This interview was conducted by John Pattison for The Ford Family Foundation:
What does the popularity of storytelling programs like The Moth and The Hearth tell us about who we are and the time we’re living in?
We’re living in a time of loneliness. People feel alienated from one another. We have increased our connection to technology but in some ways those technologies have left us feeling more alone. As we get more high-tech, there comes a desire for more “high-touch.”
But it’s rare for us to share physical space anymore. We’re seeing a decline in some of the traditional institutions that used to help build intergenerational relationships—Elks Club and Lions Club, for example, as well as mainstream churches. So there is an increased longing to be connected to other people, because we are social creatures.
We want to be connected, and stories do that. Stories make us more human. They bring us to our senses in a way that other ways of connecting don’t always do. Stories are like a little transportation system. Neuroscientists are discovering that the way your brain processes a story you are telling, stimulates the same part of my brain as I listen to it. When you tell me something scary, my adrenaline goes up. I feel it. In some ways, I can join you in your experience.
How is community storytelling different from what people might be familiar with from programs like The Moth?
The Moth has to focus on entertainment; they often work with storytellers for one to three years before featuring their stories. Community storytelling is about seeing your neighbors. It’s about sharing a social space, being in the same room together. “Here comes Bob, the cashier at the grocery store. Next up is a receptionist from the lumber company. After that is a stay-at-home mom.” These are people I see around town. The stories change how I feel about where we live, the people that live around me.
With community storytelling, we start with people telling stories—but then we have a response too. We’re inspired to give back. Every audience member contributes five dollars to that night’s featured nonprofit. There is always an invitation in story, some kind of new awareness, some new reaction, an invitation to respond. We try to make that possible by drawing out the generosity that rarely gets tapped in social settings anymore.
At The Hearth, there is an education process we go through. I help people recognize that what is happening at these events is only one-part storytelling. There’s also the music. There are the 18 people who showed up early to set up chairs, as well as the 20 people who made snacks and concessions. Four people volunteered to work the door. The nonprofit is there to share with us what they are up to and how they’re addressing problems in our area. These all come together to make the event work.
What impact can community storytelling have on a community? How have you seen this play out in Ashland?
People respond when they feel more connected to their town. They are more compassionate toward others when they hear stories from their neighbors. They realize that everyone has a story. Everyone has suffered, everyone has struggled. They see that there is bravery and courage in their neighbors. There’s also humor and graciousness in people. You hear this in the stories.
People who come to The Hearth tell us that they feel more compassionate. They give more grace to others in town. Whether we’re standing in line at the grocery store or waiting in traffic, we realize that the people around us have a story too. We want to give our neighbors the benefit of the doubt.
What are your hopes for the Community Storytelling Pilot Project?
Storytelling helps meet a deep need to build community and develop relationships. It’s been doing that in Ashland. It’s something I want other towns to have too. When you discover something life-giving, you want to share it with others. I’m hoping other communities will discover that there are some simple practices and processes that can knit people together in a way that helps them both address suffering and celebrate the pleasures of who we are.
What can participants expect from the Community Storytelling Pilot Project?
First, participants are going to learn how and why stories work. We’re going to learn how to tell stories, learn the different structures for good stories.
Second, there is some logistical training. Participants are going to learn how to put on a community event that is engaging for people for to come to, one that addresses local issues. We need to cultivate a safe space for our neighbors, so we’ll learn to create a setting where stories can be told.