Believe in the Power of Literature

SPREADING THE WORD: The nonprofit organization People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos participated in the Festival Cultural Latino on Hinds Plaza, where passers-by had an opportunity to create their own stories in English and Spanish. ‘I never knew I loved to read,’ one participant is quoted as saying on the photo display. ‘I never knew reading other people’s stories could help me realize who I was.’
(Photo by Virginia Kerr)

People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos is a non-profit literacy outreach organization that believes in the power of literature.

For almost 40 years the organization has been harnessing that power to help those in need find their way by providing reading and discussion programs to small groups of people, including the incarcerated, at-risk youths, senior citizens and veterans transitioning back to civilian life. It is their belief that introducing these audiences to literature and opening them up to discussion will help participants “find fresh understandings of themselves, of others, and of the world.”

It is that belief that drives the organization’s nearly 40 trained facilitators to bring selected stories to share with these small groups at libraries, community centers, prisons and homeless shelters. During eight-week long sessions that run throughout the year trained facilitators visitant read with the same group of people. “The conversation just takes off, it’s magical,” observed Board President Ellen Gilbert who is also a P&S Coordinator. “The people find common ground and share. It’s an empowering experience.’

A highlight of this past year was their participation in Princeton University’s “Being Human: A Festival of the Humanities,” a three-month long humanities festival that included more than 20 workshops, lectures and activitie, that took place in and around the university. For their contribution, People & Stories offered a four-part program at the Lawrence Community Center called “Identity and Difference,” providing a prime example of their methodology: reading short stories aloud followed by a group discussion about the literature and how it relates to the lives of the group’s members. “We have collaborated with Princeton before on similar projects,” says Gilbert. “This one was a particular success.” Pace Center for Civic Engagement Program Coordinator Kira E. O’Brien agrees, saying that she looks forward to “continuing this partnership.”

Other highlights of this past year for People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos included an enthusiastically received annual event featuring McCarter Theatre Director Emily Mann and playwright Ken Ludwig; participation in both Communiversity and the Princeton Latino Festival, and an engaging “Giving Tuesday” event jointly sponsored with The Blue Bears Restaurant in the Princeton Shopping Center

As they look ahead to 2020 and beyond, the organization plans to continue offering the programs they are known for, while exploring new ways to grow. They hope to replicate their success in the Santa Cruz prison, where prison inmates receive “milestone” awards for completing the program, in other programs across the country. In 2016 P&S received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to train on site coordinators to bring the program to the Rountree Medium Facility in Santa Cruz, California. The program has since achieved “Milestone” status, meaning that prisoners who complete the entire 12-session program receive Milestone Completion Credits, given for completing a program that would help them find employment when they are released.

“We will also explore the potential for encouraging adults to read with adult children,” said Gilbert. “There is evidence that reading to children at a young age has a profound effect on learning.”

For more information on People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos, visit www.peopleandstories.org.

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