News & Updates
August 31, 2014
An Interview with Kiran Singh Sirah – Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center
Kiran Singh Sirah began his career as an artist and teacher, which led him to establish a number of award winning peace and conflict resolution programs in museums and cultural centers in the UK. These initiatives address sectarian, ethnic and religious conflict, poverty, and gang violence. Kiran went on to develop arts-led projects exploring modern slavery violations, war, and issues facing socially marginalized peoples. Kiran is a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellow program and a folklorist interested in the power of human creativity, arts and social justice, and the notion of a truly multicultural society. Kiran currently lives in Jonesborough, TN. He was selected as Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center in 2013.
I had the opportunity to talk with him recently about the power of storytelling to unite people across different cultures and belief systems.
Rebecca Popham: The 42nd Annual National Storytelling Festival for 2014 is rapidly approaching. This is already your second annual Festival. Your selection as the new Executive Director of the International Storytelling Center (ISC) in Jonesborough, TN, last year came just as the 2013 Festival was ramping up—kind of a “baptism by fire.” Tell us a little bit about why the position of Executive Director of the ISC appealed to you.
Kiran Sirah: A baptism by fire indeed! But a great one. To some extent it was like being placed in the middle of story! I still have to pinch myself everyday for this wonderful and unique opportunity. I love my job and I am grateful for the people that support storytelling. To be in this position gives me the chance to work with storytellers of all kinds, to draw from all my experiences and my education in the storytelling arts, folklore, and peace-building and global networks to contribute to our international and regional storytelling communities. What attracted me initially to this job was the chance to promote and develop our ancient art of storytelling, to bring it to new heights and to expand the role that storytelling has to enrich people’s lives here and across the world and make a real difference to people’s lives.
RP: As a graduate of the Rotary Peace Fellowship program can you describe the connection between storytelling and working toward global peace?
KS: Storytelling is a powerful social force. Telling stories opens doors to help bind and form communities and find important connections to the entire human family. In essence it helps us to holds up mirrors to ours and other cultures and establishes a sense of a global identity. Storytelling is what forms relationships with others, it is the powerful expressive realm in all its dimensions that gives voice to who we are and where we are going. Used wisely it may also be the one of greatest conflict prevention tools the world might ever know. As a Rotary Peace fellow I have had opportunities to learn not only techniques to building peace but also how complex, multifaceted and diverse our peace community is. My main thrust in peace work has been to encourage intercultural dialogue and therefore Storytelling offers what I believe is the greatest way we can do that to help us all work towards a peaceful world.
RP: Did the ISC have a history of including the concept of nonviolence and the philosophy of Ubuntu in presentations at the annual festival, or is this a new dimension that you are adding to the spectrum of human behavior already covered in stories told by the Master Storytellers who perform at the ISC Annual Festival?
KS: The tellers that have performed over the 42 history have come from all over the world and from a diverse spectrum of storytelling traditions. Many tellers draw from family, humor, local, and global traditions as well as personal narrative and experience. There is often ancient wisdom that one can hear in the stories they tell. It is not a new idea introduced by me, but something I think storytellers have been doing ever since people started telling stories around campfires or from the time when humans etched visual pictographs onto cave walls to today when NASA scientists use visual storytelling inscribed space probe and send them out into the universe. Storytelling has always connects us to indigenous ways of life. I guess what I am doing here is expanding the way we can translate the Ubuntu concept into new disciplines and arenas, to invite partnerships and collaborations, so that we can share ways as an organization to live up to this great concept of Ubuntu. By sharing ourselves with others and vice versa being open to learning from others we can ignite the belief in Ubuntu in really creative ways.
RP: On Thursday, August 21, you appeared on NPR’s Religion in Life program. What is your primary message to that audience about the role of storytelling in our culture? (Hear Kiran’s NPR interview via podcast at http://religionforlife.podomatic.com/)
KS: I have great respect for Reverend Shuck who hosts the NPR series Religion for Life, so it was honor to be interviewed by him. My primary message was that by sharing my own stories of my upbringing and how storytelling changes my life, I hope others may also think about how storytelling can play a part in their lives. Across the world the voices of young people need to be heard, and so the message was for us to think about how we can help to nurture the next generation. Certain stories may belong to different people or different groups and cultures, but the Art of Storytelling as an art form is something that belongs to us all.
RP: What projects are you working on at ISC, in addition to the annual Festival, for 2015 and beyond?
KS: Our story at ISC is constantly evolving. As the world’s oldest public storytelling festival, we are at a great time right now in our 42 year history. Right now we are developing a number of new initiatives connecting storytelling programs and establishing international storytelling programs as well as regional and national programs. We have a number of digital programs under development to reach youth, new learning programs, and we also have a long-standing relationship with the Smithsonian Institution which we are continually developing. We are also developing new strands to our key event, the annual National Storytelling Festival as well as to our Storyteller-in-Residence series that takes place between April and November. Beyond that we have some exciting work with organizations including the global Masterpeace Project and the United Nations to invite storytellers to tell their stories of peace and change.
Here at the ISC we are reigniting and discovering new ways to bring the broader Art of Live Storytelling to even more arenas and audiences. Not only is this my personal passion, it is my life’s dream to elevate this great art form to a position where it is seen as an effective tool in helping to establish intercultural dialogue. Such a dialogue would celebrate diversity and respect for life and difference, which I see as the key components for creating a more peaceful world. Part of our mission is to connect emerging Storytellers and new audiences to the great Master Storytellers who already offer so much to the world. Ultimately, everything we do here at ISC, and my life from here on in, is about the Art of Storytelling contributing to building a better world. Storytelling for all!
RP: Thank you, Kiran, for giving us more insight into the role of storytelling in the pursuit of peace. Clearly, it is a critical part of any effort to true understanding among cultures within nations, and among all of the nations of the world. And we can’t forget that Ubuntu really starts within the family unit and also between just two people. Stories are at the very root of our human experience.
May 31, 2014
Storytelling is a natural part of being human. This creative, compelling way to communicate ideas, ethical beliefs, spiritual foundations, and cultural history might manifest as graphic artistry, spoken words, sign language, or be written.
Festivals celebrating the art of storytelling, primarily in the oral tradition, are found around the globe and can be one of the best ways to experience different cultures.
In Part 2 of Storytelling—How every culture expresses “Ubuntu—I am because we are,” we introduce you to Linda Goodman, a Master Storyteller who will be a Teller In Residence performing September 16-20 at the 42nd annual, world-renowned International Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. We asked Linda if, in her experience, she sees a benefit in teaching diplomats and others at the top levels of government to use the Art of Storytelling as a tool to break deadlocks during peace talks and other negotiations? Can a great storyteller craft stories that enlighten listeners enough for some to permanently change their minds even about long-held beliefs that stand in the way of coming to agreements?
Linda answered us by saying, “The answer is an emphatic YES!! A few years back I heard Master Storyteller Ray Buckley tell a story about how he was able to forgive the man who had killed his wife and son, his only child. By first getting to know the man’s son, who was the same age as Ray’s own son had been, Ray was able to steel himself and visit the man in prison. Getting to know the man who killed his wife and son led to Ray being able to forgive him. Before hearing Ray tell his story, I did not believe such a thing was possible. After hearing it, I understood that when you know another person’s story, you can sometimes forgive even the unforgivable. I have served on numerous nonprofit boards and on occasion have used my storytelling skills to bring those on the opposite side of an issue around to my way of thinking.”
Linda shares her mastery in a story that embodies the Art of Storytelling within a personal tale entitled, The Punishment.
Linda Goodman – The Punishment
When asked how she felt her story, The Punishment, illustrated the concept of Ubuntu, Linda said, “We are all products of those who came before us. In The Punishment, my father teaches both me and my mother the power of compassion. His fake whipping (which she believed was real until the day she died) resulted in the first hug I ever remember receiving from my mother. Before the punishment, I saw my mother only as an enforcer. After the punishment, the memories of that nurturing hug softened my heart towards her, and I became a more loving daughter. I am a kinder, more loving person because my father orchestrated a fake whipping that brought out the secret, compassionate side of my mother.”
You can learn more about Linda at www.lindagoodmanstoryteller.com.
April 29, 2014
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.”
June 4, 2013
A number of years ago, I was introduced to the book “God Has A Dream”. The concept of Ubuntu resonated with me. Ubuntu embodied the essence of a Divine or “Christ’ spirit; an all-loving, all-acknowledging; all-accepting intention of the magnificence of God. The effect has been profound and instrumental in my life since then — truly understanding that our humanity is affirmed by acknowledging the humanity of others.
March 19, 2013
Throughout the course of my research, I have found several things about Desmond Tutu’s philosophy to be relevant for my peer group of young people in their late teens and early twenties in 2013. At a young age Desmond Tutu discovered the term and philosophy of Ubuntu, which essentially describes the relations we have with each other. Desmond Tutu applied this philosophy to his work later in life when he had to choose between revenge or restorative justice when he was affiliated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the issue of apartheid in South Africa. Desmond Tutu saw revenge as the “natural reaction,” but knew from his experience with conflict resolution at that time, and from the philosophy of Ubuntu that very simply, two wrongs do not make a right, and it is better to act more morally and with justice than it is to just take revenge.
Everything that Desmond Tutu has expressed in his life as an activist for global peace is relevant to young people today. Even though it seems that our world is filled with people just resorting to violence every day without any logic, there are still many good people striving to make the world a better place for all. At times it seems that violent reactions happen for the sole purpose of making perpetrators look superior in some way within peer groups or certain communities. Violence may also be chosen as the easy way out for some because they have not learned how to express their thoughts and emotions in a civilized manner.
Many people around the world have become accustomed to “immediate gratification.” Negotiation, whether within the family, between friends, among citizens in a given community or among nations, takes time and patience. At the top level of government that effort is called diplomacy, and fewer and fewer officials in governments around the world seem to choose sticking with the path of diplomacy, opting instead for the “instant violent conflict” solution. It is for that very reason that all people must learn how to resolve conflict within themselves and among others in a non-violent way.
In a time like this, it is best to reflect on Desmond Tutu’s philosophy to not only strengthen the relationships we have with each other, but make this world a better place to live in by valuing human life above all else. These recent outbreaks of violence we hear about every day on the News are appalling, and they call out to all of us to apply the wisdom and philosophy which aided Desmond Tutu to succeed in his role within the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa.
We see much too much of the violent ways conflicts are handled, but we almost never see the stories about successful acts of nonviolent conflict resolution led by prominent figures as well as their many followers who apply nonviolence to their everyday lives. There is no sense of balance in the messages we receive about how people handle conflict. Sure, we learn about great nonviolent leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Desmond Tutu in textbooks, but we seldom ever really learn how to apply those acts and beliefs in our own daily lives.
Desmond Tutu did what only a few others would have done which solidified his acts of peace. There are good people in this world and everything they do is pertinent to what prominent figures have done as well, and we should hear more about the efforts of those people. Let us seek out Desmond Tutu’s philosophy of Ubuntu which will ensure that we become champions of nonviolent conflict resolution. What Desmond Tutu has set forth to do—to make global peace a reality—is based on the idea of learning from birth from the family into which we are born and raised to see others as we see ourselves, which subsequently leads to more right than wrong.
Editor’s Note: Go to the inspirational site of Combatants for Peace http://cfpeace.org/?page_id=2, a coalition of former Israeli and Palestinian enemies who used violent methods to attack each other over years but came to the conclusion that nonviolent methods of conflict resolution would be more powerful in getting to an understanding of each other and peaceful coexistence. This organization is proof positive that the goal of global peace is, indeed, attainable. They exemplify Ubuntu.