People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos, a reading and discussion program offered in English or Spanish, creates unique access to literature. Adults and young adults, who have had limited opportunities to experience the power of literature, work in small groups led by a trained coordinator. Participants draw upon their own experiences to discuss complex short stories. As they examine the poetics, issues, and values the stories explore, people can discover ways to see things differently.
People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos works to create a more equitable society by inviting new audiences to experience our humanistic, literary heritage. Enduring literature has poetic, linguistic, and emotional forces with the potential to deeply touch and enrich the lives of readers. The power of a literary work begins only when an appreciative reader encounters it. Unfortunately, access to literature is linked to rigid social hierarchies, often drawn on the basis of class, race, and educational privilege. One of the goals of People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos is to cultivate a desire to understand life experiences more deeply and to invite participants to see beyond their personal circumstances to the imagined possibilities that literature explores.
Experience with profound and enduring literature promotes greater freedom. Cognitive and imaginative abilities soar as participants encounter the literary text. Moreover, experience as a valuable contributor to the discussion of the text encourages new self-awareness and increased confidence as group members validate, grapple with, and question one’s own responses. Participants, once intimidated by the mere thought of a group discussion of complex literature, discover they are successful contributors to a public dialogue.
How We Began
Since 1972, People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos has been connecting lives to literature through vibrant reading and discussion programs. The program began in Spanish in a housing project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when founder, Sarah Hirschman, organized a group of Puerto Rican women for a Gente y Cuentos pilot series. Programs in Spanish continued in community centers in Trenton, New Jersey, and in a barrio outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1981, the project expanded to include programs in Florida, Texas, New York, and Puerto Rico.
The program in English, People & Stories, began in 1986 in New Jersey and the project became a non-profit corporation in 1993. The program continued to expand by serving regional audiences with programs throughout New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. In 2005, People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos developed Crossing Borders with Literature, a program model that invites suburban participants to join programs, forging connections that cross municipal, socioeconomic, racial, and cultural lines. In 2010, the project expanded to include Story Talk / Cuentos y Plática, a youth initiative that reaches at-risk young adult audiences across the country, including sites in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
Today, our programs continue to reach youth, adults, and seniors in diverse social service agencies—including residential treatment facilities, prisons, homeless shelters, adult education programs, libraries, senior centers, and alternative schools—on local, regional, and national levels.
What We Do
People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos offers literature reading and discussion programs to individuals at partner organizations including prisons, rehabilitation facilities, halfway houses, adult education programs, alternative schools, homeless shelters, libraries, senior centers. Through our programs, we provide access to literature to those who may have had limited opportunities to experience literature’s joys, pleasures, and challenges.
The format of a classic People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos program is essentially the same at all sites. Approximately 15-20 adults or young adults gather around a table or sit in a circle for eight, 90-minute sessions to hear and discuss short stories in either English or Spanish. In each program, a trained coordinator reads aloud a literary short story. The oral reading cuts across the various reading levels in the group and creates an atmosphere of shared experience for participants. Following the reading, the coordinator facilitates a vibrant discussion on the poetics, tensions/contrasts, ambiguities, and issues found within the text. Participants draw upon their experiences and acquired knowledge to discuss the stories, and they discover their life experience has prepared them to understand and examine complex short stories.
Story selections from our bibliography for a program in English might include: “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self,” by Alice Walker; “Thank you Ma’am,” by Langston Hughes; “Safety Man” by Dan Chaon; “The Not-Dead and the Saved” by Kate Clanchy; “Abalone, Abalone, Abalone,” by Toshio Mori; “American History,” by Judith Ortiz-Cofer; and “Marriage is a Private Affair,” by Chinua Achebe, just to name a few. A list of possible story selections for a program in Spanish might include “No era bonita la tía Cristina,” Angeles Mastretta; “El tapado,” Augusto Guzmán; “El misterioso cocinero volador aparecido en el Hotel y Pensión Esquina,” Bernado Kordon; “La prodigiosa tarde de Baltazar,” Gabriel García Márquez; “La noche buena,” Tomás Rivera; “Dos palabras,” Isabel Allende; and “Peleando desnuda,” Esmeralda Santiago, among others.
People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos is a program without walls. That is, we meet participants at various social service agencies and provide the program coordinator, all program materials and procedures while a collaborating organization provides the space for the program and recruits participants. A sample list of sites includes: Bo Robinson Education and Training Center (Trenton), Rescue Mission of Trenton, Kairos House (Philadelphia), Puerto Rican Action Board (New Brunswick, NJ), Lawrence Senior Center (Lawrenceville, NJ), New Jersey Youth Corps of Trenton. A full list of collaborating organizations can be found here.
What People Say About Us
“I’d Love to see People & Stories programs for the parents of children in every at-risk school district in the country and to see local businesses and service organizations get behind them.”
Robert Hass, Professor of English, UC Berkeley
Poet Laureate of the United States, 1995–1997
“The program breaks down stereotypes by showing common experience through literature. Participants discover that they have the ability to communicate about literature and controversial issues, which increases their self-confidence.”
President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities
Coming Up Taller: Arts and Humanities Programs for Children and Youth At Risk
“People & Stories…provides a glimpse of the world of the humanities, opening students’ minds to critical thinking and problem-solving. At the same time, People & Stories helps our clients see the value of reading for pleasure as well as for survival in the everyday world.”
Rev. Brian McCormick, Founding President,
Martin House Community for Justice Foundation
People & Stories / Gente y Cuentos Staff Biographies
Sarah Hirschman, Founder: Sarah Hirschman was born in Lithuania into a Russian Jewish family and educated in France and the United States. A reader fluent in several languages, she has always been interested in the reception of literature by groups of different cultural backgrounds. After a 5-year stay in Colombia and work with urban community groups and development projects, she started People and Stories-Gente y Cuentos in Spanish in 1972 in Massachusetts. She developed a methodology that has allowed the program to grow, with trained coordinators conducting programs in both English and Spanish in various parts of the United States as well as in Argentina.
Patricia Andres, Executive Director: Patricia Andres, Executive Director, was born in Brooklyn, New York and attended John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Hofstra University. She studied American Literature at Rutgers University where she earned her doctorate in 1997. She has coordinated People & Stories programs since 1987. She assumed directorship of the organization on a part-time basis in 1996 and on a full-time basis in 2000.
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