Regan Brooks ’92 remembers Manhattan as a place she was certain she would leave. “When I was little, I had a profound sense that New York was great, but that I was accidentally born there,” she recalls. “I liked to imagine that I belonged someplace else, hopefully someplace big and open. I thought it would be Wyoming, but it ended up being Alaska.”
Regan moved to Alaska with her husband and young child in 2008. They planned to stay for two or three years, but quickly came to appreciate the community in Anchorage and recognized that it was a wonderful place for their family to put down roots. “There is so much going on in Alaska around building positive community,” Regan says. “I am so grateful to have been able to learn from others here and engage in a way I had not experienced before.”
Engaging in positive community building is precisely what Regan has done. In 2014, she partnered with two English teachers and a lawyer turned storyteller to found Story Works, a non-profit that hosts storytelling workshops in public schools and community settings. Story Works began with 145 students at West Anchorage High School. In the years since, Story Works has reached over 3,000 students in Anchorage and Unalakleet, a community in the Bering Straits School District.
Regan says that she and her fellow volunteer “listeners” noticed right away that many high school students were actively interested in connecting through stories. “We were surprised how open so many students were to sharing and listening to stories. Story Works is a type of teaching that’s an invitation. It invites you to recognize and honor that people want to be heard and known for who they are.”
Before moving to Alaska, Regan taught science and math to middle and high school students in California and Boston. Inspired by her Spence history teacher, Beverly Smit, she completed her undergraduate degree in political science. Medical school was on her radar, but she fell in love with birds in an ornithology class and instead went on to a graduate field naturalist program.
As a math and science teacher, Regan felt she had to make her students jump through hoops to get results on tests. Story Works has been an “antidote” to that kind of teaching. “The structure of schools can strip teachers and students of their humanity. Story Works has been an opportunity to restore that humanity.”
When Regan and her Story Works co-founders learned that many of the students who had been through the program were using the stories they had told for their college essays, they introduced free college admissions and essay writing workshops open to any interested high school students. Five hundred students have participated in these workshops. Story Works is now spreading its model, too, with its materials adopted by educators from California to New Hampshire.
Regan served as the volunteer Executive Director of Story Works until 2020, when the organization was able to hire someone to take her place. She continues to serve as a board member, fundraiser, and volunteer listener and reader for story and essay workshops. She has learned a lot, she says, along the way. “I realized that I had been harmfully centering dominant culture as an educator by assuming that there was a 'good' or 'right' way to approach the very personal act of sharing one's story. Unfortunately, patterns of forced assimilation run deep in education. To disrupt these patterns, Story Works collaborated with students, teachers, and community members to create safe space for all voices and approaches. A big part of this collaboration has been the increasing involvement of a Story Works alums who now support and lead programs as near-peer Teaching Fellows."
Regan credits her Spence teachers Mary Frosch and Michele Krauthamer with being the first people to introduce her to the idea of her own privilege. What she learned from them informed her approach to Story Works. “Their commitment to pointing out tyrannical structures in literature and in the world were foundational. They got me asking questions I am still asking today. In their class, I started wanting to learn to be quiet and to listen.”
It took her a while, Regan acknowledges, to find work that truly reflected what she wanted to do. “If I could give advice to my Spence self or to others graduating from Spence right now, it would be to move forward with kindness to themselves and to others, to make sure they are embracing a definition of success that truly matters to them, and to remember that making mistakes is often part of learning.”