Monday, July 8, 2013

Syracuse community builder Brenda Muhammad on the power of storytelling

Brenda Muhammad of Syracuse is a volunteer and community builder who believes in the power of sharing one's personal story to help others. Dennis Nett |
Jennifer L. Owens | Guest columnistBy Jennifer L. Owens | Guest columnist 
on July 05, 2013 at 7:56 AM, updated July 06, 2013 at 8:41 AM
"Some people are born knowing their purpose," said Brenda Muhammad. "Other people, like me, have no clue why they are here. But if I just keep moving I hope that one day I'll figure it out."

Muhammad is always moving. There is no other way to end up with the sizable list of volunteer activities and educational pursuits that she is juggling at any one time. This juggling is what earned her the 2013 Unsung Heroes Award during Syracuse University's annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Celebration earlier this year.

How Muhammad has remained 'unsung' for this long is a mystery. She has twice served as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer coordinating Women Build at Syracuse Habitat for Humanity, is a key player in the nonprofit FORCE (Focusing Our Resources for Community Enlightenment), and participates in the Black Syracuse Project to capture community stories.

She describes her life as a journey to discover her true purpose. Along her path, she has channeled her interests and community engagement activities to become a connection-maker. She sees value in sharing the things that she learns with her community.

This makes her well-suited for her role in FORCE, a nonprofit that combats neighborhood deterioration by inspiring residents to pool their resources to improve their condition. She sees opportunity to further the work of FORCE by sharing the oral history collection techniques she learned through the Black Syracuse Project training. 

Muhammad believes that sharing our stories with each other strengthens connections and promotes healing.

"We need to know about hard times, and we need to know about success stories," said Muhammad. "When you tell that story others can relate to you. They learn that there is hope."

Muhammad believes that there is a desire to be known and acknowledged that is hard-wired within us. She is drawn to oral history and storytelling as a way to give others the opportunity to satisfy this basic need.

"Sometimes telling your story is part of a healing process," she said. "Somebody has to hear me. What if no one knew you were alive?"

Telling the story is good for the storyteller, but it is also a tool for improving the lives of those who hear your story. "People can relate to your story," said Muhammad. "Sometimes you think that you are alone in something, but then you find out about connections."

The more connections that Muhammad and others facilitate through the Black Syracuse Project's initiatives, the more opportunity there will be for community members to identify opportunities to work together toward neighborhood improvement.

Muhammad is not one to remain still. She keeps moving, always looking for the next opportunity to expand her skills and serve her community. She is currently pursuing a Certificate of Advanced Study in Cultural Heritage Preservation at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies, as well as studies at SUNY Empire State College. She hopes to intern for the Black Syracuse Project in the near future to continue making the connections that she believes make a difference.

Despite her energy and palpable enthusiasm, even she sometimes wonders about the limits of any one person.

"I had a motto, and I haven't said it in a long time," Muhammad says wistfully. "I don't know if that's because I stopped believing it or I'm just too tired to think it. I used to always say, 'I shall not be conquered.' I thought I could do anything. But right about now I'm a little close to that conquered."

Despite these moments of doubt, she is propelled forward by the support of her friends and family. They know that she can make a difference and encourage her to explore new paths in her quest to find her life's purpose.

"My friends are amazing. They don't discourage me from trying anything," said Muhammad. "Sometimes I wish they would!"

In the end, Muhammad believes each of us has something we are meant to give to others. It can be both a burden and our life's greatest joy to figure out what that is; to tirelessly make connections, to tell our stories past and present, and to keep on moving.

To learn more about the Black Syracuse Project and listen to oral history recordings captured by through the project, visit

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