I’m 21-years-old, an (almost) senior in college, and like many 20-year-olds there is one question that I get asked constantly. That is, what do I want to do with my life?
So, to all the adults in my life that are eager to know my answer, here it is.
My last name is Justus but is pronounced “just-ice” and the irony embedded in that is no coincidence. I was raised in a world (or bubble as some might say) that embodies everything that is social justice. My parents mirrored the image of being “active citizens” as they have dedicated their lives to the world of helping others. My dad develops affordable housing while my mom works to ensure that local government programs embody equity.
Our dinner table conversations consisted of topics like how to fix the housing crisis in our city and the differences between equality and equity. Since I was 10-years-old, I volunteered at a homeless outreach center. I spent weekends at fundraising events. My whole childhood was based on the idea that my purpose in life was to do good for the world. That and whatever I choose to pursue has to benefit society. It has to benefit the marginalized. It has to benefit those with less privilege than I have.
Now at the young age of twenty-one-old, I am asked the question, how will I live a life of purpose? My answer? Storytelling.
I have traveled (not nearly enough), I have talked to vulnerable communities across the world (3 countries) and I have asked them how I, a white privileged college student, can assist them. Their answers? All three different communities, on three different continents, wanted me to tell their stories. They didn’t want my money (because I didn’t have much), they didn’t want me to paint their houses (they can do that), they didn’t want me to build them houses (they can do that) and they didn’t want me to teach their children (they can do that). They wanted me to tell their stories because I have a voice that is louder (figuratively) than theirs, and I am American and I have access to an audience that is listening.
Telling their stories is something I can do and is something that they want and need. Without their stories being told their issue(s) are not a part of the narrative and they cannot move forward.
Mozambique: When I was 16-years-old, I traveled to Mozambique. I went into a rural village on the coast four hours outside of the capital. The community that we were learning from were living on land that the Chinese government had recently purchased. They didn’t own the land and they couldn’t afford to buy the land. They lived in houses made up of a combination of plastic and concrete. Most of the men in the village had left to find work in the capital. Every person I saw over the age of 15-years-old was a woman. They were cooking, cleaning, building their homes and caring for their children. They were poor. They were on land that could be taken away at any second. They were scared. They didn’t have access to proper education, clean water, or a sustainable way to make money. What did they want from me? To tell their story.
Northern India: Two summers ago I traveled to northern India where I stayed in two different homestays in two different regions. I was there to study the social health of Tibetan refugees. The first place I stayed, Dharamsala, was a city on the base of the Himalayan Mountains ranges where refugees fled from Tibet during the Chinese occupation. They escaped their homeland, leaving loved ones and looking for refuge. They work every day to maintain their Tibetan culture, govern their country in exile and work to function in a society that is not theirs. Jobs are difficult to get. The language is difficult to learn. Sexual violence is an ongoing problem. Proper health care and education are ongoing problems. Many Tibetans end up staying in India because it is one of the only countries near China that didn’t make Tibetans give up their citizenship when they moved.
When I asked how I could assist them? I thought they would want me to write letters to my Congressmen asking the United States to pressure the Chinese government to give Tibet independence. No. They wanted me to tell their story. They wanted me to make sure that Tibet would never be forgotten.
(Photo credit to Lindsay Miazland)
Guatemala: Last year I led a program to Guatemala for spring break. I led a group of ten other students to study indigenous land rights post the civil war. We went into rural Guatemala to the mountainside town of Rio Negro, the home of the Rio Negro massacre where the Guatemalan military killed over 80 women and children leaving the village barren. We talked with one of the only survivors, Don Sebastian, and he told the story of how hydro-electric development projects flooded his town ruining most of their agriculture.
He also told us the stories of watching his dad disappear and hearing the cries of his mother and siblings while they were victims of the Rio Negro massacre. He told us how he escaped into the mountain ranges for over two years. He told us how he was tortured. He told us how returned to a town that was empty and forgotten.
The town of Rio Negro is now slowly recovering but reparations have yet to be paid. The one school house is overcrowded and underfunded.
Don Sebastian’s ask to us? It wasn’t money to rebuild the school. It was to tell his story. To tell the story of Rio Negro.
These experiences and these untold stories are why I want to pursue a life of storytelling. Stories are the fundamental platform for social change. Without a story, a movement stands still.
Without a story, no one will care. Without a story, the issue is not credible. Especially in our digital world where perception is the reality, if there is no story, there is no problem.
To promote social justice for the vulnerable, the stories of the vulnerable must become a part of the narrative, and they must be told.
So my answer to what I want to do with my life?
I want to be a storyteller.