By Paige Clarke and Zoya Naqvi
Eight people sit at the table remembering their pasts. A woman longs to be with her incarcerated mother again. A man struggles with his son’s drug addiction. Another woman remembers her hardest goodbye to her deported father.
They all told their stories at Herstory writers workshops, a month-long program in March that encourages participants at all writing levels to turn their experiences into memoirs. Each week, small groups of writers share a chapter of their lives as workshop members offer their storytelling advice. The narratives are meant to help victims of social injustice make their voices heard while learning literary skills.
“Our toolkit is based on the creation of empathy and identification,” Erika Duncan, the founder of Herstory, said. “We have to not only look at stories but look at strategic, powerful ways of telling stories. At what moment would you want a stranger to walk in your shoes? How would you dare them to care?”
Herstory is a nonprofit organization based in Centereach that started workshops in 1996 when Duncan set out on a mission she describes in a simple phrase: to change hearts, minds, and policies through first-person narrative. Once a female-only workshop, it now welcomes men and women alike. The workshops are free and take place in schools across Long Island, and jails in Suffolk and Nassau County with the support of over 15 national, statewide and local funders to carry out the organization, like the Suffolk County Omnibus Grant.
Each year, $5,000 is secured for Herstory through the Omnibus grant under Kara Hahn, 5th district legislator of Suffolk County. “The grant supports community arts organizations that embody artistic vibrancy and foster cultural participation in order to build vibrant communities and amplify the voice of underrepresented communities,” Alyssa Turano, legislative aide to Hahn, said.
One of the organization’s ongoing programs, Herstory Behind Bars, provides four workshops a week for women incarcerated in Long Island’s three jails. Stories written in the past were published into a book “Voices” in 2009 by the Herstory Writers Workshop, which became a required textbook for criminology classes at many Long Island universities.
Stories about addiction and domestic violence are familiar to listeners at the jail workshops, like correctional officers who are still in training. Joining the circle offers them a new perspective from what’s taught at the academy, and helps them better understand the hardships of incarceration.
“Naturally, being in jail, women are guarded and don’t want their personalities to show,” Amber Davis, operations manager at Herstory, said. “They open up and start realizing – you’re right, we do have a story, and we can say it in a way where we’re not reliving our traumatic past, but in a way where we don’t want to do that again.”
When her husband went to prison for shooting his father, former Herstory board member Barbara Allan knew she had to help families like hers learn more about the criminal and juvenile justice system. Through Herstory, Allan had the opportunity to visit jails and connect with incarcerated families.
“It’s encouraging them to step into the light – to know the importance of people understanding their stories,” Allan said. “You’re going to expose yourself to people with a set mindset, but when they hear your story, you’re putting light to it.”