Study Skills: Michael Lee, Ed.M.
Own your story. Michael Lee feels strongly about this. That's why he has no problem talking about his troubled past, which includes addiction and a best friend murdered when he was barely a teen. It's why he's been able to connect so well with the young people he works with at a homeless shelter in Minneapolis. And it's partly why Lee, a poet and performer, is here in the Arts in Education Program, 1,300 miles from home: to figure out ways to help other young people create safe spaces to share their art and tell their stories.
He says that when we tell someone's story for him or her, "we strip them of one of the most human qualities — the ability to declare that this is who I am, where I come from, where I am now, where I want to go, and how I want to get there." Storytelling is a way to reshape our paths, he says.
But "when service providers or policymakers tell stories of young people as a means of raising funds or passing legislation," the young people "become reduced to the ways in which they are perceived."
When he started working at the homeless shelter, young people would ask him to tell his story, to talk about his past. "I had been in recovery for two years. I had been arrested. I had been kicked out of my house," he says, "but there's a delicate balance. They would say, 'We tell you so much about us, so tell us about you.' But I told them I don't have all of the answers. I also have to ask myself, who is this for? Am I sharing this for me, or is it for the youth? If I think it will help, I'll disclose it for sure."
He stresses that, in some ways, he was lucky. "I'm not exceptional. I made a lot of bad choices. But I had a great support network," including teachers who encouraged him when he turned to writing after his friend was killed, and parents who paid for a local writing class.
Writer and activist Audre Lorde, he says, best describes his argument that other young people should have that same access as they try to tell their stories: "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive," and "You cannot, you cannot use someone else's fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it."
Now back in school, Lee says he has time to think, to process what's going on around him, and not just focus on the day-to-day. The downside, however, is that he really misses the young people he spent so much time with. "I have youth writing me. I have their pictures all over the walls of my apartment here. It was really hard to leave," he says. "That's family."