Vicky Solot is a teacher, writer and artist. She is the founder and director of the yearly citywide First Person Arts Festival.
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I love hearing people’s stories. This has been true since I was a child. My dad was always ready with a story and I was always ready to listen. “Did I ever tell you about the time …?” he’d begin – then launch into a tale about some childhood caper – usually involving him and his twin brother. I adored picturing these two, by then respectable men in fedoras and topcoats, as a duo in short pants who hung pet snakes from the clothes line and exploded chemicals in their basement. Their stories tapped into my longing for the companionship and independence they had, as twin boys growing up in a safer time. But, I was also deeply curious about people’s lives, starting with my own parents, whose stories helped me understand what shaped them before they were my mom and dad.
In my twenties, I accepted a job teaching high school English in a rough neighborhood in Chicago. The first week I asked my students to write something about their lives. One girl wrote about narrowly escaping from her stepfather, who threatened her with a gun. A track star told how he was repeatedly stopped and frisked by the police, who suspected that a black boy running meant he was running from trouble. These students opened my eyes to their reality – a world I wouldn’t have known were it not for their stories. More importantly, the exercise showed them that their lives mattered to me and that was a first step toward establishing trust.
Over the years, I became a voracious memoir reader. I frequented exhibits by legendary documentary photographers like Robert Frank and Dorthea Lange. I was entranced by the alchemy created by performers like Anna Deveare Smith who captured the drama of real life on stage.
I wanted to spread my enthusiasm for this unique brand of art by providing a venue to present it. I also wanted to give everyday people from diverse backgrounds a chance to be heard and connect by sharing their stories. And so First Person Arts was born – as a way to celebrate and elevate storytelling about real life. Real life with all its hilarity and blemishes and the many surprising lessons it teaches us.
I believe this attracts people because the sharing of personal stories is a bonding experience. One person offers something personal. The other receives it. An intimacy is exchanged. When this occurs among people from dissimilar backgrounds the ground shifts a little.
I’m not saying it’s life-altering or world-changing, but I do believe it gives people a chance to see one another differently. And that, I believe, is how we start mending the world.