We are in the small room in the basement of the shelter we work at in Queens. The heat is turned up too high and as usual there is at least one dead cockroach in the corner this Wednesday when I arrive to prepare for our adult knitting group and story garden. Today though, I am concerned more about finishing up the final touches of a speech we are preparing for the following day with one of the residents here, Jose Nunez. The first hours of the evening are filled with boisterous conversation and laughter. We let the conversation flow, pleased to see the residents enjoying the hour and a half we have set aside for the adults before the children come rolling through for Story Garden.
I wait until almost 6 pm to interrupt Jose, awkwardly inserting myself in the conversation and apologizing for pulling him away. ‘Are you ready for this?’ I ask. ‘Yeah, let’s do it,’ he responds enthusiastically. We clear a space at one of the tables cramping the room and I set up the laptop, pulling up our working draft. We are surrounded by children crawling in the corner, fighting over game pieces, running in the hallway when they know they’re not supposed to. Some of the adults have stuck around and are chatting loudly at the other tables. These are not ideal conditions, but we have to finish the speech today.
When we look for unheard voices and stories, we often find ourselves in moments of relative chaos and disruption much like this one. There is no ideal situation in which to share the experience of being pushed from shelter to shelter or overcoming discrimination at school or tackling the innumerable challenges of living in poverty. I believe one of the most powerful aspects of our work with ATD Fourth World is our effort to create spaces for these stories to be heard regardless of any barriers we may encounter to communication. We push ourselves to see beyond what would be the ‘ideal situation’ and meet people where they are, armed with the understanding that every person has valuable knowledge to contribute.
Our team in New York has worked many times with people living in poverty to prepare for speaking opportunities and public presentations. The process is unique and just as important in empowering people as the speech or presentation itself. It usually starts with a conversation. We explain the topic and then start asking questions. Personal questions, formal questions, or whatever question feels worth exploring. We listen to stories and challenge each other to explain further when we don’t understand, which we frequently don’t. We listen. We record, transcribe, and look for the powerful moments, the kernels of experience that speak out. With each conversation we learn more about each other and grow more comfortable tackling more intimidating topics.
In the speech we prepared with Jose, he urged representatives from the United Nations, civil society, and international NGO’s to stop, think, and listen; to shift our mentalities and remember what it means to be a human being; to imagine the harsh realities of poverty and to imagine that it can be different. Last October, Kathleen shared the heartbreaking experience of the discrimination she faces living in a homeless shelter. Obie Donald and Samantha Simpson spoke out about their struggles with the education system in New York during an international seminar at the UN last summer. And over a year of People’s Universities in New York captured many more moments of vulnerability, strength, and empowerment through speaking out. For each of these occasions, our team has worked alongside these impressive individuals to help turn the discussion into speeches, presentations, or articles to be shared across wide networks. These words and experiences are not theirs alone, but are gathered from communities and borne out of an effort to overcome barriers.
Every decision, every outline is driven by the speaker and their words—Does this make sense here? What is the most important message for you to express? The process is arduous because we have to say no to many of the personal anecdotes and stories that we find so enriching. Even if we cannot include every detail in the final presentation, we reach for these depths because people want to open up and explore their own experiences from a new perspective.
There are pieces of this process that no one gets to hear but those of us directly involved. What happens to the words and stories that don’t make it into the final speech? As with most experiences at ATD Fourth World, it gets recorded, documented, and saved as part of an extensive archive preserving the voices of those realities we try so hard to reach. There are moments in these conversations that are themselves transformative, beyond the policies they may affect, which leave a lasting and fundamental impact on the individuals involved. And as these unheard voices have encouraged us to remember, the changes ripple out to touch the communities from which these speakers come.
I look up from the computer and realize that things are on the brink of losing control behind me. The boys are fighting again and one of them is on the verge of tears, bursting with frustration. Jose stops me: ‘Give me a second, let me help out here.’ He helps run a bit of crowd control on the increasingly packed room and then turns back and we keep at it, trying to focus in the midst of it all. There’s something about this moment that drives it home for me–this is normal, in this place this is not chaos. I’m impressed and proud as we push through way may not be an ‘ideal situation.’ When the final word is shifted and the punch of our last sentence complete, Jose turns to me, ‘Yes! We did it!’ We high-five. The speech isn’t until tomorrow, but there is already a sense of empowerment.