Sharing stories makes for better professionals

A.J. James

“I just want to be able to be outside and not worry about the stench or about all of the pollution that my family is breathing in,” she said. “I’ve known people who have died or gotten cancer from all of the pollution that’s being dumped into Uniontown. There were two ladies who lived across the way from me who would sit on their porch, and I know that there was no way to enjoy life having to breathe in toxic fumes every day. They’re both dead now,” she continued. “But you all give me hope. You all are the future, and seeing you all fighting for justice is what gives me hope that one day things will get better.”

That was the story of Esther Calhoun, a resident of Uniontown, Alabama, as she addressed a conference of young environmental activists and organizers. Earlier in the day, an older conference goer encouraged us to “tell the story, because the story is what makes the issue real for other people.” Esther’s story moved me to tears but also moved me to action, and I think that there are a number of lessons to be learned from the idea that stories are the things that move others.

In college, we have all been granted the privilege of coming into contact with people from different geographic locations, of different races and ethnicities, who speak different languages, of various sexual orientations and genders and who may have different abilities and socioeconomic statuses than we. This is an experience that countless people around the world will never get. For a number of reasons, these people will be confined to interactions with the people whom they have always seen, who look like them, talk like them, and even hold most of the same beliefs. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and many times this is not the preference of the individual, but at the end of the day, many of the stories that they hear and share will sound the same. 

However, things are so vastly different at such a large university like Alabama. You have over 37,000 stories to hear, over 37,000 chances to be moved deeply. And it’s up to you to make the effort to collect stories as well as share your own. There’s no sense in floating through undergraduate for four or more years only to leave vastly unchanged, making connections solely with those people who come from your same background. It is your duty as a future academic, physician, engineer, or social worker to leave the University having had your very core shaken by the stories that you have heard. Not only will it make you a better person, but also it will lend you the ability to connect with those whose stories you have not yet heard from a place of empathy. Thus, it is not just a moral suggestion to form relationships with those who are different from us, but it is also our duty as future professionals. 

A.J. James is a senior majoring in biology. His column runs biweekly.