Around 25 community members and activists gathered around an emotionally charged circle Thursday night to discuss the intersections between art, activism and justice.

The event, entitled “Storytelling and Social Justice,” took place at the Fair Haven Branch Library. Karen Dubois-Walton, co-founder of New Haven Storytellers, and Bill Graustein, a trustee of the William Caspar Graustein memorial fund, discussed the power of stories with new Artistic Director of Long Wharf Theatre Jacob Padrón. In the interactive event, Dubois-Walton and Graustein detailed their perspectives on what it means to use art as a tool for inciting systemic change. Attendees also spoke about the use of storytelling, in relation to their own lives.

“When an individual tells their story, and other people are really listening, what they learn is empathy,” said Steve Hamm, a documentary filmmaker and New Haven resident who attended the event. “Empathy is the first step toward learning how to give other people justice.”

Dubois-Walton said her interest in stories is rooted in her experience as a child — she moved from a middle-class community in New York state to one that was “rural, poor and white.” In a school that was predominantly white and one-third Native American, she and her sister were the only African Americans. Jarring encounters ranged from the seemingly minor — such as racially charged jokes — to the extreme, when the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated against her father. Because of that latter event, her family left town.

“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will tell it for you,” Dubois-Walton told the room.

For Dubois-Walton, telling her own story is particularly powerful as it invites people to understand her individual experience.

“This sense of being alike and being different. … I spend a lot of time zoning in on people and seeing who felt safe and who didn’t,” Dubois-Walton said.

The speakers also highlighted the importance of physically sitting and listening to someone share a piece of themselves. Graustein echoed Dubois-Walton’s comments, and emphasized the selflessness involved in hearing a complete story. When listening to a story, there is no impulse to prepare what one might say next: There is only an attempt to relate to one another.

Attendees were sensitive to viewing this discussion in the context of the recent New Haven shooting which involved a Yale police officer and a Hamden police officer and left an unarmed young woman injured.

Melba Flores, born and raised in New Haven, expressed her frustration as she arrived at the event, fresh from a protest against police violence on Wall Street.

“I wanted to know more about how we can use this information now,” Flores told the News. “There is something that’s happening now. How do we connect our stories to that? How do we use it as tools for healing?”

Padrón and community engagement manager Elizabeth Nearing — who helped to organize the event — both expressed their excitement that their events were drawing in diverse crowds from all corners of the area.

“I think this is galvanizing the community. If we have a different constellation of people at each of the events, hopefully we’re activating conversations across the city,” Padrón said.

The next community event organized by Long Wharf Theatre and the New Haven Public Library is a story slam that will take place at 6 p.m. on April 22 at Ives Main Library.

Meera Shoaib | meera.shoaib@yale.edu