“The Spirit of Ubuntu — that profound African sense that we are human only through the humanity of another human being — is not a parochial phenomenon, but has added globally to our common search for a better world.” — Nelson Mandela

Tiffany Besse, her husband and their two daughters, Evelyn and Stella.

Tiffany Besse, her husband, and their daughters, Evelyn and Stella. Photo provided by Tiffany Besse.

“Why is storytelling so important to what we do as educators?”

Tiffany Besse, Studies Weekly regional manager, posed this question in a recent webinar.

Storytelling is how educators can promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom and in society, Besse explained. She illustrated this by defining three African terms from the Zulu tribe.

Sawubona: a greeting that means, “You are part of me and I am part of you.”

Ngikhona: a response to Sawubona that means “I am here” or “I’m okay with being in this space with you.”

Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”

When students hear stories, especially from marginalized groups of people and those who may be different from or have different life experiences, it creates a spirit of Sawubona.

“When we begin to connect through stories, the emergence of the authenticity of the individual is profound. It is realized when we engage in storytelling,” Besse explained. “All the beautiful things that make us uniquely human enter the space when we honor the importance of storytelling.”

Students can embrace what makes these individuals unique, while the storytellers become comfortable expressing their authenticity — Ngikhona. The ability to recognize yourself and others as an authentic self is essential to Ubuntu, where storytellers and listeners connect through their shared humanity.

“We build Ubuntu when we talk about diversity, equity and inclusion,” Besse said, adding that it is sometimes uncomfortable to do this. But it is rewarding and liberating.

“Giving” People a Voice

Besse explained that too often we try to encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion by “giving” marginalized people a voice.

“When we do the work of DEI, we often default to wanting to ‘give’ people of color, women, poor, disabled, any other marginalized group a voice as if they don’t have one,” she said.

Everyone has a voice, and it is not any one person’s right to ‘give’ it.

“When we become the voice or assume that one has no voice, we are fostering systemic oppression,” Besse said. “Marginalized groups who are given a voice are then accused of some very heinous things, like lacking grit, motivation, or needing a handout. They’re not viewed as having earned their due or their space in society.”

When society views certain people as helpless, it sometimes leads educators to see students that way too.

“This stereotyping can contribute to what Dr. Bettina Love referred to as ‘spirit murdering’ in her book, We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom. It is described as the unintentional or intentional disposal of the uniqueness of dark folks and other marginalized groups by systemic practices designed to withhold opportunity from those not fitting the norm,” Besse said.

Six-year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted out of school.

Respect Voices and Stories

Besse suggested that instead of saying, “I want to give you a voice,” we should ask the question, “How can we elevate the voice of others?” and then hold a space for their struggles and their connectedness in the humanity that we share.

The other problem with giving people a voice is that we write their stories instead of letting them write their own. To illustrate this point, she showed a famous image of Ruby Bridges leaving school, attended by white men.

“What story is this photo telling you?” Besse asked. “What story or stories have you written for the little girl or the five men in the picture? Is the story you’re telling really her story?”

Besse then shared a video, where an adult Ruby Bridges tells her own story of that experience.

Besse challenged people to ponder what they learned after hearing Ruby’s own story.

“You see it’s important to hold a space to allow people to tell their stories,” she concluded.

Besse also shared the importance of storytelling in her own life. She and her husband, Tim, have two adopted daughters, and because of the color of their skin, society dictates different stories for them, even though they have the same parents.

Sisters Evelyn and Stella Besse hug each other.

Evelyn and Stella Besse. Photo by Tiffany Besse.

Evelyn is biracial, but white-passing. Thus, society tells her she can do anything she sets her mind to. Stella is also biracial, but not white-passing. Simply because of the darker color of her skin, society will cause her to struggle to get what she wants.

When we don’t hold a space for everyone to author their own authentic story, we fail our nation’s children.

“Our biases, our discomfort, our inability to lean in, our unwillingness to confront issues of equity centered on race, gender, ability, disability, sexuality – the list goes on and on – will lead us to perpetuate systemic oppression, just as it has been perpetuated in the lives of my girls,” Besse said.

What Educators Can Do

Educators should recognize that children don’t author their own stories until later in life. And sometimes even we — as educators, parents, and community members — inhibit children’s journeys because we write their stories for them. And that is wrong.

That is why DEI discussions and authentic storytelling is so important. We can support diversity, equity, and inclusion by incorporating stories from different perspectives in the curriculum and in the classroom. As schools share first-hand accounts from all groups, students from various backgrounds will know they can pursue their dreams.

“Through storytelling, we can provide a beautiful window into our world for others to connect to the gift of our humanity — all while holding a mirror as we gaze upon ourselves and embrace the struggle of finding the joy in our individuality within a system whose veil of injustice continues to mask the beauty we behold,” Besse concluded.

Studies Weekly helps school districts and teachers tell stories by providing video interviews online. Watch these videos on our YouTube channel.

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