Sarah Hirschman was born in Lithuania in 1921, spent her formative high school years in Paris, and completed her university studies in philosophy and French literature in the United States (Columbia and Berkeley). In 1941, she married Albert Hirschman. Her collaboration with him (their Colombian interlude, learning Spanish, studying anthropology) introduced her to a world of openness to social problems, which she would later address using her knowledge and passions with great originality. In 1991 Albert dedicated to her his extraordinarily imaginative book—"The Rhetoric of Reaction"—with the words ‘To Sarah, my first reader and critic for fifty years’.

Sarah’s name is inextricably tied to the programme ‘Gente y Cuentos/People and Stories’, which aims at bringing the best literature to people who have been deprived of it due to social or environmental constraints. Over time, she developed the programme starting from her own discovery that ‘literature, which is usually seen as reserved for the few, can become the arena where unusual connections are established among people who ordinarily have no access to it. People find their own voice and a new self-assurance as the fictional text helps develop a surprising ability to manipulate ideas as well as share with each other personal feelings’.

This project springs from two different sources. Firstly, it draws on research carried out in the 1960s and 1970s among Latino immigrants in New York and Massachusetts, which experimented with advanced forms of community work. Secondly, it is influenced by Sarah’s familiarity with the work of Paulo Freire, through her participation in seminars he conducted at Harvard at the beginning of the 1970s. Here, Sarah found her calling. Freire maintained that people can acquire knowledge only if they are able to meaningfully relate it to their own lives. With his own students, he engaged in dialogues on ‘generative themes’ that were relevant to them: starting from a projected image of a wall, they were able to arrive at discussions about the use of water and land ownership. This is what Freire called ‘conscientization’, as opposed to the ‘banking’ concept of education. According to Sarah, even literary works that are not directly related to immediate concerns can serve as a source of generative themes, and people without formal education can be ‘sensitive to the images, metaphors and rhythms of the poetic texture’ and capable of critical reflection on themselves and their relation to society.

In 1974, when Albert moved to Princeton, Sarah launched the Spanish programme ‘Gente y Cuentos’ with a group of Latinos in various localities of New Jersey. The experiences emerging from it were deepened and diffused in terms of geography (first in other states of America and finally in France and Argentina), language (starting with the first English sessions conducted in Trenton in 1986) as well as the topics covered.

The programme is founded on three pillars: stories, coordinators and groups.

The choice of stories was the crucial starting point—they had to be brief, in the language of the participant group, and capable of stimulating ideas. Sarah invested much enthusiasm in the selection of stories. She drew on her wealth of literary knowledge, which she kept updated through her interest in the works of great contemporary Latin American writers (she had ‘discovered’ Gabriel Garcia Marquez before he became famous) and anthropologists (such as Ruth Correira Cardoso); she maintained a special focus on those authors who were influenced by common speech and had transformed it in their literary works.

Coordinators are those who, like Sarah, organize a session (having identified a place and a homogenous group), animate the meeting, read texts aloud, stimulate the discussion such that everyone participates, and elicit impressions, buried memories, rationales and intentions. Over time, Sarah’s work came to focus on the training of coordinators, who have to be able to combine a literary sensibility with the capacity to interact with a very particular set of participants.

The groups are tied to the places in which the sessions are held, such as public libraries, schools, areas of the neighbourhood, and even prisons.

The book (People and Stories / gente y cuentos. Who owns literature? Communities find their voice through short stories, iUniverse, New York, 2009) in which Sarah explained her reasoning and described her methodology is full of examples of stories that have evoked reactions, emotions, new relationships between people, and the deepening of experiences. The processes triggered during the course of the sessions include the overthrowing of barriers between generations, communities and ethnicities. The impression created is that of a humanity shaken from its sleep, enlivened, rising and gaining confidence, and perhaps even changing its life, but without the presumption that immediate results are at hand.

Sarah had to overcome numerous obstacles to gain acceptance for a programme that later won many accolades—first among intellectuals who did not believe that this section of the public could appreciate literature, then among those who assumed that a project based on literary works was not militant enough, and finally among funding organisations, who needed outputs to justify their investment and who tried to slot the programme into a predefined classification (an educational programme, a work placement or welfare project) in order to evaluate it using simple indicators. Sarah endeavoured to explain to each of them that literature is not a luxury but an intense experience of self-reflection, and that evaluations must take this into account.

Published in Allarme Milano, Speranza Milano, February 2012,