After hearing the song “Nou Tout Haitien” (We are all Haitians) on the Rubicon Educational Foundation Website, French teacher Sally Brownfield, from Foss High School in Tacoma, Washington, contacted Parfait Bassale and the Rubicon Educational Foundation. Not only were her French students interested in hearing Parfait’s music and story for themselves, but they were also inspired to raise funds to purchase books for TeacHaiti, the Foundation’s initial sister school. What follows are Parfait’s thoughts on helping students develop empathy by telling stories through music. In this reflection he shares his approach and its impact on the students at Foss High School. To learn more about participating in the Educational Foundation’s Sister School Program, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When I first started documenting episodes of my life through songs as a teenager, I was unaware of the therapeutic affect it would have on me. Like many artists, I composed and sang to express emotions and thoughts that would otherwise go unheard. These musical pieces were psychological responses to the oppressive and dehumanizing attacks perpetrated by a hostile social environment determined to suppress expressions of myself. Music helped bring back to life that which was suffocating. By telling and listening to parts of my story, I was giving myself the opportunity to hear the narrative from the mouth of a victim who was once rendered voiceless: I had a voice. This was empowering and inspiring.
This personal transformational experience with music and storytelling became the catalyst and model for a workshop titled “Each Story Matters” conducted in middle and high schools across America. Nearly one thousand students have been exposed to the model so far. They are presented with songs telling the story, perspective and experience of another fellow human being: one they might not relate to at first but one with whom they wind up empathizing in the end. The reason being is that stories bring out our shared human experiences: the desire to belong, our suffering, dreams, hopes and the need for redemption. Audiences recognize parts of themselves in the story of another they might look up to, despise, bully or dehumanize on a daily basis. In this workshop, I often share through songs my own personal story: that of a young African who migrated to the USA and had to face prejudice, and a horde of economic, psychological and cultural challenges. I share about the psychological wounds caused by cutting remarks and jokes along the way. I sing about the emotional violence that was wrapped in stereotypical assumptions and social labels. Then I contrast such experiences with the healing role each loving and empathetic relationship played in my story. I highlight how unconditional love rooted in respect and acceptance helped make me feel at home and made my story a bit happier.
Some leave the workshop empowered because they now feel they are not alone in their experiences. One student shared once that she always thought she had to conform but now feels OK being different because she knows her story matters too. Others leave challenged and willing to treat others differently as they realize that “because a story is different, it does not make it weird.” Another student once concluded “I must make others feel at home because their homes might not be safe.” Some students leave inspired and eager to impact their world through charity and/or philanthropic work.
This is the case of students at Foss High School, an at-risk school in Tacoma, Washington. On March 8th, I was invited by Ms. Brownfield, a French teacher at Foss. She had heard about the Rubicon Educational Foundation’s efforts in Haiti and wanted to expose her students to the workshop. She also wanted to strike in them a chord of compassion towards Haiti. I shared about a 10 year-old girl, a quake survivor, whom I met while in Haiti with the Rubicon Educational Foundation. The empathy level in the classroom was electrifying as students began singing in unison the “Nou Tout Haitien” (We are all Haitians) Haiti tribute song. When asked why they loved the song, some students commented that the story made them feel more grateful for what they have. Others realized that there are pieces to every story that is out of one’s control, such as where one is born, how one is raised, and what types of hardships one can be up against. Consequently, many expressed compassion and a desire to help. One way the French Club at Foss High School materializes their desire is by planning a candy sale fundraiser to purchase books for TeacHaiti, a K-3 school in Haiti. The students believe this will make them grow as individuals and can make a difference in the lives of Haitian students. What an inspiration!
This mental picture of a classroom of at-risk youth, a thousand of miles away from Haiti, singing the story of a 10 year-old quake survivor, will remain engraved in my memory forever. A picture like this does justice to the potential of storytelling through music. It gives a meaning to what I do in the classrooms and it demonstrates the importance of the Rubicon Educational Foundation initiative in Haiti. The Foundation’s commitment to keeping the story of Haitian students alive is changing lives and bringing smiles once again.