Community Matters

The Power of Sharing Stories

LaTida Smith
March 17, 2022

In college I had the opportunity to study Black women’s autobiographies. Much to my parents’ dismay and fear that I would forever live under their roof, I pursued what I loved. I’ve always loved reading, particularly the works of Black women where I saw my experiences magnified.

But autobiographies were something altogether different. The premise of an autobiography is the idea that I can write myself and my experience into the cannon of literature. This kind of storytelling can break open powerful questions, such as:

Who gets to speak? Whose stories matter? and Whose stories contain wisdom that’s universal?  

To some degree those questions seem dated now—when social media allows all of us opportunities to chronicle the significant and mundane aspects of our lives for the entire world, daily. But consider Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl or Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. What radical defiance did it take for those women to chronicle their experiences as an enslaved woman in the nineteenth century or a Black lesbian poet and activist in the twentieth century and offer those stories to the world?

After college I continued my studies in graduate school thinking I might make a living as a college professor. Somewhere along the way I realized teaching wasn’t for me and concluded my studies and began working. I had no idea what someone with degrees in English and Women’s Studies did in the outside world.

I gravitated toward work that interested me and over time I learned what those years of studying autobiographies had really taught me:

I’d learned to listen. I’d learned to be curious. I’d learned how to zoom in to see with specificity the uniqueness of an individual story and zoom out to curate themes across multiple authors and texts. I’d learned the power of narratives to define who we are, how we understand the world, and what we believe is possible.  

These lessons are the motivating principles that guide my work today:

Listening to a donor who established a student aid fund to support aspiring engineers in honor of his father who dropped out of school after the eighth grade to work in a factory and provide for his family, reminded me of my own brilliant grandfather and the opportunities he sacrificed.

Hearing our Latinx neighbors describe through translators their experiences during the Weaver fire, reminded me of the lead poison prevention work we supported in Cleveland and the reality it’s no accident who is at risk, who is least equipped to respond in an emergency or whose recovery takes the longest.  

Listening to a nonprofit leader describe how her organization has fallen short in the past and her resolve nonetheless to rebuild trust in her neighborhood brick-by-brick, reminded me of my own successes and missteps in Northeast Pennsylvania and the truth that this work always moves at the speed of trust.

It’s a great privilege and responsibility to bear witness to these stories—to amplify them and activate the Foundation’s resources and influence to strengthen Forsyth County.

For 102 years this community has trusted us with its resources and partnered with us to direct support to our most pressing current challenges while ensuring we’ll have the resources to address future needs we’re not even yet aware of. You have shared your stories about what matters to you and why, your hopes for your families and our community, and what we must do to prosper together.

There’s a lot I still have to learn about Winston-Salem. As much as I see myself and the communities I’ve served in the stories I’ve heard here, I know that specificity matters. There’s so much more I need to hear and understand. I’m compelled to do all I can to ensure our work is relevant, meaningful, and maximizes our opportunities to catalyze change.  

So, I’ll keep listening and learning. Thank you for sharing your stories with me. I promise to take them all to heart.

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