Storytelling As Advocacy


I step out onto the stage, legs quaking and heart racing. I can’t decide if the bright spotlight that blinds me from the hundred of peering faces is to my advantage or disadvantage. I think back on the English tea and cookies I ate just two hours ago, and wonder what they would look like spattered across the floor of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. I conclude it probably wouldn’t be a pretty sight. I decide to stop thinking about my churning stomach, or the waves of nerves that permeate my every extremity, or the hundreds of people that will soon be hanging onto my every word. Instead, I take a deep breath, and simply begin speaking.
“She races out the door, ready for her first day of fifth grade.”

In February of 2018 I applied for an online public speaking contest through the United States English Speaking Union. The English Speaking Union is a United Nations NGO based in London that has satellite branches in 50 countries around the world. My speech on girls’ access to education did extremely well in the national competition and I was named the United States delegate to the international competition in London. The week-long event held in late May included extensive public speaking training, excursions to famous English monuments, and the chance to mingle with 52 other young people from 49 other countries. The competition also afforded me a platform to talk about topics I care about to an international audience. This was the platform I had been seeking for years.
My speech on the topic “The greatest way to predict the future is to invent it.” won me the national competition. However, because of the format of the tournament in London, there was no guarantee I would get to give that same speech. First, I had to go through two grueling, preliminary heats that included another prepared speech on a topic I cared much less about, and a terrifying impromptu round. The best speakers from these two heats would advance to the international grand final, a round that’s title sounded as intimating as it did British.

On the final day of the competition they announced those advancing in grandiose fashion. They gathered all the delegates representing their countries and any ESU officials that accompanied them in a tightly packed room. One by one countries were called.

“The Philippines… Hong Kong…. Lebanon….”

Until I heard, “Now switching continents and heading west… the United States of America!”

First, a wave of elation hit me. Then, complete paralysis struck. Then, I dissolved into a puddle of tears formed by the contrast of these emotions. I was excited to be representing my country on this stage, but furthermore I was excited to finally be able to speak about the topic that I was so passionate about.

There was a three hour period between the announcement and the final round. The finalists were ushered to a small room to practice and pace nervously. In my case, I did some deep contemplation. It seemed too simple to go up on stage and tell a room full of powerful people that something needed to change. Most of these globally aware attendees were already familiar with inequality. Telling them facts about girls’ education, probably wouldn’t be anything different than what they’ve already heard. What I needed to tell them was how they could change the status quo. On a whim, I decided to drastically change my message two hours before the biggest speech of my life.
In my speech I implored the audience to use whatever voice they had, whatever privilege they benefited from to uplift the voices of girls who don’t have access to education. I argued that storytelling was key to advocacy, and that lending our privileged voices to those who need it, is key to telling stories effectively. I believe that advocates simply need to create the structures from which those oppressed can uplift themselves. I found that through sharing this speech I could use my privilege for good.

This is not to say I don’t have some regrets about my speech. I wish I had emphasized that storytelling ought to come from those experiencing the oppression. I think I’ve learned since that it is not necessarily the role of the privileged to lend our voices to girls who need education. Rather, we should lend our ears. While I was lucky and grateful to be given the platform I had, I do wish girls in Malawi, Liberia, and India could be given the same stages, spotlights, and attention.

If you’d like to see the speech you can check it out on YouTube here:
Posted by Ali Cohen on Aug 27, 2018 1:26 AM EDT