On Friday 16th September I attended one of the most harrowing, yet inspirational events I have ever been to. Being the Story, organised by sounddelivery, gave people the chance to share their incredible stories of how they have used their own personal and horrific experiences to initiate positive change.
I was in absolute awe of how people who had suffered such unimaginable things were able to not only turn their own lives around but help and empower thousands of others to change their lives too.
I left feeling emotionally exhausted but it really put things into perspective. I have absolutely nothing to complain about and should be so grateful for everything I do have. There are things that don’t matter and things that do and we should not be afraid to share the things that matter, it’s so important.
In my job as a Marketing and PR Exec for a social enterprise that hires out office space to third sector organisations, it’s my role to share the stories of the organisations that occupy our buildings. I think one of the main lessons that I will take away from this event is that quite often people don’t realise they have a story to tell; you have to do the digging. Bring it out of them because no matter how big or small, it could have the power to inspire real change.
Inspiring real change was how the speakers were able to share their shocking stories in such a candid and composed way; because as one of them said, even if they only changed one person’s life it was worth it.
I wish I could share every speaker’s story in full and the raw, uncut nature of their experiences in this post but it had to be witnessed first-hand. So here are just a few and only a microscopic glimpse into what they have been through.
Mandy Thomas shared her horrific experience of domestic and sexual abuse at the hands of her ex. She read her story robotically from papers in front of her and it was only when she began to share graphic details of her abuse that I understood why. She had attempted to detach herself from what happened as a way of coping. Mandy told of how he attacked her with a blowtorch and dragged her across the floor.
“I died for six minutes,” she said, showing very little emotion.
He would threaten her with “You can’t run”; hence the title of her new book. I was shocked to the core when she told us all that her son killed himself because he couldn’t live in the presence of his father anymore. Her family went into witness protection and changed their names again and again for fear that he would find them.
“We were in prison while he was free.”
Incredibly, despite everything, Mandy found the strength to use her heartbreaking story to raise awareness of domestic abuse. She worked closely with the character Helen from The Archers to use her experience to inform its recent domestic abuse storyline.
Emma Lawton was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at just 29, only six years older than me. She told of how when she was diagnosed, she said no to everything because she was scared of being judged; of being different.
“When I started to say yes, positive things started to happen.”
Her talk became a memorable performance as she began to visually depict her life by pegging symbolic items on a piece of string. Only she wasn’t putting on a show, she wasn’t acting. This is her life. I watched captivated as she pegged things up with uncontrollably shaky hands but with an incredible sense of humour and steely determination. “Bear with me,” she laughed. She shared how she was promoted when it was realised that she had the “ability to inspire and lead”, she bought a home, got a new boyfriend, became an ambassador, opened a shop, wrote a book, then quit her job to dedicate her time to raise awareness of Parkinson’s. Each part of her life was represented by an item that she pegged on the line. She cut the string to symbolise how Parkinson’s doesn’t control her life, she does. Her finale was the revelation that the people holding up the string were her parents. Shivers ran down my spine – I looked around and people were crying. Visualising her life in that way was so powerful. Just as she was so resolutely determined to peg the items on the string, she was always going to persevere through her life and never let a disease define her.
Hassan Akkad told a real story of the refugee crisis, one that involved 87 days of fleeing Syria to get to the UK. Unlike most, he had camera phone to film the treacherous journey from a life raft to travelling in a van –
“the back door of the van broke and a man had to hold the door the whole journey.”
He filmed the over-packed life raft as most of the passengers fell into the water. Unless we witness it first-hand, all we see of the refugee crisis is what we see in the media; we don’t know the real story. When he reached Europe, his expectations “didn’t align with reality… We weren’t allowed to do anything or be humans… You wouldn’t treat an animal like that. I had a normal life before… but I lost it.” He got a fake passport with a name he had to memorise and he made it into the UK. Six months later he was granted political asylum. “I made it but thousands haven’t.” Hassan’s journey has been pieced together with the similarly traumatic journeys of five other refugees to make the BBC 2 documentary Exodus: Our Journey to Europe.
Giles Duley was an exceptionable speaker, who drew us all in to the story of how a small gift changed in his life, which he then used to change the lives of others. The gift was an Olympus camera and a book consisting of the war photographer Don McCullin‘s famous works. He realised that photography has the power to provoke public action. Whilst photographing the US army on patrol in Afghanistan, Giles stepped on an IED and lost both legs and an arm.
“I could see my legs in the tree and I thought that’s not a good sign.”
His family said their goodbyes as his “organs shut down but his stubbornness didn’t.” He fought back and after 37 operations and a year in hospital he was back in the field. This year, Giles was offered a three month assignment by the UNHCR which involved gathering stories and images from the current refugee crisis. The brief: “follow your heart.” He told of how he “doesn’t like to take photos of victims” so at first he did not want to photograph a little girl. But then he realised that she wasn’t a victim. In spite of everything, she was happy and cheeky as she played and joked with friends and family. So he decided to capture her spirit as a force against adversity. The crisis had bought families closer together. One of the refugees that he photographed was bed-bound in a shack in Lebanon with no proper medical care. Giles’ photographs of her husband visiting her sent a powerful message of love and raised £500,000 to give her the care she needed so that she would no longer be bed-bound.
They say you can never even begin to understand what someone is going through until you have walked a mile in their shoes. The Empathy Museum‘s ‘A Mile in my Shoes’ stood out to me as being one of the most ingenious concepts I have ever come across. The immersive exhibit consists of an interactive shoe shop whereby visitors have the chance to step into someone else’s shoes and literally walk a mile in them whilst listening to the story of a stranger. The idea is that the listener would connect with the shoe owner on a personal level and ’empathise’ with them. As Barack Obama said:
“The biggest deficit that we have in the world is an empathy deficit.”
We’re all so consumed by our own lives that we often forget to look outside of our little bubbles and think about what others may be going through. Not to mention that we often only view things through a reporter’s lens or a Facebook feed – it’s so easy to gain a warped understanding and not the truth. And with so much war, violence, stereotyping and suffering going on in the world, we need to start learning the true story, first-hand.
In the lunch break, I slipped into the very large (for me) size 10 shoes of a Sikh taxi driver, Dalwinder. The size of the shoes didn’t matter, his story did. I listened to how he was judged for wearing a turban and having a long beard. Someone asked if he was a terrorist. I think he then joked back about not having an AK 47 on him.
But being vilified and racially abused isn’t a joke. A passenger said “you took all the jobs”, he replied with “it’s not about taking jobs, it’s about working hard.” By the end of the journey he had educated the ignorant passenger by teaching him about life as a Sikh.
The Empathy Museum will work with the NHS to give a voice to doctors and nurses and encourage MPs to listen.
We need to tell the stories of the beneficiaries; the people that the charity funding goes to. They are at the heart of charity, not the CEO’s or the employees or the funders. The people affected is why charities are set up, they have the real story and we need to listen.