It began as a simple letter to the editor of a local newspaper. The first lines of the letter began: “God Bless America. That’s my favorite song. It was written by an immigrant to America who was placed in a holding pen when he arrived at Ellis Island from Russia. He had nothing when he arrived. When he passed away, Irving Berlin was known as America’s greatest song writer. When I arrived in America, I had dreams of a new life just like Irving Berlin. Let me tell you my story.”
The author of the letter was one of the most beloved members of the community. Few realized he was an immigrant to America. Virtually everyone in the community knew someone who was helped by the letter writer.
The letter became a model for other letters in other papers. Some were from prominent members of the community while others were from the invisible. Some were articulate while others were filled with misspellings and grammatical errors. The one thing they all had in common was they brought tears to the eyes of readers.
The letters started appearing in papers almost every day. Some papers started telling the stories of famous Americans who few people realized were from another country. The stories became a must read and quickly became one of the favorite parts of the paper.
Over time, people began to change their thoughts about immigration. The stories gave readers a sense of empathy about the plight of those who wanted to come here. The fear mongering about immigration became less effective. America became more accepting of those who sacrificed everything to come here.
Stories can be an amazing way to show how we think. Recall the stories of your life and how they have shaped you. They may be stories told to you by your parents, stories from your faith, stories from a classroom, or stories of personal experiences. Stories we hear, watch, or tell take us from just being a spectator. They involve us as participants. When we read about the struggles of an immigrant, we are transported and struggle with them.
Studies have shown that when we are engaged by a story, we release more brain chemicals associated with empathy which triggers generosity, a key to being a democratic citizen.
Might we hope that each of us would view immigration in its human dimensions if we shared our stories? Just imagine how we would view issues such as healthcare, poverty, hunger, or unemployed if we share our personal stories? Just imagine how each of us could raise our national concept of democracy by telling our own stories.
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“The most powerful person in the world is the story teller.”
– Steve Jobs