Students of 'Telling Stories for Social Change' perform with patients at Valley Vista

by Nalini Ramanathan | 11/11/16 12:00am

This past Thursday and Friday, a 40-person audience visited the brightly-lit cafeteria of Valley Vista, a drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in Bradford, Vermont. Women undergoing treatment in the center covered the room in motivational cardboard posters in preparation for “The Cleansing Tears of Our Temporary Yesterday,” a performance put on by both Dartmouth students and women recovering from addiction.

The show was part of a larger nonprofit organization and project by women, gender and sexuality studies lecturer Pati Hernández called “Telling My Story.” Initially started as a literacy program for Latin Americans in New York, the organization works today to break down all types of social barriers. Hernández has also integrated a version of the organization’s program into her class, “Telling Stories for Social Change.”

As part of this class, Dartmouth students visit Valley Vista weekly and create a performance with the women which is put on at the end of the term.

The performance has four skits which present many of the common scenarios that women who are recovering from addiction face, such as the difficulties of finding a job after recovery and issues with support networks. Although both the students and the women in the treatment center write the skits, they are focused on telling the women’s stories.

The program is not primarily meant to be a form of therapy for the women. Instead, Megan Larkin ’19, who took the class this term, said that one of its main purposes is to build bridges between communities, having both groups learn from each other and develop meaningful relationships.

Larkin noted how much she learned from her experiences at the shelter.

“I think it’s important to hear addicts’ stories from addicts themselves and go deeper than just what we might see in media or in a textbook,” she said.

One of the women Larkin worked with also said that the program made her feel like society was listening to her and other women at the shelter and that it was nice to connect with students who care about their stories.

The other portion of the class applies feminist thought from writers such as bell hooks and Paulo Freire to issues women recovering from addiction face, such as intersecting identities, stereotypes and paternalism. Each week, the students wrote in journals in which they could reflect on their experiences and connect them to what they had learned in class.

At the end of the show, women and students provided testimonies, reflecting on their experiences in the program. Lucia Caballero ’19, who came to the show to see one of her friends perform, noted how open and honest the women recovering from addictions were during the show.

“It was a really good way to get the message across,” Caballero said. “I imagine it was really hard for them, and I appreciated that.”

The final show was this Friday, which Larkin said was a very emotional performance.

“Everyone was crying, and at the end, Pati gave us roses and little certificates,” Larkin said, “It was just a moment of community between the students and the women.”

As an audience member, Caballero said that such open and honest discussion as found in the program also has broader implications at Dartmouth, particularly with regards to mental health.

Hernández also runs an on-campus program of “Telling My Story” outside of the class. This term, Hernández is working on a show which discusses the realities Native students face at Dartmouth. This performance will be on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m.