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All Together Now: Generations Sharing Stories of Civil and Human Rights

For those who cherish civil and human rights, this is a year of many anniversaries. One is very much on our minds right now: the epochal events of August 28, 1963, when 250,000 Americans joined the "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." StoryCenter is planning a series of free All Together Now Storied Sessions as our gift to communities across the nation this fall. If you like the idea, we'd love to hear how you can help. We'll announce the schedule in coming weeks, so please watch this blog for information on how to take part. 

For now, we'll just say that beginning in September and stretching over the balance of 2013, in up to 10 cities across the U.S., we will facilitate free half-day intergenerational Storied Sessions for young people and elders. This All Together Now project from our StoryLab initiative honors the legacy of the civil rights movement, narrowing the generation gap through story and engaged dialogue about what it means for ordinary citizens then — and now — to lift their voices and take action in their communities. We want to help foster awareness of the ongoing impact of the civil rights movement in younger people’s lives, reframing the story from one of past struggle, defeat, and victory to one that models and inspires engaged activism today. 

Berkeley/Oakland, Phoenix, Denver, Washington, DC, Birmingham, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Boston have been suggested, and we are pursuing opportunities in all of those locations. Each participant will be supported in creating a story in his or her own words with an accompanying photograph. Each text/audio file and image will be uploaded to our All Together Now portal on www.Cowbird.com, our new distribution partner, showcasing the whole body of work and inviting others to add to it by uploading their own stories.

StoryCenter’s work has taught us that the difference between demoralization and a dynamic movement for social justice turns on how we shape our stories. Overstate the power of antidemocratic interests and potential activists start to fear getting their hopes up, insulating themselves against crushing disappointment. Show the real power of envisioning and enacting possibility — even in the face of strong opposition — and people feel inspired to act on a hope grounded in reality. The aim of this project is to support leaders, young and old, experienced and emerging, who see themselves at the center of our collective story of social justice, who understand that an anniversary is as much for the future as the past, and who know how changing the story helps to change the world. 

To sponsor and promote these free workshops, we're developing partnerships with history museums, civic organizations, college campuses, human and civil rights organizations, religious groups, and youth and senior groups. If your group can provide a venue for workshops or exhibitions, or if you can help us recruit engaged community activists as storyteller participants, please contact Allison Myers. (And if you're interested in helping to support a three-day custom digital storytelling workshop on the same themes, Allison would love to talk with you about that too.)

Why are we doing this? 

Nowadays, public memory of the 1963 March on Washington turns on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s amazing "I Have A Dream" speech (you can read and listen to it here), which situated the moment in a long history of struggle for human rights and urged people to rise above anger and frustration, holding to the principles of nonviolence as they marched. But reality is more complex than memory. Fifty years ago, for instance, there were contentious planning meetings that resulted in much-criticized choices (e.g., the great James Baldwin was not allowed to speak). And fifty years ago, that sometime-heated negotiation produced a remarkable consensus on the marchers' demands. They called for:

  • Passage of meaningful civil rights legislation.
  • Immediate elimination of school segregation.
  • A program of public works, including job training, for the unemployed.
  • A Federal law prohibiting discrimination in public or private hiring.
  • A $2-an-hour minimum wage nationwide.
  • Withholding Federal funds from programs that tolerate discrimination.
  • Enforcement of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution by reducing congressional representation from States that disenfranchise citizens.
  • A broadened Fair Labor Standards Act to currently excluded employment areas.
  • Authority for the Attorney General to institute injunctive suits when constitutional rights are violated.

Quite a few of the 1963 March's aims — notably those that challenged legal segregation — were realized with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But laws don't necessarily change hearts and minds. Everywhere we look, the same message echoes: the struggles of 50 years ago are still fresh today. Many stories still need to be told; those who were part of earlier movements and therefore know firsthand the struggles for civil and human rights in their own lives and communities need to share that legacy. And younger generations standing today for equality, justice, and opportunity, those who have the task of keeping those struggles alive and growing, need to tell their own truths in their own voices. 

This anniversary — coming as it goes on the heels of challenges to the Voting Rights Acts, an acquittal in Travon Martin's shooting, and other reminders of the need for social justice — shows us how history entails a perpetual challenge: how do we connect current and future generations with the past events that have helped to shape their lives? How do we help younger generations find their own ways to renew the legacy of the past so it benefits the future?

Less than two weeks from now, on August 24, a broad coalition of civil rights and labor organizations are sponsoring a "50th Anniversary March on Washington" with its own coalition of labor, environmental, and civil rights groups (see this impressively diverse list from the National Action Network site, for instance). The sponsoring organizations remind us that while the movement for racial justice for African Americans in the American South was a driving force in 1963, other movements grew, and the underlying sense of human rights and human dignity has continued to expand ever since, with Latino organizations, women's organizations, and LGBTQ groups marching side-by-side this August with the union groups and largely Black groups that filled the streets in '63. The issues have also expanded as our collective understanding of human and civil rights has grown. This month's march lists: Jobs & the Economy; Voting Rights; Workers’ Rights; Stand Your Ground Laws & Gun Violence; Women’s Rights; Immigration; LGBT Equality; Environmental Justice; and Youth. 

We at StoryCenter want to bring the same broad understanding and common purpose to our All Together Now workshops and all the ways the stories they generate will be shared with the wider world. They will be rooted in the particular places and times where this free workshop series is held. But All Together Now won't happen in physical space so much as in collective memory and renewal, creating a reservoir of stories that bring the past into the present and help build the future. Please stay tuned for more information and remember, if you can help with venues, publicity, or otherwise, we'd love to hear from you: please contact Allison Myers.