I spent Tuesday afternoon with my fellow interns helping out with thank you notes to LitWorld donors. If you’ve never seen a LitWorld envelope, printed on the bottom, left corner of each one is “Be the story.” As I stuffed, sealed, and stamped envelopes, the power began to drain from the message and distanced me from the meaning. Be the story became a logo rather than an ethos.
As part of the internship, each of us helps facilitate LitClub programming. Every Tuesday evening, the five young women of our Harlem Teen LitClub gather at the office. On this particular Tuesday night, two guests joined us: a survivor of Rwandan genocide, Yvette, and a Holocaust survivor, Lillian. After eating dinner, the Teen LitClub members, a handful of staff, including, Pam, Brooke, Madison, and I sat at the round table to hear Yvette’s story. Now, I won’t attempt to paraphrase Yvette’s heroic journey, but know that as she shared her triumphs, and Lillian interjected to intertwine their narratives, few eyes stayed dry. Regardless of tears, everyone was rapt with these women’s delivery and wisdom. Their tales resonated with us all.
As Yvette and Lillian addressed their transformations from war-surviving immigrants to successful women, they emphasized that each person has their struggles. Even though these women lived through the unimaginable, the harrowing, the most difficult to process events, both asserted that they built their stories. The weight of their pasts strengthens the success of their presents.
On the subway home, I attempted to delineate Be the story and Build your story. My mind desperately wanted to fit them into a neat binary. But as I let my thoughts tumble, I realized they are not a binary but a symbiosis or a cause and effect. (Truthfully, I am not sure yet.) Building your story takes immense strength. Lillian and Yvette’s unwavering fortitude speaks to their effort and resilience. I am beginning to think that as you build your story, you will also be your story. Both women retrospectively reframed incremental change into lifelong achievements.
During the genocide in Rwanda and World War II, propaganda in media called the Tutsi snakes and cockroaches and the Jewish people pests, and lice. Others began to conceptualize these two ethnic groups that way, partially excusing or validating the horrible hate and violence. Conversely, LitWorld tells LitClub members how capable they are. Praise, too, can be infectious and outlook-altering. Let the power affirmation outweigh defamation. Validate yourself and others. Build your story. Be your story.
--Written by LitWorld Intern Susannah Rosenfield