Birmingham native, Jasmyn Elise Story is an International Restorative Justice Facilitator and Founder of The People's Coalition. She is an alumna of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and a dedicated human rights activist. #WithWoodfin is a series of perspectives from daughters and sons of Birmingham.
The city of Birmingham, Alabama, served as both my home and my classroom. During middle school in this city, I spent summers working in the gift shop of my uncle’s art gallery. There, my uncle added a museum that he built and dedicated to preserving the memory of his daughter and my cousin, Denise McNair.
Denise was the youngest of the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham on September 15, 1963 during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. During the summers, hundreds of people from around the world would visit Denise’s memorial. From the gift shop, I listened to my Uncle Chris relive that tragic day over and over again. I watched the visitors in rapt attention while attempting to understand the devastating impacts that cruel, senseless act of violence had on the man speaking to them.
At the time, I couldn’t comprehend how my uncle and aunt could allow such a dark day to live on forever in that gallery. As I matured, I started to understand that their action was a selfless gesture, that they were using their story as a platform not only to preserve the actions of the past, but also as a call for an end to current violent conflicts. From my seat in the gift shop, I knew why it was important to give of one’s self with the intention of changing someone else’s future. After acquiring this sort of education, I no longer saw the world as a static fact. Instead, it was something waiting to be altered. The time spent in that gift shop never left my heart, and during my junior year of college, the lessons I learned traveled with me to the city of Cape Town, South Africa. In this city, the year and events of 1963 rang loudly; it is a symbolic year in the history of the struggle against Apartheid. In both the Cape Town museums and on the streets of the city, I encountered individuals who willingly shared stories of their suffering and their triumphs. I listened as they relived years of personal history. Unlike when I was younger, I understood why they were sharing these personal narratives with me. “Nobuhle, you must write this down, so somebody has my story, so you don’t forget what happened here,” my home-stay mother said to me one day after dinner. I did as she asked because I fully understood the power the stories of the past have on the decisions of the future.
After leaving my host mother, I spent a month working on my own Institutional Review Board approved research. I wanted to start a dialogue about the residual presence of Apartheid on the youth born after the end of Apartheid. I interviewed and filmed four self-identifying Coloured women born in 1994. I wanted to discuss Apartheid while being sensitive to the subject. Instead of discussing Apartheid directly, we discussed identity and dating. Through this paradigm, I was able to capture stories of identity formation in school and in the home. The young women shared that despite being at a top University, their skin color served as a reminder that they were seen as less than to those around them. The most significant moment in this process was witnessing their mothers’ faces as they watched their daughters share their story on screen. One subject’s mother approached me, her eyes swollen, she told me that it meant so much to her that somebody cared enough to share her daughter’s story.
At this moment, the lessons of Birmingham merged with my present. My understanding of my own purpose was clearer than ever. I now know that listening to the stories of others is such an underrated form of respect and validation. As part of my life journey, I want to preserve the heritage while working towards ensuring that the past of those around me doesn’t become someone else’s future. I am going to change the way people see people, by promoting understanding while pushing for change. I learned several lessons in my Birmingham classroom. The most lasting one has been how powerful and impactful stories are. I will use stories to make our world a better place.
My dedication to using these stories to mend harm and repair communities falls directly in alignment with The Woodfin Plan. As I combed through Randall Woodfin's beautiful holistic plan for the city that I love, I was enamored by his dedication to uplift all of Birmingham, not just select areas.
We as children of Birmingham must stand next to those dedicated to our citizens; we must stand and support the man who walked our neighborhoods and listened to our stories. I support the man who listened to our mothers, fathers, and aunts. Randall Woodfin is sure to usher in a new wave of change in Birmingham. Most importantly, this change, for the people, will be completely informed by the people.
Jasmyn Elise Story
International Restorative Justice Facilitator
Founder, The People's Coalition
Jasmyn Elise Story is an international Restorative Justice Facilitator and founder of The People's Coalition. She is an alumna of the Alabama School of Fine Arts, and a dedicated human rights activist with 8+ years of experience working in the voluntary sector. Formally the Director of Restorative Justice Programming at the JAGS Foundation, Jasmyn completed her MA in Human Rights at the University College of London. She received her BA in Anthropology from Skidmore College. Currently her main focus is on community mobilization and the integration of restorative practices into learning institutions.