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April 29, 2014

Storytelling—How every culture expresses “Ubuntu—I am because we are.”

As far as we know, storytelling is a part of every culture. The familiar perception of storytelling as an essential survival mechanism in the limited toolbox of ancient cultures, long since overtaken by the written word and relegated to a form of entertainment in most of the world, belies the truth of storytelling as our ever-present anchor in communicating with each other all day, every day, nearly everywhere.

We are all storytellers from the time we start interacting with the first storytellers in our lives (parents, grandparents, siblings, and so on), picking up the way to get the attention of others and our points across.  But some people seem to be born as truly gifted “tellers.”

On May 6th, many of those gifted storytellers will begin arriving in the historic town of Jonesborough, Tennessee, over the next five months with a full slate of performances leading up to the Autumn 42nd annual, world-renowned International Storytelling Festival.  Attendees from around the world will also begin arriving to celebrate what storytelling means in their own lives, and hear how beautiful and powerful stories can be when told by “tellers” who have honed their art to perfection. The seemingly sweet simplicity of a story told by a master of the art of storytelling can definitely “pack a punch” full of meaning you will remember for a long time—if not forever.

The lead in to the Autumn festival opens in less than one week with the Storytelling Live! series, a part of the festival that joined the line-up of events 13 years ago, and this year will showcase 26 storytellers known nationally and internationally.  These 26 extraordinary “tellers” will  serve as “Tellers in Residence” leading up to the 42nd  International Storytelling Festival on October 3-5, 2014.

We are very fortunate that Master Storyteller Donald Davis, whose performances are always a huge draw at the Festival, graciously agreed be interviewed for our site. Kiran Sirah, Executive Director of the National Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, describes Donald Davis as, “…one of the most respected Storytellers in the country—probably one of the best in the world. He does around 44 festivals a year… and does amazing work in youth education across the country.”  Kiran also recounted former Vice President Al Gore’s attendance at the International Storytelling Festival one year which inspired the former Vice President to develop a project about storytelling as a tool for peace, a project in which Donald participated.

So, now let’s hear from Master Storyteller, Donald Davis, as he describes his art as a “Teller.” It is my great pleasure to introduce you to Master Storyteller Donald Davis.

Rebecca: As a Master Storyteller, do you have a single theme into which all of the stories you tell must fit?

Donald: All of the stories that I tell are true and are my own original stories.  While there is no prescriptive theme, a descriptive inventory would find my stories to center around  family dynamics of common trouble.  Sometimes these dynamics extend to community and beyond.  I look for the common, not the weird, so that listeners can feel that they have also been there.

Rebecca: What is the difference between the “Art of Storytelling” and the kind of stories people tell each other in everyday conversation?

Donald: In everyday conversation, people mostly make oral reports.  That is, they simply recall what happened on a certain occasion without giving it reflective layers of meaning.  It becomes a story when it is told so that strangers can understand it and the story does not stop with the events but goes on to capture the learning realizations that make the retold events worth living through and warrant repeated retelling.

Rebecca: At the church I attended with my family as a child, we were handed a printed program at the church door upon arrival.  Before we even got to our seats, I was already reading the program, looking hopefully to see if our Assistant Minister was going to be giving the sermon that morning. His sermons were so colorful and exciting that they swept you up and kept you enthralled for the whole time.  The senior minister was a wonderful person, but I never could get the message I knew I was supposed to be getting from his sermons because my mind would wander so much…and time did seem to really crawl.  In your experience as a minister, did you approach delivering sermons with the same—or similar—style as you use when telling a story at, for example, a festival?

Donald: In preaching, I was and am always story centered.  I typically retell a biblical story and then place it aside a true contemporary story so that people can see that they are truly parables to each other.  If that works, people can then add their own third story beside my two and they have applied the biblical lesson very personally.

Rebecca: How do you select a story?  Do you take whole stories that are among those in a very large repertoire and then craft them to your own style?

Donald: I do not make use of stories other than my own in festival performance.  When I start with biblical stories in preaching, I work from the common lectionary and then match my story to the one prescribed in one of those texts.  Aside from that, I do not make use of stories outside my own canon.

Rebecca: Do you build stories around your observations of the way people behave in certain familiar situations like, for example, trying to explain an idea or belief to someone who is skeptical?

Donald: I do not put performance stories together with an agenda.  They are simply stories that  come out of my work at reflecting on how my experiences set forth the human common agenda.  I can’t use a story to try to bend someone else’s ideas and it is important to me to always honor the listener’s integrity as final interpreter of the story.  Sometimes a  story it “just right for the time and place,” and my trust is that stories do their own teaching work. 

Rebecca: Do you retell stories that you heard in your early life, but update some elements to make the story relevant for listeners today?

Donald: Every time I tell a story it is matched to the audience.  The same stories are told  differently to children and adults. And, yes, stories that I have told for years have gradually evolved as time has passed.  I never actually give this an active thought as there are no “scripts.”  My stories are carried visually in memory so they always are  being tailored to the listeners at hand.                  

Rebecca: Are there “classic” stories in the world of storytelling that are sacrosanct, never to be changed just to appeal to a new generation?

Donald: There are great classic stories…the Odyssey is the greatest of all.  I retread it every year as it deeply informs all that I do as a storyteller.  There are always needs for new translations to keep us current and lively (the one I read now is the Robert Fagles), but the story itself never changes.  The great stories are windows into the culture from which they came and the peculiarities of the human dilemma…this cannot be changed!  

Rebecca: How to do you craft a story and does the way in which you tell a story evolve over time with each telling?

Donald: How I craft stories is a semester long question!  I work on the story orally (always with a listener) until the story finds its way and is moving pretty much the same way each time I tell it.  Then it is ready to come out to the larger audience.  After many more tellings it  is ready to record…in recording you have to explain more than with a live audience.  Last of all comes the written story for publication…it is much fuller as the readers can ask no questions and all must be anticipated then settled in the written version.  The written story is usually too “fat” to tell.  You know by now that all of my stories are in evolution throughout my lifetime.

Rebecca: How can storytelling help us make sense of the tragedies we encounter in life, both at the personal level and at the larger societal level?

Donald: Stories enable us to live through every dilemma, positive or negative, of the human experience without having to take on those same dilemmas ourselves.  In this sense stories can have a strong prophylactic function in protecting us from stumbling…if we give living attention to them.  When we are in trouble ourselves, the stories of how  others came through the same travails can show us that survival is possible, even if our way through is different from the protagonist’s journey.

Rebecca: Please add any other comments that you think could help us all appreciate the important place storytelling holds in our efforts to communicate with each other successfully.

Donald: My deepest belief about story is that story is the vehicle that carries our identity.  Tell children all the stories of the people from whom they have some and they will never lack an answer to the “who am I” question.  Without our own stories, we are lost!

Rebecca: Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful information with us and educating us about the invaluable role stories play in lives.  And within your answers, we can truly see the philosophy of Ubuntu, “I am because we are.”

Donald: Peace and joy always!

It seems that the art of storytelling has been rediscovered in applications we haven’t traditionally thought about such as business.

Jonathan Gottschall, PhD, author of the bestselling book published in 2012 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt entitled The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, is an excellent resource for exploring more about the way storytelling is woven into the fabric of being human. He tells us,

“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
                                                            ~Jonathan Gottschall

April 21, 2014

Dynamic New Atlas Seeks Justice for Environmental Conflicts Worldwide

Hear the term conflict resolution and it usually brings to mind parties involved in armed conflict.  The violence and intensity of these situations commands our attention.  The global community has evolved diplomatic, economic and other interventions to help opposing parties step back from violence and negotiate solutions to their differences. However, we are often less equipped to deal with very serious, but non-military, conflicts arising from unresolved global issues like climate change.

Perhaps it is because the events contributing to climate change and environmental degradation are more diffuse, slower moving and have consequences that are further in the future.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that the economic disruptions engendered by climate change could lead to armed conflict.  Yet there has been no consensus on how to move forward.  Environmental conflicts play out in locales across the world, often without much media attention.  We have few at our disposal to help us grasp the scope and nature of the problem.  But that may be changing.

The Environmental Justice Atlas is a new online tool that maps locations where environmental conflicts currently exist (see the atlas at http://ejatlas.org/)  It was introduced the week of March 17th and is invaluable for those who study environmentally-based conflicts.  The Environmental Justice Atlas was funded by the European Commission and built by Environmental Justice Organisations, Liabilities and Trade (EJOLT). There are 915 conflicts currently covered.  “It’s only the tip of the iceberg,” says Nick Meynen, EJOLT spokesman.  The group’s goal is to expand the initial coverage to 2,000 conflicts in the coming year.  (Science, 28 March 2014, Vol. 343, p. 1413)

The tool uses a global map to highlight the hotspots of environmental conflict.  A set of 100 filters covering categories such as Country, Company, Commodity, and Type let even environmental novices easily pinpoint specific sites of conflict and their origins.  Though easy to use, the Environmental Justice Atlas is designed with a depth of information that will be appreciated by academicians and activists alike.   The tool is also available to the public.  Sites of environmental conflict are color coded to make it easy for the user to discern the type of environmental threat that exists at a specific location.  In the U.S. for example, there are 35 sites of environmental conflict identified and described in detail.

The genius of this tool is that it simultaneously gives us the global picture of environmental threats and also lets us quickly get to the details of situations needing our attention.  It is an open tool.  Academics can provide input to expand the range of cases and fill in gaps.  As the tool evolves, it may become a political force that makes it more difficult for politicians around the globe to ignore or defer action on environmental issues.

The stakes are high, especially for future generations who have no voice now in the decisions being made to avert catastrophic environmental damage from climate change, as well as potential armed conflict driven by these disruptive forces.  Tools like the Environmental Justice Atlas can help focus our attention, avoid indecision, and make informed choices.

April 11, 2014

Meet the Rotary Peace Fellows – Tamara Lorincz

Meet our next Rotary Peace Fellow from Class XII, 2013-14, Tamara Lorincz, who is sponsored by the Harbourside Rotary Club of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is pursuing a Master’s of Arts degree in International Politics and Security Studies at the University of Bradford in England. Tamara is sharing her adventure as a Rotary Peace Fellow with her husband and two little boys.

Tamara’s professional background is in environmental law and policy. In 2003, she graduated with a Master’s degree in Business and Law from Dalhousie University in Halifax. She earned a specialization in Environmental Law and Environmental Management. Upon graduation, Tamara became the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia Environmental Network, an umbrella organization for all of the environmental groups in the province.

For three years, the Network partnered with the Atlantic Council for International Cooperation on an international development project in Honduras. Tamara also coordinated the Nova Scotia Working Group on Education for Sustainable Development and launched the annual Green Roots Sustainability Education Symposium. She co-founded the East Coast Environmental Law Association and established environmental legal capacity building and training programs. From 2006-2012, Tamara served on the national board of Eco-justice Canada and from 2008-2010, she served on the Minister’s Roundtable on the Environment and Sustainable Prosperity.

From 2010-2013, Tamara helped her sons’ former school, École Burton Ettinger Elementary School, in Nova Scotia, become one of the first and the best Green Schools in the province. She raised over $40,000 to improve the school grounds, provide an eco-retreat for all the teachers, give nature fields trips to all the students, buy new library books, bring in expert environmentalists, and acquire new green curriculum resources. With the money raised, the students and staff built three outdoor classroom spaces, raised vegetable beds for every class, created two butterfly gardens, and built a native bog with a bridge. They also installed birdhouses, benches, a bike rack, added more trees to their school forest, and planted a school orchard. Last fall, the school was featured in a film by TD Environment – A Greening Story: École Burton Ettinger Elementary School – Tamara’s sons are in the film!

Tamara has been a long-time volunteer in the Canadian peace movement. She has organized many local events and national campaigns. She is on the board of the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace. Tamara serves on the advisory council on the Global Network Against Nuclear Power and Weapons in Space.

From 2003 until 2013, Tamara was a member and one of the spokespeople for the Halifax Peace Coalition. In 2004, she won the Keep Space for Peace Award in New York. In 2012 and 2013, Tamara was invited to speak on military spending and military sexual violence on NGO panels at the Commission on the Status of Women Conferences at the United Nations.

In 2012, Tamara launched Demilitarize.ca and her blog “Wednesdays against Warships.” Last month, Tamara spoke on demilitarization and economic conversion at a peace conference in Santa Barbara, California.

As a Rotary Peace Fellow, Tamara is expected to create an Applied Field Experience.  This coming summer of 2014, Tamara plans to work for the International Peace Bureau (IPB) in Geneva, Switzerland, where she will help assist the IPB with its workshops at the International Peace Conference  in Sarajevo from June 6-9, 2014, and will help with the IPB’s Disarmament for Development campaign and its Global Day of Action Against Military Spending project. Her research interests involve the intersection of peace, the environment, and women’s rights. Tamara plans to pursue a PhD in the future to promote education for peace, non-violence, and disarmament.

We asked each Peace Fellow two interview questions.  Here are Tamara’s answers:

1.  What is your opinion about the prospects of an end to armed conflict in the next 50 years?

“I am hopeful that armed conflict will continue to decline over the next 50 years. I must have hope because a world without weapons and war is the world that I am working for, and it is the world that I want for my children and everyone on this fragile planet.

There is evidence to show that we are living in the most peaceful time in human history. In 2011, two major books were published, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” by Steven Pinker, and “Winning the War on War,” by Joshua Goldstein. With great research and analysis, these authors show how violence against women and minorities, wars between nations, battle deaths, slavery, and torture have decreased over time because of the increase in human rights, international law, and democracy. Last August (2013), the British people chose their “better angel” and forced Parliament to vote against a military strike in Syria.

There is an incredible growing global movement for peace. Almost 6,000 mayors have joined Mayors for Peace to demand the abolition of nuclear weapons. There is the Peace One Day organization that works hard to bring about a day of global ceasefire and non-violence annually on September 21st, which is the United Nations International Day of Peace. In 2010, the Global Day of Action against Military Spending started to raise awareness every year of the $1.7 trillion dollars wasted on military budgets that is not spent on urgent social and environmental needs. In 2012, One Billion Rising was launched on Valentine’s Day to end violence against women around the world.

This year, World Beyond War, an international, nonviolent campaign to put an end to war, and to establish a just and sustainable peace.   In many ways, our homes, schools, and communities are more peaceful, and it is only a matter of time before our international relations become more peaceful, too.

2. What do you believe are the three most important contributing factors to fostering peace within and among nations?

  1. Renouncing violence and war. We must stop violence at all levels from our private homes to all organizations and the people within them who work on policy making for international affairs at every level. Work must continue vigorously to reach the goal of complete, total disarmament—again, every place where people congregate to live and work together, from private homes to mammoth institutions, there must be “zero tolerance” for weapons that maim and kill.  The economics of the business of war must end, replaced by the economics that foster health and well-being for all living beings.  A “hard stop” must be imposed on the arms trade, eliminating military spending and stopping militarism in all of its forms, including “games.” We must live up to Alfred Nobel’s statement which he put in his will, [let there be]“No more standing armies.” 
  2. Investing in peace and sustainable development. We need to invest to tackle our dire climate and ecological crises. We can do this by building a global low-carbon economy that is green, peaceful, and fair.  We also must prioritize the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals for global social justice.
  3. Respecting gender equality, human rights, and international law. We must treat people with dignity, respect human rights, abide by international law, and implement the United Nations Security Council resolutions for Women, Peace & Security.  In addition, Western countries must be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the recent past, e.g., Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

We look forward to hearing from Tamara with updates on her activities.  She, along with the other Rotary Peace Fellows you have met so far, provide us with the inspiration to create the path we wish to follow in the pursuit of making the world a place that celebrates life.  We extend our great appreciation to all of the Peace Fellows for the work they are doing now and will do in the future.

Your comments are welcome.  Send them directly to our Managing Editor at:  rebecca.popham@tutufoundationusa.org, or use the “Post a Comment” box below if you prefer.