Life with Gracie: What if, when we see a prostitute, we see a human being instead?

Omari Hargrove is a 17-year-old rising senior at the Carver School of Arts. One day, he told me, he’d like to be a filmmaker or cartoonist or music producer. Like others his age, he’s not yet sure which.

Perhaps all three, he said.

One day, he said, he didn’t much feel like going to see his adviser, but on his way there, he happened upon a class where Dan Enger was speaking to fellow classmates.

Right away, Omari noticed something different. The students were hanging on Enger’s every word.

Why?

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Because Enger understands, perhaps better than most, the power of storytelling, the simple magic of opening hearts to the details of our lives so that we’re seen with a different set of eyes. Instead of discrimination, inclusion and acceptance. Instead of indifference, warmth and compassion.

When Omari asked what was going on, someone told him he needed to be there, and with that he took a seat at the table that is Global Dialogues, an idea breathed life into nearly two decades ago to encourage people to tell their stories, the rote details where solutions to what ills us live.

This is the Global Dialogues story.

It began in 1996, when Enger and his wife Kate, facilitators with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, France, became concerned with the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa and decided to take a year off to meet with people living with the deadly disease to try to understand the challenges to creating effective HIV-prevention programs.

At that time in west Africa, there was a serious dearth of films that reflected local realities of the epidemic. Films, Enger believed, were a good way to raise awareness, change people’s habits and thus save lives.

He had seen this happen in France, where screenplays and films about prevention by school children transformed the HIV landscape. The program was called “3000 Scenarios contre un virus,” or “3,000 Scenarios Against a Virus,” and it occurred to Enger that perhaps it could have the same impact on youths in sub-Saharan Africa.

“The films sparked lively discussions among the teenagers about their own lives and allowed youth to take the lead in educating their peers and the public about prevention and the epidemic’s impact in their communities,” he said.

And so over the next 18 years, Global Dialogues expanded its reach and subject matter to fully address the issues that make the bed for HIV from commercial sex work, to substance abuse and perhaps, most important, rape.

To make Global Dialogues even more useful, Enger and his colleagues decided to use the power of stories and storytelling to connect with people’s hearts and minds and cultivate in them empathy and compassion on a variety of issues.

“There are no clear answers for doing that, but what we need is advice from a lot of different people who can help us see paths to answers,” Enger said. “Omari is one of them.”

For the past two months, Enger and his colleagues, including Chandra Gallashaw of Atlanta’s Pittsburgh community, have been busy harvesting the struggles of students like Omari.

“What we have come to realize is that these kids and their families face a lot of challenges linked to violence, linked to poverty and health challenges,” he said.

One of Omari’s concerns is bullying, the subject of his screenplay about a boy who perseveres and, when he realizes the bully was bullied, is able to empathize and comes out on the other side whole.

He hopes his story will cause people to think about how they perceive and treat one another and change.

That in a nutshell has been the primary focus of Global Dialogues: to use the power of stories and storytelling to cultivate empathetic responses in people’s hearts and minds.

Enger and the Global Dialogues team partner with Emory, socially responsible schools such as Carver, and community-based organizations to bring these stories into the public arena and then formulate and prioritize responses to the issues they uncover.

With computers, you set your defaults. What if our personal default reaction to people in violent situations were empathy? What if, when we see a young sex worker in our neighborhood, we see a human being — somebody’s daughter — and try to understand what brought her there, to take the time to listen to her story?”

I’ve asked myself that question a million times. Imagine what could happen if we all did and simply listened. Not with our heads but with hearts filled with compassion.

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