"First comes the stories, then the talking, then the action."
DANNY M. COHEN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF INSTRUCTION
Unsilence: Harnessing the Healing Power of Conversation
The past year has unleashed a barrage of bad news, from mass shootings and sexual assaults to the despairing plight of refugees.
At times, it seems like the entire global order is unraveling—and the impulse to run for cover is understandable. But for one Northwestern associate professor, this is precisely the time to get to work.
Danny M. Cohen (PhD11) is the founder of Unsilence, a nonprofit that uses the hidden stories of human rights abuses and the sharing of experiences to confront and ultimately repair some of our most vexing social problems.
“We can’t take action on racism, gun violence or lack of access to mental health care unless we talk about it,” explains Cohen, an associate professor of instruction in the School of Education and Social Policy. “First comes the stories, then the talking, then the action.”
Unsilence started in 2014 with a handful of participants. Today, some 8,300 students, educators and ordinary citizens have participated in the initiative, ranging from Chicago Public Schools to Yad Vashem in Israel.
Not bad for an “accidental” academic. In the early 2000s, the British-born Cohen was working with Bangladeshi youth in London when he met his future husband, an American citizen. When the federal government refused to allow same-sex couples to sponsor each other’s citizenship, he found a different route to the U.S. by applying to graduate school.
“It was deeply frustrating at the time, but it became the silver lining of discrimination,” he says. “Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Unsilence emerged slowly, but there’s no question that Cohen knows something about concealing painful narratives and the damage it can cause. His maternal grandfather was a Holocaust survivor, who, like so many of his generation, never spoke of the horrors he witnessed in Nazi-occupied Holland.
Digging into his own family’s past, Cohen learned how some Jewish homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps were forced to wear overlapping triangles—pink over the better-known yellow—and were not officially acknowledged until 2002. He longed to know more about other victims, too, including the disabled and Roma (“Gypsies”), whose experiences were equally compelling, but much less familiar.
That’s when Cohen realized that all stories of genocide and oppression—whether in Germany, Bosnia or Syria are intertwined, an echo throughout history. Those connecting threads eventually became the passion that fueled his academic research and subsequent job titles, including Holocaust scholar, fiction writer, and learning scientist.
As a doctoral candidate at SESP, Cohen’s dissertation focused on hidden narratives of atrocity. Specifically, he observed docents at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie to see how they included or excluded those stories and how to pry them loose. Now, as a teacher, his classes—especially “Designing for Social Change”—provides the perfect environment for testing new Unsilence content and pedagogy before taking it to schools and the wider community.
Samantha Oberman, a junior studying human development and psychological services, is a research apprentice who assisted at a recent Unsilence session for middle school students and their parents at a local community center. From the very beginning, Cohen engaged the audience before separating the two groups. Then, he asked the kids: “Can you share with me what you wish the adults knew?”
“You can see very quickly that people pay attention to Danny,” Oberman says. “He has this rare, quiet quality and commands the room with his story-telling, which then shifts into active participation. He really values the student voice.”
Ideally, an Unsilence Action Project is spread across a full academic year, with Cohen and his team training educators, while simultaneously running four or five youth leadership workshops.
Cohen might start with a historical tale or a personal story—say, how he was rejected by family members for his sexual orientation. Either way, the goal is to create an entry point “to get emotional distance and set the stage for tougher conversations later on, as students identify what human rights issues are most important to them,” he explains.
The introduction is followed by subsequent sessions researching the topic and then designing and implementing an intervention. Finally, there’s reflection and evaluation. While the students work on their projects, the Unsilence team helps the teachers support the students.
At first glance, it may seem like the program— with topics such as gangs, guns and racism— is geared toward economically disadvantaged communities, but no ZIP code is immune from heartache.
In more affluent neighborhoods, issues such as cutting, eating disorders, and suicide are no less urgent. Yet many school districts have strict policies against engaging in such dialogue, for fear of triggering “copycat” events. By breaking through the taboos, guided by adults, students can be a part of the solution. They can suggest some tangible action, such as hiring more counselors or offering more parent training.
Even after many years of sharing the universal lessons of prejudice and indifference, Cohen marvels at the potency of searingly honest accounts and how such candor is “contagious,” he says.
“It’s not unusual that the bell will ring and a student will come up to us and say, ‘No one knows that my Mom is in prison.’ Or a teacher will confide, ‘None of my colleagues know that I suffer from depression.’”
Annie Rezac, executive director of Unsilence, recalled a program in Greeley, Colorado, when educators were “blown away” by students revealing their day-to-day stress surrounding immigration.
“One teacher stood up and told the kids, ‘We had no idea that this was so painful, and we will do everything in our power to change it for you,’” she said. “It was just so moving and sincere. I’ve been in the non-profit world for 20 years, and this is some of the most powerful work I’ve seen in terms of its potential to transform communities.”