Counter Storytelling in The Purpose Gap

Patrick Reyes’ The Purpose Gap: Empowering Communities of Color to Find Meaning and Thrive is an engaging, highly readable, and thought-provoking book that can be used to spark important conversations with students. The book does several things simultaneously. At one level, it offers a timely and needed challenge to the traditional discourse about vocation, and for that reason alone readers of this blog should pay close attention. It weaves together insights about how personal and communal thriving are intertwined; the import of design thinking—the physical design of urban spaces as well as the power of stargazing far away from visual noise; institutional vocation; cultural commutes and the challenges of “going home” when that commute is vast; the power of networking; and attending to daily practices. In short, there is A LOT packed into this book of less than 200 pages. Reyes intersperses these discussions with reflection questions for the reader, making the book user-friendly and ready-to-use with students both in and out of the classroom.

Reyes also uses stories from his own life to underscore his larger point about “the purpose gap.” In its pedagogical use of autobiographical anecdotes combined with an invitation to the reader to reflect on their own life, the book is not unlike Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak, and yet there is a world of difference between the two books and the stories they tell. That difference is both a matter of privilege and of the target audience for each book. In this post, I want to explore how Reyes makes effective use of his own stories because it is much more than simply “sharing” his perspective or conveying his personal story. It is a powerful example of what critical race theory calls counter-storytelling.

Solorzano & Yosso (2002) define the “counter-story” as “a method for telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told (i.e. those on the margins of society).” It is not simply a matter of telling (and hearing) the untold stories of marginalized people. These stories run counter to the dominant or “majoritarian” narratives of racial privilege, which often diminish or erase non-majoritarian peoples’ experiences. “Storytelling and counter-storytelling these experiences can help strengthen traditions of social, political, and cultural survival and resistance,” Solorzano & Yosso write (p. 32). Majoritarian stories not only privilege the experiences of whites; they also naturalize racial privilege while purporting to be neutral. Especially in educational settings, majoritarian stories often traffic in the language of deficit—how communities of color lack this or that–are “at risk” or “disadvantaged”—often explaining failure in terms of cultural deficit (p.31).  

In the book, Patrick Reyes shares many anecdotes from his own life, but these stories do much more than convey his perspective as the author. He begins the book describing the death of his cousin and how it challenged his thinking about meaning, purpose, and what it means to thrive. Patrick’s grandmother reminded him that when he slept in the bed that once belonged to his cousin he was living a life that was not just his own. His grandmother’s wisdom as well as her unending love and support propels much of the book’s approach. Patrick writes, “The wisdom of my ancestors guides me and leads me. The love of our tías, mothers, and abuelas guides us to lives of meaning and purpose. Their example proves why I need to author this book in a hue, a tone, and a color that reflects the love of the divine” (p. 22). At every turn in the book, even as Reyes names tough realities, cruel and unequal material conditions that shape the lives of marginalized people in the U.S, the strength and resiliency of his community (and those of his imagined readers) comes through. This is further expressed in many of the reflection questions, including the guided meditation that comes at the end of chapter 2 in which readers are invited to imagine the face of someone who loves them more than anything (pgs. 42-43). The light of this reflection glimmers throughout the book, as Patrick Reyes refers to the significance of ancestors and ancestral wisdom as an important form of guidance.

Click here to listen to the full episode “Stars and Constellations,” our conversation with Patrick Reyes. The podcast can also be accessed through Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, and other podcast platforms.

We learn about his experiences as a seminary student, working part-time at Home Depot, involving what was both a treacherous ride on a small BMX bike in the harsh New England winter and a difficult “cultural commute.” In turn, he asks his readers to consider their own cultural commutes: “What is the distance between your culture and the dominant culture? What was the cultural commute of your ancestors?” (51).

Later in the book, Reyes tackles the difficulties of “going home,” how a combination of nostalgia, a desire for what is comfortable and familiar, but also the pain of displacement come together in that experience. This prompts a reflection not only on community, and how we define home, but also about being connected to land. Patrick writes, “The land returns us to something much more profound. It longs for us to reconnect to it, to settle, to express love and gratitude for hosting us… [Yet] We extract without letting it rest—as the Bible commands—or even as the land demands. It as if we no longer know how to care for our home” (p. 118). He then asks his readers to consider the following questions:

How do you define home? Is it a place? Is it a community? What are the elements of home that have carried on from generation to generation? What features of home are life giving? Which are threatening? What kind of home are you creating now?

Reflection from The Purpose Gap (p. 122)

As it unfolds, this chapter takes on displacement and dispossession; brings together the writings of Wendell Berry, Gabriel García Márquez, and Tommy Orange (writing about Oakland, California) on the subject of place; considers the importance of belonging, first drawing upon the writings of one of his favorite poets, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and then moving to Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the cost of discipleship; and concludes with a challenging discussion of educational freedom. In the span of just a few pages, Reyes moves from his own story to an exploration of complicated historical, social, and political issues in a way that speaks directly to the experience of marginalized people rather than from a position of privilege, and then offers a set of provocative questions to which all readers can respond. The Purpose Gap is a profound, multi-layered text, and a remarkable feat.

Additional resources for members of NetVUE: The Purpose Gap was selected as the text for the 2022 NetVUE Big Read. Member institutions are eligible to receive 20 free copies for the purposes of reading the book in group settings (faculty members, administrators, and staff). Click here for more information about the program.

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015), and, more recently, “Loyalty in the Time of Catastrophe: Anthropocene Reflections” (co-written with Mark Larrimore). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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