One Story Does Not Fit All

Posted by: April Porter

The ‘achievement gap’ is a term that most working in the field of youth development have heard many times. The National Education Association (NEA) outlines that this gap is often defined as the differences between the test scores of minority and/or students from low-income environments and the scores of their White and Asian peers. But it’s so much more than that.  

Boy reading a book at a desk with a map.

I’ve often found that students affected by the achievement gap may be categorized by a “one story fits all” approach. For instance, a participant at a recent conference noted that he didn’t like the term ‘achievement gap’ because when local partners or funders come to visit the programs at his local Y, he felt like he was highlighting—from a single deficit perspective—a group of Black and Latino students. He said it felt inauthentic and not truly representing those youth and their experiences. I agree.

But maybe the issue is not about the term, but with how we are telling the stories of youth and their families.

I recently watched a TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie and she reminded me that our daily experiences, backgrounds, families and cultures are composed of many intertwined stories, yet it is so easy for us to only see, hear or tell just one. 

Here is an excerpt from her talk:

I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn't finish my dinner, my mother would say, "Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing." So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family.

Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.

Stories matter. They can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

Youth developers have a responsibility to accurately tell the stories of the youth they support—not just their stories of lower test scores, less access to key opportunities or of them being ’achievement gap kids.’

Let’s tell the stories of their latest adventures (real or imagined!), or dreams of what problems they want to solve when they grow up.

Let’s use their stories to uplift, encourage, nurture and humanize our youth. Let’s use their stories to ensure we are providing transformational opportunities that help close the gap.

Looking for more tips and support? 

Visit to learn more about the Y’s work to help all youth reach their full potential.

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