The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, the alma mater of Alisha Guffey, pictured on Tufts' Medford/Somerville campus on Oct. 14, 2014. (Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily)

The power of storytelling: A conversation with Alisha Guffey

With the 2011 repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, many assumed the military would become more inclusive and that somehow all the past issues would fade away.

According to the Williams Institute report from May 2010, at least 70,000 members of the U.S. military are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Additionally, about 15,500 members are transgender Americans, according to a report from May 2014. While they may not represent the majority of U.S. military members, they encouraged Alisha Guffey to change the military’s culture towards LGBTQ members.

As a U.S. Army veteran, fellow at the U.S. State Department, founder of production company Combat Camera Productions and Fletcher (F ’16) alumna, Guffey incorporates all her past experiences toward her current position. Guffey believes this role speaks to her passion for sharing her story and inspiring others to do so, her dedication toward challenging the norm to create social change and her own experiences while serving in the military. As the founder of the ASK & TELL ProjectGuffey spoke to the Daily about how her project has allowed LGBTQ veterans and service members to share their stories to transform military culture into a more inclusive one that acknowledges and celebrates the service members who are typically silenced.

The Tufts Daily (TD): What is the ASK & TELL Project?

Alisha Guffey (AG): The ASK & TELL Project aims to build a community for LGBTQ military veterans and service members where they can share their stories and make connections through 21st-century media such as YouTube videos and podcast episodes. The project offers a space for former and current LGBTQ service members to share their memories, beliefs, fears, struggles and optimism through video, photo and the written word across various social media channels.

TD: Why is the ASK & TELL Project important?

AG: Despite the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, cultural change in the military isn’t going to happen overnight. We need to respect our LGBTQ+ veterans and service members by finally telling their untold stories of service and giving them the platform to do so. Additionally, we need to help the Department of Defense in this cultural transition. This is critical at the unit level because ultimately the U.S. military needs top talent, and considering that less than 1 percent of the American population serves in the all-volunteer force, we can’t afford to not enable all of the top talent to serve.

TD: What brought you to do this project?

AG: While I was at The Fletcher School, I began rekindling my past love and my undergraduate degree in the arts. I was looking at ways of shaping policy and social change. I began thinking of the idea of communicating more effectively via entertainment, media and ultimately, personal narratives. The project was first funded by [a Tufts grant] and it was supported by a mentorship with Professor Jennifer Burton, Rockford Weitz and consultations with Kimberly Theidon.

TD: You mentioned having two mentors at the beginning of the project. How important were these relationships to you and the success of the project?

AG: Really, my mentors were critical in giving me the confidence to work on the project. Professor Rockford Weitz at The Fletcher School was my capstone advisor, who really gave me the confidence to pursue my passion and form an LLC, which is critical when working with talent. Right now, ASK & TELL hasn’t brought in revenue and is grant funded, but forming an LLC was a big step for the future, legal security and moving forward with media work. My mentor for the Tufts grant, Professor Jennifer Burton, was a huge support system. She generously offered her time just to see my project move forward because she felt it was a passionate project … She has even helped today with additional shoots at Tufts and advice on editing, marketing and the creative outline.

TD: What are you most proud of?

AG: The ability this project has given me to help others share their amazing stories of service and fight for their right to serve, especially transgender service members, who have become truly inspirational to me.

TD: What has been one of the stories you’ve learned of through the project that has impacted you the most?

AG: I’d say working with transgender service members. I didn’t personally know any transgender service members until I started ASK & TELL.  I’ve learned so much, but mostly I’ve learned the passion of service again. Seeing transgender service members fight and risk everything to serve openly and honestly is super powerful. They could walk away, get other jobs, but they are dedicated to serving their country … Their passion and drive and hearing their story of service has really moved me. It reminds me what we stand for as a nation, as a military and how hurtful it has been/is to force individuals in the closet and to live a lie. It shows the importance of honest, open service and how that’s the only thing that matches with the military’s values, everything that it has taught us.

It has shown me how much happier and healthier I am since starting this project and the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I get to finally live as my true self, and now I’m dedicated to [making] sure others have that same opportunities. Serving in the military can be one of the hardest and most challenging life choices and we owe all our service members a safe and healthy environment to service in regardless of gender identity or sexuality.

TD: Do you think storytelling has the power to enact social change?

AG: It truly does. Just by sharing my own story, I have had amazing conversations and broke down barriers with members I serve with …  Once we see someone as a human, a person just like us, so much of the wall between our differences comes down. The human connection is the best way for peace, unit cohesion and strength in diversity. I saw this first hand in my overseas work in Kandahar and Africa. At the end of the day, we are all just humans trying to live, be happy, healthy and provide for our families.

TD: What else are you working on right now?

AG: We are actively filming videos, stills and creating a podcast series. We’d love talent to sign up and followers to share, like and watch out web series online at www.askandtell.com or THE ASK & TELL PROJECT on YouTube. Some future developments for the project are that we will release our podcast series soon, along with more series of the stories of actively serving transgender service members.

TD: Where do you see the project five or 10 years from now?

AG: I hope that ASK & TELL will continue to be a platform to bring dialogue and discussion for LGBTQ service members and a platform to share the history of service of our LGBTQ service members. Perhaps it can grow into something beyond my own imagination now. I never thought DADT would end, so I believe in hoping for the unknown or unthinkable.

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