 2.49.56 PM.png

Our Storytelling & Advocacy Coordinator had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Jocelyn Lehrer, founder of the Men's Story Project, about her fascinating work and the power of stories to empower individuals and create positive change in communities.

When Jocelyn Lehrer organized the first live Men’s Story Project production in the summer of 2008 in Berkeley, CA, she wasn’t sure what to expect. “As we were planning it, some people asked us, ‘Why do we need a project about men’s stories? All of history is about men.’ The answer is straightforward: to dismantle patriarchal norms and structures, men have to take a public stand for healthy masculinities, gender equality and social justice—and an important part of that is sharing their own stories that are less often heard,” Lehrer said.

“That first night,” Lehrer continued, “sixteen men stood on a public stage and shared deeply personal stories that challenged and explored notions of masculinity through the lens of their own life experience. The place was packed - standing room only and people sitting on the floor - and the storytellers received a long, loud standing ovation. Afterward, many audience members told me, ‘This is revolutionary and healing, and needs to happen all over the planet.’ The audience and presenter feedback showed me we were on to something, and I brought the MSP into my postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of California-San Francisco Center for AIDS Prevention Studies, to do an evaluation study of it and further develop the project.”

Lehrer emphasized that the need for initiatives to help dismantle harmful notions of manhood is great. “Social ideas about masculinity are like the elephant in the room that people don't even see. It is still uncommon to see critical public dialogue on how boys and men are socialized to be ‘men.’ The goal of the Men’s Story Project is to help shift social notions of masculinity around the world so they’re supportive of health and justice for all people. This will help prevent many forms of pain and suffering, including men’s violence against women, violence between men, homophobia, transphobia, HIV/AIDS, structural gender inequality, etc. The topic of male gender norms is a public health and social justice issue, and there’s an urgent need to work on it. ”

“Men and boys must be part of creating a more equitable world—their participation is essential to dismantling inequitable, oppressive systems.”

Since that first night in 2008, there have been 17 live MSP presentations and two films in the US and Chile, and several productions are in progress in the US, UK, Canada and South Africa. “Groups and organizations anywhere in the world are invited to create their own MSP productions,” explained Lehrer, “and the Men’s Story Project provides tools and training to help them do so.”

“It starts with an open call for submissions in a community, or by working with a pre-existing group of men (e.g., a fatherhood group). On college campuses, production teams hold a launch event to generate interest, and have one-on-one conversations with prospective storytellers who want to know more about the project. Once the group of presenters is formed, the presenters go through a 6-8 week group process to hone their stories and discuss the topics addressed in their pieces. They learn together and build community.”

The MSP intentionally creates platforms for diverse men to share their stories. As an example, Lehrer notes: “In Chile, there was a radical coming-together of men of diverse walks of life. Some were celebrities, some were community leaders, some had never spoken publicly, some had aspects of their lives or identities that were marginalized or stigmatized in society. Some had more power and social privilege than others, but they all took a public stand in solidarity together - literally shoulder-to-shoulder - for healthy masculinities and social justice in Chile.”

At each live event, the presenters’ story-sharing is followed by a facilitated audience-presenter dialogue, where audience members can ask questions and share their own reflections. Lehrer noted, “Audience members have told us how they brought the discussion to people in their social networks after seeing it. The experience inspires people to discuss what they’ve seen and heard with their friends, family members, colleagues, mentees, guys in their dorms, etc.”

The live events are also accompanied by a staffed resource fair where people can connect with personal support and activism opportunities. Once the live events have taken place, Lehrer helps the production team think about how they can keep the community going, in the form of a Men’s Story Project Collective, integration with other existing initiatives, or other ongoing group for learning, activism, and social connection.

“I’d like for the Men’s Story Project to spread widely around the world,” said Lehrer, “I’d like for the MSP to help make it normal for men and boys to critically look at and discuss gender norms in their social contexts – and, if they find things that are problematic, work to change them. I’d like to make it normal for boys and men to take a stand in helping create social justice and equity. I’d like to see celebrities and other opinion leaders get involved.”

Lehrer attributes the success of the project to its grassroots focus. “A strength of the project is that it’s locally-created and locally-relevant, so it speaks to the local issues and needs in a community. Local directors are encouraged to ask: ‘What are the key issues at the nexus of male norms, health, and social justice in this community? What topics need to be addressed, and whose stories and voices do we want to help amplify?’”

With regard to story-coaching, Lehrer notes: “It’s important for the audience to hear about how people have gone from A to B – not just that they did it. It’s important to hear how and why someone embarked on a journey of change, how and why someone intervened to stop harmful behavior, etc. It’s also important for people to see men overtly take responsibility for their harmful actions, regardless of the gender norms they grew up with.”

Lehrer emphasized the accessibility of the project. Any group can create an MSP production, and she is also happy to support groups interested in creating public story-sharing productions with people of all genders. MSP training resources, training and consultation are readily available. One can learn more at www.mensstoryproject.org. Lehrer and the MSP can be contacted directly at jlehrer@mensstoryproject.org, or on Twitter at @mensstoryproj and @josielehrer.

       Dr. Jocelyn Lehrer

Jocelyn Lehrer.jpg

Jocelyn Lehrer, ScD is the Founder/Director of the Men’s Story Project and affiliated Senior Research Associate at the University of California-San Francisco Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health. Lehrer’s work focuses on the prevention of gender-based violence (GBV) and HIV/AIDS, and the promotion of healthy masculinities and gender equality. Her first-authored research has been published in leading journals including Pediatrics, Archives of Sexual Behavior and Journal of Adolescent Health. Her applied work includes serving as a Senior Gender Advisor at the USAID Office of HIV/AIDS; working to integrate GBV and HIV response in Guyana; leading HIV/GBV monitoring and evaluation projects in East Africa, and facilitating support groups for women and LGBT youth who are living with HIV/AIDS. Lehrer has consulted with organizations including San Francisco Women Against Rape and World Vision International. Her awards include the UCSF Chancellor’s Award for Public Service, and her work has been highlighted in media including CNN and Forbes.com. Lehrer holds a doctoral degree from the Harvard School of Public Health. She is Chilean-American and a native Spanish speaker.

Serious Joy at the HerStory Regional Summit in Detroit

IMG_9325.jpg

Our Director of Program Innovation, Amber Peterson, recounts an exciting week at the HerStory Regional Summit in Detroit.

The LitWorld team spent the week of May 28th in Detroit, Michigan, visiting and celebrating one of our oldest and most prolific U.S. partners. Since 2012, Detroit has been home to hundreds of LitClub members. Hosted at elementary and middle schools across the Detroit Public School District, LitClubs have a long and proud history of inspiring children and helping shape stories all over the city.

This year, members of the New York and California-based LitWorld and HerStory teams traveled to Michigan to help host the third annual Detroit Regional HerStory Summit, a convening of HerStory LitClub members across Detroit. The summit was an opportunity for girls to cultivate connections, learn from one another, build leadership skills, and drive community-based action.  They participated in dynamic activities, shared stories, and engaged with our powerful Detroit network of girls, women, and community leaders. In keeping with the larger HerStory arc of community service in LitClubs around the globe, the Detroit Regional Summit theme focused on celebrating acts of kindness to ourselves, our communities, and the world.  

 Left to right: Dr. Deborah L. Winston (an honoree at our Spring Gala this year), Cynthia Coble, Amber Peterson.

Left to right: Dr. Deborah L. Winston (an honoree at our Spring Gala this year), Cynthia Coble, Amber Peterson.

After weeks of careful planning and prepping, our teams arrived in Detroit. The LitWorld team consisted of myself and Jodi Harris, LitWorld’s Donor Engagement Lead. We were joined by the HerStory Manager and Team Lead Juliana Vélez, the HerStory International Program Manager, Binta Freeman, HerStory’s Southern California Regional Manager Tracy Tran, and the Global G.L.O.W. Communications and Development Associate, Divya Joseph. Together with the incomparable Detroit Regional Manager, Cynthia Coble, our teams were excited to host the event and meet the girls.

We were more than a little nonplussed to discover that we arrived in Detroit in the midst of a heat wave. Temperatures soared into the mid and high 80s, prompting multiple days of school closures and early dismissals across the district due to a lack of cooling equipment in classrooms.  On May 30th, with a wary eye on the still rising temperature, we traveled to Cynthia’s house to finalize our last to-do’s. After a morning of filling swag bags, filing folders, packing cars, and rehearsing our introduction step routine (which we made up for in enthusiasm what we lacked in coordination!), we headed out for a meeting with Lurine Carter, Coordinator of Children and Teen Services at the Detroit Public Library.  

 The team tours the Woodward Avenue Main Branch building of the Detroit Public Library.

The team tours the Woodward Avenue Main Branch building of the Detroit Public Library.

Our visit started with a tour of the beautiful Woodward Avenue Main Branch building. We discovered the myriad ways that the libraries occupy a seldom heralded but essential role in the Detroit community. They connect all of the downtown public cultural institutions and the school system, host popular and innovative art, music, and theater events, and provide coveted space for community members young and old to learn and have access to information. One of the most impressive and creative aspects of the Main Branch was the “H.Y.P.E. Room,” a community space designed by and reserved for teenagers.  It boasts a state of the art entertainment space, a brand new radio station and recording studio, as well as regular teen programming and opportunities for leadership development. Lurine Carter leads all of the youth focused services at the branch with an inspiring passion for working with young people. Our meeting of kindred spirits was cemented with an enthusiastic invitation for her to join us at the the Summit and her equally enthusiastic confirmation that she would be there.

 The “H.Y.P.E. Room,” a community space designed by and reserved for teenagers at the Detroit Public Library.

The “H.Y.P.E. Room,” a community space designed by and reserved for teenagers at the Detroit Public Library.

On the morning of the Summit, we arose early and watched the news with bated breath, only to discover that intense heat inspired early dismissal across the district once again. The messages of regret and apology began rolling in as principals were forced to cancel afterschool and field trip activities to accommodate altered bussing schedules and new pick up times. The anticipated number of participants quickly began to dwindle.  

Dismayed but not discouraged, we headed out to the gorgeous Belle Isle State Park where the event was to be held and crossed our fingers. We cheered as one by one, busses full of girls from Coleman A. Young Elementary School, Marcus Garvey Elementary and Middle School, Noble Elementary School and Vernor Elementary School rolled up. By 10:00 a.m, the event was in full swing. Our Introductory HerStory step routine, in the tradition of black Greek organizations across the country, was met with generous applause, and was followed by amazing routines that each LitClub made up to introduce themselves.  

IMG_9327.jpg

Members then completed special “Message in a Bottle” themed activities led by art teacher extraordinaire, Susan Greene. The girls wrote positive messages to themselves which they put into special, artfully designed tiny bottles that could be worn around their necks.  Then the girls composed messages of strength and positivity to an anonymous recipient which they slid inside decorated water bottles and collected to distribute at a nursing home or classroom of their choosing. Finally, the girls wrote kindness challenge messages to their fellow HerStory LitClub members in California with the expectation that they would complete those challenges and pay them forward in turn.  

 A LitKid shows off her completed "Message in a Bottle" necklace.

A LitKid shows off her completed "Message in a Bottle" necklace.

 Different LitClubs introduced themselves through their own dance routines.

Different LitClubs introduced themselves through their own dance routines.

IMG_9324.jpg

The event was an overwhelming success. More than 60 participants were able to complete powerful messages of kindness and hope for the community and our new friend Lurine was able to see our work in action. A videographer from Fox 2 news even showed up to cover the celebration.  

Detroit is and always had been a special part of the LitWorld story. It is a city of constant renewal, filled with innovative and passionate residents. We are proud to play a role in helping to tell and amplify their stories. I can’t wait till our next Motor City adventure!

Reading This Will Not Make You Healthier

Sherrie Dulworth, registered nurse, healthcare professional, and LitWorld Advisory Council member, on the many ways literacy impacts individuals' health—physically, emotionally, and economically. Fostering literacy skills in kids and adults alike is a vital way to combat a number of social issues and health challenges facing communities in the U.S. and around the world.

 

Reading this will not make you healthier—the ability to read this might.

For more than 30 million people in the U.S.  and hundreds of millions around the world, who are functionally illiterate, poor reading skills are a health liability, often in ways that we don’t recognize.

It turns out that literacy is among the social determinants of health—those social variables like access to safe housing, food, and education that can affect the quality of our health.

Physical Health

Imagine that you're sick, really sick, and you can't read. You can’t do online research about your symptoms; you go straight to the doctor. She may give you information to read, but you don't want to admit you can't read it. When you get home, you are too tired, sick, or stressed to remember exactly what she told you. She gives you a prescription, it comes with instructions, but you can't read them.

Even when caregivers discuss printed materials, that education may be all but lost if we can’t recall what they said or if we can’t read how to best care for our malady, which symptoms to worry about, and when to seek help. It’s easy to understand how we could land in an emergency room or hospital bed, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that U.S. adults with poor reading skills have more hospitalizations and higher rates of some chronic conditions, including diabetes mellitus and heart failure.

Celina Ramsey has worked in the field of health literacy for about a decade and has seen people in hospitals struggle to understand patient education materials. The reason? Ramsey, now the Director of Health Literacy, Diversity and Outreach at Staten Island’s Performing Provider System, explained that the materials were written above a 12th grade level. About 14 percent of the U.S. population, or one-in-seven, reads below a 5th grade level.

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of improving health literacy, or making health information more understandable to the average person. This is a good thing for all of us, as is the growing availability of information through radio, television, the internet, and even gamification. While these are steps in the right direction, they are not a substitute for literacy’s influence on our overall health.  

It’s not just individuals who are affected, the widespread ability to read can influence the public’s response during a public health epidemic. A profound example is the 2014 Ebola crisis, when Vox News reported that illiteracy intensified public reliance on myth and misinformation about disease transmission and exacerbated its spread. Of the same crisis, Chernor Bah, a former refugee from Sierra Leone and an Associate at the Population Council, wrote, “Sierra Leone’s Ebola victims include a disproportionate share who could not read the billboards and other public messages advising them how to stay safe.” 

  Image via MUNPlanet.

Image via MUNPlanet.

Emotional Health

Earlier, you envisioned not wanting your doctor to know you can’t read. Now imagine something far more wide-reaching: keeping that secret from the many others in your life. Even if you become adept at “getting by,” you have to be on constant guard to hide your poor reading skills lest you be found out.

“When someone cannot read, it’s a big secret…We become experts at hiding it from our loved ones, from our co-workers and from healthcare professionals,” adult-learner Kristi Clontz explained at a 2008 Health Literacy Summit.  “We are embarrassed, and we feel ashamed.”

According to literacy expert Paul Heavenridge, “Part of mental health is how you see yourself, your self-esteem.” A psychotherapist and executive director of Literacyworks, Heavenridge explained that low literacy is often coupled with the fear of discovery and embarrassment. This may explain why low literacy among U.S. adults is also associated with increased symptoms of depression. 

Economic Health

Illiteracy entangles with illness and poverty into a sort of public health Gordian Knot.

The underlying reasons cited for poor literacy skills in the U.S. vary: an undiagnosed or untreated learning disability, early school drop-outs, and English as a second language. And in a vicious cycle, illiteracy often begets illiteracy. According to the California Library Literacy Services, “When parents can’t read and write, their children are twice as likely to lack literacy.”

When someone cannot read, their ability to find work, especially higher paying jobs, is challenged. There are exceptions like billionaire Richard Branson who described how his dyslexia-related academic struggles caused him to drop out of school at age-16. Yet for every Branson-like example, there are scores of others whose weak reading abilities represent a risk for their physical, emotional and their economic well-being.

On a worldwide basis, women are disproportionately illiterate, with a 2:1 ratio compared to men. This gender inequity affects women’s and maternal-child health and their economic well-being.

Girls’ education, of which reading is a vital component, is essential to ensuring job market opportunities and participation, and the ability to care for their own children. Better educated women marry at a later age and have fewer children; factors that all combine to reduce poverty and improve health.

According to Pam Allyn, founder of LitWorld, “Reading is a fundamental component that empowers and helps people step out of poverty, especially women. Girls and women in communities around the world face the catastrophic implications of poverty and illiteracy. Literacy helps build gender equity and economic self-determination that benefits future generations.”

The reported global economic price tag for illiteracy, including the societal costs of crime and welfare, is $1 trillion USD, the salary equivalent of 18 million U.S. elementary U.S. school teachers. 

Improve Literacy, Improve Health

Evidence supports how the act of reading improves our mental and emotional health but in order to benefit, we must first must possess those fundamental reading skills. It is likewise important to realize the relationship between literacy on individual and overall population health.

By supporting the widespread ability for people‒all people‒to read, caregivers, policymakers, and the public at large will choose to recognize the influence that reading skills have on our overall physical, emotional, and economic health, and literacy education can be viewed as a powerful investment in preventative healthcare.

 
IMG_9753.JPG

Sherrie Dulworth

Sherrie Dulworth is a passionate reader and writer. As a Registered Nurse, she has held various executive healthcare roles throughout her professional career and is a graduate from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She publishes Curious Cats Read, a bibliophile’s blog. Sherrie serves on the Advisory Council for LitWorld and also on the Board of Directors for Services for the Underserved.

 

An Interview with Author & Educator Kate Messner

81ajZMpEM4L.jpg

Our Storytelling & Advocacy Coordinator spoke with Kate Messner, an award-winning author of children's books and middle-grade novels and a long-time World Read Aloud Day advocate (or WRADvocate) about her writing process, the power of reading aloud, and her latest novel, Breakout, which hits the shelves on June 5th this year.

Tell us a bit about Breakout. What inspired you to come up with the plot and characters for this novel?

The spark for this novel was a real-life prison break, when the escape of two inmates from Clinton Correctional Facility in Northern New York in June of 2015 launched a 23-day manhunt, all through the Adirondack Mountains and beyond. As a person who lives just fourteen miles from the prison, I was completely unnerved by the idea of two murderers lurking in the woods. But as a former journalist—I was a TV news reporter and producer for seven years—I was absolutely fascinated. So after the escape, I spent several days hanging around the prison in Dannemora. I sat at the coffee shop across the street from the prison and talked with people—police officers who had just come in from searching the woods, neighbors of the prison whose kids weren’t sleeping at night, relatives of inmates who couldn’t visit their loved ones while the prison was on lockdown. Everyone had a story, and that was the spark for the novel that would become Breakout.

Why did you choose to tell the story in letters, poems, text messages, news stories, and comics?

My first draft of Breakout had a more traditional structure. It was written in first person, narrated by Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. But when I shared this draft with writer friends, they were intrigued by the other characters, so I started thinking this story might be better served by an unconventional structure. I came up with the idea of a novel-in-documents…a series of letters, text messages, photographs, comics, petitions, recorded conversations, and even recipes that Nora collects for her community time capsule project. It allowed me to explore issues of privilege and perspective so much more than I’d have been able to with a single point of view.

How does Breakout relate to your larger body of work? What drew you to these themes of mystery, heist, and even suspense in your latest novels (Hide and Seek, Manhunt)?

As a reader, I’ve always loved exciting stories that keep me up late at night while I’m reading, but also leave me thinking about big ideas after the last page is turned. That’s what I hope readers take away from my Silver Jaguar Society mysteries as well as Breakout.

As a writer, how do you change your approach from writing middle-grade and young adult novels to picture books? When you get an idea for a story in your head, how do you know whether to pursue it as a novel or a picture book?

Usually, when I have an idea for a book, I can “see” right away whether it’s a picture book or a longer form of storytelling. For me, the genesis of a picture book is about words and images—I can hear the poetry of the story and see the illustrations, page turns and all. By contrast, my novels most often catch fire with a character’s voice and an idea I’d like to explore.

For many, picture books are an obvious choice for read alouds. But do you feel middle-grade novels can and should be read aloud too? If so, how does the read aloud experience change between mediums, and why are middle-grade novels often overlooked as a read aloud choice?

I think smart teachers, librarians, and families have always understood that read alouds aren’t just for little kids—that picture books are for everyone and that novels make for amazing shared reading experiences, too. Personally, I’d love to see a world where we share both picture books and chapter books/novels as read alouds throughout our kids’ reading lives. A picture book read aloud is such a lovely moment that can be revisited over and over, while a shared novel is special because it’s an experience that builds on itself with every chapter. That can spark so many great conversations, and the next chapter is something to look forward to every day.

How does your experience as an educator factor into the way you approach writing for kids, teens and young adults?

I taught middle school English for fifteen years, so I still have the voices of more than a thousand seventh graders in my head. (That might sound scary, but really, it’s wonderful!) Having spent so much time with middle grade readers really helps me when it comes to understanding their concerns, their sense of curiosity, and their voices. My years in the classroom also left me with an even greater respect for kids as readers, thinkers, and citizens, and I think that’s essential to writing for this age group. You can’t connect with readers unless you write in a way that respects kids.

Which books, writers and illustrators have had the greatest influence on you as an author throughout your career?

When I was a young reader, my two favorite authors were Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. I loved Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books, especially, because I saw so much of myself in excited, curious, imperfect Ramona. That’s one of the reasons I’m such a big advocate for books that reflect all kinds of kids’ lives, and that show all kinds of faces on their covers. Every child deserves their own version of my Ramona. I loved Judy Blume’s books, too, because they were great stories that pushed me to think about things that were outside my comfort zone. I could sense that she understood and respected kids, and I trusted her to tell the truth. That’s something I think about a lot in my own writing life as a result. (Thank you, Judy and Beverly!)

Thank you, Kate!

kate.jpg

Kate Messner

is passionately curious and writes books that encourage kids to wonder, too. Her titles include award-winning picture books with Chronicle Books, like Over and Under the Pond, Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt, Tree of Wonder, and How to Read a Story; novels like Breakout, All the Answers, and The Seventh Wish; and the popular Ranger in Time chapter book series about a time-traveling search and rescue dog. Kate lives on Lake Champlain with her family and is trying to summit all 46 Adirondack High Peaks in between book deadlines.

 

 

Stories from Rwinkwavu

Rwinkwavu LC#2 during hand circle Rwanda LitClub August (1).JPG

LitWorld’s Storytellers hail from all corners of the world. They are people of all ages and genders and they communicate in many languages. Our Storytellers (whether they are LitKids, mentors, parents, or local program coordinators) amplify the intimate stories, perspectives, ideas, thoughts, words, voices, and works of individuals involved in LitWorld programs, as well as their families and community members.

With the help of our Storytellers, we are able to share the stories, sounds, colors, feelings, and art found in our partner sites in 27 countries.

We are excited to share a few stories from Rwinkwavu, Rwanda, collected by our Partnership Coordinator Jean Marie Habimana of Ready for Reading.

Screen Shot 2018-05-23 at 12.14.52 PM.png

Our partnership with Ready for Reading began in 2014 with the introduction of a Moms LitClub in Rwinkwavu. Since then, LitClubs and LitCamps have been established for more than 120 local girls and boys, and World Read Aloud Day and International Day of the Girl celebrations take place in the community every year. 

Jean Marie recently asked his community members one of two questions:

1) What is one thing that holds special meaning to you? Why?

2) What is something you hear adults in your life saying a lot? Why do you think they say it?

Hear their responses below.

 

What is something you hear adults in your life saying a lot? Why do you think they say it?

Sylivine

Ngoyi

 

What is one thing that holds special meaning to you? Why?

Emelitha

Mujawimana

Thank you Jean Marie, Ready for Reading, and the community of Rwinkwavu for sharing with us!