While enjoying our snacks before our venture into the International Spy Museum, my cohort and I sat around Andy Burness for a mini “Ask Me Anything.” We talked about the tumultuous twenties, his start in making the world a little brighter and the metrics of our first blog post assignment. It seemed like everyone wanted more details on the blogs we are supposed to write over the summer as well the-end-of-summer fellowship capstone project. After potentially one too many questions about what exactly we should be covering in these reflective assignments, Andy said something that struck me. “You have to find the intersection between your story, your time here, and what you are taking away from this fellowship.” These wise words had been repeated to me before. In writing my personal statement for law school applications, in my Michelle Obama’s Becoming journal and even during a professional development workshop in college, I kept hearing the words “tell your story.” And thankfully, while I think that my immigration story from Venezuela to the US is one that sharply defines my life, I did not fully conceptualize what storytelling means outside of myself. Storytelling is more than just one person explaining their life, but the strongest tool organizations hold to effect positive change at all levels. While the spy museum’s motto was “Nothing is What It Seems,” I knew that the skill of storytelling seemed to be the foundation of the beginning of my fellowship.
One of my first assignments on the press team at the Human Rights Watch was to conduct a media roundup for a recent report that was just released at the end of June. It was about a study conducted by a HRW researcher about 110 prisoners who were released that were originally sentenced to life without parole. The report garnered thousands of mentions and earned media attention. The entire press release online focused on the interview of one of the former inmates who received a unique commutation, the state version of a presidential pardon. His name is Joseph Bell. Bell’s story was strategically selected to accompany the large report. My supervisor explained the communications strategy behind this decision. During the weekly communications meetings, the researchers get interviewed by the team to understand their goals and media strategy. One of the questions that is always asked is how the research can be told through a story. Bell’s story of advocacy for restorative justice represents the power of storytelling in the perfect mixture of bringing in the personal lived experience, learned lessons and future dream building that Andy mentioned to us and that HRW is always on the hunt for. My time at the fellowship represents this moment. From hearing the concepts of public interest communications to seeing them live and in action at an organization as prestigious as the Human Rights Watch, I have seen how even at the highest levels, the stories of all of us are one of the biggest parts of the puzzle that ignite change.
While we learned about America’s 007 spy at the museum, I learned about the power of showcasing the stories of many through the voice of one to advocate for a better American criminal justice system.