Something happens when adolescence hits: kids stop talking about themselves, says filmmaker Rick Stevenson.
“I think what happens to kids, even if they’re from a happy family, is they’re too young to talk to each other and too old to talk to their parents,” he said.
Stevenson would know. He has spent the past decade interviewing hundreds of children each year, asking them some of the broadest and most basic questions, like: When’s the last time you cried? And what’s the most important thing in your life? These questions, he says, help kids open up at a time when they need it most.
“The gauntlet of adolescence, the fact that we all go into this period of exploding hormones, familial issues, peer pressure … it’s a dangerous place, and some of us don’t survive it,” said Stevenson. “You can’t save them from what they might face, but you can help them.”
The key, in the words of Socrates, is to know thyself, says Stevenson. He is the founder of the School of Life Project, which aims to empower children through their own personal stories. The Seattle-based project currently involves 250 students in 10 countries, but Stevenson hopes to grow that number to 10,000 students representing all seven continents by the end of the year.
How the project works
The School of Life Project involves a child sitting alone in front of a video journal kiosk, which resembles a computer screen framed with lights. The child scans a card for identification, then answers about two dozen automated age-specific questions as a video camera on the kiosk records the session.
The child repeats this process once a year until he or she turns 18. No one else, not even the child, sees the footage unless there are extenuating circumstances. Then, once the child turns 18, he or she gets all the footage and the sole rights to the video—to share or not to share as he or she sees fit.
The goal isn’t so much about the end product, though a time capsule of one’s adolescence is a nice memento, says Stevenson. Rather, the value is in the process of telling one’s story, identifying one’s passions and troubles, and using the lessons learned to make thoughtful decisions.
‘All the key questions in life’
The project began in 2000 when Stevenson began interviewing his own children every year for a documentary, asking “who you love, what your dreams are—all the key questions in life that, for some reason or another, we never ask,” he said.
He soon began interviewing other children around him—nieces and nephews, kids in the neighborhood, then 60 students in the Shoreline School District. Some talked about fights on the playground, others shared dark secrets about abuse.
As he listened to “one heartbreaking story after another,” Stevenson noticed a surprising trend: the mere act of telling their stories was changing these kids.
“I thought, ‘Aha! By sharing our stories, we can take the things inside us that are hurting us or holding us back, and release it,’” he said. “Some of these stories are so personal, you know, about drug abuse, sexual abuse, and family issues, but kids get so empowered by sharing that.”
Stevenson soon saw that these small breakthroughs were adding up to a larger transformation. The kids, he said, were “becoming the authors of their lives instead of the victims.”
“The teachers started to say to us, ‘Hey, the kids involved in your project are becoming more confident and self-aware,” he said.
Luke, a longtime participant of the project, says he saw the change within himself.
“When you see yourself grow up, you kind of hold yourself accountable on, you know, who I expected to be, who I want to be, and who I’m becoming,” he said.
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Learning empathy by sharing stories
Stevenson learned another lesson while putting together the Listen Series, which features the stories of 13 participants the filmmaker himself interviewed.
When Stevenson and his project partner, Ned Hosford, gathered the baker’s dozen to watch each other’s interviews, they saw that the students found the shared experience just as empowering as their own storytelling.
“It was amazing how much these people connected,” said Hosford.
The kids realized that no matter how difficult their problems, two things hold true: they are not alone, and they are not all that different.
“At the end, a girl looked at the other girl and said, ‘You and I are so alike.’ And that just gives me tingles to think about, because you’d never place them together,” said Hosford.
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A project for all
Stevenson and Hosford are working to make the project available to school, libraries, and youth centers in the Seattle area and across the world. They are currently in talks with the Issaquah School District, King’s Schools, and Rainier Scholars. And team members have begun setting up kiosks in Mexico, Canada, and Cambodia.
With the help of the Seattle Foundation, local philanthropists, and their own Kickstarter campaign, the partners are looking for ways to offer financial assistance to schools that can’t afford the program. An annual fee of $5,000 would pay for a kiosk, participation by 250 students, data storage, an informational website for parents, and access to the Listen Series.
“We believe that every child in the world should be able to tell their story regardless of their economic status,” Hosford said.
The partners hope to one day make the project available to any child in the world who’d like to participate. They believe the power of storytelling can help change the course of a child’s life.
“How do you measure how well you are developing as citizens? How can you measure how well you’re teaching empathy or grit, or any of these immeasurable social and emotional qualities?” Stevenson said.
“They grow up, and they are the leaders moving forward,” Hosford said. “If they have empathy for humankind, the world would be a better place.”