The Power of Stories

September 27, 2022

In his first-year seminar, Braxton Martorano (Butler University 2023) discovered the power of everyday stories and how stories change perspectives. Martorano, who is from Michigan City on the south shore of Lake Michigan in Indiana began thinking about his life experiences and how to build on this concept.

“Michigan City is a racially diverse place, so I grew up around a lot of diversity,” Martorano said. “For high school, I moved to Chesterton, Indiana, only 15 minutes away from Michigan City, but there it’s a 90 percent white population.”

Martorano recognized how many of his friends had different perspectives on race and he didn’t see things the same way. When he asked his professor, Dr. Tom Mould, how he could change his friends' perspectives using stories, the professor suggested an undergraduate research project in anthropology — outside the scope of Martorano’s economics major.

Over the next summer, a friend shared a project done by an artist in Chicago who interviewed residents based on their address. Since Chicago is built on a grid system the street numbers on the north side have the same address as those on the south side. The study compared residents from the north and south sides who shared the same address.

“She asked them the same questions,” Martorano said. “Such as, ‘If you were to get something new in your neighborhood, what would you like it to be? On the north side, it’s more affluent and much less diverse because Chicago is super segregated. They said they’d like another coffee shop … and on the south side [they said] ‘We want to see a grocery store — something affordable,” Martorano said. “For part of the project, if both people with the same address agreed, they would meet and share each other’s stories. It was super impactful on changing people’s perspectives, and it was crazy that I stumbled across that research project.”

Newly inspired, Martorano emailed his professor and committed to pursuing his research project. In fall 2020 he began reviewing literature and studying diversity work already being done on his own campus and others and the racial climate in general in the United States and on campus. He then reached out to student organizations on campus doing diversity, equity and inclusion work to learn whether anything like this had been explored. In the spring of 2020 the team expanded to include Cameron Ellison and Emily Fales in the groundwork of the project.

In spring 2021, Martorano, Ellison and Fales began student conversations. “The research goal is to share student stories—to change perspective. We had to gather those stories,” Martorano said. “Using conversational questions to guide people in sharing their college experience, we tried to interview the same number of white students and students from underrepresented backgrounds so we could see how the Butler student experience was different based on race or ethnicity.”

In the spring of 2022, he began putting on student workshops as applied research. “We start by giving a little background of how we started this work, and then we begin. We’ve also recorded video of some student stories. We’ll share one of the videos, and then open the discussion. Students will discuss in a small group and then we open to a larger group,” Martorano said. “The goal is for people to see the types of student experiences that are happening at Butler. Some of them are trauma stories or stories of micro and macroaggressions from students of color. Other stories are breakthroughs in how people think about race and how that shaped their college experience.”

Sharing stories and opening discussions has allowed students to connect and find unexpected commonalities. Martorano and his team captured 17 students’ stories throughout the spring semester.

In addition to capturing stories over time, one goal is to share the workshop in orientation settings, so Butler students understand the campus climate early. “The end goal of the workshop is to encourage hope — to invite people to create a more inclusive campus environment,” Martorano said.

Through this project, Martorano learned about a piece of his identity that he had never really explored. “That is an underrated part of my whole experience. I’m 50 percent white and my mom’s side of my family is Cuban. I grew up in a primarily white culture – my heritage was a little more distant. I was stepping into the spaces of students with very diverse backgrounds who were accustomed to expressing – I’ve heard students say, expressing their blackness or their heritage as a Latinx community member. Then, they come to Butler and the culture is predominantly white [and that] affects their college experience. I reached out to student organizations and people involved in this work encouraged me to embrace the ethnic side of my identity as well,” Martorano said. “It’s been cool to learn more of that side of who I am, and it’s encouraged some really cool conversations with my family as well.”

Martorano has seen changes in Butler's climate since he arrived on campus, and he now serves as the diversity, equity and inclusion chairman for Beta Zeta Chapter. “The support from the fraternity has been awesome. Some of my brothers have participated in the project and shared their own stories — it’s the people’s stories that make the project because they’re willing to be open and vulnerable,” Martorano said. “The research shows any type of diversity work should be frequent and informal and regularly occurring.”

Beta Zeta Chapter now does culture talks where a member takes a few minutes to share his background. “Everybody talks about their heritage, or their interest or what they do back home and a big part of it is that everybody represents diversity in some way because we all come from different places,” Martorano said. “It’s been really cool to hear from our brothers, where they come from or their family background. We’re learning a lot about each other that we didn’t initially know. We’re also learning we have much more diversity in our house than we may have thought. At first, it was hard to find people, but now people are excited to share their stories. I know part of the problem with diversity, equity and inclusion work is white students feel like they can’t take part, or they’re being made out to be the enemy, which is just not true. It’s a sad misperception, but I see those barriers being broken down in our chapter.”