Sharing Our Stories: Building the Empathy Muscle by Affirming and Honoring Identity
In my 10 years as diversity, equity, and inclusion director at The Buckley School (CA), I always heard talk of diversity as a buzzword, but I wanted to dig deeper into what it meant. How do we know what to celebrate if we can’t openly and bravely talk about who we are? I asked who was represented in the community and how the school could make that representation more visible.
In 2016, I created an identity development program called Sharing Our Stories. It welcomes lower school students to share their identity and culture through the art of storytelling. I wanted to encourage students to share, listen, celebrate, and affirm difference.
The program, which is optional for students, instills a healthy sense of pride and self-efficacy in young children who may feel as though they have to conform to the majority, especially if they are a child who has a different racial background, family structure, or religious identity that isn’t represented in their classroom or larger school community. Teaching young children to be proud of who they are is essential to their growth as confident people who feel they have a sense of responsibility to others and the world. Educational research shows that when students feel seen and heard, they build strong relationships with their peers and teachers, and perform better academically and contribute to their communities.
Inviting Students to the Stage
Each school year, lower school teachers are also invited to participate in the Sharing Our Stories series and are usually the first to present. Throughout the school year, students in kindergarten through fifth grade can sign up to deliver a one- to two- minute speech. Students share aspects of their race, ethnic/cultural background, gender, religion, family structure, and more in front of their peers and teachers. Students write and rehearse their own stories (some with the help of their parents/guardians), and include things like where they were born, their hobbies, and their future hopes and dreams. Teachers help our youngest of readers go over their story leading up to assembly.
Their speech opens the school’s weekly half-hour assemblies, which also feature programming in honor of Black History Month, Latinx Heritage Month, Women’s History Month, and performances by the lower school choir or hip-hop dancers from the afterschool program. As they approach the stage, they are met with encouragement and applause from the audience.
At this year’s Black History Month Assembly, fourth grader, Shia W. stood on a stage in front of entire lower school to talk about her hobbies, family, and cultural heritage. “I was born in Los Angeles, and I like to play tennis, dance, cook, swim, and sing,” she began. “My grandmother, Catalina, my dad’s mom, is Mexican. She died in 2002 before I was born. In honor of her, my middle name is Catalina.”
Shia W. continued, using her time to speak more about her grandfather: “My grandfather, Jesse, was born in Mississippi and later moved to the Bay Area through The Great Migration. The Great Migration is when Black families left the South to escape discrimination to build a better life.” She also spoke about her parents: “My dad was born in the Bay Area. He went to UC Berkeley for college, where he played football and baseball. My mom is from Los Angeles but spent six years growing up in Japan, and that’s why we love Japanese food and culture.”
Shia W.’s story didn’t end there. Hers along with others are extended to the larger community and posted on the diversity, equity, and inclusion page of the school’s website, as well as in the monthly DEI newsletter that is sent out to the community. This shares the experience with parents and guardians, and the exposure has increased interest among students who want to participate.
A Focus on Empathy
Storytelling helps foster a deep sense of awareness and understanding of difference. The exchange of narratives serves as both a mirror—a story reflecting one’s identity—and a window—a view into an identity or experience that differs from another’s. The program helps develop empathy, and the ability to listen to understand someone else’s lived experience. Students proudly share in front of the school community and learn from each other. It’s a powerful way to create meaningful and nurturing moments that showcase our shared humanity.
Students are learning the value of diversity, and how it is a strength, not a deficit. It’s a community experience where identity is accepted, affirmed, and celebrated. Now more than ever—at home, school, and beyond—students need to develop a healthy sense of identity. They need a space where they can show up as their authentic selves. It is essential to cultivating a school culture of inclusivity.
In this moment of racial reckoning, it’s a time to think about what narratives and stories haven’t been amplified. Whose story or identity is in the margins, and how can school communities work diligently to ensure that those stories are elevated? Independent schools were exclusive by design, so it’s important to acknowledge that past and work to dismantle systems of power and privilege. As educators, we must help students identify unfairness and work toward justice and that starts by learning from one another, acknowledging our differences, and making room for all of our narratives to be a part of the school’s tapestry.