The Power of Telling Your Story

Portland Village Tenant Emma Matrious

The Portland Village family housing program has been a host site for the St. Stephan’s A Day in the Life project over the past two years. A Day in the Life is a homelessness education and community outreach project, which offers interested community members a vital learning experience to engage with and be educated by people who have experienced homelessness. Participants are guided through various homeless shelters and supportive housing sites, learning firsthand from people who are experiencing homelessness and extreme poverty, and coming away with a deeper understanding of the challenges, successes, and perspectives of people who live it. Emma Matrious, a parent of three living at Portland Village for over two years, shared her story to a Day in the Life participants, and now that experience is part of her own story.

In early 2015, A Day in Life was set to tour Portland Village and a tenant speaker was needed to provide a testimonial of personal experience for the group. Emma, though quiet and seemingly cautious, was encouraged by her Case Manager to consider being our spokesperson, based on her inclination to construct and realize personal goals. Emma was initially unsure but said, “I’ve been trying to practice telling my story, so okay.” Since agreeing to that first engagement, Emma has established a practiced and professional aptitude for storytelling. She weaves together a powerful narrative about where she’s from, where she’s at, and what she hopes for the future. As she’ll tell you, “It’s hard to pack it all in there in short amount of time.”

Emma has a lot to be proud of these days; a spacious three-bedroom apartment at Portland Village with her three children (10, 11, and 16). She’s attending college, hosts a bi-monthly women’s peer group, and has a monthly paid speaking engagement with Day in the Life. She has diligently worked to find a formula for living day-by-day that generates both accomplishment and contentment. But when she tells her story, she frames her current success as “the other side of homelessness.” The “darker side,” as she refers to it, “can keep you stuck for a long time.” Emma’s story articulates a homelessness experience as both a child and again as a parent. She talks about the challenges of being in foster care, chemical dependency, short-lived sobriety, relapse, and recovery.

Modest and humble, Emma is grateful for and gives credit to the supportive people in her life: peers of Eden House with whom she attended treatment, former counselors, a sponsor, and her Portland Village Housing Case Manager. But Emma’s story has a transcendent theme that she layers in skillfully. Above everything else, Emma talks about accountability. When it comes to relationships--personal, familial, and professional--she puts in time and energy, she’s mindful and intentional. “I’ve worked hard to build trust and I don’t take it lightly.” She’s clear that she is where she is because of her own choices but where she was a few years ago was also her doing. She owns it all, the accomplishments and the destructiveness. Emma recognizes that she has a responsibility to care for herself, her kids, and her community, and she rises to meet that responsibility. But responsibility alone can be shared, accountability cannot. Emma not only recognizes her responsibilities, she answers for them.

Facts and figures are necessary for capturing the vastness of homelessness and the benefits of Permanent Supportive Housing. But a face, a name, and a story artfully told with lucidity and vulnerability surpasses theoretical understanding and offers a tangible link to an often misinterpreted human experience. Studies have shown that the power of telling a story is far more effective than facts and figures. “When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered, start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It will capture people’s hearts–by first attracting their brains.” (Zak, 2014 Harvard Business School Review, https://hbr.org/2014/10/why-your-brain-loves-good-storytelling). Portland Village tenant Emma Matrious has been telling her story and it’s making a difference.

If you’d like more information on St. Stephen’s A Day in the Life program: http://ststephensmpls.org/programs/human-rights/day-in-life

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