A Message From Our Director

Teaching Tolerance director Maureen Costello reminds us that storytelling can conquer fears.

Maureen Costello
Maureen Costello

For quite some time, Teaching Tolerance has subscribed to Emily Style’s view that students need texts that are both “mirrors”—works in which they see themselves reflected—and “windows”—opportunities to look into the lives of others. Students who encounter a diverse mix of stories that are real and told from experience can learn to turn mirrors into windows and windows into mirrors.

In other words, stories reflect the essence of human experience in all its variety. 

About a year ago, I had the honor of sitting across from Representative John Lewis in a St. Louis hotel and hearing him tell his story. It was one I’d known, of course, from history books and from having read his newly released graphic novel, March: Book I.  But listening to him describe his first nonviolent sit-in at a lunch counter, followed by his first arrest, added layers to my understanding. (You can see the interview online at

Soon after, the story of a costume player taking on the role of Sikh Captain America came to our attention. The costume and the cartoon based on this character was a way Sikh American Vishavjit Singh could talk about his own experiences with intolerance and explain how the world looks through the eyes of someone many Americans consider to be an outsider. 

Since Teaching Tolerance has been focusing on literacy—it’s the basis of our new curriculum, Perspectives for a Diverse America—we decided to explore how using texts like graphic novels, cartoons and comics in the classroom can do more than provide high-interest material to struggling readers. This practice can also promote social justice by providing counter-narratives to traditional stories and privileging the voices of protagonists who are rarely depicted as heroes.

Starting with John Lewis and Vishavjit Singh, this issue began to take shape as a collection of features focused on the benefits of storytelling. Virtually every article shows how reading, hearing and telling stories can increase understanding, spark empathy, reduce the stress of oppression and kindle a passion for justice.

"Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart bigger."

Ben Okri

I’m proud of every issue of Teaching Tolerance—but this one seems, to me, to embody the essence of TT more than most. Storytelling is the closest thing to walking in another’s shoes if you want to see the world from someone else’s point of view. And that is, after all, what we at Teaching Tolerance encourage every day. 

Today, fostering tolerance and understanding feels especially critical. I am writing this on Dec. 21, just hours after two police officers were killed in New York City, executed by a horribly misguided individual who thought he was avenging the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and others. Already, my social media feeds are freshly abuzz with recriminations, finger-pointing and hate. 

Too much of what is being said amounts to fabricated narratives that demonize young men of color, the police, demonstrators and even our president. We desperately need to move beyond this fearful, inauthentic storytelling and work together to see how we all operate within social systems that still, unfortunately, reflect the legacy of racism.

Storytelling is the closest thing to walking in another’s shoes if you want to see the world from someone else’s point of view.

If we are to confront and heal the wounds that divide us as a society, we must be willing to listen to stories that are not like our own, and truly hear and believe them. We must do it for all students, regardless of color, income bracket, national origin, religion, language proficiency, ability, LGBT status or place on the gender spectrum. We must do it for our students whose parents’ work in law enforcement and for our students whose parents might be behind bars. We must learn and teach them to ask each other, “What is it like to be you?”   

Howard Stevenson says that our fears “are rooted in how little we know about families and individuals who are different from us.” Educators can begin to erase these fears by helping the children of this incredibly diverse generation speak their truths while also acknowledging the truths of others. 

Maureen Costello

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