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About Us

How Herstory Began
The Origin of the Dare to Care

 

This is the question that novelist and essayist Erika Duncan asked in March 1996, when she found herself surrounded by a group of women who hadn’t written before, never dreaming that the dare to transform one’s most personal story to reach the heart of a stranger would begin a journey of more than two decades in which thousands of women and girls (and eventually men and boys) in community settings, universities, labor halls and healing centers would find the answers that would open into chapters of their lives, nor that the words “Stranger/Reader” and “Imaginary Page One” one day would echo in Spanish and behind prison bars.  

 

That dare, which eventually led to a network of guided memoir-writing workshops, was the birth of an approach where the study of what creates reader empathy replaced more traditional techniques of teaching writing. 

    

“Where would you like a ‘Stranger/Reader’ to meet you, if you had to choose any ‘Imaginary Page One’ window to help her to walk in your shoes?”

What developed was a rather unique set of tools – a vocabulary through which what caused the reader to care became central – allowing those with little formal education to work with complex notions of narrative structure side by side with professors of literature.

Erika had offered a week of memoir-writing workshops free to any woman in the community who wanted to write her story, following a conference in Southampton, Long Island, which she had co-organized, celebrating women breaking silences. 

 

After years of teaching fiction and autobiographical writing to a closed group in the safety of her home, she was sure she had opened a terrible can of worms in agreeing to a set-up in which someone’s most intimate revelations would be open to any new stranger walking in, but it was too late to undo the publicity.

 

 

 

 

 

Historical timing, we now believe, had a great deal to do with the rapidity of Herstory’s growth, and the number of people for whom it seemed to answer a hidden, now suddenly realized need.  With new interest emerging in memoirs of everyday experience, the reading public began to seek out the life stories and struggles of those who previously would have remained unseen and anonymous. 

 

First-person narratives telling stories of traumatic events began to be sought, with unknown names attached to them; no longer were professionals to tell people’s stories for them as cold clinical case histories.  But still gaps remained.  For many who held stories inside them, educational deficiencies and lack of money made it impossible for them to acquire the complex narrative skills that change one’s own story – as told to a therapist, a diary or very close friend – into something that will be able to resonate more widely and reach strangers. 

While narratives of trauma were being taken increasingly seriously by the community-at-large, many of those who had experienced political or family violence did not have access to the kind of psychological support required in the documentation of their experiences, to help them discover ways to evoke the compassion and sense of being heard that they needed so badly.  They weren’t able to bridge the gap between the victim’s complaint – implicit in private outpourings of woe – and storytelling as a means of healing, in a way that would help others and themselves.

Soon women were traveling long distances to Herstory’s single Southampton site, so that gradually others in other parts of Long Island offered to host us, first a counseling center in West Babylon where poor people were the main clients, then to a continuing care community in South Setauket – and suddenly survivors of family violence, incest, poverty and war were writing alongside women with stories they wished to pass down to their grandchildren, stories of immigrating to a new country, stories of falling in love and giving birth or losing a loved one.  Foundation heads and other supporters became Herstory writers themselves, adding to the diversity that is a hallmark of the program.  Erika’s “experiment” had evolved into a project that was cutting across race, religion, ethnicity, age, socio-economic background, class and culture.

As the work became too much for one person alone, those who had been with Herstory from the beginning began to officially train to lead workshops, and one suggested expanding the work to include women in prison.   We reached out to find bilingual facilitators whom we could train to work in Spanish, and to the heads of high school and college programs, and to student interns, until eventually Herstory became what it is today.

To read more about our beginnings and the roots of the Herstory pedagogy, we refer you to the introduction of our manual Paper Stranger: Shaping Stories In Community, the cornerstone of our work.

In asking each new writer to shape a “Page One Moment” safe enough to be met by a stranger, yet vibrant enough to keep that stranger interested, two days into the workshop she realized that she had discovered a new way to teach memoir – one with both healing and community building aspects.

Our Mission

It is our mission to bring unheard voices, both near and far, into the public arena; to transform lived experiences into written memoirs powerful enough to change hearts, minds, and policy.

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Our Vision

Through a quarter century of bringing people into small writing circles and providing the empathy-based tools to break silences together, we join hands to create a powerful grass roots literature that will champion a culture of equity, inclusion and justice. Our facilitated writing workshops help people - no matter their level of education - break their silence, add their voices to the public discourse, and process the experiences that have shaped their lives.

Our vision is that over time silences will be broken, and previously unsung stories will be heard as we reach out to more women and men—young and old, incarcerated and free—in an ever-widening circle of languages and cultures across the United States and beyond. 

As we enter our next quarter century, and look back on our 25-year legacy, through our 5-year old, newly renamed Amy Maiello Hagedorn Training Institute, we have become a true network, spreading the work we are doing on Long Island to an increasing number of communities, nationwide and internationally. 

Bringing the Dare to Care to Carceral Settings

Too often when someone is in jail, the first question that comes up is “What did that person do?” It comes up before that person is allowed a face or a voice or a story that is her own creation. In the case of women especially—and beyond this for those coming from backgrounds of poverty, violence, and discrimination—we must train ourselves to reframe our questions, thinking from the onset “What happened to them? Who are they, and what can they teach us?” 

 

What would happen if we were to make a commitment to linger until the story of each person impacted found its rightful space—resisting all temptations to rush toward resolutions, wisdom or repentance that might not yet (or ever) be part of her truth—what might we be able to learn from the process? What would happen if we were to welcome with wide open arms, not the stories we might wish for, but those that come out when we give the permission to drop all pretending? Could this make a difference? 

 

Could the stories resulting from this process make a difference not only to those who find healing in bringing their past selves back to life on the page, but to a society that doesn’t know what to do with its own violence and pain? 

While the direction "to love one's inner child" has little meaning for those inexperienced in love, the dare to write about a past self so fully that another can inhabit your skin provides those who haven’t developed compassion for themselves a back-door entry into accepting the selves they have been.

That dare– “to help another person to truly care” –  becomes doubly powerful when extended to those caught in the carceral ecosystem.  

 

We have organized this curriculum into four units that will allow new facilitators—who are working on their own—to proceed with integrating some of the things we have discovered over the course of several decades at their own pace.   

 

It is critical here to stress that in the collective process, each new person, each new group that grows out of the grass roots, plays only a small part in finding new solutions.  It is with humbleness and reverence for those who have blazed the path in working with people in prison and those in the larger carceral ecosystem that we add our discoveries, inviting you to use what you wish and to take of them freely in your own way.   

 

To best learn the Herstory Writers Network’s methodology, we recommend that you move through this curriculum in order, unit by unit. 

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