Most Americans are aware of the feelings of powerlessness that pervade the white working class in America. Well documented, also, are the policy proposals and community outreach initiatives being considered to correct the problems working-class America is facing.
In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance opened up for discussion a third prong to these restoration efforts: personal agency and what working-class individuals can do for themselves to restore their lives and communities. Vance, who credits his grandmother’s persistence in urging him to never believe “the deck is stacked against you,” explains:
“There is something powerful about realizing that you’ve undersold yourself—that somehow your mind confused lack of effort for inability. This is why whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter.’”
Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck refers to this as cultivating a growth mindset. “In this mindset,” she explains, “the hand you’re dealt is just the starting point for development…based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts.”
For the past two years, my colleagues and I at the I Believe in Love (iBiL) project have found storytelling to be one way to unleash this personal agency or growth mindset in the lives of working-class young adults, particularly as it relates to their personal and romantic relationships.
“Our interpretations are rooted in the narratives we construct about ourselves and the social world,” writes Timothy Wilson, a University of Virginia psychologist, in his book, Redirect, “and sometimes…we interpret things in unhealthy ways that have negative consequences. We could solve a lot of problems if we could get people to redirect their interpretations in healthier directions.”
We stumbled onto Wilson’s work after we had begun working with working-class writers at iBiL. His conclusions affirm our experiences of how sharing stories can become that springboard of redirection and personal empowerment for so many young adults in the working-class community. Namely, we discovered that inviting working-class young adults to write and publish their stories can help individuals redirect their lives and the lives of those in their communities in three powerful ways.
Storytelling Provides an Opportunity for Individual Reflection and Change
One of our long-standing writers came to her editor with a predicament. This young single mother has two children from two different fathers and was desperate to get out of subsidized housing. She had recently started dating someone, who at the time she thought possessed a lot of what she was looking for in a man. But when he started asking her, very early in the relationship, to move in with him, she found herself feeling unsure.
She’d cohabited before, but through writing for iBiL reached the conclusion that her tendency to have sex early in relationships has hurt her in a deeply psychological and spiritual way. She wanted to really get to know a person before making such a commitment.
Our editor suggested she write a blog post about her thoughts. Our writer began the post with a key question: “Am I moving too fast?” As she described her past dating relationships and why they fell apart, she recognized a pattern of moving into the physical realm together too quickly, and then years spent in a relationship that she knew in her heart wasn’t quite right.
She concluded that yes, to move in at this juncture would be too soon. And not too long after that, she realized that guy wasn’t the man she was looking for in her future. To be sure, our program principles state that iBiL is unequivocally against cohabitation (which our writer knew) and that we try not to feed the “soul mate mentality” of love.
Instead of giving instruction, our goal is to equip our writers and editors with information, then give them space and the permission to listen to that inner voice we all have and decide for themselves whether a particular decision or behavior is good or bad. Shortly after she confided in us about her situation, this writer told us she was grateful we encouraged her to reflect on her own about her decision because everyone else in her life—her mother, her aunts, her friends—told her to just settle for “a man who wanted to take care of her.”
There is a significant lack of healthy relationship models in the communities of many of our writers. These young adults know that the dysfunctional cycle of relationships on which they were raised needs to change for themselves and their children. Yet they feel utterly lost about where to turn for support and how to make a change. The writing process has given them the space to pause and consider how past patterns impacted their relationships, and how current and future choices can be fresh steps toward their ultimate goals. This process unleashes that personal agency J.D. Vance discusses.
Storytelling Allows Individuals to be of Service to Others
The false narrative of powerlessness within the working class has created negative stereotypes about working-class individuals. These stereotypes about drugs, laziness, and crassness—to name a few—cut deeply at their feelings of worth and ability, especially because the life circumstances of many were out of their control. Their reactions—though not always correct—are understandable in light of the immense pressure they face in their lives and their culture.
In Redirect, Wilson talks about the “do good, be good” approach as a way of helping vulnerable populations. “[P]eople’s behavior shapes the personal narrative they develop,” Wilson explains. “If they act kindly toward others, they begin to see themselves as having kind dispositions, and the more they view themselves as kind, the more likely they are to help others—thereby strengthening the new narrative.”
Put another way: understanding our stories can help us to see how goodness can be found in each individual and how that goodness can flourish if given the space to do so.
For example, one young man wrote about how the love of his now wife, then girlfriend, helped him overcome meth addiction. Just the process of telling his story helped him to see that what he could easily have continued to process as a failure instead could be turned into a lesson of courage and strength for others.
A reader of his post commented:
“All I can say is ‘Thank you for sharing your story.’ I can’t tell you how much this has helped me with the situation I am dealing with right now. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a similar story to help someone else.”
For our writer, that comment was an affirmation that his struggle had been used for good—to give hope to another person. This helped encourage him to desire to continue to do good with his life.
Writers at iBiL have found that the process of telling their stories has led them to be more intentional in all their relationships. They’ve begun to see how their behavior impacts the people around them and how their good choices can become a force for good—in their families, their communities, and the culture at large.
Storytelling Helps Individuals Remember They Are Not Alone
It’s a phrase we hear often at iBiL: “I’m so glad I’m not alone.” The lack of social capital—friendships and community support—has been well documented by researchers such as Charles Murray and Robert Putnam. This social isolation can be especially devastating when you’re facing hopelessness and despair related to life and love.
Take for example the string of comments left on a piece titled “A Message for Anyone Who is Tired of Waiting For Love” written by a young woman who married in her early thirties after watching her younger siblings and friends find companionship before her.
- “Thanks for sharing your experience. I’m a woman in my mid-twenties and I’m having one of those nights thinking what’s wrong with you."
- “Thank you so much, Laura. I am a 26-year-old guy from Brazil who was having one of those losing all hope days…It was a bad day and I needed to read your story. Thanks so much for sharing with the world what you have been through and inspiring us.”
This article is one of many with similar comments, posted either on Facebook or the article itself, and sentiments we hope to grow as we interact more with our writers, editors, and readers. Feelings and experiences on the path to lasting love and marriage, while personal in nature, have a universal element that can be shared. Just knowing they are not alone can keep individuals from “throwing in the towel” or giving in to the cards they’ve been dealt, and instead stay on the path of making choices that lead to a higher probability of achieving their goals.
According to J.D. Vance, “[t]here is no group of Americans more pessimistic than working class whites,” with only 44 percent of them believing their children will fare better economically than they have. And we know that pessimism isn’t likely to inspire personal agency.
Storytelling, on the other hand, is one way to help working-class young adults keep hope alive—helping them see how their stories are shaping their lives and teaching them to use their stories to improve their communities. Through sharing their own stories, they are doing their part to tell and live a better story of lasting love in America.
Meg T. McDonnell is executive director of the Chiaroscuro Institute.