Education and Story: Building Blocks of Community

In keeping with Barkada’s 2015 theme of education, I’d like to highlight an article that was recently published in the Chicago Sun-Times. Ameya Pawar, alderman of the 47th Ward on Chicago’s North Side, wrote an opinion piece about Chicago’s test-based high school system.

He begins by telling the story of his father living in Mumbai, India in the mid-1950s. His father and other students spent their childhood preparing for one test to secure one of a few coveted seats in the right high school. It meant the difference between spending the rest of their lives in poverty or winning the lottery for a chance of getting ahead. Twenty years later, his father immigrated to the United States so that when he started a family, they wouldn’t be condemned to the same broken system. Fast forward to 2015 and we find the same broken system here in Chicago. Pawar describes what this looks like and feels like for the families in our City of Neighborhoods:

Children begin to prepare for Chicago’s selective public high school entrance exam as early as 10 years old – spending hours on homework and stressing over earning straight As. Test-shaming and peer pressure are the norm. Parents scrounge together resources for tutors and admissions consultants. Parents peer pressure one another. To what end? Each year 25,000 eighth graders compete for 3,600 seats across eleven selective enrollment schools. A near-lifetime of preparation to get into the right high school. In a system which serves a few and neglects the whole.

And so, like many families, Pawar’s father once again decided to move his elsewhere to seek out stability and equity, fleeing to the suburbs to find a stable neighborhood K-12 system.

According to Pawar, “Chicago is doing itself a tremendous disservice by replicating an educational pattern that helped force my family out of India. The narrow focus on selective enrollment high schools is stressing families, harming neighborhood high schools, and undermining long-term growth in Chicago.”

Urban education reform treats schools like businesses, but we know that most businesses fail. Pawar’s vision for Chicago’s educational system is where schools are the starting point for neighborhoods to come together and make change happen, because everyone has some vested interest in making sure that their schools are doing well.

He describes this initiative as having three pillars:

  • Organize around the schools and change the dialogue in order to change the perception of neighborhood high schools
  • Generate conversations one household at a time and connect these conversations to a plan
  • Build community around the plan

For a community-driven initiative like this to be successful, the leaders have to be ready to do a lot of listening. By getting people to share stories with one another, they begin to realize that they are dealing with the same challenges and they all want the same thing for their children. They begin to realize that they will be more successful if they work together to make change happen around their schools to achieve stability and equity.

Leaders begin and end with stories.

In 2003, Harvard Business School interviewed screenwriting coach Robert McKee. He talks about why it is essential for a leader to be a skilled storyteller in order to successfully persuade members of her team to work toward common goals. Particularly in the nonprofit sector, a leader should be able to convince potential donors and funders that his organization is worthy of receiving their financial support. Cognitive research has shown that the human mind assembles the bits and pieces of an experience into a story in order to understand and remember. We tend to forget lists and bullet points. Instead, human desire and struggle are what stay with us.

Why does it make a world of difference to go beyond rhetoric and present your case in a story? According to McKee:

Essentially, a story expresses how and why life changes. You want to display the struggle between expectation and reality in all its nastiness. It demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable.

Our team at Barkada Circle has worked closely with leaders of nonprofits to help them realize that storytelling is a powerful catalyst that brings together key stakeholders of an organization to the same page. Stories reveal shared values and foster deeper understanding of common goals. The outcome is a shift in the collective consciousness of the organization to create a shared narrative about the mission that has more clarity and focus. From here, leaders can take their story and develop a more compelling message that resonates with their audience.

Jacqueline Novogratz and Simon Sinek

Jacqueline Novogratz and Simon Sinek

LISTEN to Simon Sinek and Jacqueline Novogratz share stories that encourage us to take the initiative for inspiring others to change the way they think and see. Ultimately, the outcome will be something bigger than we had imagined.

Stories we tell define who we are

At Barkada Circle we believe that positive change begins with cultivating a sense of community around real collaborative efforts and allowing various ideas to converge. This is why we use storytelling as the main catalyst for realizing new ideas and shared goals.

As human beings, we are naturally wired for story. When you tell a story to another person, you will spark a story from that person. As an emergent form of communication, a compelling story conveys meaning that the other person can relate to because it reflects what they believe in. As a way to bring people together, stories reinforce the culture of the community. Stories build our identity and help to forge meaning for what it means to be a community, and ultimately, revealing who we are as individuals.

Chimamanda Adichie, Thandie Newton, Tavi Gevinson

Chimamanda Adichie, Thandie Newton, Tavi Gevinson


LISTEN to three artists talk about how stories reflect our humanity and all its complexities––the multiplicity of the human experience.